By Pastor Cherie Johnson
We are finishing up our sermon series “Come and See,” based on the stories in the beginning of the Gospel of John. Jesus is gathering his first disciples, and he invites the first two to “Come and See!” Then those disciples invite others to “come and see.”
Much later, after Jesus has his conversation with the Samaritan woman by the well, she is so overcome that despite the fact that she is probably an outcast, she has to share the Good News and invite everyone in her village to “Come, see.”
Last week, we talked about how to share our story of what Jesus has meant and done in our lives, how to present a snapshot of a “before and after” of our life with Christ.
This week, we will be focusing on actually doing it. How do we invite others to experience the Good News, the Gospel? These may be people who are seeking. They may be people who are simply far from God, as Bill Hybels puts it. Bill Hybels is the long time pastor of Willow Creek Community Church.
The scripture inspiration for this week comes from 1st Corinthians 9: 16 – 23. I invite you to read along in your Bibles or find it in your Pew Bible on page 1781. Here the Apostle Paul is talking about the lengths to which he will go to share the Gospel to people, to share the message of Christ to them.
1 Corinthians 9:16-23 NIV
16 Yet when I [Paul] preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.
19 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
We hear the amazing lengths that Paul is willing to take, and it could almost be intimidating. He says that he became all things to all people, and if you read the book of Acts, you can see that he really did that. He spoke to Jews. He spoke to non-Jews. He spoke to rich merchants, to destitute slaves, to his own prison guards. One thing he did not have was a closed social circle. He talked to everyone and anyone. Why? Because he knew that the message of Jesus and what He did for everyone in the world was for everyone.
Sharing the good news that God loves them, wants to be in relationship with them, and invite them into a way of living that can change the world.
In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commands us to do this too, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.
But, as I said, looking at Paul can be intimidating. He became all things to all people, but what if we looked at it in a different way. We are all uniquely and beautifully different. If we each exercised our own strengths, together we could come in contact with a wide variety of people.
The only thing is that we have to be willing and brave enough to take that first step. We have to ask ourselves. Do we want to do it? What may help us make the decision is realizing that we may be giving the single greatest gift they ever received, to someone seeking after God or who is living far from God, giving them an introduction to the God who loves them and has a purpose for their lives.
However, the idea can still seem overwhelming, but there are simple steps we can take. One is to consider how you wound up in the kingdom of God. Most often it involves someone else. Someone who took a chance and talked to you. Maybe it was several someones. I know it was in my case. Even if you were raised in the church your whole life there was a point where you had to decide for yourself if you were going to continue down this path. Maybe the person who helped you make this decision was a Sunday school teacher, a camp counselor, or someone who sat in your pew at worship.
Our best example of how to be that person, shockingly, is Jesus. Time after time in story after story we see Jesus zero in on someone in a crowd. He spots Zacchaeus in the tree, tells him to come down, and invites himself to dinner. He engages the woman at the well. It is true that she is the only one there, but he engages her in conversation, shows her that he cares about her life, accepts her as she is. Then, when she is ready, he tells her that he is the Messiah, the Savior they have all been waiting for. It’s one of the few times he is that direct about it.
And we can become the kind of people who will walk across the room just like Jesus. It is about making a friend and having conversations.
The next question is whether you ever have contact with people who are living apart from God, or do we stay in are comfortable little circle?
It is natural for us to want to hang around with people we already know. I heard a story about a man named George who came to watch his son play soccer on a little league type team. There were people from his church there, so naturally he hung around with them, and they talked. After the game, they might all go out together to get something to eat. Nothing wrong with that.
One day, George got a nudge to get out of his comfort zone and help the coach, Brian, collect the soccer balls and other equipment after the game. He could have ignored the nudge. He probably had ignored it on previous occasions, but didn’t realize it. This time he did it. He started a conversation. He continued to do this through the rest of the season. George and Brian became friends. At one point, George invited Brian to church, and here is the interesting part of the story. Brian said “no.” It was direct, and it was firm, so much so that George knew if he asked again it might jeopardize the relationship, so George left it alone, and their friendship continued for several seasons, until George’s son aged out of that soccer league.
It was sometime after that when Brian contacted George. Things were going on in his life, and he needed someone to talk to. Because George had been a friend and didn’t push an agenda, it felt safe. Eventually Brian wanted to hear how Jesus could make a change in his life.
