The Gospel Call, Part 4: The People

The Gospel Call: The People

Matthew 28:16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”

One of my good friends at Texas State was a guy who I will simply call Trey, and Trey was about as cool a guy as anybody could ask for. Now, mind you, he was kind of goofy looking, but who isn’t when they’re 18? The guy was as skinny as a rail, yet ate like a horse. He was about 6 feet tall, but with his poufy blond white boy fro, it was more like 6 foot 4. Imagine a human stalk of broccoli, and you’d be on the right track. He grew up in Yoakum, Texas, and God bless you if you know where that is.

He was a little on the nerdy side, but he was way more outgoing than I was back then; I tended to stay inside my shell for the most part. He would always have the dorm room open, and invite anyone who would walk by inside to sit and hang out for a while; he soon became the guy that everybody knew in the hall as “that guy with the really cool leather recliner in his dorm.” He had really cool taste in music; I owe a good portion of my musical repertoire to him. He was a solid friend.

However, when it came to faith, we were both still finding our footing, when I knew him. Freshman year was a time in my life when I was questioning my faith, and wrestling with God almost every day. Trey’s story was something that I took to heart in the course of my battles. You see, he had this girlfriend in high school, and she was, what she would say a Christian, and what he would say a holy roller. She would drag him to church, and he became a believer of sorts, but something didn’t quite add up.

It didn’t add up because he looked at his girlfriend, and he looked at her friends, and he saw a stark difference in what they said as opposed to what they did. Their actions didn’t match up. They’d go out on Saturday night, and Sunday morning be in church and be ever so pious, listening to the preacher condemn whatever it was they were doing the night before. I have no doubts he was in love with her, (he said as much himself) but she became someone he didn’t recognize. I think the story goes that she dumped him, and that never leaves a good taste in your mouth. But nevertheless, the disconnect between what she said she believed and the way she acted was all too apparent, and it drove him away from the church. I’m sure there is more than that for his decision, as there always is, but I get the distinct feeling that at the root of it is the behavior of people who call themselves Christians, but certainly don’t act like it.

After that year, I moved to a different residence hall, and I hardly saw Trey again. Oh, I’d see him occasionally, and we’re still friends on Facebook, but nothing more than that anymore. I kind of regret not seeing him more, but such is life. We drift in and out of each other’s lives far more easily than we probably want to admit. He went one way, I went another. I keep a lot of good memories from our friendship, but I also take with me this one hard truth; sometimes, the church can inflict wounds on people wounds that are very hard to heal.

It is with this attitude that I approach evangelism, and it is in part because of this that I started this sermon series, the Gospel Call. The past few weeks, I’ve been exploring with you what it means to do evangelism, and for those who haven’t been here all four weeks, let me catch you up. The definition of evangelism that I’ve been using the past few weeks is not “let’s put as many people in the pews as we can.” Rather, for this community, I’ve been proposing that evangelism is the process of bringing people into the kingdom of God, heart mind and soul, to reveal Jesus Christ, to help people be empowered by the Holy Spirit, to be anchored in the church, for the transformation of the world.

We’ve looked at the message of Jesus, we’ve looked at the mission he sent us on, and we’ve looked at the problem that evangelism seeks to solve. This week, we look at what holds the whole shebang together. The basis for everything we are called to do, in the message and in the mission, is of course the people. I know it seems fairly obvious observation. However, I feel that if we are going to be good witnesses to the truth and saving grace of Jesus Christ, we need to understand the people we will be interacting with in the world.

The passage that I chose this morning probably sounded very familiar to everybody this morning. This is one of the most pointed to, most used, and most often abused passages in the New Testament. It’s also the most coherent basis for why we do evangelism. So why didn’t I do this at the beginning? Why didn’t start with this command from the very first sermon? My brothers and sisters, the reason I didn’t start with this is because that’s not how Jesus started.

Jesus started with his message. Jesus showed us how to do it, demonstrated what the mission was. Jesus defeated sin and death with the resurrection. And after all that, after everything was done, only then does he tell us to go out and make disciples of all people, of all the nations. My friends, it is only after a process of reconciliation and redemption that we become witnesses to the truth, and disciples of the way of Jesus Christ. Does it mean that we know everything? Absolutely not. In fact, if you think you know everything there is to know, I have some bad news for you: you have only just begun.

Now, I want to focus on people, specifically what all people seem to have. Not only is sin universal. No, not just that. Something that Christ saw in all of us, is that we are all wounded. We have wounds. We all need healing. The trouble is when the people who are supposed to be healers, wind up causing the wounds.

In 2007, a book came out called “Unchristian.” I highly recommend it, because it’s a heck of an eye opener; it’s not for the faint-hearted. It was done by the Barna group, a research group that specializes in religious surveys. The book reveals that some of the biggest perceptions that the church has among outsiders is that we are (this is a direct quote) “entrenched thinking,… anti-choice, angry, violent, illogical, empire-building, convert-focused people who cannot live peacefully with others. We are known for having an us-versus-them mentality. Outsiders believe Christians do not like them because of what they do, how they look, or what they believe. They feel minimized—or worse, demonized—by those who love Jesus.” [1]

Now then, I will ask you; can you really disagree with what I have listed? I can’t. I can see where people would think that about us Christians all too well. If you’ve been on the bad end of religion, you know it too. I know that a great many of you have grown up in the church, some this very church. I know that many of you have come from different traditions, churches, and denominations. Some of you have come from all over the country. In your interaction with the rest of the world, and with people within the church, how many have felt the sting of judgment from your fellow followers of Christ? How often do we see a famous pastor fall from their position because of some damage that they have done, be it out of pride, deception, or greed, and then they have to eat the very words they made against other people? How often do we see hypocritical people that clothe their words in religious garb in the name of some hatred or self interest?

