Last week, we began a new sermon series on “Sharing Our Faith”. We saw that Jesus’s mission while he was here on this earth was to “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), and that’s our mission as well. Our goal as Christians is not just to meet inside these four walls once a week for an hour of worship and then talk with each other about sports and our favorite movies, and then go home and take it easy until next week. The job that God has given us is to find people who are lost and help them to find their way back to God.
The way Jesus did that was to spend time with sinners, talking with them, associating with them, eating with them, establishing a relationship with them. I said that if we want to reach people like Jesus did, then we’re going to have to establish relationships with lost people like Jesus did.
And then, we talked about the necessity of sharing our faith with integrity. Integrity is having a life that’s focused on one thing – serving God. As I said, we can’t expect to teach other people to put God first in their lives until we’ve learned how to put God first in our life. When we tell people who are lost, “You need to put God first in your life” but they can see that we don’t put God first in our life, then they see us as a hypocrite. So, we need to share our faith with integrity.
This morning, we want to talk about the importance of sharing our faith with grace.
There are a lot of people in this world who hate Christians. And the sad thing is, there are a lot of people who call themselves Christians who have behaved in ways that make it easy for the people in this world to hate them.
I think about Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Back in the early 2000’s, Mr. Phelps and the members of his church got a lot of attention because of their protests at the funerals of American soldiers who were killed in Iraq. Mr. Phelps taught that the death of soldiers in Iraq was vengeance from God for protecting a country that harbors homosexuals. So, the church members protested at the funerals carrying signs and shouting, “God hates fags”, “God hates you” and “You’re going to hell”.
Then, in 2008, a grad student at Northern Illinois University walked into a classroom and started shooting. When he was finished, six people were dead, including himself. The so-called “Christians” of Westboro Baptist Church released a statement that said, “Thank God for the NIU carnage. Thank God for the shooter. Thank God for 6 dead….God hates Illinois and he hates NIU. Expect worse and more from God.”
So, I’m not surprised that some people hate Christians. Christians have been hated since the day the church began, but in the early church it was for the right reason: they were hated because they loved Jesus. In recent years – at least, based on what we see in the news – Christians are now hated not for loving Jesus too much but for loving people too little. Which is a shame, because most of the Christians I know are loving, kind and full of grace.
Philip Yancey began his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? by telling about a friend in Chicago who works with people who are down-and out. There was a prostitute who came to him homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. He asked her if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. Her response was, “Church! Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
And then Yancey said, “What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like this prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. Has the church lost that gift?”
Have we indeed? Is that where the church is today? A group of people who make others feel bad about their lives? Because if that’s where the church is, it’s no wonder that people don’t want to come.
And it’s easy to see why people might think that the church is all about judgment and condemnation, based on street preachers and YouTube preachers who scream and condemn and tell people they’re going to hell and then they call that evangelism.
There’s an interesting prophesy in Isaiah 42. Isaiah was foretelling the coming of the Messiah – Jesus — and he said, “Look at my servant, whom I strengthen. He is my chosen one, who pleases me. I have put my Spirit upon him. He will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or raise his voice in public.” (Isaiah 42:1-2, NLT)
And that prophecy came to pass. What you find when you read through the gospels is that Jesus didn’t yell at lost people. Just the opposite. He shared meals with lost people. He sat at the table and ate dinner with lost people. He shared the good news about the kingdom of God with grace, with kindness and with love.
And it’s our responsibility as Christians to follow that example. But we haven’t always done a good job of that. Even though we know that God’s grace is freely given to us and saves us from our sins, we are still sometimes quick to judge and look down on someone else that we might perceive to be a sinner. Which is to say, we haven’t always shared our faith with grace. But we must.
Aaron Chambers, in his book Eats with Sinners, tells about a friend of his named Pete who saw a bumper sticker on a car in a parking lot that said, “Jesus Sucks.” About that time, the owner of the car walked up and Pete said, “I noticed your bumper sticker. I can’t let you leave with that on your car. I find it offensive.”
The man said, “Well, I’m not taking it off.” Pete said, “Why would you say that Jesus sucks? The only thing he’s ever done for you is die for you. You can put my name on your car. You can even say mean things about Christians because we sometimes screw things up, but please don’t say bad things about Jesus.”
The man was quiet for a moment, then he said, “Well, I’m not taking the bumper sticker off” and he drove away. But hopefully, somewhere down the road, he’ll meet some Christ followers who will change his mind about Jesus.
Because Jesus doesn’t suck. Jesus was never mean to lost people. He was truthful but he wasn’t mean. He wasn’t a hellfire and brimstone preacher who was eager to send people to hell. Rather, he was a grace-filled Savior who was intent on helping people to find their way to heaven.
