Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Develop, Discover, Discern
1 Corinthians 9: 19 – 27; John 11: 1 – 6; 11 – 27

Lately, we’ve heard a lot in the news about the proposed wall to keep the Central Americans out of the United States. Whether we think that’s a horrible solution or a necessary strategy, before we weigh in on that, there’s another wall, much closer to home, we should be concerned about. It’s an invisible wall made by Christians to divide our selves from the world. Walls are built due to fear – people build walls fearing the elements or enemies; countries build walls fearing their economy or values will be eroded; Christians build walls fearing our own weakness. Many see the world as sinful, so to mingle with it will contaminate or compromise us. What’s interesting is: God sees it differently. God loved the world so much, God became human, entering the world to redeem it. Jesus spent his time with people whom we label as “sinners”. He hung out with alcoholics, thieves, liars, adulterers, prostitutes, egomaniacs, extortionists; you name it and Jesus was there. Jesus didn’t see people as too reprehensible to associate with. Jesus saw them as people. People who were broken, weary, disillusioned, emotionally wounded, sin scarred, spiritually damaged, withered, dying, fearful, crass, hard, brazen, addicted and far from God. He longed to heal them by bringing them back into relationship with the One who created, loves and longs for them. Jesus didn’t take up or condone their ways, but he loved them. His boundaries were around his own actions not their personhood. As Christians, we need to follow the ways of Christ which includes making room in our lives for all people. To follow the way of Christ is, first and foremost, to bless others regardless of where they’ve been and what they’ve done. As scripture tells us and Jesus showed us, “There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet mature in love” (I John 4: 18). Relational Evangelism calls us to swap our fears for love, so others can discover the love God has for them.

All of us want our family, friends and neighbours in heaven, but few know how to direct them there. We often feel we don’t “have what it takes” to introduce someone to Christ. We don’t know enough scripture. We can’t argue doctrine. Such things should be left to professionals. If the early Church had left sharing their faith to the pros, there wouldn’t be a Church because there were no experts then, only ordinary people – fishermen, tax collectors and women. The Holy Spirit called, equipped and expected them to share the good news; The Spirit asks no less of us. We don’t need all the answers to help lead someone to Christ; we need love. As this chart shows, the natural growth of a Christian should mean one’s love quotient grows the longer one walks with Christ. The more we grow in love, the more likely we are to share our hope in Christ with others. But something is amiss in the Church. This graph shows our reality. The longer one is a Christian, the less likely we are to share good news with people. This is partly because the only people we see are our Christian friends. Yet there are lots of opportunities to befriend those outside the Church. We all have neighbours. We meet people at parties, through business, while travelling, at school, through dance classes or sporting events. We meet bupeople at the doctor’s office, grocery store and check-out counter. We’re surrounded by people in the places we live – whether that’s a college residence or a senior’s residence. People are everywhere and opportunities to connect with people are abundant. But, you say, those people are horrible – you should hear their filthy language, their morals are shocking, they have “the wrong” politics and they’re nasty or obnoxious. So, we stick with our Christian friends, immersed in Christian activities where life is simple, safe and spotless and we’re protected by the predictable. The trouble is, this is the polar opposite of what Jesus modelled! He was a friend of sinners, a healer of the unclean and possessed, a lamb among wolves. He embraced the obnoxious with extreme forgiveness and love in action. What allowed Jesus to do this? Jesus had an open heart full of hope. He didn’t simply see the person; he looked past their flaws and envisioned how they’d be if the power of God was released in their lives. When Jesus encountered Lazarus – a hopeless case if there ever was one – he didn’t just see a dead guy, he saw a person reborn to the glory of God. When he encountered Martha, he didn’t just see a grief-stricken, angry woman – he saw a woman on the verge of faith. With everyone he met, he wondered: Who would this guy become if he knew God’s healing power? How would this woman change if she discovered forgiveness? What would this person do for God’s kingdom if he were born anew? He welcomed them as they were – good, bad, ugly – because he saw who they could be if they entered the fullness of life. He found joy in knowing God could use him to transform a person’s life. And God can use you too.

