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Sunday, January 17, 2010

unChristian: Get Saved! (Matthew 28:16-20)


Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This morning, we are continuing in our series of messages with the theme “unChristian.” This series of messages is drawn from some very compelling research done among 16-29-year-olds about their perceptions of Christians, the Church, and Christianity in general. 40% of young adults have opted out of Christianity, and many even have hostile feelings toward Christianity.

Our goal here is not to say “Let’s listen to young adults who are outside the Church and do whatever they want us to do and be whatever they want us to be in the hopes that young people might come back to Church or show an interest in Christianity or affiliate with us as a faith community.” Our goal is to say, “Do they truly have something to teach us about where we might have been getting it wrong, where we might not have been faithful to doing and being what Jesus calls us to do and be.” I hope we will be open to listening to these insights that we might become better Christians. At the same time, I hope that some of those who are outside the faith might be interested in hearing more about this Jesus and hanging out with us Christians. May we pray.

It is not uncommon for me to have conversations with people who, because of my profession, ask me to “put in a word with the man upstairs,” sometimes thinking that I must have some sort of divine hookup that comes with my job. While I believe prayer is important and that our prayers are heard and do have an impact on the course of events, I also have to remind people that I’m in sales, not management.

The word “sales” may have a host of negative connotations, which I’ll get to in a moment, but I’m using it in these terms from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: to develop a belief in the truth, value, or desirability of; OR to persuade or influence to a course of action or the acceptance of something. It is this sense in which I describe myself as being in sales.

Every time I give a sermon, every time I write a newsletter article, every time I meet with a committee, every time I communicate with you as a group or as an individual as your pastor, I am engaging in sales, in a manner of speaking. I am trying to persuade you to become a follower of Jesus, or be a better Christian or get involved in something or take on some aspect of our common ministry.

In the 1980s, when Apple Computer hit the market with its first version of the Macintosh personal computer, the company hired a select group of sales representatives and called them “Macintosh Evangelists.” These people were absolutely persuaded that every man, woman, and child needed a Macintosh computer. They believed, with everything that was within them, that the Apple Macintosh was a superior product in every way to the other platforms of home computers. Their job was to persuade the world of their convictions.

When nonChristians discuss the attempts of Christians to share their faith, they perceive it to be like a negative experience with a salesperson. The research indicates that we Christians seem too focused on getting converts. Outsiders wonder if we genuinely care about them. They feel like targets rather than people.

For whatever reason, our attempts at faith-sharing come across as ingenuine. This is one of the biggest gaps in the research – 64% of Christians said they believe outsiders would perceive their efforts as genuine. However, only 34% of young nonChristians actually believe that Christians genuinely care about them. Outsiders often feel targeted, that we merely want a new church member or a new notch on the “get saved” belt.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus leaves us some instruction as to what we’re supposed to be about. This Great Commission is a wonderful summary of what Jesus wants us to do. He says, “Go into the whole world, and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.” And it comes with a promise and a word of comfort – Jesus promises to be with us in this, always and everywhere.

But, let’s talk about what Jesus does say and doesn’t say here. Jesus doesn’t say that we should help people get saved. Jesus does say we should make disciples.

While Scripture is clear that there is a basic starting point to the Christian faith – admitting we need help from God that is outside the realm of what we can do for ourselves – we need to remember that a starting point is not a substitute for the entire journey. However, too much of a “get saved” mentality easily reduces the entire Christian experience to a decision made in a single moment and ignores what Jesus told us to do, namely, to make disciples.

Let me put it this way. Who here can remember a time when you made a specific decision to follow Jesus? OK, who then realized, the next day, three weeks later, six months later, that God still had more work to do on you? Following Jesus is something I have to do each and every morning and several times throughout the day. The Christian faith is a journey and a process, not merely a one-time decision.

Ok, A.J. – so it sounds like you don’t care about salvation. Actually, I care a great deal about salvation. I care so deeply about it that I refuse to cheapen it and reduce it to one solitary decision suspended in time that determines where one will spend eternity.

Contrary to popular belief, the basic message of Jesus was not, “Make a one-time decision about me so that you can spend eternity in heaven.” Any attempts to telescope Jesus’ basic message into this formula are a perversion of the Gospel. Jesus came as the physical proclamation that God was willing to enter into the human existence because some things in the human experiment had gone terribly wrong. You see, in the beginning, God had created humankind in God’s image, and humankind was created for a perfectly harmonious relationship with God and each other. But something went wrong. The human will, it turns out, was a powerful thing, and before you knew it, people had placed themselves as the most important thing in the world. And a gulf of separation grew wider. This separation is technically called sin. And, people grew more and more selfish, and continued to allow their own wills to rule every decision. The result of such self-centered living was horrible – wars, murder, violence, poverty, and suffering. Turns out the human was capable of great selfishness, and the more selfishly they lived, the worse the world became.

