This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent [A] (1 Samuel 16.1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5.8-14, John 9.1-41). Alan is a United Methodist pastor serving First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including DBH and universalism, wider circles, Saved By The Bell: The College Years, a terrible Karl Barth impression, the story behind the story, having eyes to see, being stuck in a groove, the theologies of Methodism, and the miracle of evangelism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: On The Fence Inside The Big Tent
When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
Are you willing to leave it all behind for Jesus?
It’s a question that Christian types will ask under the auspices of something like “evangelism.” And for as much as it pains me to hear things like that, it’s not actually wrong.
I mean, its THE implicit question that Jesus hangs in the air when he meets Peter while fishing. The fisherman have finished their late night trolling (no one was dumb enough to fish during the day) and then this strange and bewildering rabbi shows up and says, “Hey, let’s go out and see what we can catch.”
Peter, inexplicably, agrees and before long they’re hauling in so many fish the nets begin to break and the boat starts to take on water.
Peter can’t handle the holiness of the moment and begs Jesus to depart from him because he is a sinful man. But Jesus calmly replies, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
Notice: Jesus doesn’t ask a question! There is just something about the profound wonder of the moment that compels Peter and the other fishermen to leave everything and follow Jesus.
Oftentimes when this passage comes up, we make it out into a moment of self-righteousness; it becomes a competition about who has given up more for Jesus. And, invariably, the everything isn’t everything but mostly just a list of material possessions.
And no doubt, Peter and the others gave up something material – they left the livelihoods of fishermen. But there is more to what is left behind for Jesus than just our jobs or our material comforts.
Sometimes we are compelled to leave something even more difficult behind.
The faithful life is not easy. When we confront the frustrations in another person, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. When we witness horrible behavior, Jesus whispers in our ears “judge not, lest ye be judged.” When we are so convinced of our own righteousness, Jesus shows up to remind us of how broken we really are.
But the kicker is that even though we are compelled to leave it all behind, we don’t.
We might have good days where we make the right decisions and speak the loving words that Jesus would have us say. But we invariably fall back into patterns and rhythms in which we are not the people God has called us to be.
And we’re not alone – the same thing happened to Peter! Peter, called from the boat, abandoned Jesus in his greatest hour of need and denied even knowing him.
But to whom does Jesus appear after the resurrection by the side of the sea?
One of the great mysteries of faith is that we are compelled to leave it all behind and Jesus knows that we won’t.
That’s the kind of love we encounter in the risen Jesus, a forgiveness in spite of, and because of, us.
No wonder we call it Good News.
1 Corinthians 9.19-23
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
All of us have questions. We have questions about what it means to be a Christian, what the bible is all about, and how to make sense of it all in the ways we live. In November I compiled a list of questions from the congregation and created this sermon series in which I will attempt to answer some of the questions that vex us in regard to our faith. Today we continue the series with, “How do we share the Good News?”
“When did you last speak to someone about your faith?” Throughout John Wesley’s ministry, this was a question to be answered by all people within the Methodist movement. And it’s a question most of us would rather avoid today.
It we’re honest, we don’t want to appear too evangelical (whatever that means). We don’t want to be confused with the kind of bible toting people who seek to win others for Jesus. We don’t want to leave church with tracts to pass out to people in public warning them about their imminent doom unless they accept Jesus as their Lord.
And yet, that question, the one we want to avoid, the one that makes us squirm in our pews, is perhaps one of the most important questions we can ever ask.
When I was in college, I became the de facto cook for my house. There were five young men all living under the same roof, and I tried my best to make a home cooked meal once a week so that we could all sit down and break bread with one another. When we sat around the table for the first time, with our assortment of hand-me-down plates and silverware, I asked my friends to pray with me, and they just stared at me as I bowed my head and asked for God to bless the meal and us.
Week after week we sat around that table, and the longer I prayed for them, the more they adapted to it. Such that, one night, when I inexplicably forgot to pray, they stopped me from eating and said, “Aren’t you forgetting something?!”
