Leading others to Christ

street By Joe LaGuardia

I can’t remember the first time someone with an over-zealous type of faith asked me how many people I have led to Christ.  It’s an old evangelist question with the main concern of leading non-believers to the saving knowledge and relationship with Jesus.

It’s a question that asks how many notches we have in our war-against-sin belt, one that puts us on the spot and assumes we are actively asking others to make that decision of faith wherever we go.

Around these parts, its hard to find people who don’t believe in Jesus.  And if its difficult to find or befriend a non-believer, then there is a chance that the answer to said question is “not very many, I’m afraid.”

This was the case when I was a young Christian and first asked this question. At the encouragement of my church, I put distance between my non-believing friends and me when I made a decision to follow Christ.   It lessened my chances of being tempted to make any unwise and immoral actions, but it also decreased my exposure to those very people I needed to “lead to Christ.”

That brought a great deal of guilt.  I thought that I needed to lead many to Christ in order to be a good Christian.

I found out later that I wasn’t alone in that sentiment.

Over the years, I still think about how to lead people to Christ and be intentional about sharing the gospel, but my feelings have changed. Now, when I think about leading people to Christ, it no longer means confronting people with a snap decision on the street corner or in the supermarket.  The meaning of that phrase has expanded.

There are as many ways to lead people to Christ as there are ways to meet people.  And just as the Bible has four gospels to tell the single story of Jesus Christ in different ways, we too need a variety of ways of introducing people to Jesus.

Leading people to Christ does not have to be confrontational.  In fact, it can happen as a result of quiet fortitude in the face of crisis.

Nor does it have to be systematic, as if following Christ is merely the result of finding the correct answer to an equation (or the right words to say in a prayer).

Leading people to Christ can happen in the midst of conversation over coffee or at supper, at the ballpark with a group of people who aren’t all Christians, or at the business conference among peers and colleagues.

Most often, leading others to Christ happens over a long period of time.  It usually happens because we live the life of a Christ-follower, and we show others how to follow Christ too. We lead by example, and sometimes the only gospel you need to preach is the life you live.

We like to think of “leading people to Christ” as some grand, climactic confrontation in which a lost soul is saved miraculously, in the midst of a chance encounter. I’ve seen that happen before, but the “leader” who tries to evangelize others in this manner runs the risk of grandstanding instead.

Leadership happens all the time in the quiet and mundane routine of our daily lives.  It happens when we least expect it. And, yes–when someone decides to call Christ Lord, it is miraculous–but it is a major decision that needs to be sustainable by a life-long commitment to seek God and God’s righteousness.

Following Christ is being a disciples of Christ, for as Jesus said, “”Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me . . . and those who lose their life for my sake find it” (Matthew 10:38, 39).

That’s more than a decision; that goes to the heart of conversion.

God’s many gifts of grace

christmas-presents

By Joe LaGuardia

My father was what you might call an armchair theologian.  An armchair theologian is someone who knows a lot about life and just enough about the Bible to give some decent advice.  Most of the time.

For instance, when I was a child and I used to watch Star Trek with him, I’d ask, “Dad, are aliens real?”

He would often respond one of two ways.  One way was to say, “Stop asking questions, and watch the TV.”  The second way was, “Well, if they do and they visit us, they better know the Bible and Jesus.”

I asked him that same question years later when I was in high school.  I got the same answer:  The Bible and Jesus.  Two staples of my father’s life.

One of the greatest lessons he taught me, however, revolved around grace.

When my wife and I were first married, we were still in college and needed to borrow money now and then.   My parents were generous with their loans, and we’d always pay them back in a timely fashion, although paying them back was somewhat of an adventure.

“Dad, how much do I owe you?”, I’d ask; and he would respond (every time), “A million dollars.”

I’d chide him, and he’d explain: “You owe a million dollars because that’s how much you’ve borrowed since you were born.”

Dad would think about it for a minute as I grew restless with his answer, and then it was his turn to ask a question, “Wait a minute.  How old are you?”

I was in my twenties when these conversations happened, so I’d answer in kind to which he’d respond more forcefully, “In that case you owe me two million dollars.  A million dollars every ten years.”

A few minutes went by and then that great lesson of grace would follow as he’d say something like, “Just give me $300.00 and we’ll call it even.”

It didn’t matter how much I owed him.  It could have been $300.00 for plane tickets to New York or $500.00 to help with a rent payment.  It would always be a ballpark figure of $300.00.  That was grace.

