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For the Sake of the Gospel

08 Feb

ephesians(a sermon for February 8, 2015, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 and Mark 1:29-39)

The old farmer and his wife had been married for 40 years; and on the morning of their wedding anniversary they’re sitting across the breakfast table from one another. It should be a special moment; but in fact what’s happening is that the wife is getting more and more agitated with her husband, who is totally oblivious to her frustrations; doing what he’s done most every morning for the past 40 years, which is burying his nose in the morning paper. She’s determined to get his attention, however; and as she pours him another cup of coffee, she says, “Virgil, I want to ask you something.” But the man doesn’t even put down his paper; he just sort of mumbles something like, “Hmmmm?”

“VIRGIL!” she says again, “Can I talk to you?” and still behind the paper, he replies, albeit with a bit of a tone in his voice, “If you’ve got something to say, Clarice, just spit it out!” And so she does, a bit more sweetly: “Virgil, it’s just that given it’s our anniversary and all, I was just wondering if you still love me.” Now the newspaper is slammed to the table, and Virgil shouts, “Woman, when we got married 40 years ago I told you that I loved you! If I ever change my mind, you’ll be the first to know!”

Now there’s a romantic heart for you!

Therein lay something that I think most of us understand: that it is in the telling that the important truths of life are made real. If that husband had not actually spoken to his wife about how he loved her in 40 years (!), why wouldn’t she start to wonder! It’s like I tell every couple who stand before me on their wedding day; that one of the keys to a strong marriage is that you need to say “I love you” every day, and then live with each other in a way that says you mean it! Likewise, children learn to express love as adults because, first, they had love expressed to them by parents and family members and others. To put this another way, when we share the love that’s inside of us with the ones we love, those relationships — and indeed, our very lives — cannot help but be enriched and deepened because of the sharing!

The difficulty, however; as illustrated by that old farmer, is that there are so many of us who are reluctant and sometimes even unwilling to share! Maybe it’s fear that holds us back; the need to protect ourselves from getting hurt if we risk too much of ourselves. Perhaps it’s the old story of head versus heart; what happens when love runs headlong into logic, resulting in nothing but complication. Or maybe we’re just talking human nature here; but the end result is a lack of positive communication that can be as detrimental to relationships as the act of sharing can be beneficial! In fact, I would suggest to you that so many of the problems we have personally, culturally and even faith-fully end up having to do on some level with our difficulty to share with others what we know, in our heart of hearts, to be true!

There’s a man by the name of Colin Wong was for many years a developer at Google and who is considered an expert on what’s referred to as “social networking;” you know, things online like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the rest of it. Wong, who happens to be a devout Christian, actually has been working on ways to bring Christian community into this kind of realm; but one of the challenges to this is that despite what we might think, not everybody actually “shares” on the internet! It’s true; Wong writes that what they’ve discovered in their research is that only one out of ten people consume information online and then share it with others, while the other nine tend to gather up whatever information they can without sharing it at all; basically they tuck it away somewhere for their own private use down the line. To put it another way, at least where the internet is concerned, 90% of us are natural consumers, but only 10% of us are natural sharers.

That in and of itself is pretty interesting, but Wong takes this idea a little bit further, suggesting that much the same thing can be said about our spiritual life: that is, in how we receive and share our faith in God; which is to say that 90% of us are by nature spiritual consumers, but only 10% are what might be considered spiritual sharers. Now, that’s really interesting ,and also a little disturbing. Think for a moment about what that suggests: what it says is the vast majority of us who would call ourselves Christian do not naturally share the love of Christ with others, or easily communicate the benefits of being part of the body of Christ! In other words, there are so many blessings that come to us by virtue of our faith — the knowledge of Jesus’ love; the experience of his grace; mercy and forgiveness; the comfort and care of his presence — that have been largely kept to ourselves rather than having been proclaimed to a world sorely in need of it.

And that, I dare say, is missing the point entirely.

One of the things that really struck me about our reading from 1 Corinthians this morning is the incredible enthusiasm and utter passion of Paul’s words in this part of his epistle: you can almost picture him writing as fast as he possibly could but still not being able to get the words down on paper fast enough! And this is because he’s talking to these Christians at Corinth about that which matters to him the most; this driving motivation he has for proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ! What Paul makes clear here is that this is not something he takes lightly or approaches casually; it’s because he feels an obligation has been laid on to him, and, he says, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (Or, as the Message translates it, “I’m compelled to do it, and doomed if I don’t!”)