And then, how often do you see yourself do these very things?

It’s really easy to get caught up in all the bad things that we do. It’s really easy to lose sight of Jesus, even while we try to do the work of God. Honestly, does this list sound any different from what I’ve been saying since I got here? Do we not see these problems written in the very Bible we know as the Word of God? These are not new problems. These are problems we’ve faced ever since the very beginning. That’s why Jesus calls us to evangelize in the first place. The object of evangelism is transformation, of both us and the world.

But how? How can the world be transformed? How are we transformed? Is it anything that we do? Can we do anything to transform the world? Yes, and no. We can do may good things in this world, this is true. But it is only by the grace of God that we are transformed. It is only by the grace of God that the world is transformed. This grace is something we didn’t earn. We didn’t work for it. It was freely given to us. It was given to us before we were born, and it will be given to people long after us. It’s our task to accept this grace, and to live into the new life that this grace affords us.

I have one more story for you guys. When I was working as a chaplain last year in Houston, we were each assigned certain days in which we were on 24-hour on call, which means that we were assigned to stay in the hospital the whole night and respond to calls for a chaplain’s visit. One night, I got a call to the Intensive care unit. It was about 1:30 in the morning. I wondered how serious it was as I went there.

This is when I got to meet a lovely lady, who I will call Sharon, for the sake of anonymity. I walked in the room, and I saw a woman upright on the bed, watching TV. She seemed very alert, and far more awake than I was. She had a kind of yellow, sickly complexion, but her eyes told a different story. She greeted me, and told me a little about herself. She was very concerned, and in a bit of a conundrum. The doctors had no idea how long she would live; her disease was one that they really didn’t know much about, but serious enough to put her in the ICU. She had lived a very interesting life, she told me. She was in her middle fifties, and was a yoga instructor. She had been all over the country, and had many religious experiences when she was young, but she never really fit in. She had a very healthy respect for religious people, and had experimented in a lot of different faith traditions. She went from church to church, trying to see what fit. Some churches were good, others not so much. She even married a man who was Muslim, but he was a man that understood her need to figure things out on her own, and not to force her into a tradition she didn’t believe in.

However, as it looked like she may not have too long left in life. Things didn’t look too good, and the doctors couldn’t do much for her in the long run. So, she was faced with several hard end-of-life decisions. I told her I couldn’t tell her what to do, but I could be with her, and help her sort out what she was going through.

So we talked for a good long time; it had to have been for around an hour. At one point, Sharon asked me what denomination I was, and I replied, “I’m a Methodist.” She smiled, sort of a sad smile, as she started telling me she had fond experiences in the Methodist church. She asked me what I believed, as a Methodist. So what is one to say in that kind of a situation? I thought for a moment, and I said the first thing that came to my head. I said, “If I had to boil it all down, it all comes down to Grace. We believe in the all encompassing grace of God. Not only that, we believe in something called ‘prevenient grace,’ which is grace that is given to us by God long before we even know God. God loves us so much that even when we don’t know him, he cares for us.”

She told me about when she was young, she went to a Methodist church, and saw this picture of Jesus holding onto a lamb. She remembered it vividly; the kindness in the eyes of Jesus, the peace in the face of the lamb. I told her, that as she goes through these problems, and as she makes these decisions, remember that picture. Remember it, and perhaps you will find peace, and courage to face what was ahead. I prayed with her for several minutes, and as I left, I remembered that she was a yoga instructor, and knew she had a deep connection to meditation and that practice. So I told her, “Namaste,” or the divine in me recognizes the divine in you. She smiled, and said the same as I left.

A few days later, I was told by a colleague of mine that knew Sharon that Sharon had made the decision that she wanted to join the Methodist Church, and she said that it was because of my presence in that time of crisis that she made this decision. Naturally, I was elated, but also extremely humbled. I knew and my colleague knew that it wasn’t really me in that room that did anything. It was all God. God was in that room; God was what was acting, not me. So, later in that week, me and all the other chaplains that knew Sharon performed a remembrance of baptism service with her, right there in the ICU and formally initiated her into the reign of God. In that moment, everyone in that room became family.

I don’t know if Sharon is still alive, or if she died sometime in the past year. But I do know that wherever she is, God is with her always. Wherever she is, I know for a fact that she is one of the saints. She revealed God more to me, than I ever revealed to her. And so I tell you this, not because it was anything that I did that changed her. I didn’t do a dang thing. This is not a story of something that I did, but rather, what God did, and what God is doing. When we do evangelism, we realize that it isn’t us doing evangelism at all. It’s the Holy Spirit moving in us. It’s Jesus being present when we are gathered. God is transforming the world. God has room for the Trey’s of the world, and for the Sharon’s. God has room for everyone at the table. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Kinnaman, 27.

About grantimusmax

Grant Barnes, aka Grantimus Maximus, aka The Nerdcore Theologian. Currently, he is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. He is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology with a Masters Degree in Divinity. He graduated from Texas State University Cum Laude with a Bachelor's degree in English, minor in History. He watches way too many movies, reads too many books, listens to too much music, and plays too many video games to ever join the mundane reality people claim is the "Real World." He rejects your reality, and replaces it with a vision of what could be, a better one, shaped by his love for God.
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