And that was my father.  Now, just imagine how much grace our Father in heaven has when he cancelled all our debts when he sent His son to die for our sins.

Here we are, growing in our indebtedness by the sins we commit, and Jesus died so that we can be free from the penalties of that which would otherwise put us in over our heads.

The Christmas story is, if nothing else, a story of God’s many gifts of grace to us.  Sure, Jesus died for our sins, but the grace did not begin there.

God’s grace began so long ago when God did not give up on humankind, but instead made a covenant with humankind to ultimately save humans from themselves.

That covenant reached its apex when God visited a humble, peasant family in Nazareth some 2000 years ago.  This family was not made of money.  They didn’t live in a big city.

Yet, God chose this family–Joseph and Mary–to bear the very gift who embodied the very reign of God on earth:  Jesus, whose kingdom and mercy has no end (Luke 1:33).

Joseph and Mary recognized this gift for what it was, and they knew that this gift of grace would turn the whole world upside down.  That gift would empower the powerless with God’s favor, scatter the proud, transcend the rising and falling of empires and nations, and “fill the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:46-55).

This Christmas, when we give and receive so many gifts with loved ones, let us not forget the many gifts of grace that God has given us.  They are gifts that span the biblical record, a gift that came in the person of Jesus Christ, and the many gifts that are still available today to those who call Jesus Lord and Savior.

The Worshiping Church: An Epiphany Sermon

Wise-Men-01Text: Matthew 2:1-12

I.

What does it mean to be Christ’s Church? 

Some churches are defined by the families who make up the congregation.  One story is of a church made up of the Tate family.

Dick Tate was the patriarch of the family and had been a deacon for as long as anyone could remember.  He tried to tell everyone else what to do.  Dick had a brother, Row, who was just as strong-headed and tried to change everything every week. 

Dick had a wife, Agi. Together Dick and Agi had a daughter, Ira. 

Then there was the extended family.  Cousins Hesi always gave reasons why every new project was a bad idea, much to the chagrin of his brother Facili, who was rather good at administration.

Then you have the spiritual ones like Medi, who stayed in prayer all day long, and the hostile one, Ampu, who ended up leaving the church altogether.

And so you have all of the players of church trying to be and do the church, and all kinds of personalities that make up the stew that is the Body of Christ.   

But seriously folks, what does it mean to be Christ’s Church?

It was theologian Carmello Avarez who said of Christmas: “The birth of Jesus is an incarnational event that involved the daily experiences of simple and humble people who are transformed into chosen vessels of God’s purpose and blessing.”*

Over the next few weeks, we are going to look at different ways to be Christ’s Church, to be vessels of purpose and blessing.  Some of this may be familiar to you, but I think that we all need reminding of what it means to be the Body of Christ—especially now that the New Year is upon us and some much-needed resolutions are in order.

So, today, let’s resolve to be a “worshiping church.”

II.

Let’s start with a group of fellows who made it their business to look up at the stars and follow God’s paintbrush across the heavens in order to anticipate and await God’s coming Messiah upon earth.

We sometimes call them kings, especially in our hymnody, but really, this group is made up of various scientists of old—simple and humble men like you and me–who made a decision to let reason and knowledge fade into the background in exchange for faith and obedience to a Savior, a Savior that was lord over all that they studied and tried to master in the first place: 

Hear the words of Matthew 2:1-2:

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

I go for walks at night sometimes.  Since Middle School, I cherish clear skies because I am amateur astronomer of sorts.  I can recognize constellations and tell you about this or that if you care, but I especially like the autumnal and winter skies because of how clear and fresh the sky looks, how bright and near those stars above us appear. 

Go out just after sunset on a clear sky during this time, and you will catch a glimpse of my favorite star on the western horizon.  It’s the brightest star and the first to say hello because its not a star at all, but the planet Venus. 

Venus is named after the Greek goddess of love and this planet is called Venus because of all the heavenly bodies in the sky, it is the prettiest. 

On my walks, I start out looking at the sky as a wanna-be scientist.  I get my bearings and recall all of the knowledge I learned in school, but then as soon as I spot Venus or Mars or Jupiter, my senses give way to wonder and awe.

I occasionally have an epiphany and realize just how small and how infinitesimal my life—our planet—really is and just how big God is.