Around that same time I was invited to guest preach at one of the local United Methodist Churches. I, of course, invited all of my roommates to attend and they all sat together in the furthest back pew.
The service was fairly typical, and the sermon was a definite B-, but then we moved to the communion table and the pastor prayed for the Holy Spirit to make the bread and cup into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And while the whole congregation began lining up in the center aisle, my roommates did as well with bewildered looks on their faces.
I realized, as they were walking closer to me, that none of them had received communion before, nor did they have any idea what they were doing.
When they made it to the front they all stood in front of me with wide eyes and nervous ticks. I quietly whispered, “take the bread, dip it in the cup, eat it, and I’ll explain everything at home.”
And so, they did.
There was a time in the life of the church, when we could expect new people to show up on Sunday mornings no matter what. When Christianity was Christendom, which is to say, when Christianity was normative, the majority of people in a community could be found in church on Sunday morning. This meant that for generations, great scores of people were born into, and raised through a church, such that things did not have to be explained or proclaimed, and the work of evangelism was nothing more than standing in front of one’s own church to share what God had done.
But that time is long gone.
And because churches can no longer expect that, “if you build it they will come,” the work of evangelism has increased sharply. Congregations are told that they are in the business of saving souls, and that they must do everything within their power to share the Good News. But more often than not the good news sounds like bad news.
Fear mongering tactics with threats of hell and eternal damnation are hung over individual heads with hope that it will scare them into church.
The bible is used as a weapon to attack people for the way they are living in order to shame them into coming to church.
People are treated as numbers and objects to be placed on a worksheet and empty promises about heavenly rewards are used to get people to come to church.
And people wonder why the church is shrinking…
When I asked for questions in November, a lot of people asked about ways to share the Good News. Behind those questions was the desire to grow the church. Growth is a good thing, I mean: Jesus sends the disciples out to make disciples of all nations, but growth for the sake of growth is problematic.
If we want to fill the sanctuary up every Sunday we could do raffles, and giveaways, we could provide financial incentives to get people to invite more people to church, but it wouldn’t be faithful. The only way the church grows is when we believe the church has something so incredible to offer that we’re willing to invite others to discover it.
The point is this: we can no longer just wait for people to magically appear on Sunday morning.
In addition to the questions we received about sharing the good news, there were an equal number of questions about why I participate in a podcast. For the last year and a half I’ve been working with two other United Methodist pastors to produce weekly podcasts (a podcast is a downloadable audio file that you can listen to on your phone and computer). We started it as a way to have conversations about theology and scripture, and as we made the episodes public, they started reaching a lot of people. And by a lot, I mean A LOT. By the end of the month, we should hit our 200,000th download.
But we didn’t start the podcast to become popular. We started it to reach the people who no longer felt comfortable in church. We wanted to provide conversations with zero commitment on behalf of the people listening so that they could encounter the church from a new perspective. Because for as much as this thing we do called worship is what being the church is all about, for some people it’s not enough.
We were taking a break from a live podcast event back in December when an older man walked across the room and stood right in front of me. He stared at me with a curious look and said, “You sound different in person.” Unsure of whether or not he meant it as a compliment, I inquired as to how. He said, “You sound a little more confident on the podcast than you did tonight. But I think that’s a good thing. I appreciate your vulnerability.”
We talked for a little bit about the guests we had that night, and the challenges of doing a live recording, and then before returning to his seat he said, “I left the church years ago because I felt burned. Too many sermons about what I had done wrong, too many people suffering without anything changing; too many pastors abusing their privileges. But then I discovered the podcast, and I started listening. And the more I listened, the more I heard God, and the more I realized I needed to give the church another chance…”
We live in an ever-changing world where people consume information so quickly that the church can appear archaic and irrelevant. But I believe this is a sad misjudgment. Rather, I believe church has the most important thing to offer of all, the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, like Paul, we do well to do whatever we can, by whatever means we can, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. For Paul that meant being a Jew to the Jews, and outside the law to those outside the law, and all things to all people.
