The Mission Week Three: "Sowing The Seeds of Love"

This week we are continuing the sermon series, "The Mission: Living the Christian Life--Like a Christian."  Each week during this series we're wrestling with a question that has plagued Christians for centuries, "Jesus is Risen---Now What?"

Our focus today is on love, which I am sure we all can agree is a fairly important aspect of the Christian life.  At least we would like to think we would all agree on this.  More on that later.  But first, I must embarrass myself.

This is my Senior photo from 1986:

Yeah.  That happened.  Here's the most awesome part---I still have that tie.

It's photos like this that beg the question, "What was I thinking?"

Funnily enough... I actually can tell you what I was thinking about a few things:  I was thinking that Van Halen was not nearly as good without David Lee Roth.  I was also thinking that I wanted to be a writer one day.  I thought that parachute pants were fairly awesome when worn with a bandanna around the leg.

And I couldn't wait until I graduated from high school so I would never have to set foot in a church---ever again.

Yeah, that last one sort of snuck into my recollections like a big old stink bomb.  Sadly, it was true.  You might very well wonder why this was the case.  It was pretty simple.  I thought church was boring, irrelevant and full of Christians.

What I heard at church was statements like these:  "You're no good---you need to get right with God."  "Don't ask questions, people who ask questions don't have any faith."  "If you don't believe this way--the way we believe--you're wrong."  "You're going to hell if you listen to rock and roll, have a beer, go to "R" rated movies, smoke, watch Benny Hill, have an earring (if you're a guy) or have earrings that are too big, and britches that are too small (if you're a girl)."

I can't even count the number of times that I heard someone begin their criticism of everyone who didn't agree with them: "But the Bible says...."  or "Those people over there are not like us... so don't hang out with them."

Maybe you have had similar experiences.

I heard the story of a pastor who was a guest preacher at a church, and was standing at the entrance with one of the church elders when a visitor walked in.  She was a young woman dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.  It was her first time darkening the doors of the church, and the guest preacher welcomed her warmly.  The elder quickly walked over to her and said, "That's not the way we dress when we come to church.  Show some respect."  Needless to say, she turned around and left.

Awesome sauce.

I was thinking this week about all of the similar stories I have heard and experienced first-hand in church-y world when I realized something pretty profound.

You see our culture measures worth in ways that aren't at all helpful.  Think about it.  What does our culture tell us about our worth?  If you are rich, good-looking, young, successful, witty, well-dressed, connected.... then your worth is measured off the charts.  If you are none of these things---then not so much.

From an early age we are subjected to  thousands of images each day as to the types of people who are afforded worth in our culture.  Almost none of us measure up, to be honest.

Which leads me to this very important question:  "In light of this sobering fact... How do we really see ourselves?"

This video may shed some light on this for us:

If you did not get choked up watching that video---I don't know what to do for you my friend.

Let's recap what we just saw.  These people were brought to a forensic artist who did not look at them, and who drew a portrait of them based on their own descriptions.  Then he drew a portrait of them based on the descriptions of the person they spent the day getting to know.  Someone they had just met.  The portraits they described were harsh, ugly, stern, severe.... you name it.  The portraits described by the other person were not.  The second set of portraits uncannily resembled them as they actually were, and even made them look--awesome.  Described through eyes of others...

Here's the thing, our culture does a good enough job of teaching you that you are less than, not good enough, not smart enough, rich enough, happy enough, fulfilled enough, successful enough...  

So what happens when the Church just reinforces what you already believe about yourself---that you are not good enough, that you are less than...? What happens when the people inside the Church can't seem to even affirm and love each other, much less the rest of the world?

Maybe what happens is you find yourself getting angry, pushing back, leaving... Some of us are so hurt, in fact, that we decide not just to walk away from the Church, but to walk away from God, too.

After all that I have learned about Jesus, I have to think that this is absolutely not at all what he had in mind for his followers.

