The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 11, 2016
At its best the church is something beautiful: the body of Christ carrying forward His mission and sounding out the sweet music of His gospel.
But in its day-to-day reality the church often is not that beautiful. Even church members understand why some rail against its inconsistency, hypocrisy and mangling of the music of Christ’s good news.
Earl Palmer, the long-term pastor of First Presbyterian in Berkeley, was on target when he once compared the church to a bad high school orchestra.
Earl had just attended an underfunded local school’s attempt at Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The result, he said, was appalling. He imagined the master rolling over in his grave despite his deafness.
Apart from what it does for the students, why then have the concert? Why inflict on anyone that terrible injustice to Beethoven’s magnificent music? Because those struggling young musicians, despite their shortcomings, still give some audience members their first intimation of the greatness of Beethoven’s music. Though very imperfectly, those faltering beginners blessed folks with a sense of the marvel of his message.
The only way some people will gain a sense of the music of Christ’s gospel is through the church, the spiritual equivalent of the worst “high school orchestra” ever. But God is determined to trade the perfection of His performing the gospel music solo for the possibility of His playing it improvisationally, like a Miles Davis jazz genius, with poor screechy saxophone accompanists like us.
Even a poor performance of the loveliest music of all is better than silence. Once when a woman angrily confronted the great evangelist Dwight Moody and told him she didn’t like the way he shared the gospel, he admitted he could do it better and asked her how she did it. When she sniffed and said she didn’t care to do that kind of thing, he quietly replied, “Well, then, I guess I like my way better than yours.”
Truly the good news of Jesus is too good to keep to ourselves! But how can those of us who are neither preachers nor evangelists share it? We can be like Andrew who, upon meeting Jesus, thought Peter and Jesus would hit it off, and immediately arranged for them to meet in the hope that they’d take to each other.
I’m betting that almost all of us have at some time or other played matchmaker – if not for romance, then for friendship. It is natural for us to think that two people we like would like each other and to try to create an opportunity for them to get to know each other in hopes of their striking up a friendship. So we invite them both over to our house for dinner, or we take them both to a ball game or a shopping excursion. We just put them together and see what happens.
In the same way we can match-make for a friendship between Christ and someone about whom we care. We just put them together and see what happens. We bring a neighbor, friend or family member to worship, a Bible study, a fellowship event or a service project, anywhere we think they might bump into Jesus – and see whether the two of them hit it off.
Of course, since the presence of Jesus can be missed in a way that the presence of a mere mortal cannot, we often need to talk with our guest about who Jesus is, how He shows up, and why they might want to meet Him.
Naturally, we don’t want to make a sales pitch or manipulate the conversation so that we can put in a word for the Lord. As a result, some of us like to say, “I don’t use words to share the gospel; I let my deeds do all the talking.” The only problem with that approach is that our deeds may be taken in the wrong way, and misrepresent both who Jesus is and what His good news is proclaiming. Suppose you have a neighbor whom you’d like to introduce to Jesus. You warmly greet him every time you see him on the street or in your building. You invite him over for dinner and show him kind hospitality, no strings attached. When he has computer problems, you give your time to fix them. When he asks to borrow your tools, you loan them to him without question; and, when he breaks one, you don’t complain or ask him to replace it. You show him unconditional love like the love Christ has for you.
That’s all really good, but there’s a question to ask: what message has he heard from your deeds? It may well be that the message he hears from your action is that a Christian is very active and generous in doing good for others. Now, you certainly prefer that he think that than otherwise; but, if that’s the only message he’s received, he’s learned more about you than he has about Christ and perhaps concluded that Christ is only for the best people. The theological conclusion he’s drawn is perhaps one of justification by works: that Christians get things right by doing a lot – when in fact Christ’s message is that anyone can get things right by doing nothing but trusting Him to have done it all for them. In other words, your deeds may have “preached” something; but it isn’t the good news of Jesus: that God is gratuitously and extravagant kind even to the worst of us.
If we hope to help others see Jesus and hear His good news, and eventually strike up a friendship with Him, there has to be something different about us; but we have to speak up and make it clear any difference in us comes about, not because of who we are and what we do, but because of who Jesus is and what He does.
So, if we need to speak up, how do we do that in a way that is not off-putting but in fact encouraging of people’s checking Jesus out and perhaps trying Him on for size as a friend?
Maybe we can learn something from how Amazon shoppers are persuaded to try a product they’ve never tried before.
Imagine some people going on online to search for work socks. They come across a new brand with which they are unfamiliar. The company claims its socks provide both unsurpassed durability and cushioning. The shoppers don’t know what to think, because they know how companies exaggerate product qualities.
So they look for customer reviews. If Wayne from Oklahoma posts, “These socks are good looking, wear like iron, and have great padding,” D.D. from Dallas testifies, “I can’t believe how comfortable these socks are. I can wear them all day,” and so on, shoppers grow willing to buy a pair to see if they work well for them too.
Customer reviews used to be called “testimonials”. Whatever they’re called, nothing so encourages people to give something new a try as personal stories about how it positively impacts the lives of others.
Our purpose is to encourage people to give Jesus a try. Let us share our customer reviews of how Christ has positively impacted our lives and invite others to join us in activities in which we think they might catch a glimpse of who He is and hear something of His good news. We will do it as imperfectly as a bad high school orchestra, but we are the best matchmakers God has. Let us pray.