For us today, that might take on different meaning, we might be tasked dropping our political identities in order to reach people across the political spectrum, or crucifying our prejudices in order to reach people who do not look like us, or repenting of our judgmental attitudes in order to reach people who frighten us.
As Christians, we are necessarily evangelical. Evangelism means, by definition, sharing the Good News. So much of what we do and who we are is wrapped up in the story of Jesus, recognizing how the story has changed our lives, and the hope that it can change the lives of those around us.
But, sadly, being evangelical these days often comes off like being a bad and annoying used car salesperson. When the tactics of fire insurance, and bombarding strangers is the best we have to offer others, when winning souls becomes more important than loving others, we cease to be evangelical, at least the way the word is meant to be used.
Last year, I drove up to Cokesbury on a Sunday afternoon to meet a handful of people from the church before it was announced that I would be your new pastor. We sat down in the conference room upstairs, exchanged pleasantries over fruit and cheese, and then we went around the table to introduce ourselves and describe how we are connected to the church. One by one I learned about some of you for the first time, how long you’ve been here, what you like, what you want to change, all of that stuff. And one of the last people to share was Emmett Wright, and all he said was, “I’m an evangelist.”
And, because being evangelical can be so misconstrued these days, all I could think was, “that’s just great [sarcasm].” So I asked him to elaborate and he said something memorable like, “just wait and see.”
On any given week Emmett will invite a score of people to come to experience God’s presence at our church. But he does not evangelize by attacking strangers with threats or empty promises. He meets people where they are and he gets to know them. He sees his evangelism first as a call to friendship, with all people, long before inviting them to church. And because he fosters friendship first, the people he invites to church always want to see what it’s all about.
Emmett is a lot like Paul in that he becomes all things to all people. He never presents the gospel in some stuffy forgotten way; it is always alive and exciting and friendly. Emmett meets people where they are, instead of sitting around waiting for them to show up.
Paul’s ministry was one of evangelism. Over and over again he won people for the sake of the gospel. Not to fill pews, not to frighten them, not to shame them, but because he believed the story of Jesus Christ was the most important story they would ever hear. He believed the message of salvation would change everything about the way they lived. He believed that following Jesus would make all the difference.
Paul became all things to all people because that’s precisely what God was willing to do for us. God became all things to all people in Jesus Christ. God humbled himself in the manger and took on flesh. Though God was free to as God pleased, God made himself a slave to all in Jesus in order to free us from slavery to sin and death.
Evangelism always begins in friendship, in the intimacy of two people sharing life together. Evangelism takes place in the trust when listening becomes more important than talking. Evangelism comes to fruition when saving and winning others is more about them than us. Amen.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
We were walking along the beach on Monday morning in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina when a young teenage girl kept looking over at us. I had my son Elijah in my arms and my wife Lindsey was standing next to me and we were talking about nothing in particular when the girl shyly walked up to us. Before she opened her mouth I thought maybe she was going to ask us to take her picture, and then for a strange moment I thought she was going to ask to hold Elijah, but then she asked a question, “Excuse me, but do you know who Jesus is?”
In my mind I started to answer the question much like Peter answered: “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” I thought about scriptural situations to answer the question in as many ways as possible, I thought about famous images of Jesus that I could describe from memory, and I did all of this in my mind before I realized that she was trying to evangelize us.
So, all I said was: “Yeah, I know Jesus. I’m a United Methodist Pastor.” And at that moment I noticed the girl’s father standing off to the side as if to make sure she was doing it the right way. Upon hearing my answer, he walked up to introduce himself as a Nazarene preacher and we had a brief conversation about seminaries and church work.
But as they walked away to find their next victim, all I could think about was what would have happened if I had answered the question differently; what would she have said if my answer was simply, “No”?
Beach evangelism, walking up to a stranger with a question about Jesus, is not a new thing. For decades Christians have used it and other forms as tools to get people “saved.” But simply asking about Jesus as a means to talk about Jesus often results in shallow connections whereas Jesus commanded the disciples to share the good news in such a way that it resulted in the formation of friendships and communities. Or to put it another way: asking about Jesus in order to make disciples is different than living like Jesus so that others will be formed into disciples.