At the end of Acts chapter 2 we have this amazing portrait of the first church, which wasn't even really known by the name "church."  It was a fast-growing group of people led by the disciples of Jesus who all seemed to be in love with one another and with God.

There was an infectious joy that pervaded the early Christian gatherings---the kind of joy, the kind of authentic joy that could only come from transformed lives.  And these early Christians had a story to tell about just how their lives had been transformed---a story that people wanted so desperately to hear.

I think there is a message for us in their story.  I don't want to romanticize the early Church, not by a long shot.  The early Christians had their problems just like we do.  It didn't take long before they were arguing amongst themselves about who had the right beliefs--who was in and who was out... but here in Acts 2 we get a glimpse of something special.

As we study Acts chapter 2 today I want us to remember this one very important thing that I believe these early Christians were living off of like fuel for their souls:  Genuine Christian love is open-handed and open-hearted.

Let's read:
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
What can we learn about these first Christians from such a short passage of Scripture?  A lot as it turns out.

First, they were devoted to learning.  In verse 42 it says that "they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer."  I'm not sure how that sounds to you, but to me that sounds a lot like church---only it couldn't be church (you might be thinking) because they seemed to enjoy it and were devoted to it.

Listen, I've been to plenty of churches that were very proud of the fact that they "taught the Bible."  The only problem is they taught the Bible in such a boring fashion---NO ONE really enjoyed it.  On the other hand, I've also been to churches that added a sermon into their dance party as an afterthought.  What we see here in Acts is a group of people devoted to learning, worshipping and doing life together, which is beautiful and wonderful when everything is balanced.

Which leads to the second thing we learn about these first Christians:  They were devoted to wonder.  I love what the passage here doesn't say.  It doesn't say they devoted themselves to making sure their doctrines were solid.  It doesn't say they devoted themselves to ensuring their membership requirements were outlined and published so everyone would know what they were against.  It does say that they were filled with awe, eyes wide-open to the incredible things that God was doing in the middle of everything.

We also see that they were devoted to holy fellowship, what the writer of Acts called koinonia. This kind of fellowship isn't just coffee after church, or a potluck dinner--although both of those things can happen within koinonia.  Koinonia is a sign of the very kingdom of God.  It's the kind of fellowship that happens when Jesus wrecks the lives of a bunch of people who on their own wouldn't do a whole lot to change the world--but when they are together... now that's a different story.  These early Christians loved one another--they shared a common heartbeat.  These early Christians made sure that no one went hungry, everyone had enough money to pay their bills---they shared things "in common."  They weren't exactly a hippie commune, but they were close.

They actually believed what Jesus taught them about the kingdom of God breaking through "here on earth as it is in heaven."

We also learn that the early Christians were devoted to joyful worship.  Their approach to worship is described as "glad and sincere."  Another way to say this is, "joyful and authentic."  Yet another way to describe this is, "happy and heartfelt."  I think you might be getting the picture by now.  But here's a question for you... do any of these phrases describe what happens every week in churches all across America?  I have attended church services that were so dry, so devoid of life that I could actually feel my skin cracking from the lack of moisture in the air.  I can't back that up, actually.  I've also attended church services that were so rehearsed, so dramatic that it felt like I was attending a performance.

These early Christians were just absolutely filled with joy because of what Jesus had done and was doing in their midst, and their authentic expressions of that joy were contagious.  Listen, it's not wrong to have traditions, to be respectful in worship.  But it's an absolute sin to be joyless.  It's not wrong to laugh, clap and celebrate in church.  But it's so wrong to be inauthentic and shallow.

Finally, we learn that the early Christians were devoted to sharing their faith with an open-handed and open-hearted witness.  The key phrase that alerts us to this is the "enjoyed the favor of all the people."  People saw their joy.  They saw the way they treated one another.  They saw the evidence of transformed lives. And they wanted to know more.

If you asked the average person on the street today if they would associate love, peace, joy, forgiveness and hope with Christians--what would they say?  Chances are they wouldn't use any of those words to describe Christians or the Church.  More likely they would use words like, "intolerant, bigoted, angry, homophobic, hypocritical, prejudiced...."