What is the moral of the story? We have to get to know people outside our normal circle. We have to stretch a little, get out of our comfort zone. Another point of the story is that even an emphatic no doesn’t necessarily mean “no forever,” but that is not an excuse to badger someone, and you’re not being asked to do that. We are asked to be a friend and follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit. All we can do is walk to the person when the Spirit says walk and talk when the Spirit says talk. We have to remember that it is really the Spirit is doing the work, not us.
George eventually saw a result, but we may not. We might be a step in someone’s journey. I see it like a stone thrown in a pond. The ripples circle outward. We may see their effect, but we may not. Even if we don’t see it, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t one, even a dramatic one.
In 1 Corinthians 3: 6-9, Paul is talking about the effects of different teachers in the Corinthians faith development. Paul says, -“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”
In the same way, we each do our part, but in the end it all belongs to God. In a way it’s a relief because even if we don’t see the result we hope for, we know that it is in God’s hands, and God will see it through. However, that does not relieve us of the responsibility to do our part. The seed still has to be planted and watered. And who knows, the time may be right, and we may be the harvester.
The Holy Spirit is a huge part of this equation. God works through us, but the transformation is done by the Holy Spirit. We are the conduit, the vessel. It is important. It is a vital, but it is not what powers it. Think of an electrical wire or conduit and electricity. The delivery of the electricity would be impossible without the wire, but what people really need is the electricity. And, I thank God for the day I got plugged into that grid!
It starts out by making a friend, having a conversation, without any hidden agenda. It can be a conversation about everyday life. Tell them a story about your day. Ask them about their week, what they’ve enjoyed eating, reading, or watching lately. Start light and see where it goes. It helps if we have our story, the story of the difference Jesus made in our lives, like we talked about last week. Not to squeeze it in, not to force it, but to be ready if the opportunity presents itself.
It’s important to ask questions and really listen to the answers. Don’t listen in order to respond, but be fully present for them. Show that you care for them as someone who bears the image of God.
I heard an interesting idea recently, something called a “Matthew Party.” When Jesus called Matthew, the former tax collector, he went to a party with all Matthew’s tax collector friends. In Jesus day, they certainly would have been classified as being “far from God.”
The idea is to invite people who do not have God in their lives and a few Christians. It gives opportunities for conversations without people feeling intimidated or being outnumbered. This would probably be a better idea for more extroverted people.
One-on-one conversations are more comfortable for introverts. It’s important that while we stretch outside our comfort zone, we don’t try to force ourselves to be something we’re not. Unlike Paul, we don’t have to be all things to all people.
If you get the opportunity to invite someone to church, be brave. Take a shot. If they say no, it’s okay. You can tell them that the invitation remains open. I remember a time when I turned down an invitation several times, but finally I was emotionally ready. I said to myself, “Please, ask one more time.” They didn’t, and I wasn’t brave enough to go to them.
The idea is to keep it casual and light, and if you get the emphatic no, respect that, but maintain the relationship. Show that your friendship isn’t contingent on their choice.
If you invite someone and get a “yes,” consider being a sponsor. My father was in the army, and when he was stationed in Germany my mother and I went with him. One thing that they did is a match a new family with a sponsor, or a soldier or family who had been there a while and could show the new family how to get along in a new country. I don’t remember our sponsor, but I’m still friends with the family we sponsored.
In our context in the church, it’s more than saying, “Come to church at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning.” It is offering to pick them up or meet them here. It is sitting with them and introducing them to people. (I don’t think we have a problem with that.) And finally, maybe taking them to lunch after. It’s being a friend and making it easy. It can be hard to take the step through a new church door for the first time. It’s much easier if you know you have a friend on the other side.
We are heading into a time when people may be more open to the invitation. Next Sunday begins the season of Advent. It comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming.” Usually, we think of it as the coming of the baby Jesus, Christmas, and it does refer to that. But it also anticipates the return of Christ and the time he will establish his rule over all the earth.
If the Good News of Jesus Christ is that he came to rescue us from sin and death, to begin the rescue of the earth as promised, this is the rest of the promise, or as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.”
As we prepare in the church, the world that participates in Christian culture prepares also, with the buying of presents, preparing for parties, gathering friends and family around. It is a time when people are focused on Jesus whether they realize it or not. It may be the time when someone seeking or far from God is the most open to an invitation. If they are feeling alone or lonely, as many do during the holiday season, they may be waiting to see if the people who call themselves Christians will invite them to be apart, to take part, to recognize them as a person, and have someone ask them to be a part of their lives. If you feel that nudge, will you be brave? Will you take that first step and walk across the room?