Peter was only able to answer Jesus question after spending years with him ministering to the crowds. Sometimes sharing the good news with other people takes years of living alongside them without trying to insert our faith into their schedules. I know God can work miracles through Christians approaching strangers on the beach, I know that those questions can be the seed that changes someone’s life, but I know that intentionally spending time with others over the long term will do far more for the kingdom than approaching people on the beach that we will never see again.
O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples.
I love Star Wars. When I was a boy I watched our VHS copies of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi so many times that they became unwatchable and we had to purchase new copies. I would read and reread the VHS cover so frequently that I began memorizing all of the inconsequential details. I still know almost every line in all three movies all from the time of my childhood.
I still love Star Wars as an adult. I’ve dressed up as characters from the universe for far too many Halloween celebrations, I definitely have too many Lego sets from the movies (that stay prominently displayed out of my son Elijah’s reach), and I even have a replica of Luke Skywalker’s green light saber from Episode VI.
When new details about the upcoming films come out I become an evangelist for the films. I will turn just about any conversation in such a way that I can mention rumors about casting, or new hopes for screen writing, or even connections within the expanded universe. I become my nerdiest when I’m talking about Star Wars.
And I rarely talk about church the same way.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the church. I love the church’s liturgy, I love the call to preach, I love offering the sacraments, I love being with people in some of the most holy moments we can ever experience. But I rarely recommend the church to others in the same way that I recommend watching a Star Wars movie. And even with how much of my life has been blessed by Star Wars, God has done, and will continue to do, more than any film ever can.
The psalmist calls for the people of God to “make known [God’s] deeds among the peoples.” We tend to recommend things to people all the time like restaurants to try, books to read, and movies to watch, but when it comes to the church we often remain silent. Or, perhaps more importantly, when it comes to what God has done for us, we remain silent.
Part of this tendency is due to our belief that faith is a “personal and private” matter, which leads us to leave our faith to ourselves. Part of it also stems from the fact that we so often take our blessings for granted, or we don’t recognize where the blessings came from in the first place.
But God is the author of our salvation. God is the one working in and through our lives to bring about the kingdom on earth. God is the one who has transformed us.
How much better would it be then, to share with others what God has done for us?
Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net, you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us our to a spacious place. I will come into you house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me. I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.
What do you want for your funeral? It’s a strange question, and its one we would rather like to avoid if possible. But have you ever thought about what your funeral might look like? What hymns would you want your family to sing? What scripture has meant the most to you in your life? Do you want people to offer testimonies?
Every time I meet with a family to plan a Service of Death and Resurrection I avoid mentioning a time of testimony. I avoid it for a number of reasons including the fact that testimonies are supposed to be about how God has worked in the life of the person now dead, and that rarely happens, you never know what someone might say when they are invited to speak freely from a pulpit, and sometimes you don’t know whether anyone will get up to say anything at all.
To be clear, a lack of testimonial witness on behalf of the gathered body for worship is not an indication that the person lived a flawed or inconsequential life, it usually has more to do with how uncomfortable many of us are with public speaking.
But every once in awhile the family insists on having it, even when I didn’t bring it up. And every time we have a service and the time comes for the testimony, I invite anyone who would like to speak to come up to the pulpit, I sit down, and I pray that God taps on at least one person to come up and say anything, but I am always prepared to make something up on the spot should the pulpit remain uncomfortably empty.
If I were bolder, if I had more faith, I would just say, “Can I get a witness?” and then I would sit down in comfort knowing that God will provide.
In Psalm 66 the faithfulness of God is remembered, offerings on behalf of God’s people are made, and then one lone worshipper offers a witness to all who will listen.
Bless the Lord your God! Let the sound of his praise be heard in this place and in all places. Our God has kept us among the living! What a great God is ours who has tested us, laid burdens on our backs, let people ride over our heads, and delivered us through fire and water. We remember, o people, how God journeyed with the people through the valleys of the shadow of death and brought them to the Promised Land. We remember, o people, how God has been with us in the midst of suffering and carried us through to the other side.
