For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.
Gibson Guitars make, arguably, the best guitars out there. Their slogan is “Performance is our Passion.” They are an example of a company that clearly understands why they are in business. Everything centers around making it possible for their customers to give the best performances possible.
I did a quick Google search this week on other companies that claim to have a passion. I was amazed at how many companies have as their slogan, “Such-and-such is our passion.” Here are just some of the things I discovered. “BEGO USA – Dentistry is our passion.” “Viking Athletics – Paddle is our passion.” “Heritage stone – stone is our passion.”
The list went on and on. Quality, cake, fashion, modeling, hockey, coffee, food, dance, sports, Whf protection, photography, fine chocolate, hearing, reliability, safety, paper, software, nature, snow, skiing, imaging, seafood, music, augmented reality development, scrapbooks, quality milk product development and garage doors.
There are all sorts of organizations, businesses, and companies out there who build their entire identity around the thing for which they have passion. They know what they’ve been put on the planet to do, and everything they do is built on it.
Can the church of Jesus Christ say the same thing? Does the church have a passion? I have seen churches do all sorts of things to find their passion. I have seen them debate their passion. I have seen them take a congregational vote on what their passion is going to be. I have seen complicated drawn-out processes dedicated to a church’s passion.
James Howell, who currently serves as the senior pastor at Myers Park United Methodist, recalls when he was the pastor at Davidson and a top-down directive came through for every local church to clarify its purpose. He called together several key leaders in the church into a vision team, and charged them with coming up with what the church was going to do and be. After about 10 minutes of polite chit-chat, one lady said, “This is ridiculous. Let’s just do the things Jesus told us to do.” They wrote that on the form and adjourned the meeting.
I’m gonna make it real simple today. Our passion needs to be doing the things Jesus wants us to do. May we pray.
Some ground rules today. First, Jesus is Lord. Everyone in agreement on that? Jesus is Lord – this statement of belief among the early Christians affirmed that Jesus was in charge of things. Everything – all things, in fact. Bishop Ken Carder reminds that when we say “Jesus is Lord,” we’re saying “Jesus is the boss.”
If Jesus is Lord, then to whom does the church belong? Until the right answer to this question is given, the church will always struggle. There is really only one right answer to this question, but let’s start with some of the wrong answers: the church does not belong to the bishop or the denomination. The church does not belong to the pastor. The church does not belong to any staff member or leader, even if that person has been in leadership for decades. The church does not belong to the council, the lay leadership, or any committee in the church, not even the trustees who handle affairs related to the property. The church does not belong to any individual or family. The church does not belong to any special interest, any official or unofficial group, and the church doesn’t even belong to the members.
The church belongs to Jesus Christ. He is its owner. He is its boss. He is its Lord.
Second, all people belong to God. We belong to God because God made all of us; we are all part of God’s creation, and we humans are uniquely formed in God’s image. So, inasmuch as God creates all of us, all of us belong to God.
We all know that there are people – inside the church and outside – who are distant from God. Being distant from God doesn’t make someone a bad person, by the way. Maybe they didn’t grow up in a family where God was emphasized. Is that their fault? Maybe the Christians they have known turned them away from God. Is that their fault? Maybe no one has ever shown or explained their faith in a way that had appeal to them. Is that their fault?
The Bible has a word for people who are distant from God – lost. It is not derision or implied inferiority to describe someone as lost. Using the word “lost” is simply a statement that though all people ultimately belong to God, there are some who are distant from God.
If Jesus is Lord, if Jesus is the boss, if Jesus is in charge of the church because he owns it – he bought it with his own blood, you know – then the driving mission of every local church must be to do the things Jesus wants us to do.
Jesus outlined his passion in today’s scripture reading: “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” Jesus had a passion for lost people. The church is the body of Christ, meaning that we are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Therefore, if Jesus was passionate about lost people, the church had better develop the same passion!
