It hadn’t occurred to me when I named this two-part sermon series
that some of you might think I was resigning.
I was only thinking that we had been “on the road with Jesus”
since late June and now the road had come to an end—Jesus had
arrived in Jerusalem, and he did it two weeks sooner than I
expected. So, I thought
I would use that time just to talk to you, just to let you know
what’s on my mind, but I made the mistake of calling my talk “The
End of the Road” and starting it like this: “Let me begin by saying
thank you. Thank you for
letting me be your pastor these past five-and-a-half years...”
Looking back I can see how some of you may have thought that the
next words out of my mouth might be an announcement of my
resignation. Sorry about
that. And just in case
you’re wondering my plan is to be here until I retire.
Where else would I go?
But for today let me continue the talk I started last week,
and since I called last week’s talk was called “the End of the Road,
Part I,” I feel obliged to call this one “the End of the Road, Part
Please don’t misunderstand.
Last week I confessed to you that my greatest
fear is the fear of failure.
I told you I had good reason for that fear because the
American church is in decline; every major denomination is reporting
losses in membership, attendance, and giving.
I could hope that this church would be the exception—that
even when every other church was dying this one would be
thriving—but I could also picture myself, twenty years from now,
preaching to a handful of people in a room that used to be full.
I woke up one night recently with that picture in my head and
I didn’t like it at all.
It looked like failure to me, my worst fear.
I tossed and turned for more than an hour, but finally got up
and wrote down these words: “There is more than one way to fail.
I could sell out, for the sake of numbers and dollars.
I could do whatever it takes to get people into the building
and their money into the plate.
I could be so afraid of failure that I would be willing to do
whatever it took to succeed, and I might be successful.
But one day I would stand before the Lord Jesus and he would
say, “What was that all about?”
And I’m more afraid of that than I am of
At the end of last week’s talk I mentioned that
when I was a youth minister I wanted to have the biggest youth group
in town, and did everything I could to build up attendance.
But I also told you about the day I realized those kids had
all the entertainment they needed and a whole lot more.
There was no way I could compete.
The only thing I could give them that they weren’t getting
everywhere else…was Jesus.
I said, “On that day I made up my mind to do that—to give
them Jesus—and in one way or another that’s what I’ve been doing
ever since.” When I gave
my state-of-the-church address to the deacons recently I talked to
them about the decline of the American church; I showed them the
charts and graphs; they need to know.
I told them the younger generations, especially, were leaving
the church in droves.
But then I quoted from an article by a young woman named Rachel Held
Evans who wrote, “We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find
the ‘cool factor’ there.
We’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.
Like every generation before ours and every generation after,
deep down, we long for Jesus.”[i]
And so I said to the deacons, “What are we going to do when
the church in
is in decline, when the younger generations are leaving the church
in droves? We’re going
to give them Jesus.” And
that’s what I want to talk to you about this morning, because
“giving them Jesus” can mean more than one thing.
I was reminded of this when I was at the BGAV
meeting in Fredericksburg
last week. There we
were—a thousand Baptists from
all gathered together in a single room.
You would think that we all held the same views, wouldn’t
you? But as one speaker
after another talked about Jesus I could tell that we thought about
him in different ways, and maybe that shouldn’t surprise me as much
as it does. After all,
there are four Gospels in the New Testament, which means that we
have four different accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry.
And then there are Paul’s letters, which are more about the
risen Christ than the earthly Jesus, and about what his death and
resurrection mean for us.
And then there are the other writers, like Peter, James, and
the author of Hebrews, who each have their own perspective.
And finally the Book of Revelation, in which the risen Christ
appears with “hair as white as wool and eyes like flames of fire”
(1:14). So if I’m going
to “give them Jesus” I have to ask: which Jesus am I going to give
Because I think we tend to “cut and paste” when
it comes to Jesus. We
take what we like about him from the Bible, and from the hymn book,
and from the pictures that hang in our Sunday school classrooms, and
the songs we learned as children, and we put them all together to
make this composite picture we carry around in our heads, and that’s
“our” Jesus. Sometimes
the confused looks I see on your faces when I’m preaching are not
because you don’t understand what I’m saying, but because “my” Jesus
doesn’t look like “your” Jesus.
My Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom, and urging
people to join him in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth.
Your Jesus may be saying, “Go, make disciples of every
nation,” or, “Come to me, all you who are weary,” or, “I am the way,
the truth, and the life.”
I was thinking about that on the way home from Fredericksburg when it occurred to me that if
even if you put all these cut-and-paste images together you still
get the picture that God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us,
and send us. I said it
out loud: “God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us.”
And something about that rang
so true I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Let me explain:
In John 3:16 we learn that God loved the world
so much he gave his only son.
I’ve pointed out to you before that the word
world is often used in a
negative way in the New Testament, as in, “Love not the world, nor
the things of the world” (1 John 2:15).
