Friday, August 26, 2016

Exercises in Community - Philippians 2: 12-15

Once for a children’s sermon, I sprayed a bottle of perfume, explaining to the kids how the tiny particles of perfume covered the room. Christians are like those perfume drops, taking the fragrance of God out into the world. I then asked them what Christians are supposed to do.
They all answered “Smell!”
They were right. The most important thing Christians do is to smell like Jesus.
The New Testament uses different metaphors, but makes this point over and over. We are the salt of the earth--tasting like Jesus. We are the light of the world--shining like Jesus. We are the leaven in the dough—tiny things that cause a whole dough to rise. We are the stars shining in the dark sky. We are very small bits of righteousness, out among the sinner, changing everything.
A tiny speck of light can be seen light-years away across the heavens. The light of a single Christian can be seen in the darkest, most evil places. It isn’t our quantity that matters—it is our quality. It isn’t what we do that matters, it’s who we are that matters. 
Ever since the church was founded, this has been God’s plan for it, not to develop programs or to put out social propaganda, or to gain worldly power and force the world into obedience to God, but to be a community of influencers. Keeping a low profile in the media, but by our likeness to Jesus we go out and make the world better one person at a time. We aren’t an isolated society, we’re part of the community, but wherever we go in the world—in our homes, work, and businesses we are to witness for Jesus by acting, thinking, feeling, and being like Him.
Bill Hybels in Becoming a Contagious Christian offers this formula sharing the Gospel: 
High Potency + Close Proximity + Clear Communication = Maximum Impact on the world.
High Potency means Christians who really shine. They are connected to Jesus on a daily basis through studying the word, passionate worship with others, and daily devotional habits. If there’s no difference between the Christians and non-Christians, then it makes little difference whether we are present or not. 
Close Proximity means that we are out in the world, among the unbelievers and little-believers. If a Christian is not around non-Christians, then they will have little impact. Much of the way Christians behave in the church restricts their witness by focusing on the institutional church and Christian fellowship, rather than touching lives outside the church. We need the church, but if we stay in it too much, then we become a guarded subculture that is easily ignored by everyone on the outside.
If we are high potency Christians, then we don’t need to be afraid of worldly influence. We are constantly strengthened by the exercises of the Christian life and in touch with the Spirit of God, we are the influencers in the world, and we are not under the world’s influence. We are in the world, but not of the world. The church doesn’t need a lot of programs and propaganda to witness. We only need be Christian in the world, to merely be true to our true Christian nature.
Clear communication means making Christ clear in word and deed. We let everyone know how we are Christians, that we have been changed by the Gospel, and that they can be Christian, too.
I teach a course on evangelism in the seminary.  One question I always ask my students at the beginning of the class is to tell me in twenty-five words or less what a Christian is, and how a person can become a Christian. About half the time, my students cannot do it in twenty-five words or less. 
Bill Hybels did it in two words. While on vacation he and his wife made friends with a wealthy non-believer. The man invited them to go boating with them. Hybels prayed for an opportunity to bring up the Gospel to him, but the whole day he did not seem to be interested. Finally, as they were off the boat to go home, the man asked, “By the way, how does a person become a Christian, anyway?”
Hybels answered, “Let me put it this way—religion is spelled DO. Christianity is spelled DONE. It means that Jesus has already done all you need for you.”
I am a shy person. I do not find it easy to reach out to strangers, nor do I feel comfortable casually expressing my opinion. Sharing with strangers on the street is outside of my comfort zone. But then, so are all the other spiritual exercises. Prayer isn’t easy; neither is Bible study. Witnessing is the same. But it gets easier the more you do it. 
One thing that helps is to remember what witnessing is. Witnessing is not persuading people to be Christians. It is being a witness—telling people what we personally have seen and heard about Jesus. What they do with it is up to them. Evangelists are people who are gifted at persuasion and argumentation. Witnessing is just sharing from the heart. It is letting people know your story. A witness isn’t like Billy Graham standing in front of large crowds. It is more like the man mentioned in John 9 who was cured of blindness. When people asked him how it happened, he just said, “Once I was blind, now I see.”  He did not hide the miracle, nor did he hide that he met Jesus. He just told the truth. Witnessing whenever possible is telling the truth. It is pushing the “share” button on your story and letting people know who you really are. 
