ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH FEBRUARY 3, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
Colossians 4: 2 – 6; Luke 5: 27 – 32
The musician, Don Henley, wrote a song called “The heart of the matter”. It’s about a guy who learns his significant other has moved on and is seeing someone else. The song reflects on why they broke up and considers how he should respond now that it’s over. The refrain of the song goes, “I’ve been tryin’ to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter. But I think it’s about forgiveness. Forgiveness. Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore.” When it comes to the heart of the matter in life, the same holds true. At the heart of the matter we find forgiveness. God’s forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even if we don’t love him, Jesus is ready and willing to forgive us. As Paul reminds us, “God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him” (Romans 5:8). The heart of the matter is Jesus Christ and the forgiveness and new life he offers to every person.
The last 3 weeks we’ve been looking at Relational Evangelism and how important it is for Christians to engage and befriend those outside the Church. Our hope is first to break down the invisible walls between ourselves and others and even if our knew friend doesn’t come to believe in or follow Christ, we’ve advanced the Kingdom by breaking down those barriers. We’ve helped to build “God’s world, God’s way”; we’ve built into their lives with God’s love; and we’ve made a new friend. Our hope, of course, is that every one of our friends and family members will share eternal life with us. As friendship deepens both people begin to share bits and pieces of their life story, as conversations unfold. No Christian can tell their life story without including how Jesus changed us and our lives, inside and out. Each of us has a before and after story to tell; it may not be dramatic, but it is powerful. We may also get an opportunity to invite our friend to Church or give them a book or offer them support. When it comes to matters of faith, we need to be sensitive to our friends interest and need and respectful. That may be as far as our experience with them goes and it may not even get that far. Paul uses this analogy, “We each carried out our servant assignment. I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plants, but God made you grow. It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow (1 Corinthians 3: 6 – 7). We don’t know what role God has in mind for us when we reach out in friendship to someone. No matter what role we play, we seek to be a blessing to our friends and trust that God is using us in some way to touch that person and break down the barriers between himself and them. However, sometimes we do get an opening to say something more. We may get the chance to tell God’s story – to explain what we believe and even to invite a friend to accept the grace God offers through Jesus, by faith. If called upon, could you tell God’s story? We need to be prepared to share our good news.
Some 25 years ago, Canada embarked on a massive project: The Confederation Bridge between PEI and the mainland. It took 5000 people to build. The bridge consists of 43 concrete segments and 44 piers. It was engineered with “post-tensioning”, meaning: they tied the pier bases, shafts and girders together to create 1 solid structure that should last 100 years. It has 7000 drain ports and a metre-high barrier wall. It costs 1 billion dollars to build. At 12.9 kms it’s the longest bridge to span a body of ice during the winter months. Why did we go to all the trouble and expense of this project? To create a fixed link across divided land. We wanted to bridge the chasm so everyone could cross. That is the same reason Jesus walked across time and space –to become the bridge that makes God accessible to anyone who wants to cross; to create a lasting link between ourselves and God. If we celebrated the Confederation Bridge and are even proud of it, how much more should we be excited by God’s action in Christ?
Christians often think that to share God’s story we need to be a Biblical Scholar and we need to know all the answers. Erase that thought from your mind. Rather than bombarding people with theology and scripture in a diatribe of big words and deep thoughts (that, or some of that, can come later) so, rather than overwhelming someone, there are simple, brief, more effective ways to communicate God’s story. Let’s look at three of them:
The first is: The Bridge. This is likely a diagram we have all seen at some time. It shows two cliffs with a chasm between them. At the bottom of the chasm is death. On the one side is God in all his holiness, on the other side are people in all our humanity. If we try to bridge the gap by our own efforts, we quickly discover it is too wide and go plunging to our death. But God loves us and wants us with him. So, God came to us as Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is God’s bridge to the people he loves. Jesus lived, loved, healed, taught and died on the cross for us. Then he rose from the dead. His actions create a bridge of undeserved mercy. Christians call this mercy grace and God offers it as a free gift to everyone who wants it. Faith is deciding to walk across that bridge to live with and for God.