I am reminded of the words of Albert Eisntein who said that “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical.  It is the source of all true art and science.”

The place where our knowledge and reason ends and our awareness of God’s presence and mystery and love and grandeur begins is the very place in which worship erupts. 

That’s how I think it was for these wise friends in our lesson today—They had a professional occupation to study the stars and determine God’s movement in history, but they had to gain the awareness that when God did move, they had to step outside of their occupation and venture forth through the wilderness in faith, reaching back to God with arms spread towards the very heavens they studied: 

A worshiping church is a community of spiritual friends who are always looking for God’s movement, always willing to step out in faith, and always eager to respond to God rather than be content with just sharing  knowledge about God.

III.

A community of spiritual friends!  Did you know that spiritual friendship is actually a historic part of Christ’s Church and dates all the way back to the third and fourth centuries?

Whereas friends share information about the weather or hobbies, spiritual friends are intentional in joining God in a rhythm of faith that sees all of life as one lived in glory to God and God alone.  

Questions among spiritual friends are different than those posed between regular friends.  Spiritual friends ask questions such as these:

  • How are you doing spiritually?  I mean, really, how are you doing?
  •  How are you experiencing God this week?
  •  How have you responded to God this week?
  • What new ways of worship can we join in together as a response to God?
  •   How can I pray for you this week?

When these wise spiritual friends in Matthew “observe” God’s star, they do it together and they respond together.  They respond in faith, they share their faith, they find joy in their faith—together.

IV.

What about the next verse: Matthew 2:3–

“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”

There was once a newly-wedded couple going through a hard time in their marriage, and sought the advice of the minister who performed the wedding.  They were nominal Christians, the type who went to church a few times a year, mostly holidays.

They sat down with the minister and the wife started telling her—the minister—how she felt a need to attend church and study her Bible more.  She just had that gut feeling that God was tugging on her heart, wanting more from her—a commitment followed by real obedience.   Yet, whenever she brought this up to her husband, her husband responded negatively and with sarcasm.

Even there in the little room the church used for counseling, as the wife told the minister her issues, the minister could sense the husband fidgeting in his seat.  She followed up with a question to the husband of how he felt about his wife’s need for a deeper commitment to her faith.

The husband was not necessarily angry or upset; he was simply anxious that she wanted something more than she had wanted him.  The minister sensed that he felt threatened by his wife’s new-found calling.

The call to follow God and to give God glory rather than seek our own glory is threatening to a world who does not understand the rigors and sacrifice required of us Christians.  

Here, in this scripture lesson, Herod, like that young bride’s husband, felt threatened by the idea that there might be a king who is in charge rather than him, and that this king might show Herod and the whole governmental system for what they truly were—mere servants to the King of kings and Lord of lords.

I hear often of how Christians are persecuted for this or that in our nation.  Some of us here at Trinity subscribe to Voice of the Martyrs, a magazine that bears testimony to those Christians around the world who are persecuted for their faith from China to the Middle East. 

I must be honest:  After reading these stories in which people are killed or maimed for their faith—in places like Sudan or Egypt or Syria—I don’t really see some of the things we go through in America as persecution.  We are inconvenienced more than anything else; we haven’t been rounded up yet.

But, even if we were persecuted here in the States, why should we be surprised?  Neither the Bible nor Christ himself ever promised that Christ’s Church would be protected by any man-made document or institution no matter what those authorities may say. 

A worshiping Church knows that following God and making God center of its life and provision will make the world uncomfortable.  

When Jesus was born, the whole world was turned upside down and God’s vessels became the nexus of power from whence God’s very kingdom had come, all of the authorities—from princes to priests, from kings to courtly officials were threatened and tried to squash that off-beat movement.

This is the stuff of prophetic witness: We tell the world how God is at work and how God’s inclusive Kingdom will bring justice and mercy to those who are often on the margins of society; but we also gain a prophetic inheritance marked by persecution. 

All prophets who give voice to God’s love and threaten the status quo become the objects of ridicule and shame.    That’s why the worshipping church takes on the likeness of Jesus, who being equal with God did not count that equality with God something to be grasped, but humbled himself even to the point of death, even unto the cross.  If Jesus sacrificed his own rights long ago in exchange for love and forgiveness, then why shouldn’t we?

V.

Oddly, in our scripture lesson today, Herod responded with what seems to be good intentions:  Verse 8 says that Herod instructed the magi to tell him where this king is:

“Bring me word that I too may also go and pay homage to him.” 