But then Jesus came to show us another way – God’s way. Jesus, in fact, was God come to earth. In Jesus, God was willing to enter into the suffering of a broken and bruised world – a world ruled and controlled by everyone’s self-will. Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God – and he invited everyone to turn aside from the ways of the world – the fancy word for that is repent – and believe the good news of the kingdom of God.

What exactly is this kingdom of God? It’s all Jesus talks about through the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Mark is the relentless proclamation of this kingdom. In fact, in the first 20 verses of the book, it’s all Jesus can talk about. Then, when Jesus goes and preaches his first sermon back in front of the home crowd in the synagogue in which he grew up, it’s all he talks about there, too. He says he is there to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberty to all who are oppressed. He talks more about the kingdom of God in his famous Sermon on the Mount in the 5th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, where he says that those who are poor in spirit, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, meek, merciful, mourners, persecuted, pure in heart, and peacemakers are actually greatly and richly blessed in the kingdom of God. You will recognize those who are part of this kingdom because they live like this.

And here’s the cool thing: Jesus taught about the kingdom of God as if it were a present reality. It wasn’t just some pie-in-the-sky thing that good boys and girls might get to experience in the afterlife. It was real! As sure as you and I can look each other in the eye today, the kingdom of God is real! Jesus gave everyone permission to stop trying to get into heaven after they died, because in him, heaven had come to earth, and it was available in the here and now. He taught about and invited people to experience the kingdom – and low and behold, it was a better way to live than living by the rules of the kingdoms of this world. When people lived the way Jesus told them to live, they found that they were all closer to each other and closer to God, and the kingdom of God was born in their midst, and they found themselves saved from living a life as people with no hope, and instead lived as people of great hope.

And their excitement was contagious. The more they lived like God’s people in the world – the more they lived the way Jesus had taught them to live, the more people wanted to be part of their community. Acts chapter 2 talks about the sort of community they became. They were of one heart and mind, and they shared freely and abundantly with anyone in need. They praised God and enjoyed the favor of all the people, and daily, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

They realized that one of the things Jesus had taught them was to pray that his will would be done and his kingdom would come on earth as it in heaven, and the more they lived by the values of God’s kingdom, the more they found themselves living in the kingdom of God. And so they stopped worrying about getting into heaven after they died, because in the person of Jesus, heaven had come to them. And in the teachings of Jesus, they found heaven continually manifest all around them.

Being a disciple of Jesus, therefore, is not a decision that can be reduced to a simple formula or a one-time decision in which we “get saved.” Being a disciple of Jesus is not about giving an answer to a question; it’s about living a lifestyle shaped by Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God.

And so we Christians see a Jesus who heals, who teaches, who stands up for justice, who is merciful, and we, therefore, must be an advocate for systems that heal, that teach, that stand up for justice, and that extend mercy.

Too much emphasis on “getting saved” runs the danger of taking everything that Jesus taught about the kingdom of God and salvation and reducing it to a one-time decision. Christians, however, must recover a cross-shaped lifestyle that transforms everything it touches. St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Our very lives should be a constant proclamation of the good news, that Jesus has come to dwell with us, that the kingdom of God is a present reality, that God’s will really is being done on earth as it in heaven. The Christian life is not some sort of personal and private spiritual cosmetic guaranteeing us a window seat in God’s banquet hall. It is the goodness of God that springs forth from our very being and transforms everything it touches. There is no good news other than this, and our lives must constantly proclaim it.

There is an urban legend that was told as true for awhile, but it’s such a good story, I want to share it with you. This conversation took place between the USS Abraham Lincoln and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in 1995.

Canadians: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid collision.

Americans: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.

Americans: THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS LINCOLN, THE SECOND LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES' ATLANTIC FLEET. WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT VESSELS. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15 DEGREES NORTH--I SAY AGAIN, THAT'S ONE FIVE DEGREES NORTH—OR COUNTER-MEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP.

Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

Lighthouses have one duty: saving ships from crashing into dangerous geography. But lighthouses don’t run all over the beach saving ships. They simply stand there shining, allowing their light to be seen by all. We Christians could learn something from this. We are charged to let our light shine before people, that they may see the goodness in our lives and give glory to God. In other words, do something that causes people to look favorably in God’s direction.

