Preached at Ascension Lutheran Church on January 15. Text: John 1:35-42.
If you’ve ever watched a cop show on T.V., you’ve seen how the police follow someone. A couple of them will sit in a car outside where the suspect lives and wait for them to leave. Then, when they come out of the house and start moving, whether by car or by foot, the police officers pull out of their parking space and trail behind them. I always have to wonder… how could anyone not notice that? Wouldn’t you notice two people sitting in a car in front of your house? Wouldn’t you notice a car pulling out as soon as you left the house? I don’t get it.
Well, apparently, Jesus’ first disciples were really lousy at tailing him because they didn’t have him fooled for any instant the way they were ducking behind corners and trying to blend in the with crowd. Although they were following at some distance, Jesus was onto them from the get-go.
They had been disciples of John. One day when they were with John and Jesus walked by, John pointed him out and said, “Do you see that guy over there? He’s the Lamb of God.” Well, the two of them weren’t about to let this Lamb of God out of their sight. They had to know more. So, they followed him.
“What are you looking for?” Jesus asked them.
“Rabbi, where are you staying?”
“Come and see,” Jesus replied.
Now, they weren’t interested in seeing how Jesus furnished his home. They wanted to be with him where he lived. They wanted to experience who he was. So they went with Jesus and spent the rest of the day with him.
One of these two was a man named Andrew. And as soon as he left Jesus, he ran to tell his brother Peter, “We have found the Messiah.” It was quite a claim for one Jew to make to another. Their people had been waiting for the Messiah for just about forever. “You gotta come and see this guy!” Andrew told his brother.
As we enter this season of Epiphany, we draw our attention to the whole idea of sharing our faith with others, particularly those who might be struggling to find their way in the world. The churchy word for that is evangelism. It’s a word that sometimes makes us squirm because it calls to mind men on TV with bouffant hairdos asking us to send them money, or over-zealous Christians out to convert you so they can add another notch to their belt.
But evangelism is really about sharing the good news. In fact, that’s what the Greek word evangel means. Literally, good news. It stinks that in our culture, the label evangelical has come to mean something that we’d like to distance ourselves from because the word evangelical is a part of our heritage as Lutheran Christians who are all about the grace of God. Whether we use the E word or not, we know that, as Christians, we’re expected to share the good news with others. And if that scares the bejeebers out of you, you’re not alone.
I’ve always liked the definition of evangelism that says it’s like one beggar telling another beggar where they can find bread. It’s not about someone who is holier-than-thou telling a miserable sinner how to save their soul. It’s not about someone who has all the answers telling a poor ignorant soul how it is. It’s not about someone who has it all together explaining to another person how they too can get it all together. It’s about someone who has desperately longed for the love of God and experienced that love in her life showing another person who desperately longs for the love of God how he might experience it, too.
In today’s gospel, that’s expressed in three simple words from Jesus. “Come and see.” And that’s it. There is no coercion, no threat, no intimidation. It’s a simple invitation.
Jesus invites Andrew to come and see. And Andrew invites Peter and, over time, Peter will invite others. All this from three simple words. Come and see.
The first leg on our three-legged strategic plan at Ascension is invite in love. A simple invitation we might extend to others is, “Come and see.” And yet, we need to ask, what exactly would we like people to come and see, and why?
Back when I served as an assistant to the bishop of my synod in Ohio, I had the opportunity to visit a lot of congregations that were in crisis. Their numbers were shrinking and they couldn’t pay the bills and they didn’t know what to do. When I would meet with their leadership, I often heard these or similar words, “We need to get more people to come to church.”
“Why?” I would ask. They never liked that question. Because it was clear that the reason they wanted more people in the pews was so that there would be more money in the offering plate. And that’s what it was going to take for them to survive.
So, how many of you would want to join a church like that?
When we make it our goal at Ascension to invite, I hope it’s not so that we can get more fannies in the pews, so we can in turn get more dollars in the plate. I hope our invitation has nothing to do with preserving an institution. I hope we’re inviting people to see Jesus. I hope we’re drawn to Ascension because this is where we see Jesus.
Now, by that I don’t mean that we’re the mirror image of Jesus. But that we’re trying our best to embody a way of life that is the way of Jesus. We don’t have to live the way of the world—ruthless, vengeful, self-centered. We can strive to be like Jesus, together, as we encourage one another along the way.
As your new pastor, I’m very aware of the fact that you’re hoping I came here to grow Ascension. You may be disappointed to know that’s not the reason I came to be your pastor. If you’re talking about numbers, I’m not feeling called to do that. It would be cool if we grew, and that may happen, but that’s not my calling… or yours.
We’re called to grow in the way we embody Jesus in the world, so that when others come and see us, they see Jesus.
The thing about institutions is that they take on a life of their own and they become all about self-preservation. At Ascension, we’re a congregation of about 750 people. Not too many years ago, we were a congregation of 1200 people. Our numbers have gone down. We’re not alone. Many congregations are in the same boat.
There are lots of reasons for that and I can’t get into them in the limited time of one sermon. There are also lots of reasons to hope in the Christian church today, although the church of the future will not be like the church of the past. But the point I want to make today is that when the institution bleeds, the institution fights for survival.
As much as we may love the institution, we need to remind ourselves that Christ’s Body on earth is not an institution. Churches, and buildings and denominations are not forever. Yes, we need to think about that, even in our 75th anniversary year. Built on rock, the church will stand, even when steeples are falling. Steeples do have a shelf life. Eventually, they fall. That doesn’t mean that the people who gathered for worship under those steeples failed. It’s not a measure of their faithfulness to the gospel.
Last week I was at a pastor’s Bible study group with pastors I haven’t gotten to know very well since coming here, and one of the pastors said, “The most remarkable thing happened in worship last Sunday. We had a young man join the church.”
I’m sitting there thinking, why is this a big deal? I don’t see anything remarkable in that. People join the church all the time. But then, I came to learn that he serves at the interim pastor at Second English Lutheran Church in Baltimore. And today, the congregation of Second English in Baltimore is closing. So, yes, it was mind-blowing to think that on the Sunday before the congregation closed its doors, they received a new member.
It seemed he had been visiting the congregation where people showed him Jesus, and he felt called to join them. On the Sunday before they closed.
And that’s why we invite people to come and see.
Today we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If ever there was a man who took being a disciple of Jesus seriously, it was this man. He understood the darkness of this world only too well. But he also knew that darkness is no match for the light of God. He understood that while sin is present in the heart of the individual, it is also present in the systems of society. And one cannot change the realities of life, without changing the systems of oppression. Motivated by the unconditional love of God, he was called to show others Jesus, particularly those on the margins of society.
Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of people who identify as Jesus’ followers these days who are showing the world someone who is not Jesus. These are challenging times if we want to show the world who Jesus really is.
When we’re baptized, we’re charged to “let our lights so shine that others may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.” Letting our lights shine so that others may come and see Jesus.
As God’s beloved, we have light to shine on the world. Dr. King once said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” There is good news to share with the world around us. The light we bear scatters the darkness. It brings an assurance of God’s love to those who live in fear. It’s the light of Christ. In our words and in our actions, we’re called to invite the world to come and see.