Sermon: Fully Captured; Fully Alive
Scripture: Matthew 25: 31-36; 41-43
Date: September 30, 2018
For the last few weeks, we have been focusing on the value of the church that states: We value taking risks and expecting change as the Holy Spirit directs, and applying that to our personal Journey of Faith – and the riskiness of responding to Christ’s call to follow Him. And one of the ways that the path of Christ diverges from more worldly paths is in the service and mission that Christ leads His followers to. Brady and Alicia Searl, are persons who are near and dear to our hearts at St. Luke and heard that call to take some risks in their journey with Christ, and be in mission and service to the people of the world. Listen to just a small portion of their testimony about where Christ has led them.
Every time I hear a testimony like this, it reminds me of a missions conference that I attended fairly early on in my ministry in which one of the speakers posed this question to all of us who had gathered, clergy and laity alike. “What have you sacrificed to follow Jesus Christ?” Now my initial response was as a pastor I feel like I have sacrificed a lot to follow Jesus. But when I went home from the conference, I couldn’t shake that question. I don’t remember anything else about the conference, but I remember that question, mostly because I have wrestled with it nearly everyday in my journey with Christ since then. What have I really sacrificed today in order to follow Jesus? And more often than not the answer is: not much. Eugene Peterson, in his book “The Jesus Way” writes this about sacrifice: A sacrificial life is the means by which a life of faith matures. By increments a sacrificial life comes to permeate every detail of life: parenthood, marriage, friendship, work, gardening, reading a book, climbing a mountain, receiving strangers”. John Wesley, who was the founder of the Methodist movement once preached a sermon entitled “The Almost Christian” and in it he talked about, in the words of one pastor, “how many wonderful people there are in the church – people who are trying to do the right thing but whose lives have not been fully and completely captured by Jesus Christ.” And every time I read that sermon again, I hear that speaker asking “What have you sacrificed in order to follow Christ?” And I can’t help but wonder what my life would be like if I would be “fully and completely captured by Jesus Christ?” What would the church be like if all of us would be fully and completely captured by Jesus Christ?” And what is the difference between almost Christians and fully captured Christians? And where am I in that void? Am I almost Christian, or am I fully captured and so fully alive in Christ? Because after all these years of asking the question I have come to see that the gap between Almost Christian and fully captured is this place of risk taking mission and service. And so perhaps the real question is: what have I risked in order to follow Jesus?
So with that in mind consider this parable that Jesus told about separating the sheep from the goats. If we dare. Because I think there is a big difference between what Jesus meant, and what we choose to understand, in this story. We often see this as a parable of judgement. After all, it is set in the middle of a series of teachings about being ready for the end times. And Jesus clearly places it in the context of judgement day when He says that the peoples of the earth were gathered in front of God’s throne. And, we say, in separating the sheep from the goats, it becomes a story about separating the good from the bad, or the Christians from the pagans, or believers from the nonbelievers. And those of us who are in the church start thinking: “it’s good to be a sheep.” But I think that is the easy interpretation. -Dare I say the almost Christian interpretation – and what I have begun to suspect but don’t really want to admit, is that this is really a story about separating the almost Christians from the fully captured disciples. And that’s when my place as one of the sheep begins to seem a little shaky. Because my first reaction is, of course, I would be one of the sheep because Jesus if you ever came to me hungry or thirsty, or sick, I would do all that I could to take care of you. And likewise, when others come to me hungry or thirsty or sick, I would like to think I would do all that I could to take care of them. That’s the least I could do. But you see, Jesus is not looking for our least. But that’s how I’ve understood this parable. In my mind I interject the word “come” into what Jesus says. And so Jesus is saying to the sheep, “I came to you hungry and thirsty and sick and you ministered to me”. But look again. Jesus never uses the word “come”. No, He says, “I was hungry and thirsty and sick and you took care of me.” In other words, He seems to place the impetus on the sheep to know the needs that need to be met and initiating the response. The sheep don’t wait for the needy to come to them, they go out and meet them. You see, sometimes our faith is all about what we expect Jesus to do for us and for others. We come to church to be ministered to, to receive. We are looking to be blessed on our Faith Journey, rather than understanding that it’s all about being a blessing for others. The journey should not be defined by how we are served, but how we serve others. One writer says this: “Risk taking, service oriented congregations don’t talk about their seating capacity; they talk about their sending capacity. (Not how many people are coming to church but) how many people can we send out to be involved and engaged in changing other people’s lives in the name of Jesus Christ.” And the key to understanding this parable is in the response of the sheep. “When did we SEE you hungry and thirsty, Jesus?” Because you see, when we are fully captured by Jesus, we do not wait for Him to come to us with the needs. Instead we follow Him to where the needs are, whether that’s in Uganda, or the Middle East, or the prison, or the neighborhoods around the church. The sheep are blessed because they proactive, fully captured and fully engaged, anxious to meet whatever needs they encounter along the way. The goats on the other hand, love Jesus and would have certainly taken care of Him had He come to them. But the difference is in what they do for others. Goats are selfish. They are in it to be blessed. To be served. They aren’t out there looking for the needs of others. They aren’t proactive when it comes to risk taking ministry and service. Every week, in the bulletin, we publish several statistics. We measure giving and attendance and discipleship and outreach. But most of us tend to look at only two as true measures of church vitality – finances and attendance. And if we struggle in either category we begin to question the vitality of the church. And those are certainly numbers worth tracking. But , quite frankly, I am much more concerned with the outreach number then any of the others. How many hungry, thirsty, poor, broken hearted, imprisoned people are we reaching out to and impacting in the name of Jesus. We’ve got to be out there where the people in need are, not in here waiting for them to come to us. One pastor says that risk taking mission and service “is all about meeting people where they are, helping them, and then together discovering what God will do in our lives.” WHEN did we see you in need Jesus? And Jesus’ response was: When your eyes were open to the needy people all around you. What am I sacrificing to follow Jesus Christ?