One day, in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus stood up to read from the Tanakh – the Old Testament scriptures — and he was handed a scroll that contained the book of Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, Jesus began to read from Isaiah chapter 61,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Then Jesus rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the worship leader, and sat down. Now, today, when the preacher sits down, he’s finished. But, in the synagogue, the rabbi taught sitting down, so when Jesus sat down, he was just getting ready to preach. That’s why “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” (Luke 4:20). Everybody wanted to see what Jesus would have to say about that passage.
And here’s what he said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21). This passage that I just read from Isaiah – it’s talking about me, and it’s talking about right now. Jesus was letting them know that he was the Messiah whose coming had been anticipated for hundreds of years. Their waiting was now over. The time had finally come, and Jesus was the fulfillment of all the prophecies.
And Luke tells us that “all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.” (Luke 4:22). Jesus apparently said more that’s not recorded, and the people were amazed because of his gracious words. Literally, they were words of grace. When Jesus spoke, he spoke with grace, he spoke with love, he spoke with kindness.
And the groups of people that Jesus mentioned in the passage he read were groups that were usually dismissed or looked down on or ignored by society. And, if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves dismissing or looking down on or ignoring people around us who desperately need to hear some words of grace.
We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that grace is only for people like us who deserve it. And there are lots of people out there who don’t deserve it. But that contradicts the very meaning of grace. Grace is not given to people who deserve it. It’s a gift given to people who don’t deserve it. And that includes us. And once we realize that, we can stop looking down on people and start sharing our faith — with grace.
Let’s take a look at the groups of people that Jesus said he specifically targeted.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)
Jesus showed grace to poor people, those who were struggling economically. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t share the gospel with wealthy people or the common people who weren’t poor. But Jesus showed a special grace to those who were most in need, and the most neglected.
There were a lot of poor people in the days of Jesus, and there are still a lot of poor people in the world today. The World Bank has determined that the International poverty level is an income of $2.15 a day, and there are almost 700 million people in this world whose income is lower than that, almost all of them in other countries.
Here in the United States, there are about 36 million people who live in poverty based on our guidelines, but let’s bring it closer to home, just outside the doors of our church building. Here in Spring Lake, there are 2300 people who live in poverty, which is more than 20% of the people in this city. Truly, Jesus spoke the truth when he said, “The poor you always have with you.” (John 21:8)
And yet, despite the number of people who are poor, it’s easy for the church to ignore the poor and there are, in fact, some churches that do just that. I’ve known some Christians in the past who believed that we shouldn’t spend much time evangelizing poor people because if they become Christians, they can’t put much in the collection plate, and it’s important that we have a good contribution so we should focus our evangelism on people with money.
And, as bad as that sounds, it’s not a new problem at all. Remember what James said in James 2? “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4)
Churches today don’t put poor people in the corner (at least, I hope they don’t), but there are a lot of churches who have a way of making people who are poor feel bad if they’re not dressed a certain way, wearing a coat and tie or their “Sunday best”. I suspect that there are many poor people who have gone into a worship service hoping to be received with grace and love only to be told, “Next time you come to our church, you need to dress more appropriately.” Usually, though, there isn’t a next time. Why would you want to be with a church that shames you and looks down on you?
But Jesus made it clear that he cared about poor people. He refused to believe that they got what they deserved, because he knew that they deserve so much more.
Jesus knew that poor people deserve justice. God said to the Jews through the prophet Amos, “I know the vast number of your sins and the depth of your rebellions. You oppress good people by taking bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.” (Amos 5:12, NLT)
Jesus knew that poor people deserve protection. The prophet Zechariah said, “Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor.” (Zechariah 7:10).
Jesus knew that poor people deserve shelter, food and clothing. In Isaiah 58, “This is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them.” (Isaiah 58:6-7, NLT)
Jesus knew that poor people deserve a place in God’s kingdom. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)
And Jesus knew that poor people deserve a seat at our dinner table. “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” (Luke 14:13-14)
That’s what Jesus thinks the poor deserve. So, what do we think they deserve? If we’re honest, we have to admit that sometimes Christians think that poor people are a bit of a nuisance. They’re always asking for help.
And I understand. We know there are a lot of people who try to take advantage of churches and we need to be good stewards of God’s money. But I also know that one of the reasons Jesus came into this world was to share good news with poor people, and that he expects us to invite them to the banquet. And when we invite them, he wants us to use gracious words, words of grace.
A second category of people that Jesus targeted were…
The Prisoners and the Oppressed
“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and…to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18)
There are over 2 million men and women in the United States who are in prison right now, and I believe that Jesus wants everyone to find salvation – including prisoners who have been incarcerated for breaking the law – but I think Jesus was thinking about more than just a literal, physical prison.
Today, in our society, there are countless people imprisoned by fear, addiction, abuse, and guilt, and we need to let them know that they can be free. Some of them may feel like they’re just getting what they deserve. Others of them may hear sermons telling them that they’re going to hell, which leads them to believe that God thinks they’re getting what they deserve.
But we can do better. We have to do a better job of proclaiming freedom for the prisoners all around us.
