ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JANUARY 13, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
PEOPLE NOT PROJECTS
Philippians 2: 1 – 11; John 8: 1 – 11
The Christmas season flies by all too quickly. Before we know it, we’re celebrating something called Epiphany. The word “Epiphany” means “a revelation”. The story most often linked with Epiphany is the Magi’s visit Jesus shortly after his birth. What’s exciting about Epiphany is the revelation that from the beginning Jesus came for all people. Not just his own people, the Jews, through whom the Messiah was promised, but also to Gentiles – to the sinners and the self-righteous, to the religious and irreligious, to pagans and heathens, atheists and infidels, to those of some faith and no faith, to those who are spiritual and those who are mundane and everyone in between. Regardless of who you are or what you believe, Jesus came to reveal God to all people. Jesus is an equal opportunity Saviour. He died for all people and he conquered death – for all people. The season of Epiphany is a great reminder that Jesus didn’t come to serve himself and we, the Body of Christ, aren’t here to serve ourselves. Jesus came for all people and we exist to serve others. Christians have a challenging time grasping that we are not the Church for ourselves. We are the Church to bring the light of God into the darkness of people’s lives.
The incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth revealed the heart of God. God loves people. In fact, God loves people so much that Jesus left the comfort of the Trinity, the glory of heaven and the worship of angels for people. Jesus loved people so much he became a person, served humanity and died on a cross for us and our salvation. “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again” (John 3: 17). Jesus came with an open heart. He came to seek and save lost people because he loved them. He came so people could know God’s love and forgiveness, so they could live abundantly and share his eternal heritage in heaven. Jesus came to offer people “…better life than they ever dreamed of” (John 10:10).
Jesus walked across the cosmos of time and space to be with people, because he loved them. How far would you walk for someone? An average person walks about 10,000 steps a day. That’s 115,000 miles in a lifetime or 4 times the circumference of the Earth. Yet there are many times when all we need to do is walk a dozen steps to reach out to another person with the love of God and we can’t seem to cross the floor. Have you ever felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit to approach someone to show them God’s love? What keep you from taking that walk? Maybe we’re not aware enough to really register another person’s presence. Jesus saw people. He still sees people. No one escapes his notice. How often does a person escape your notice? Have you ever been to a party where someone is standing by themselves? Do you notice the kid at school everyone sees as a geek? Who do you sit with at pasta supper? When you’re at a funeral, do you talk with strangers? In what ways do you extend God’s hospitality with your neighbours? When a new person comes out to worship, do you discover something about them? Sometimes, the problem isn’t that we don’t see people, it’s that we’re too awkward or uncomfortable to approach them. We put our own need to feel safe, over the need of another to know God’s love. We stay with those we know, within our own “circle of comfort”. We keep to ourselves rather than welcoming another person genuine warmth. Have you ever been in a strange place with groups of people you don’t know? Weren’t you hoping someone would reach out to include you? I confess that my own inclination is towards being a hermit. Every now and then, I meet someone who approaches life with the attitude that everyone is a friend waiting to happen. I witness the magic of seeing their genuine interest in another person draw that person out like a sunflower turning to the light. I watch the power of God’s love bring someone else alive. I want to be a part of that, don’t you? So, I push myself to befriend people. Isn’t it incredible that each of us has the potential to show the love of God to someone simply by reaching out to them in friendship? Isn’t it amazing to think that a few steps towards another person could impact their life for eternity?
