Friday, January 17, 2014

SERMON: "Saints and Sinners Are Welcome"

"Saints and Sinners Are Welcome"
John 1:35-42 I Corinthians 1:1-9

Cousin John was excited when it dawned on him that the one he had been preparing people for was his own relative, Jesus. He shouted so all around could hear, “This is the one about whom I’ve been speaking! Behold, the lamb of God!”

The day after John’s enthusiastic endorsement of Jesus, two of John’s disciples were with him when Jesus passed by again. Again John proclaimed, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples of John responded to their leader’s enthusiasm and began to follow Jesus. They jumped at the chance to have a little one-on-one time with this one their leader was so high on.

When Jesus noticed that they were following him, he asked them what they were looking for. After addressing him as “rabbi,” thus letting him know that they knew he was someone to learn from, they asked him where he was staying, thus implying that they were ready to spend a quantity of time with him.

Jesus caught what their answer meant and invited them to “come and see.” They did, spending most of the day with him.

When their session with Jesus was over, the first person Andrew went to tell about the experience was his brother, Simon. But, he not only told Simon about what they’d seen and heard, he also brought Simon to Jesus so that he could hear and see for himself. Jesus took one look at Simon and said to him, “Now you are Simon, son of John; but from now on your name is Cephas – Peter.”

I have an appreciation of John’s version of how Jesus and Simon Peter met each other – Simon being brought by his brother, Andrew (who is remembered in the church as the “bringer” and held up as a model of one of the things we who know Jesus are to do – to tell others about Jesus and to then bring them to where they might encounter Jesus themselves); and then there was the way Jesus saw something of worth in Simon and affirmed it, blessed it, ordained it, consecrated it. Jesus pricked Simon Peter’s curiosity about himself and unleashed within him a new vision for his life.

It’s a powerful thing – this someone believing in you. Dr. Keith Wagner repeats in his sermon An Invitation You Can’t Refuse a story recorded in A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul. An 11th grade student went into a classroom one day to wait for a friend. It was Mr. Washington’s classroom. When Mr. Washington entered his classroom and discovered this student he told him to go to the board. The young man said, “I’m not one of your students.” Mr. Washington responded, “Doesn’t matter. Go to the board anyhow.”

The student said that he still couldn’t do that. Mr. Washington pressed him, “And why not?” The student’s response was, “Because I’m mentally retarded.” Washington went over to the student and said, “Don’t say that. Someone’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality.”

It proved to be a liberating moment in the young man’s life. Mr. Washington became the young man’s mentor. At the end of the school year Mr. Washington spoke to the graduating seniors and one of the things he said was, “You have greatness within you . . . you can touch millions of people’s lives.” The young man was in the audience. He approached Mr. Washington after the assembly and asked him if he had greatness within him. Mr. Washington replied, “Yes, Mr. Brown, you do.” The student thanked him and said to him as he walked away, “Someday you will be proud of me.”

At the start of the student’s senior year the principal placed him in Mr. Washington’s speech and drama class because he felt it would be good for the two of them to be together despite the special needs the teenager was known to have. Mr. Washington gave him opportunities to see himself in new ways by making demands of him and holding him accountable. More and more Mr. Brown did begin to believe in himself.

Have any of you ever heard of Les Brown? The slow learner? The morning DJ who became a broadcast manager; the community activist who became a community leader; the political commentator who became a three-term legislator; banquet and nightclub emcee who became a premier keynote speaker – that Les Brown?  - the one Mr. Washington saw something in and told him so. (1)

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I’m really basically a shy, reserved person. I was even more so when I was a child and a teenager. I lacked self-confidence. There’s no way in those early years that I would have ever imagined that I would some day stand in front of a group of people and talk. I had zero interest in doing such a thing – there wasn’t even a fleeting moment when it crossed by mind.

And then, some people began to encourage me – my parents had always tried – but other voices began to echo their belief in me. A girlfriend in junior high thought I’d be a good class officer and pretty much got me elected. And then there were coaches and my sisters and aunts and uncles and lay people in the church I grew up in and friends and grandparents. And later there was my wife and children and peers in the ministry and seminary professors and lay people in the churches I have served – all adding their voices of encouragement – all saying by both their words and their actions that they appreciated who I was or who I was becoming or what I did. They saw something in me and called it forth.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been a pastor/preacher all those years if it hadn’t been for their/your pats on the back and their/your hugs and their/your words of encouragement. Don’t get me wrong, I was still uncomfortable standing in front of a group of people every time I spoke – I still cringe when I think of what I did knowing how limited my verbal and writing skills are and what my basic personality traits are – I still wonder at times what it is God saw in me and why God wanted me to spend my life the way it seemed God wanted me to.

Jesus’ life was about believing in others and setting them free to believe that they were worthy human beings to him. Jesus doesn’t only see us for what we are, but for who and what we can be. Jesus looked at Peter and saw him not only as a Galilean fisherman, but also as one who had it in him to become the rock on which the church would be built. Jesus believed that the blind man could see. He believed that the lame man could walk. He believed that the woman at the well could be set free from her guilt. He believed that his disciples could carry on his mission and ministry. He invited those he encountered to leave their past and embark on something new.  “Today you are . . . tomorrow you shall be . . .” Jesus sees in us the persons we can be and frees us to be who we are in him when we allow him free reign in us.

I Corinthians is a letter from Paul to the church of God in the city of Corinth. Paul had helped start the church several years before while living with Aquila and Priscilla and working as a tentmaker. Corinth was an amazing city. It was a trade center – the home of wealthy people – a metropolitan community – a cultural and religious melting pot. But it was also a place where the seamier side of life was quite visible. While the early church in Corinth was probably made up of people mostly from the poor and slave classes, by the time of Paul’s letter there were persons from all walks of life – wealthy business leaders and former prostitutes and dock workers and people of means. Friction was often present in the life of the church.

Coming from different social, cultural and economic positions though wasn’t the only source of friction. The membership of the Corinthian church was made up of people who had become followers due to the influence of a variety of church leaders over the years and thus arguments arose about who had been the most important and the best preachers. They brought rituals and ideas from other religions and thus offended one another by trying to demand that everyone believe and do things the same way. The Corinthian church was a mess. Paul heard about their problems and wrote this letter offering his advice on how to deal with some of the things.

But, before he weighed in on those matters – the things that divided them – their sins - he reminded them of whose they were. “As a result of your being in Christ, you are called to be saints – called to be holy – called to be different.”

Paul affirmed them – called forth from within them a new understanding about themselves. Paul said in essence to the people of Corinth, “You see yourselves as . . . but I see you as saints and if you accept who you are in Christ you’ll be better able to get along with one another and make clearer decisions about what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Our reality is that we are at one and the same time both sinners and saints. We are saints, not when we do wonderful acts or don’t do anything wrong, but when we accept – when we recognize – that Jesus Christ is in us. We do good – we do – in response to Jesus Christ’s grace in our lives – his gracious pronouncement of our worthiness in his eyes – of our saintliness. We don’t deserve or earn our saint status. It’s freely given. In response to the free gift, we choose to live holy, godly, righteous lives - deformed and imperfect to be sure, try as we might.

Jesus Christ sees in us potential – sees us as saints – believes in us. We honor Christ’s vision of us as saints when we prayerfully respond in our daily lives and follow his lead. We are both saints and sinners and as such we are all welcome/accepted/included in the kingdom of God/the community of faith.

1.  Dr. Keith Wagner, “An Invitation You Can’t Refuse” (, Illustrations for January 16, 2005), St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Sidney, Ohio.

No comments:

Post a Comment