And because of what the Lord has done, we will come into this house with our offerings. We will present our money, and our gifts, and our time. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me.
The writer describes in great detail the types of offerings made to the Lord, the physical things brought forth as an act of faith. But it is also about far more than that: God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel, God’s faithfulness to us, is the lens by which we interpret our own lives.
God has listened to the prayers of the psalmist; God has listened to us. And because God has listened we must testify.
Can I get a witness?
Witnessing is a taboo thing in the church these days, or at least in the United Methodist Church. There was a time however when worship was all about testimony, moments when the preacher would step away from the pulpit and let the people of God proclaim the glorious works of God to the rest of the people of God.
But today, we don’t have time for any of this witnessing stuff. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable. We don’t want to evangelize anyone. Professional Christians like pastors are the ones meant to testify.
Or, we might say that we don’t want to talk about our faith because it is a private thing. Which is ridiculous since we can only understand and interpret our faith within the faith community.
Over and over again scripture bombards us with the call to testify, to witness, to our story because that is exactly what the bible is. The bible is the witness to the marvelous works of God.
The psalmist witnesses to the truth of God’s reign because the psalmist has experienced it and cannot be kept from proclaiming it. The psalmist has been so transformed by God that the only way to respond is to tell the stories to everyone with ears to hear.
Can I get a witness?
When we are lost and found by God, that is a worthy beginning to our witness. For it is when we are lost that we are most open to the possibility of being found.
And here’s the thing: Testimony, witnessing to God, is not limited to speech about what God has done. Testimony is speech shaped by what God has done. The psalmist witnessed to the works of the Lord and in so doing allowed others, people like us, to hear and even experience what the writer experienced in God.
We don’t care much for the idea of witnessing any more. It no longer matches up with our modern sensibilities, but telling our story is the means by which we come to understand our own faith. When we do it, when we are brave and bold enough to witness, we don’t simply tell what we have already come to believe… it becomes the means by which we believe.
And that is why we witness, that is why we testify, because in so doing we become the very community God has called us to be.
So, can I get a witness?
Seriously this time, who among us will stand to share what God has done for you?
(Time of congregational testimony)
I’ve shared with you on a number of occasions the ways and means by which God called me to spend the rest of my life doing what I do. You’ve heard about the sidewalk square where I fell to my knees and offered my life to God. You’ve been brought into the narrative of being marched to the front of the church as a teenager and attempting to proclaim God’s Word through my first sermon. But I want to testify to another of God’s marvelous works in my life: God sending me here to you.
I never would’ve picked St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA. Not because there was anything particularly wrong with the church, I just knew nothing about it. When I walked into the sanctuary that first Sunday morning I only knew about 5 of you, and even then I barely knew you. And yet God called me here.
When Lindsey and I arrived, it was really hard at first. We were a young couple plucked out of our community in Durham, NC and planted here. She couldn’t find work. I didn’t know what it meant to do this work. We didn’t make friends with people in the community. And, whether or not either of us would admit it, I wondered if God had called me to the right place.
And I got up in this pulpit every week to proclaim what God had placed on my heart. I prepared for Bible Study. I visited people in the hospital. I sat on the floor with our preschoolers and told them about the bible.
And slowly, you grafted us into the community. As the weeks and months passed we felt more and more connected to the people in the pews this very morning. We loved you, and you loved us. And suddenly, this church became our family. We wept when you wept; we celebrated when you celebrated.
God sent me here to you. And some might say that God sent me here for a reason, that this church needed me. And that might be true. All churches need pastors for different reasons. But for as much as this church needed me, I needed this church.
I know in my heart of hearts that God sent me here in order to rekindle my faith; after spending years reading about God in seminary it was too easy to be cynical about what the church might be. In coming here I needed to rediscover the wonderful power of God made manifest in a community of love that you can never discover in a book on theology; I needed to re-encounter the One in whom we live and move and have our being. And you provided that for me.