A pastor tells of an incident at the 11:00 service in the church that he served. And even though they talked a lot about needing to provide worship experiences that allowed everyone to feel a part and welcome, when a young man came in, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and barefoot, he was instantly noticeable. He looked like he had come in off the street and hadn’t showered in some time and like it had been a long time since he had had a solid meal. And he walked up and down the aisles of the church, looking for an empty seat but there were none to be found. And nobody seemed willing to make room for him. Didn’t even want to make eye contact, for fear that he would want to sit next to them. And so the young man went about 2/3 of the way down the center aisle, and just sat down on the floor in the aisle. When he did that, the head usher saw him started down the center aisle. And everyone assumed that the usher was going to escort the young man back up the aisle and out of the church. But instead, when the usher reached the young man, he sat down in the aisle next to him. And they sat there on the floor, side by side, throughout the service. After the service the usher took the young man up to meet the pastor, and then invited him to come have lunch with he and his family. And finally after lunch, he took him and bought him some clothes and some shoes. Because he saw Jesus in that young man. When did we see you hungry and thirsty Jesus?
Contrast that to the story I read about a downtown church who when they arrived for worship on Sunday morning discovered that a homeless man had taken up residence on the covered front porch of the church. And as the church members made their way in for worship, no one tried to reach out to him or even invite him into worship. Instead they just crossed to the other side of the stairs and made their way into worship and prayed that he would be gone by the time that church let out. Someone needs to do something about him, many of them said. Of course, by the time the service was ready to start there was a tremendous buzz around the sanctuary, but when the service did not begin when it was supposed to, and there wasn’t any sign of the pastor, the buzz turned to silence. Finally after ten minutes had passed, their was a loud commotion in the lobby and then the sanctuary door flew open. And into the sanctuary stepped the homeless man. He looked around at the people and then he started down the aisle towards the front. And when he got down to the front, he turned around to face the congregation. He looked like he was going to speak, but instead he reached up and pulled off the ratty wig he was wearing and then the ragged beard and he took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the dirt from his face and then he removed the tattered overcoat. And the congregation recognized that the homeless man was really their pastor. And he looked at them and said, “I guess you know what we’re going to talk about this morning.” And he picked up his Bible and read Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. And they talked about the difference between being almost Christians and fully captured disciples of Jesus Christ.
You see in telling this story Jesus says that God will separate the sheep and the goats like a shepherd does and so to fully understand the story, we must understand why the shepherd would keep the sheep and goats separated. So I did a little research. And I learned that while it was not unusual for there to be both sheep and goats in the same flock, one of the shepherds main tasks was to keep them separate. And the main reason for that was to prevent the goats from leading the sheep down other paths. Because Goats are such independent creatures and prone to pick their own paths to travel. Not allow the Shepherd to lead them. However, sheep are followers. They don’t want to lead. And they aren’t particularly discriminating about who they follow. Could be the goats or the shepherd or something else.. They just need someone or something to follow. And because the goats were likely to defy or ignore the shepherd and try to go their own way, at the same time they would lead the sheep astray. And here’s the thing – the goat will always take what looks to be the easiest path, the path of least resistance, no matter where it might lead. And in the wilderness where the shepherds took the flocks to graze there were many treacherous paths that started out smooth and easy, but as those paths moved farther into the wilderness, the flash floods from the monsoonal rains makes the path ever more treacherous and uneven and some finally end in deep crevices that the water has carved out on it’s way to he valley and so many of the sheep and goats in their quest for good grazing or water to drink, paid little attention to the crevices and before they realized what they had done they would plunge to their deaths before the shepherd could redirect them. And so the Good Shepherd always knew which paths led to good grazing and water, and not to peril. But those paths were often not the easiest ones. The path of ministry and service is often full of risks as we travel into unknown and unfamiliar places, pastures and fields, often to minister with unknown people, but the Shepherd, will always lead us down the best path, not the easiest, but he will see us through. If we are willing to sacrifice and follow Him. Jesus’s invitation is to “come and follow me on the path to the kingdom that the Father has been preparing for you since the moment of creation.”
You see, what I have come to understand as I have wrestled with this question of What I have sacrificed to follow Christ, is that sacrifice is not really about what we do from time to time but rather how we live our lives always. Ken Carter writes: What we need to understand is that true sacrifice is less about giving up something for something else, and more about elevating or lifting up our lives, our relationships, and our resources to God and loving Him by loving others. Fully captive of Christ and Fully alive in Him. You know, we often talk about the end of Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus tells the disciples to go to the ends of the earth to make disciples – as the great commission. And it is. But what we sometimes don’t think about is that there is a commissioning at the end of John’s gospel too – when on the shores of the lake, the post resurrection Jesus joins the Disciples for breakfast after they had spent the night fishing with little success. And after the meal Jesus finds Peter alone and asks him whether he loves Him. And when Peter says, “Yes Lord, surely you know that.” And Jesus says, “Prove your love Peter. Feed my sheep.” I suspect in the final analysis the difference between the sheep and the goats, between fully captured, fully alive disciples and almost Christians is not so much who loves Jesus. I think they both love Him. No I think the difference is in who is willing to risk proving their love for Jesus in mission and service of others. What are you willing to sacrifice to prove your love for Christ today? Risking for Christ in the world, is the difference between the sheep and the goats. It’s the difference between Almost Christians and Fully captured, fully alive disciples of Christ. And so at the end of the day, when God separates the sheep and the goats, which side are you going to be on.