Witnessing is a spiritual exercise. It is intentionally choosing to communicate Jesus to the people around you. It is being publicly a Christian.
Most of what we know about Jesus are not his speeches, but his actions. His compassion is mostly how we know Him. His voluntary death on the cross for our sins is the ultimate act of love. His miracles, acts of healing, condemnation of hypocrisy, and expressions of compassion to others stand out most in the Gospel narratives. If it weren’t for the personal acts of Jesus, then no one would remember the words of Jesus.
The world Jesus lived in was far more unjust than ours. The gap between rich and poor was wider. There were far more homeless people. The life expectancy was around thirty-five. Infant mortality was above fifty percent. Any serious illness could lead to you being cast out of society. Women were treated as property. Most public buildings were built by slaves. Cities were wretched, dirty places. Even so Jesus did not speak out on these social injustices. Instead he reacted by being individually compassionate to the victims of injustice.
I grew up in mainline churches where we were taught that Christianity and socialism were basically the same thing. Our denominational leaders thought they had the answers for every social problem. I have since learned that the answers for the social problems are never simple. When we try to fix poverty, we are just as likely to make it worse. People and society are complicated, and require individual attention. 
So instead of starting a social movement to fix society, Jesus makes people who would shine like stars of compassion and concern. This army of compassionate people would care about people as individuals, not just social classes. They would not force their will on others, even in a good cause, but would be servants to the lowest people. 
These people would go everywhere—into politics, into entertainment, into social work, and into business. They will not all agree about how to fix problems—they would be found in all political parties. But they would try their best to live as Christians with all people.
Paul says that we should “work out our own salvation.” He’s not talking about salvation from hell, or eternal life. That was done for us by Jesus. He is talking about the living of that salvation in this world. It is salvation from a fruitless, pointless life. Neither Paul, nor anyone else can tell Christians exactly how to do that. It’s individual and personal to each person to shine in their own particular way.
As a pastor, I won’t tell you how to live out your faith in the world. I will only tell you to live it. I have no universal solutions for poverty, homelessness, or prejudice. I will tell you, though that God can help you be influential for His sake in the world around you. I won’t tell you who you should marry, or what you should do for a living, but I will tell you to be a Christian as you are doing your job. Your work is important to God and therefore it has value. Pray that you do it as Christ would have you do it.
As a pastor I won’t tell you how to vote, but I will tell you to vote. Voting and speaking out on social issues is part of what it means to be a Christian in public. Speak out on issues that matter to you, even if you think you might be wrong. Most Christians are too shy. Say what’s on your mind, and say it the way Jesus would say it.
As a pastor I won’t tell you where to volunteer in the community, but I do tell you to volunteer. Put feet to your compassion by helping poor, sick and homeless. God has given you only a little time in this world, so use it to make a difference. Make an example for your children. Do you want your children to learn that they and their immediate families are the only things that matter in life? Or do you want to demonstrate to them the importance of being salt and light for Christ’s sake. Get active. Get involved. It’s how we shine like stars in the world around us.
Don’t worry about whether you are good or bad at it, just do it. A recent movie Florence Foster Jenkins told the true story of a wealthy, eccentric woman who wanted to be an opera star. She made a record and rented Carnegie Hall to perform. She was of course hilariously bad. Critics savaged her. But as she was dying she told one of her friends, “People say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.” 

Maybe you say you can’t witness. Maybe you say your little contribution isn’t much. But let no one say they didn’t contribute. Which is better, shine weekly or go dark? Don’t be afraid to try, but make it a habit to always shine for Jesus. 

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