And I know in my heart of hearts that the time has come for God to send me to a new place. But when I got the call about moving, it came without knowing who would be the new pastor at St. John’s. And I’ll be honest, I’ve been nervous about it. I love this church because this church has loved me. And I want it to have a pastor that will love it, and receive love from it, like I have.
And today we can finally announce that the new pastor of St. John’s is Rev. Chuck Cole. When I found out Chuck was coming here I knew that God had answered my prayers: Chuck and I were ordained together last June and have interacted a lot before we knew he was coming here. Chuck and his wife Sarah have four children and they currently live in Covington where Chuck is serving two churches. Chuck is full of love for God’s church and I know that he will love this place, and that you will love him.
What has God done for me? God sent me to a church that listened to me, prayed with me, and loved me in spite of myself.
What has God done for me? God is sending me to a new place and is sending a new pastor to the church that I love to continue the good work of the kingdom.
What has God done for you? Amen.
1 Corinthians 3.1-9
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now, you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
When I lived in Harrisonburg, I played drums for a worship service that met every Sunday evening. On Sunday mornings the sanctuary would be packed with individuals and families from the community who would listen to the organ, sing from the hymnal, pray from the pews, and worship together. On Sunday evenings however, we would set up for a very different type of worship service: we had two electric guitars, a bass, a drum set, and a couple singers. Instead of suits and dresses most people came as they were, and instead of the sanctuary being packed, we were lucky if there were more people in the pews than in the band.
The basic worship formula included playing four or so songs, reading scripture, hearing a sermon, celebrating communion, and then playing one more song. Which meant that I spent most of the evenings sitting behind a drum kit looking out at everyone else. From this vantage point I quickly learned who always came late, who refused to sing certain songs, who let themselves go and put their hands in the air to praise, and who pretended to pray while they were actually texting someone on their phone.
I had been playing with the band for a while when I started to notice a young man, probably about my age, who walked in during the first song, and left during the last song every week. We had other people show up for one Sunday a month, or would be there for a couple weeks in a row only to disappear for a months at a time, but this guy was there EVERY WEEK.
Week after week I watched him arrive only to depart before I had a chance to talk to him. But, even though we didn’t talk, his faithfulness was palpable. As a college student, he came to worship week after week while others were choosing to put their allegiances in other places.
When the academic year was coming to a close, the leadership team for the service met to discuss changes for the future. It was abundantly clear that we were not growing and we wanted to make more disciples of Jesus Christ so we started discussing ways we could get more people to join us.
I suggested that we speak to the young man who snuck in and snuck out; after all, he showed up more than anyone else, and I thought he would have some ideas for us.
So the next Sunday, we purposefully ended with a song that did not use the drums so that I could talk to him before he jettisoned out of the sanctuary. We met by the doorway and I introduced myself. I explained that I saw him come in every week, and apologized for not doing more to make a connection. I then launched into a dense theological reflection about why we need more people to come to the service and that all of us thought he would be a great person to speak with. He listened as I went on and on until he raised his hand and said, “That sounds nice and all, but I’m not a Christian.”
“Not a Christian? What do you mean you’re not a Christian? Why have you been here every week if you’re not a Christian?”
“I don’t feel like I belong anywhere else, and I don’t have any friends.”
We, as human beings, want to belong. We want to belong in the worst ways whether we’re in preschool, high school, or it’s been a long time since we’ve been in school. Out of this desire for belonging we join communities: neighborhood associations, sport teams, civic organizations, and even scout troops.
But they tend to disappoint us. We hope for a sense of identity and purpose and community to magically erupt soon after we begin participating, but because people are so focused on themselves, or someone forgets our name, or someone else argues with us over a matter of opinion, we become disappointed and disillusioned. And before long, we fall back into that pit of loneliness.
The same human desire for belonging was apparently true of the folk in Corinth. The church that Paul helped to inaugurate was struggling. The people wanted desperately to belong, to be part of something. And they joined the church, but then (like we always do) they broke up into factions: I belong to Paul, I belong to Apollos, or some other leader.