A second way of telling God’s story is: The Ladder. Take a sheet of paper and draw a ladder. At the top of the ladder is God. What can you do to reach God at the top of the ladder? Most people will say they live a good life and help others, and they probably do. So you say, “Okay, let’s put some people on our ladder. On the bottom of the ladder are bad people like serial killers, Hitler, Stalin; the most evil people we can think of. Close to the top may be Mother Teresa; under her may be Oprah and Billy Graham may be somewhere in the middle. I’d put myself here (between middle and bottom). How good are you? Where would you put yourself?” (Mark the ladder). “That’s still a long way to God. We’d have to work very good to outdo Mother Teresa; I know I won’t be able to be that good no matter how hard I try.. You?” Then you go on to say, “Rather, than expecting us to reach the top by our own sorry efforts, God came down the ladder as Jesus and carried us to the top. Jesus is the love of God in action. All we need to do is: let him carry us. Doesn’t that sound a lot easier? All you need to do is let Jesus know you’re ready and willing for him to wrap his arms around you and lift you up.”
A third way of telling God’s story is: Do and Done. This is helpful if you happen to meet someone and develop a connection; you’ve gotten into a deep conversation, but you don’t have much time. You simply say, “Most people think we get to heaven by what we do – our good works. But God loves us too much to leave us to our own devices. God came to earth as Jesus and gave his life in our place. He Jesus died on the cross for every single person including you. One of the last things Jesus said before he died was, ‘It is finished’. That means: it’s done. Jesus is the way we get to heaven – not by what we do or don’t do, but by what he’s already done.
If it feels like the Spirit is moving and the time is right, you can follow up any one of those examples with an invitation to faith: “That sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But it is. And it’s free. It’s a gift”. Then you can proceed with something like “All you need to do is receive it? Would you like to do that?” Or “Is there anything that would stop you from receiving God’s gift right now?” Or perhaps, “Why don’t you come to Church with me and find out more about God’s love for you?” Be careful as you share this good news that you don’t get dragged off on some tangent; you need to discern if the person is asking sincere questions or just trying to distract or argue with you.
When it comes to getting to the heart of the matter, getting down to brass tasks, most Christians are either Avoiders or Erupters. Avoiders would never talk to someone about God’s invitation of grace. Most Presbyterians are avoiders – we’re keeping that good news all to ourselves even if it costs someone else eternal life. Erupters believe it’s their duty to tell everyone God’s story whether they’re ready to hear it or not. They don’t do much listening but are quick to fire off every Biblical truth, with references and cross-references. Their tactic is to wear people down with their words and enthusiasm. They’ll take any risk – calculated or not – to beat someone with the love of God. Both Avoiders and Erupters are dysfunctional in their approaches and neither bear much fruit. We all need to learn to trust the Holy Spirit to direct the flow, the content and the timing of our conversations with others. In the passage from Colossians we heard today, Paul encourages those Christians to pray, not desperate prayers but thankful prayers. He suggests they pray that the Spirit will open a door from them to speak about the mystery of Jesus, with clarity – “making Jesus as plain as day”. He suggests that as well as being attuned to the promptings of the Spirit, we use our heads and make the most of our time with those outside our faith. He reminds us to use gracious speech seasoned with salt so we can speak of Christ in the most appealing and flavourful way. He reminds us to be respectful and inclusive – not putting others down by making them feel like hopeless cases and not treating them like outsiders but inviting them in to a safe and loving relationship. We need to remember that Jesus came for this person – the one right in front of us, and those like them – our friends and family. Jesus didn’t come for those who have no needs or for those without sin; he came for those outside the realm of salvation. He came for the ones who need God’s love. As we share God’s Story, we need to rely on the Spirit to give us hearts full of love and the best words at the most appropriate time.
We began this sermon series by asking the Spirit to help us choose someone for whom to pray, and to open a door, if it’s God’s will, to friendship and/or an opportunity for us to speak to them about our faith. All we need now is the courage and the love to walk through the door when the time comes. May God lead us and bless us as we do that, and may God bless and lead those we love to faith, so they will live with us forever.