But these early Christians found favor with all the people.... there was just something different about them.  The story they were telling was beautiful--expansive--life-changing--life-giving....

When I attended Florida State University there was a traveling evangelist named Brother Jed, who would come to the campus a couple of times a year.   Brother Jed's message was simple.  Pretty much everyone on your campus was going to hell.  Here's a photo of Brother Jed holding one of his signs:

Yep. It says, "You deserve hell."  That one is actually tame compared to most of the ones I saw.  There was this one day when I was walking to class with some classmates--none of whom happened to be Christians.  We came upon a Brother Jed event, and there was a guy holding a sign next to him while he preached.  The sign was an acronym.  It read: G.A.Y.? and the "g" "a" and "y" helped spell the words, "God Aids Yet?" 

One of my classmates blurted out something like, "Aren't Christians ridiculous?  Why do they hate everyone?"  She looked at me, realizing that I was the one member of the group who was not only a Christian, but who worked at a church.  "Sorry," she said lamely.  I told her that even though I was a Christian, I thought Brother Jed was a huge tool.  Still.  It bothered me.  A lot.  

Once my wife was at a local Books-A-Million store buying a book.  A man burst into the story angrily and stormed to the counter.  He demanded to know if the bookstore carried a certain book that had attracted a lot of negative attention in some Christian circles because a lot of people who hadn't really read it assumed it said a lot of things that it didn't say.  

At any rate, the man demanded to know if the bookstore carried it. He was a member of a large Southern Baptist church (which shall remain nameless) and the man's pastor had claimed the author of the book was a heretic.  When he was told the book was not in stock he stormed out.  

"I should have known he was a Christian." the clerk said to my wife once the man was gone.  

There's this old hymn that goes something like this:  "They will know we are Christians by our love...."  Unfortunately, most church-y, Christian-y people think that's a good idea in theory, but in practice prefer to let people know they are Christians by their bumper stickers.... t-shirts.... really, really awesome doctrine.... traditions.....  

And in so doing, Christians keep right on telling everyone outside of the Church (and more than a few within it) that our culture is actually right about them.  They are no good.  They are less than.  They don't get it.  They are wrong.  They are sinful, bad, unholy, imperfect, too broken, too messed up and not at all right.  

It doesn't have to be this way.  You know that, right?

What if we simply told the world a better story?  What if---and this is really huge if we could figure this out---What if we actually shared with people just how much God loves them?  

What if we let people know how God sees them---and how beautiful, and full of potential and creativity and awesomeness they really are?  What if we shared with them that to be a Jesus-follower means that you stumble after him the best you can, always stumbling in the right direction... in his footsteps?  What if we told them that God wants nothing more for them than the very best---what Jesus called an "abundant life."  

What if we told them that instead of insisting they try harder to get on God's good side, they simply need to realize that God has been on their side the whole time?  What if we told them that being broken, messed up, not good enough, less than and all of the rest of it is actually a pretty good resume in the kingdom of God.  Because God loves the broken, adores the messed up, and is passionate about using the not good enough and less than----to change the world. 

And in a culture where people are constantly hearing how they don't measure up, don't really matter... wouldn't the voices speaking those words of encouragement be the ones they might want to listen to?  

And what if we---those of us who are actually foolish enough to call ourselves followers of Jesus--what if we did this.... by actually starting with ourselves... right here, right now?  

What if we actually loved.... each other?  Regardless of what kind of worship we prefer over someone else's preferences... Or how we dress when we come to church as opposed to the way someone else dresses.... Or whether our way of interpreting that one particular Scripture is different than the way those other people from that other church interpret it?  

What if we actually loved.... each other?  
And what if.... what if... we loved the world, and the people in it, instead of fearing them, avoiding them, or condemning them?

Maybe then people would see us and then say---"I should have known he was a Christian.... I should have known she was a Christian..... I should have known because of the way.... they.... love."  

Because genuine Christian love is open-handed and open-hearted.  

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