This isn’t up for debate or discussion. We aren’t going to take a vote on this. Jesus made it very clear.
What is the most valuable thing you have ever lost? Did you find it? How did you feel when you did?
It is an awful feeling to lose something or someone who is close to us, precious to us, valuable to us. It can be devastating, and we will go through great efforts to recover it. You know, God has lost some valuable things, too. People. People like you and me, people around the corner and people around the world.
As a congregation, we must develop a heart for lost people around us. If we claim to be a church, Jesus’ passion must be our passion. We are called beyond our walls, because people all around us belong to God and need to be returned to God, and the driving purpose of our church must be about restoring that which has been lost.
A lot of it has to do with leadership. Effective leadership develops a dynamic congregation. Pastors, staff members, and church leaders are among today’s shepherds in the church. We are all called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the chief shepherd, who demonstrates to us what shepherding is meant to look like.
Both the heart of Jesus and his ministry are summarized for us in Matthew 9:35-38: Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Jesus went to where the people were and did not wait for them to come to him. Shepherds go to where the sheep are. Church leaders who lead with the heart of Jesus go into the community, getting to know and building relationships with unchurched people and caring for those who are hurting. Further, he saw the crowds and had compassion on them. He didn’t see them as masses or irritants, and he didn’t chastise them for being distant from God. Jesus had compassion.
Jesus leads us closer toward Biblical shepherding in Luke 15:4-7: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
What does the shepherd do when he finds the lost sheep? He rejoices! Imagine the church where all of the members celebrate every time another lost sheep comes back to the fold! This is what Jesus describes in heaven. Shepherds who follow in the footsteps of Jesus – be they pastors, staff, or church leaders – are those who have a heart for lost sheep.
Friends, if we are serious about what it means for us to gather under the name “church,” then this must be our passion. Jesus started the church to carry on his ministry and he gave us the Holy Spirit to continue that task. Jesus did not give us the church as a sort of spiritual country club, a members-only club turned inward. We are not here to teach people manners, decency, or morals. Jesus’ driving passion was to seek and save the lost, yet I am mindful that in many churches, you’d never know it.
Wondering why that is, I posed this question on facebook: Jesus' driving passion was to seek and save the lost. What keeps this from being the driving passion of a local church?
One friend emailed, “You’d be surprised at the number of churches who don’t realize that this is the sole reason they exist.” Another posted: “Complacency... everyone thinks someone else will do all the work. They feel like they fulfill their obligation by showing up at church once or twice a week, and then wonder why the body's not doing its job . . . They (we) all need a fire under our butts.” (Allison Joy Worrall) Another said, “Unfortunately, many local churches are so caught up in the money (mortgages etc.) that they have forgotten the great commission. I believe it was Billy Graham who said that the greatest mission field is in the pews of churches.” (Joseph Miller) And, one of the most influential pastors in my life said, “Some have the joy of Christ in their lives but many do not. The Church often does not show this joy because it gets distracted with program, building, finances, ...and these things become our passion.” (Rusty Thomas)
So many things that can distract us from our mission. So many things that we can make our passion when we lose our focus on Christ and doing the things he wants us to do. But when our passion and our focus is not on seeking and saving the lost and we forget that Jesus is Lord, we will always fail to meet our potential.
Adam Hamilton pastors the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection outside Kansas City, a church that was started 20 years ago with four people and now has over 16,000 members, making it the largest church in United Methodism. Church of the Resurrection has a heart for unchurched people; they have made seeking lost sheep their passion. Adam tells stories of some of the things that have happened around their church – drug paraphernalia found in the restrooms, people who are rude to other worshipers and staff, stories of people giving each other the finger as they get cut off in the parking lot. While polite churches might be horrified to hear of these incidents, Adam takes these stories as proof that Church of the Resurrection continues to reach lost people, because lost people sometimes act lost! Their lives haven’t been transformed by Christ yet, but the church continues to make room for them, loving them, nurturing them, gently offering Christ to them.