I was reading a book recently in which one character suggests to another that she “find the one thing she is willing to die for, and then live for it.” Jesus’ one thing was people. He lived for them and died for them. Jesus saw and treated everyone he encountered like a child of God. He knew that every person has a story and a need. Whether they were sick, lonely, wandering, depressed, hopeless, stuck in unhealthy habits or destructive behaviours and relationships, Jesus loved them and fostered a relationship with them. We see this loving interaction with the woman caught in adultery. A group of religious leaders dragged a woman into a crowd of people accusing her of adultery and seeking to shame and humiliate her before stoning her to death. They also saw her misfortune as a good opportunity to entrap Jesus. With sinister delight, they enjoyed forcing the self-proclaimed Messiah into a moral dilemma. On the one hand, if he declared the woman guilty, he would appear to be unmerciful. Better still, if he advised stoning, they could accuse him of being an enemy of Rome, since only the Roman government could carry out capital punishment. On the other hand, if Jesus lets her off the hook, he would be denying the instruction of the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus response was brilliant. He said in effect, “I assume you will stone her. If so, let’s do it decently and in order. Let’s form a line. Those of you with no sin will be at the front. You can throw your rocks first.” Obviously, he ruined all the Pharisees’ fun. They didn’t dupe Jesus and now they couldn’t stone the woman either. One by one they dropped their rocks and left. Jesus addressed the woman who had just tasted undeserved mercy. He could have pointed out the depths of her sin, told her she was beyond God’s love or approval, condemn her for her wickedness. Instead he said something like, “I don’t condemn you – really. That’s not why I came. I came to redeem your failures, not to punish you for them. So, go. Be free. Start a brand-new life today.” Is there a better picture of the heart of God? It’s the same love and hope that we’ve experienced. And because we’ve experienced this grace, we’re able to offer new life to others.
Throughout our lives, we’re going to live for something. All people do. It may be pleasure or possessions, popularity or power. It may be an artistic endeavour, a business prospect, scientific research, athletic ability or education. Christ-followers give themselves to people. We direct people towards the God of love. The bad news is: we don’t always do this as well as Jesus did. The good news is: we can learn to do it better. When it comes to reaching out to people, the Church has erred in a few ways.
• The most obvious one is that we haven’t reached out, we’ve lived for ourselves. Many Christians have mostly Christian friends, chat with one another after worship, sit in “our” seat and let people crawl over us, sing music we like, put up parking signs that serve our needs, and resist technology rather than learning something new. We live within our “circle of comfort” where our needs are met.
• Those Christians who value out reach, are often overwhelming in their evangelical zeal. We’re more interested in “getting ‘em saved” or in “sealing the deal” or in “having more members” than we are in including people in the circle of God’s love. We’ve turned people into projects and the projects have been more about us than about the person in front of us. We’ve approached people like we’re gunslingers looking to get another notch on our belt. Jesus always saw people as individuals. They were mysteries and wonders to be discovered. He befriended them regardless of the outcome of the encounter. He took the time to eat with them, laugh with them and enjoy them. If that led to an opportunity to introduce them to God or to help them discover a new direction in life, he took it, but he took it because he loved them and wanted the best for them.
• Another way, we’ve mistreated people is that we’ve approached them as inferior beings. We’ve set ourselves up as moral arbiters and felt free to judge, criticize, condemn and reject people. We’ve lacked the humility to know we’re in the same boat as everyone else – a boat in which people live complicated lives filled with both loving and selfish acts; a boat that floats in a sea of shifting social values and mores. We’ve lacked the compassion to create a space for people to discover the mercy of God, out of which they’re able to make more loving choices with respect to others and more life-giving choices for themselves.
• The flip side of both those errors is that we’ve denied Jesus’ longing for us to continue offering this new life to all people. We’ve denied that God’s kingdom emerges as people are re-born and changed from within by God’s grace in their lives. We’ve assumed people couldn’t possibly want or benefit from knowing Christ. Do you believe that a relationship with Jesus creates a better, fuller life? If we see faith as a burden or rigid list of rules we must keep to earn God’s love, we’ll feel ashamed to speak of it. If we believe Jesus is the life-giver, who sets us free, who gives us second chances, who changes our hearts and our lives and who is with us always, we won’t be able to keep him to ourselves. The news is just too good to share. What do you have to offer people – a life sentence or the gift of life? If we know the extravagant love of God and the gift of the Spirit’s transformation, then surely, we want to offer that gift to everyone we encounter because Jesus’ loves people and so do we.
As part of our prayer and reflection today, I’d like you to go deep into your heart (close your eyes if it helps) and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you a living person, whom you know personally, who does not know the love God has for them. Someone, you genuinely care about. Hold that person in your heart and mind. Imagine the grief you’d feel to find yourself in heaven without them. Now, make a promise to God that you are going to pray, every day, for that person to discover God’s love and experience new life in Christ. Offer yourself to be part of that process, in Jesus name.