If we feel too comfortable in the world because things are going our way, then we might have bought into Herod’s schemes because sometimes the world mimics worship: It will say the right things and strive to win the hearts and minds—and, in many cases, the pocketbooks—of Jesus’ followers, but it will come off as shallow and cliché. 

The magi intended to worship while Herod pretended to worship!   

Be weary, Church, of a sensational media or celebrity culture that tries to mimic worship to our Lord and King.  But how do you discern the difference?

True worship is that which always bends towards justice rooted in inclusive compassion and sacrifice.  It is good news to the ears of those who have yet to know Christ as Lord, not bad news that turns them away. 

Mimicry, however, is that which bends away from justice and heads towards judgment, hostile or divisive speech, and exclusivity—even if it is enshrouded in biblical truth, it is a false gospel. 

If it is not Good News to the unbelieving ear and only bad news, than it is not that message of hope that Jesus gave to His Church.

Hope is why these magi, foreigners who were not Jews, recognized the love of God in that baby and gave homage to him.

A Worshiping Church bears testimony of the Good News of Jesus Christ that includes all God’s children, even those who seem foreign and unfamiliar, and that facilitates a kind of hospitality that allows strangers to cast off their strangeness.

VI.

Lastly, what can we learn from verses 10 and 11:

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

This passage shows us that the magi’s knowledge of the Messiah moved to the worship of the Messiah because the magi no longer saw God’s purpose as an intellectual pursuit.  Their heads and bodies, minds and hearts move from looking heavenward to bending towards the earth at the feet of the baby Jesus.

I remember in college and seminary, some friends and I used to hold study groups.  We would parse words and discuss sections in the Bible for hours.  We would debate the historicity of certain parts and try to figure out the puzzles presented in other parts.

We had our books and our scholars, our Greek and Hebrew flash cards and our commentaries.  We were Bible nerds, but we spent so much time talking about God we rarely had the time to hear from God and talk to God.

There came a point at which we had to shut the books and put down the commentaries, and let the Holy Spirit bring us to our knees in prayer. 

How often did you pray this week?  We need to be a church on our knees—pastor included—and to pray for those on our prayer list, for friends and family, for our neighbors, and even for our enemies.    And we need to get out of our heads to do so—to include our whole body and spirit, to present Jesus with the gifts of our lives and the gifts that God has given us.

A worshiping Church is one that brings God all glory, gives back all that reflects God’s glory, and surrenders all that distracts us from God’s glory.  It is one that continually lays everything at Jesus’ feet and takes a proactive posture of giving up our very crowns before the throne of God.

VII.

Worship is a costly venture: Notice that the magi did not come to Jesus empty-handed.  Their sense of awe and joy and wonder produced worship that was physical, that cost something of them and their lives.  

Sometimes we feel far from God or we hesitate going to church because we do come with empty hands.  I would challenge you to go beyond the wealth and resources that we mistakenly use to measure our love for God, and reach into your very heart to see what kind of gifts you’ve kept from God and need to place at Jesus’ feet.  

When we do this type of exercise, no one should come to God empty-handed.

  • We could, for instance, place our gold before Jesus—that very costly resource that we hold so dear, be it the golden calf of money or electronics or treasures.
  • We could place our frankincense at the feet of Jesus—those things that bring us delight and threaten to replace God, be it addiction or lust or coveting or adultery of body, mind, or spirit.
  • We could place myrrh before Jesus, myrrh being that very spice used to anoint the deceased in the ancient world.  This is a call for us to surrender, if anything, our fear of death and the notion that death has the final say and ultimate victory over our life.  Only when we break out from fearing death do we move into living life fully in the joy of Christ.

That’s what these magi did:  They bent towards earth, pulled their thoughts and minds out of the sky, and gave all they had because Jesus was the only one who offered that priceless gift of eternal life, salvation to all people.  Jesus was—and is—the only person worthy of all our worship.

VIII.

Today is the day of the Magi in the Christian year.  It is epiphany, the time when we also wake up to God’s movement in our lives and respond to God by worshipping Him in Spirit and in truth, not only as individuals, but as a community whose very call it is to be the Body of Christ.  Arise for your light has come!  Amen and Amen!

*Source: Feasting on the Gospel, Matthew Volume 1, eds. Cynthia Jarvis and Elizabeth Johnson, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, pp. 14-18.