Very early on, as their brand new church was starting to grow, they raised the idea of starting a second worship service. Many members rejected the idea at first, because they wouldn’t know everyone anymore. However, they took a step back and asked the question, “What did Jesus put us here for? What does Jesus want from us? What was his driving passion?” They recalled that Jesus’ driving passion was reaching lost people. So, they asked the question about the second worship service again, this time saying, “In light of Jesus’ passion of reaching lost people, which would seem to be Christ’s will for us – maintaining only one service where a limited number of lost people can be received, or starting a new worship service to create space for more lost people to come to Jesus?”
Can you imagine what it would look like for us to make our decisions based on the same criteria? Remembering that our aim is not to do what we want, but what Christ wants, and then recalling the things that were important to Christ, can help us quickly, easily, and faithfully make hard decisions.
I’ve heard it said that a church’s faithfulness can be measured by the extent to which its members are concerned with people outside themselves. This includes our involvement in missions, inviting others into our community, the efforts to which we go to make people feel at home when they’re here, our willingness to step outside of what is comfortable and familiar to offer something new, such as teaching a new class for children, our willingness to make changes to our administrative structure, our facility, our worship times and formats, our fellowship events, our Bible studies, our Sunday School classes – we are willing to do all of these things if we realize that doing so will help lost people – the ones whom Jesus came to seek and save – be caught in the loving embrace of a Savior who is searching for them.
What does that mean for us, as a church? You already know that there are 23,000 people who sleep within 1.5 miles of this location. That’s our mission field, folks! We are not here for ourselves; we exist for them. That’s where so many churches get it wrong – everything they do and plan is for themselves, and no one has even thought about the people beyond the walls! Of the 23,000 people within 1.5 miles of our church, only 22% attend church. That leaves 17,940 people – people Jesus loves, people Jesus seeks, people for whom Jesus died – who are waiting for someone to share Christ with them and bring them back home. If everything we do isn’t somehow aimed at bridging the gap between these folks and God, then we’ve missed the point entirely.
The times I have been in London, I have been dependent on the subway, commonly referred to as “the tube,” to get around. At the edge of every train platform is this statement; “Mind the Gap,” meaning pay attention to the hole between the platform and the side of the train.
When it comes to the lost people all around us, our task is the same: Jesus wants us to mind the gap. Jesus wants us to pay attention to the hole between God and lost people in our world, and to build the bridges necessary to bring people home. We can’t be content with a job partially done, and the job isn’t complete until every sheep is back at home in the arms of the shepherd. We can’t just say, “We got a few, so I guess that’s good enough.” The goal is not a full sanctuary, a growing budget, a few new ministries and programs. The goal is lost people brought back to God.
Folks, that’s why I’m passionate about this, and stubborn about this, and frustrated when we don’t do this as well as we could. It’s what drove Jesus, and it’s what drives me as a pastor. I know that some of you think I’m a little too intense about doing this “Jesus stuff,” that I have grandiose expectations and need to settle down a bit.
I’ve got news for you: that ain’t gonna happen as long as even one of those 17,940 people who sleep within a mile and a half of this building have yet to be brought back home to Jesus. We have important work to do – I am 30 years old and will probably be dead in only 60 short years – we don’t have time to waste playing church. Jesus was clear: his passion was to seek and save the lost, and for those of us who claim to be his followers, this must be our passion as well.
The work continues as long as there are sheep without a shepherd nearby. In everything we do, we need to seek to connect people with God. And, if we realize that we have an opportunity to do something more or different that will help us reach even more people, then our work is clear: we have to do it, whatever it takes.
Jesus tells us there is great rejoicing over one lost sheep cradled in the arms of the Shepherd. There is great rejoicing over a lost son who returns to the loving embrace of the father. There is great rejoicing when what was lost is found.
I’m looking forward to some parties.