For Paul, you see, it’s not about the “ground [he has] for boasting;” it’s not about any special knowledge he possesses, nor any power inherent in his leadership. It’s about the gospel; the imperative that the good news of Jesus Christ be shared. Paul was spiritually compelled and utterly convinced that he needed to share the gospel far and wide, and by any means possible!

That’s why he says here that “to those under the law I became as one under the law” — that is, speaking with and to those of the Jewish faith, those whose faith and tradition was girded on the law and prophets — “that I might win those under the law.” And yes, Paul goes on to say, to “those outside the law I became as one outside the law.” The Message gets a bit more technical on this point: “I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized – whoever.” It’s becoming “all things to all people,” but not in the sense of watering down faith and conviction to nothing at all; but rather doing it “for the sake of the gospel,” assuring that the blessings of this good news are shared. Or, to quote the Message one more time, “I did all this because of the [gospel]. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!”

Friends, I would submit to you this morning that you and I could take a lesson from that, and further, that that’s just the kind of spirit and passion that is so often lacking in the church today. In an era and culture where the church is regarded by many to be self-isolated and elitist, judgmental of others who are “different,” and utterly out of touch with the real world, it has become crucial for us to remember that the good news we espouse in this place is not meant to be exclusively ours to be hoarded, or worse, regarded as something that somehow makes us “better” than everybody else “out there,” but rather needs to be thought of as a gift – a divine and holy blessing – that is meant to be shared, boldly and expressively in as many ways as we can to as many people as possible.

And that applies whether we’re walking through this life as latter day apostles, or whether our ministries happen to be in some other capacity (because don’t forget, as I’ve been saying a lot from this pulpit as of late we’re all ministers in this place!). We are here, first and foremost, for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Savior. We are here to seek out the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit as to ways we ought to move forward, and to be empowered and emboldened to proclaim that good news to the world.

Ultimately, you see, where this ministry thing is concerned; it’s not about us. Don’t misunderstand me, here: certainly, in Christ, we are redeemed, restored, and refreshed for new life, and for this we give our thanks and praise unto God; it’s the central piece of our worship together. But there’s more; we are never meant to merely receive; to simply bask in the ease of this new life we’re given; it’s a life that we are meant to bring to others in Christ’s name, and to do so, as we like to say these days, “in real time.”

That’s kind of what appeals to me about Mark’s gospel, and in particular, our reading this morning from the first chapter; it’s quick and immediate, and what’s clear is that no sooner than Jesus is baptized and has called his first disciples, he’s out there amongst the people; healing the sick, casting out demons and attracting throngs of people who are hungering to know more about this man Jesus and this incredible message of life that he’d come to proclaim. In fact, it’s all happening so quickly “in real time” that early one morning, even as Jesus has retreated to a time of prayer, Simon and the other disciples hunt him down to let him know that “everyone” was searching for him, the implied question, of course, being, “OK, Jesus… all these people have showed up, so now what are we supposed to do?” And how does Jesus answer this? In words that not only set the pace for the whole of Jesus’ ministry, but also by extention, ours, he says simply, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

That’s what I came out to do, says Jesus, and indeed, that’s what you and I are called out to do as well. And trust me here; it’s a task that is multi-facet, and which presents a great many possibilities for growth and sharing… and it’s job that’s never ever really done. I ask you, beloved, what opportunities have you had “on the job” to do what can be done, what should be done for the sake of the gospel? What kind word have you spoken to give encouragement to someone in need; what gesture of hospitality or affirmation or acceptance did you offer to another person who just perennially seems to be standing on the outside looking in; when was it this week that for you, an attitude of compassion and understanding overcame a much more tempting response of impatience and anger; and when were you moved, perhaps even despite your own fears or misgivings, to step up boldly and stand for what is right, and good, and healing? What were the moments that whether or not you even realized it or not at the time, your faith and everything that makes it real for you, suddenly came front and center? For inherent in every one one of these actions, and so many others that make up the business of daily life, is the sharing of divine blessing; it is the proclamation of the gospel in ways that go beyond mere words.

We are called to follow Jesus, beloved, as his disciples; to make our choices, to set our standards, to plan our course, and then to walk on our way as Jesus would walk. It may not be the easiest of ways – in fact, I can personally guarantee you that it will not be – but when we make the commitment to do all of what we do for the sake of the gospel, we will most definitely share in its blessings with so many others who so greatly yearn for the good news of a living Savior. For the sake the gospel, our lives will truly touch more hearts than we can possibly know.

May the Lord bless and keep us in this ministry we share.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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