So, perhaps that’s why attempts to help people “get saved” seem to fall short. Making disciples is what we’re called to do, and it’s a long process. It’s not something that can be done in a 30-second drive-by encounter.

Let me go back to sales for a moment. If I buy something, I want to know several things. I want to know that the person selling it absolutely believes in the value of what they’re selling. I can turn on an infomercial, and here’s the thing, I know that the whole point of an infomercial is to sell me something. But yet, the longer I watch, the more I become convinced that those people on screen really do believe that every man, woman, and child really needs whatever they’re offering, and – depending on how late it is – I become increasingly convinced that I, too, need a Shamwow, a magic bullet, a Ronco rotiserrie, or a PedEgg.

Another thing I want to know is that the person selling something is genuinely interested in me and my needs. When I was a teenager, my parents went car shopping. They had done their research, and they went to a Nissan dealer with the intent of buying an Altima. They had picked out the trim level and everything, but they wanted to test drive both the automatic and the stick in order to see which one they wanted to buy. However, after they had finished the test drive and were walking back into the store to negotiate and close the deal, the salesman said to my mom, “You drive stick well for a woman.” In other words, the salesperson failed to respect his customer, and he lost what was already more-or-less a guaranteed sale.

Donald Miller, a popular Christian author, describes an experience he had in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. He was at the park, and a man walked up to him and said, “If you die tonight, will you go to heaven?” Donald stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Donald. What’s your name? Do you live around here? Are you here by yourself? What do you do for a living? What do you do in your free time? Would you like to sit down and hang out for a bit?” The man was flustered and finally said, “Look, I’m just looking for an answer to the question.” Donald said, “Oh, I’m sorry. You see, that’s a very personal question you’ve just asked me, so I assumed you wanted to be my friend.”

This is putting the cart before the horse. We have communicated that we want people to know something that is critical to their lives before they know us, have experienced us, or have received anything from us – and before we know them.

Sometimes we believe that the greatest Christian virtue is leading someone else to Christ. But Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God, and to love our neighbors. The 10 Commandments and other moral teachings are great, but everything we do MUST be wrapped in love. We are reminded in 1 Corinthians that, without love, we are only a clanging gong or a resounding cymbal.

Scripture teaches that followers of Jesus should love their neighbors and make disciples along the way. Andy Stanley says, “If we were able to rewrite the script for the reputation of Christianity, I think we would put the emphasis on developing relationships with people – serving them, loving them, and making them feel accepted. Only then would we earn the right to share the Gospel. Our acceptance of them would not be predicated on their acceptance of Christ. After all, God loved us before we were lovable; God loved the whole world before the world knew anything about God. This should be our model.”

Loving relationships that expect nothing in return – that is the way of Jesus and that ought to be the way of Jesus’ followers. Loving people with the goal of loving them well with the love of God, radically and recklessly sharing the love of God and building relationships with all.

The unChristian perception is that Christians are only interested in pushing our beliefs off on other people. The new perception can be that Christians cultivate relationships and environments where all people can be deeply-transformed by God.

It’s about relationships. As Rob Neill frequently reminds us all, “Barbeque first.” In other words, cultivate, nurture and build relationships without any agenda or hoping to get anything in return. Build relationships, and watch hearts be transformed, including yours. And as hearts are transformed and we live more and more as the people shaped by the kingdom Jesus was proclaiming, perhaps our prayers really will be answered, as God’s will be done, and God’s kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.

2 comments:

  1. Yes, yes, yes! If I could find a place where people believed this, I would go to church...

    (Is that arrogant of me? To not want to put myself in a specific sort of religious relationship with people because we have very different beliefs and I was badly hurt in the past? My conservative Christian friends think it is, and I am so far inside my head that I can't tell anymore.)

    And that ^ is what this sermon series is addressing, I think. How NOT to be the sort of people that people like me avoid. ;-)

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  2. Frankly I think it would just be easier to stay home, just as most people do. First of all, a lot of the time, church is just BORING!!!! I have been to churches where the people talked to themselves the whole time about internal church business and never tried once to draw someone else into the conversation. I am not a bar person,but if I were, I would go to a bar for community, they have more community than church probably ever will. And there are so many different people saying so many different things about how to live and be, etc. It's all just too confusing, like a little dog chasing its tail around in a circle. I would rather just stay home and talk to Jesus.

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