One need not stretch the imagination to hear the same sorts of declarations in the church today: I’m a Republican, I’m a Democrat. Zig Volskis was the best pastor we ever had. Steve Greer was the best pastor we ever had.
Paul caught word of these divisions and wrote to the church: Who do you belong to? Why are you dividing over issues of leadership? I came to you with the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, but clearly it did not take root deep enough. So long as you continue to quarrel you will not be ready to be Christ’s church.
Who do we belong to?
We have a book in the United Methodist Church called The Book of Discipline. In it, its paragraph 120 if you’re interested, we have the mission of the church written out plainly for all to read and understand.
The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Making disciples is at the heart of what it means to be a United Methodist. I mean, its what Jesus calls the disciples to do at the end of Matthew’s gospel: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But making disciples is often confused with filling the pews.
It results in having conversations about how to get more people in the building while neglecting to interact and connect with the people already in the building. It results in infantile discipleship. It results in working for the numbers, and not the kingdom.
And then we’ve got this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission? Do we have the church to change the people and the community around us? Should that be our soul purpose? Does the church exist to make the world a better place?
The church is defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of difference and peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world.
Of course, the problem is whether or not our experience of the church matches its definition of being the better place.
I suspect that many of you have experienced the church as Paul experienced it: Disagreements, petty arguments, and at times suffocating silence between bickering factions. For some, the pews of the sanctuary are more like walls of division and less like avenues of connection.
If church is the better place that God has already made in the world, then it should, like it was for that young man in Harrisonburg, be the place to cure loneliness. Because loneliness is something all of us have experienced in some way, shape, or form, and is a wound not easily healed.
I spend an hour every week with the youth of our church at our gathering called The Circle. We always have communion and answer questions and study the bible. But we often just talk about what’s going on in each other’s lives. And, without breaking their trust, I’ll tell you: their lives are not easy. There is such a tremendous amount of pressure placed on them by outside forces. They feel compelled and pushed to change their image, the way they talk, the way they think, and even what they believe in order to be accepted.
Some weeks I leave our Circle meeting feeling broken by what they have to endure on a regular basis, only to have a conversation the next day with an adult who is going through basically the same things in a different context.
The world would have us change. Change your image, hide your faults, be someone else.
As Christians, however, we walk with our wounds and our cracks and our brokenness instead of running away from them. We cannot accept who we are until we discover that we are loved by God because of who we are.
The church can be the better place that God has made in the world because the church is the place where we walk with our wounds and loneliness because of Christ and him crucified. The broken and lonely Christ on the cross knows our brokenness and our loneliness. But he also carries our wounds so that we might see the One who truly loves us.
God is transforming the world. God is the one who makes the first last and the last first. God does, and should, get all the good verbs. Our God is a God of action, of change, of transformation. We are the church, we are the vineyard of God’s garden, we plant the seeds, we water the seeds, but God is the one who makes them grow.
You and I, with our sins and our disappointments, with our fears and loneliness, we have a place here. God invites us to the better place where we are welcomed not because we fit the mold, but because we do not fit the mold. We have a place in this better place because we are caught up in God’s great story.
Just look at the cross, consider the waters of baptism. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through the weak and through the shamed; through babies and wandering Israelites; through tax collectors and fishermen; through a poor rabbi murdered by the state.
This is the better place God has made in the world. And in this place we remember our baptisms, we remember our death to self and our resurrection in Jesus Christ. We remember our baptism and through that water we remember the story of creation, of the flood, of the exodus. We remember that in our baptism we became part of the body of Christ, the church, where we should never be lonely. Where we should never be made to feel as if we are not enough.
In baptism we joined the better place God has made in this world.
Who then do we belong to?
Do we belong to political rhetoric and partisan ideology? Do we belong to church growth programs co-opted by a desire to see more people in the pews? Do we belong to isolationism or interventionism? Do we belong to a world that pressures us to become that which we are not? Do we belong to Paul or to Apollos? Do we belong to the flesh and are consumed by jealousy and quarreling?
In this better place, we belong to God. Amen.
(With thanks to Jason Micheli, Stanley Hauerwas, and Will Willimon)