We live in a country where we have freedom, but for some people, freedom feels like an illusion, not a reality. They think, “Nothing in my life is ever going to change. This is the mess I’ve made of my life, it’s always been this way, and it’s always going to be this way. There’s no hope. Things will never change. I’ll never be free of these things that I struggle with.
Harry Houdini was a great magician and escape artist. I’ve heard that when Houdini was at the height of his career, he would arrive at a city to perform, but the first thing he would do was challenge local police to restrain him with shackles and lock him in their jails. He always got out.
But, one time, Houdini almost lost the challenge. He was left alone in the cell and got his cuffs off easily, but for some reason, he couldn’t pick the lock on the cell door. He was about to give up in frustration when Houdini leaned against the door, and it swung open. The guards had forgotten to lock it.
We need to let the captives around us know that their prison door isn’t really locked. It’s merely an illusion that Satan is using to shackle them with hopelessness and despair. We need to let the captives around us know that their life can be better, that Jesus is offering freedom that will change their lives. They don’t need live imprisoned by fear, or addiction, or abuse, or guilt.
A third category of people that Jesus targeted were…
“He has sent me to proclaim… recovering of sight to the blind.” (Luke 4:18)
In the Law of Moses, God made it clear that physically blind people were to be protected: “Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road.” (Deuteronomy 27:18). Jesus himself cared about physically blind people, healing many of them throughout his ministry. But he was even more concerned with those who were spiritually blind.
Jesus wants those who are spiritually blind to see, but, more than that, he wants those of us who are Christians to see the spiritually blind. Because, while we don’t like to admit it, we don’t always see people. We rush past them as if they don’t exist or they don’t matter.
Like those who are poor and those who are imprisoned, spiritually blind people may require a significant investment of our time to help them find their way. The fact that they don’t understand spiritual realities may frustrate us. Their spiritual blindness may lead them to do some things that may require someone to have to go and rescue them. But don’t let any of that deter us from helping the blind to find their way.
This past week, Jerrie Barber had a post on his blog talking about the Christians in Corinth and how messed up they were. And then he went on to make this observation: the biggest problem many churches have is we don’t have enough problems. We either consciously or unconsciously screen people who are undesirable because they might disrupt our neat and orderly group. People with issues keep us busy all the time teaching, encouraging, rescuing, and repairing the problems that they have.
I think he’s right. The biggest problem many churches have is we don’t have enough problems. Like Jesus, we need to focus on those who are neglected by others, those who are ignored by others, those who are looked down on by others. And when we talk with them and we share our faith, we need to do so with grace.
I want to close by giving you an example of what a difference it can make when we share our faith with grace. I’m sure that many of you are familiar with the magicians Penn and Teller. And if you have watched them very much, you know that Penn, Penn Jillette, is an atheist. He doesn’t believe in God or anything spiritual.
But, a few years ago, Jillette recorded a video in which he talked about someone who came to talk to him after one of his magic shows. It was a guy from the audience who had participated in one of the acts during the show.
The man complimented Jillette on the show, then he said, “I brought this for you” and held out a copy of the New Testament. He said “I wrote in the front of it and I wanted you to have this.”
Surprisingly, Jillette was actually moved by what the man did. He said, “He was kind, and nice, and sane, and looked me in the eyes, and talked to me, and then gave me this Bible.”
Jillette said, “I’ve always said that I don’t respect [Christians] who don’t [share their faith]. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe there is a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward.
“How much do you have to hate somebody to not [share your faith]? How much do you have to hate someone to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
Jillette went on to say, “If I believed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point that I tackle you, and this is more important than that.”
He said, “This guy was a really good guy. He was polite, honest, and sane, and he cared enough about me to [share his faith] and give me a Bible.”
Now, Jillette went on to make it clear that he is still an atheist. He said, “I know there’s no God, and one polite person living his life right doesn’t change that. But I’ll tell you, he was a very, very, very good man. And that’s really important. And with that kind of goodness, it’s okay to have that deep of a disagreement. I still think religion does a lot of bad stuff, but that was a good man who gave me that book. That’s all I wanted to say.”
So, let me ask you — which do you think is more effective at reaching people – shouting at people and condemning them and telling them they’re going to hell, or sharing your faith with grace and kindness and love?
And maybe, just maybe, if there are enough of us sharing our faith with grace, people like Penn Jillette will eventually come to know that not only is there a God, but he is a God who gave up everything so that we could come to know him.
And maybe people like that prostitute that Philip Yancey wrote about will come to understand that the church is here to offer help and to offer hope. And that we are here not to condemn her to hell, but to help her to find her way to heaven.
And maybe people like that man with the “Jesus sucks” bumper sticker will come to know that Jesus wants nothing more than to put a loving arm around his shoulder while whispering graciously in his ear, “It’s OK. I forgive you.”
But those things will happen only when we learn how to share our faith with grace.