(From Ephesians 2: 1-10)
You were dead through the trespasses and sinsin which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Chris—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
I was blessed with a wonderful mentor in my early years of ministry—the late Reverend Bill. Bill was a very down-to-earth, very human and approachable kind of person. It was one of his many gifts for ministry. Bill had pastored churches in small rural towns, and in larger cities, during the span of his pastoral ministry. He had preached his sermons to doctors, lawyers, politicians and business executives, as well as to blue collar workers on factory floors. Sharing ministry advice to this novice pastor based on his own experience, Bill said, “Always remember to offer Jesus to your people.”
Offering Jesus sounds like simple advice that is easy to follow. Well, Bill would tell you, that it asks a lot of a pastor. It asks us to get out of our own head, our own need to achieve and succeed, and instead to seek the mind of Christ Jesus, preaching our sermons through that lens. Doing so we represent Jesus, offering his love, his mercy, his grace and his example of a faith-filled and self-giving life of service to others. It is the act of dying to self, to self-gratification and ego building, that we may truly become alive in Christ Jesus. As a life example, Bill shared this true story from his own ministry experience. Bill read a passage of scripture that was particularly motivating to him on one occasion. He formed a wonderful and very scholarly sermon based on research and commentaries he had studied on the topic of that passage. He was excited that following Sunday morning to present this most excellent and well-developed sermon to his congregation. It was sure to “wow” them. When the service was over, Bill received many accolades from his congregation. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Bill saw someone walking slowly down the aisle from the back of the church. It was a slight woman, somewhat bent over as she walked. As she came closer into view, Bill could see that she was wearing a long scarf to cover her head. As she approached him, Bill recognized that it was a member of the church that he had not seen for some time. “Bill,” she said, “your sermon was very accomplished, but it did not offer me what I truly needed. I am fighting cancer, and what I really needed to hear today was how much God loves and cares for me. I needed to be reminded that Jesus died for me, and for my sins.” This woman’s honest words struck like a dagger straight into Bill’s heart. He had offered a theologically sound sermon that would impress many a professor and biblical scholar. What he had forgotten to do was to be truly pastoral, and to offer Jesus to someone who desperately needed him. All of the accolades he had received could not overcome this one great omission.
Church, we are living in very difficult times. The COVID-19 pandemic has created society of isolated, lonely, fearful and questioning people. Everything that was once familiar and clear has become clouded, veiled in a curtain of uncertainty. People are hurting and disillusioned with a modern and highly technological world that cannot offer them quick, clear or definite answers and solutions. This is a people who need a strong foothold—a firm foundation. This is a people who could use some trustworthy and true good news. Many people today are unchurched; they have never really heard the good news of God’s love revealed for us in Jesus Christ. This is a people to whom we should be offering Jesus and the inner peace found in his assurance.
The Church as an institution is struggling today. It is struggling to adapt, to change and to be reborn with a message and relevance that is attractive to new and diverse group of people. The religious, socio-economic and political reasons for this situation are many, varied and complicated. They existed long before last March when the closed, before we ever heard of COVID-19. In fact, the COVID pandemic may have very abruptly created the critical circumstances that have forced churches to step out of their comfort zones and into a mode of actively seeking rebirth by re-imagining what it means to be church. Much of what the institutional church has traditionally offered in elaborate programming is not currently possible. And so, we have had to re-invent our church, to develop creative new means to be able to continue to be in community. Our needs have become more basic than they have perhaps been for some time. Pastors have been given opportunities to abandoned the scholarly and intellectually thought-provoking sermons and return to those that touch people where they live. We have opportunities to return to the basics, to the messages that give folks what they most truly need—God’s unconditional and unchanging love for them—to remember to offer them Jesus.
And so, Peninsula Church family, this morning I offer you what are perhaps my favorite words of scripture. They are not scholarly derived or highly researched. They are simple, clear and concise. They were spoken by Jesus and re-affirmed by the Apostle Paul and his scribes and scholars. The message Jesus gave us is this: God so loved the world, you, me and everyone, that God gave us Jesus so that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life. For, God did not send us Jesus to condemn us, but to save us. Pauline inspired teaching reminds us that it is by God’s grace we have been saved through faith, and this is God’s doing for us in Christ Jesus, and not something we did, or even could do, on our own. We did not earn this gift of God’s love; and so we cannot boast in it, but instead we simply give glory to God. God is for us, and always there for us. There is nothing that can ever hinder God’s love for us—no sin, no doubt, no personal despair, and no COVID-19 pandemic. This is the good news that is so needed in these time we are living. We, the people of the church, people of faith, have this good news to share with others. We have seen and experienced grace upon grace in our own lives, and in the lives of others. We don’t need fancier buildings or catchier programs—as we discovered a few weeks ago, many clubs can offer that experience. We simply need to do what the church has done down through the centuries—we simply need to offer Jesus to a needy world. What would it mean if we offered Jesus, authentically, to everyone? What if we offered his grace and mercy, his compassion and caring, if we were a mirror of his love in all of our encounters with others? What if our church was a truly safe place for all people to explore their faith, find the love of Christ for them, and build a firm foundation for their living? What if God’s grace abounded in and through us?
In closing today, I will quote words of wisdom for living from the late poet and humanitarian, Maya Angelou, who shared “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” May we be a community that guides others to experience personally how it feels to know the love of Jesus by remembering always to offer Jesus. Amen, and let it be so.
Hymn: “Because He Lives”
(words: Gloria and Bill Gaither, music: Bill Gaither)
God sent his Son, they called him Jesus; he came to love, heal and forgive; he lived and died to buy my pardon, an empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives.
Because he lives, I can face tomorrow; because he lives, all fear is gone; because I know he holds the future, and life is worth the living just because he lives.