It’s as simple as walking across a room to chat with someone we don’t know. That’s the first step to friendship. All of us are capable of this. We don’t begin by bashing them over the head with their need for salvation. We meet someone and wonder who they are. So, we ask questions to find a point of contact. We ask where they live, what they work at, about their family and interests or the books they’ve read. We listen more than we speak. Once a connection is made – you like to bake? So, do I! – You sail? So, do I! – You saw that movie? So, did I! – a friendship is off to the races. Maybe literally. Or to a cooking class, or a sailing regatta or the movies. Once we’ve connected, we can build on this by inviting them to an event, a block party, a BBQ or to your place for tea.

Radical inclusiveness deepens as we discover their stories. Sometimes people are open to sharing. With others, we need to earn their trust, which is a time investment. We need to be genuine and genuinely interested. We ask questions to draw them out. What’s life been like for you? What are your dreams? What’s going well? What do you wish was different? The trouble with life is that it’s messy. When people tell us their stories, they will eventually tell us something that offends or shocks us. Radical inclusiveness means we stay open by suspending judgement. If something does offend us, we don’t let our struggle show. My reaction to their problem is my problem, not theirs and they don’t need any more problems than they’ve got. Paul said, “I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!” (1 Corinthians 9: 21 – 23). I think Paul meant that without taking up the behaviours of others, he’d do whatever was needed to connect with people. If he had to eat insects, he did. If he had to show compassion, he did. Whatever would open the door to allow him to show the love of God and share the good news of God’s grace in Christ, he did. All of us have something we would difficult to relate to or condone. Maybe, a person confesses they’ve had an abortion, committed adultery, stolen something, abandoned their family, beaten their wife or has an addiction. Our first reaction may be to sound the horn of judgement and tell them to repent. I guarantee, that will be the last conversation we have with them and the last time they open themselves to a Christian. We’ll do more damage than good. Bill Hybels tells of listening to the story of a man he met while travelling, during which the man revealed he was gay. Instead of judging them, Hybels asked questions and listened to his experience. The man said his Dad, a church goer, told him he was an abomination and would end up in hell, then threw him out. He said that when he thinks of God, the only words he’s got are “judgement” and “hell”. Hybels reacted with compassion. Instead of adding to the wounds inflicted by his father, Hybels sought a way to bring healing. He suggested the man trade those words for two others, “grace” and “power”. The man said he’d try that. He did not give his life to Jesus. In fact, Hybels never saw him again, so he didn’t know what impact he had, but he’d helped a hurting man who had slammed the door on God to open his heart to God’s grace and power. That’s our goal. To build bridges, not walls. We are blessed to be a blessing.

That brings us to the ultimate step – discernment. Discernment begins by developing a relationship with God through prayer and Bible reading. Through this we become tuned in to God’s “voice” – his urgings and promptings – in our lives. We become more sensitive to the Holy Spirit. The next step is to offer ourselves to God’s service every day – in other words we open ourselves to others so God can act through us. Then we actively listen for the direction of the Spirit. When we sense God telling us to go and talk to someone, we take the walk. If we don’t show up, God can’t work through us. He may find someone else, but we’ve missed a fertile moment and a chance to be part of this person’s journey to Christ. As we begin our friendship, we need to listen to the Spirit while we’re asking questions and listening to the person. Is there a moment when the conversation may go deeper? Is this the time to introduce spiritual insight? How would Jesus respond to this soul? At the same time, we listen to the person’s needs behind their words. What is the most helpful and healing response? The deeper the conversation goes, the more we rely on God to give us the right attitude and words to respond. We pay attention to what is happening within ourselves, without judging we notice our thoughts and gut reactions. We ask the Spirit to keep us open, to make us radically inclusive and to give us compassion. Finally, we discern what follow-up might be welcomed – few of us are “Bible Answer Man” or “Ms. Seal the Deal” but, with humility, we may be able to act as a resource provider. Offer to pray for the person and include some follow up. Ask them to call and let you know what happened. Better still, get their number. You may be able to offer a book, or a CD or invite them to church. You may be able to serve them in some practical way – a drive to the doctor, making dinner, babysitting or dog walking or introducing them to someone whose been in their shoes. With each layer of connection, we remain attune to the Spirit and our new friend.

Whatever happens and whatever the time frame, this is God’s work, not ours. We are merely the people who plant and water, who walk across the room and reveal God’s love. It’s God who changes hearts and redeems lives. Yet God gives us the joyful gift of being his helpers in his process of salvation!