We are led to believe that the world is a sinful, dirty, and
unrepentant place, and yet God loves it anyway; he loves it so much
he gave his only son for it.
And if you read the Gospels even casually you can see that
the son he gave loves the world just as much as he does.
Jesus is always spending time with the sinners and the tax
collectors, always hanging out with the poor, the crippled, the
blind, and the lame. God
sent him to love the world and he loved it, he loved it enough to
die for it, which makes me think that as the body of Christ we
should love it, too.
What if we believed that our first responsibility, as Christians,
was simply to love people?
Not to judge them, or condemn them, or convert them, but to
love them? Is this the
way Jesus approached his ministry?
Did he think, “I’ve got to begin by loving the world, because
that’s what my father sent me to do”?
Hold on to that thought for a minute and let’s call it “Stage
Because Stage Two is all about saving.
Jesus himself says that he didn’t only come to
love the world, but “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
I’ve told you before that the word
save in the Gospels is a
bigger word than we sometimes imagine.
It doesn’t usually mean to save someone from hell; it usually
means "to help," "to heal," "to make well," or "to make whole." More
often than not, this is how Jesus used it.
He said to the woman with the flow of blood, “Your faith has
saved you.” He said to
that one leper who came back, “Your faith has saved you.”
He said to Blind Bartimaeus, “Your faith has saved you.”
In other words it has helped you, healed you, made you well,
and made you whole. What
if we believed the second responsibility of Christians was to do
that? To help people, to
heal them, to make them well, and to make them whole?
One of the most important ways we can do that is to let
people know that their sins can be forgiven—those things that fill
them with guilt and shame, that cripple them and keep them from
becoming all God made them to be.
They need to know that all those things can be forgiven,
forgotten, washed away, so they can move on to Stage Three.
And Stage Three is all about change.
Marcus Borg says that every major religion is
and Christianity would be at the top of that list.
Jesus didn’t think it was enough to save us: he wanted to
change us, to help us become what we have it in us at our best to
be. And Paul, perhaps
more than any other writer in the New Testament, takes up that
charge. In dozens of
different ways in his letters he describes what a Christian life
might look like. In
Galatians 5, for example, he talks about giving up the works of the
flesh in favor of a life full of love,
joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,
gentleness, and self-control—the fruit of
the Spirit. Those of you
who have tried it know what a constant struggle that can be: the
flesh keeps doing its work.
And yet, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called to
keep on trying, keep on changing, until we grow up at last into him
who is the head, into Christ (Eph. 4:15).
And well before we get there we may be ready for Stage Four,
which is all about being sent.
After Jesus rose
from the dead he appeared to his disciples and said, “As the Father
has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).
As I’ve said before, this is the moment when the disciples
became apostles: when they were no longer “learners,” but “sent
ones.” And you’ve also
heard me say that I think Jesus intends for us to do the same: to
graduate from Sunday school and go out into the streets, to be sent
as Christ was sent to love the world God loves.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we need to give up
gathering for Sunday morning Bible study, but when we stand before
Jesus I don’t think he is going to ask us where Paul went on his
second missionary trip; I think he’s going to ask us where we went
on ours. That’s what
KOH2RVA was all about, and that’s what we hope to accomplish with
KOHx2 as we look for partners who will work with us to bring heaven
to earth, in Richmond
and around the world. We
believe that we too have been sent, that we are on a mission, and
that we can’t give up until it is completed.
But here’s something
When I came to First
Baptist the church seemed so healthy and strong that I may have
assumed you were all in Stage Four—that all of you were loved, and
saved, and changed, and ready to charge out onto the mission field
like a high school football team when the truth is you were all in
different stages then, and we are all in different stages now.
There may be some of you here today who are in Stage One: you
just need to be loved.
You don’t need to be judged or condemned.
You don’t even feel the need to be converted, not yet anyway.
You just need to be loved.
And maybe you’ve come here because you’ve heard that this is
a place of unconditional love and acceptance.
May it be so. Or
maybe you’re in Stage Two: you need to be saved and you know it.
You’re dealing with sin, or sickness, illness, or addiction,
and you need to be helped and healed, you need to be made well and
made whole. You’ve come
looking for some of that healing power that Jesus used to give away
so freely, looking for someone who will pray with you until you
begin to feel that healing power sink into your bones.
Or maybe you’re in Stage Three: you’ve already been helped
and healed. Your sins
have been forgiven, you’ve been washed in the waters of baptism, and
you have started off down the road of discipleship.
But you know you’ve got a long way to go.
There are lots of changes you need to make, and you need some
help. You need some
guidance, some coaching, some encouragement.
You can’t walk this road alone.
But finally, you may be in Stage Four: you may be eager to go
out there and love the world God loves, pawing at the ground,
waiting for permission.
Well, I’m giving it—go!
Do the kind of things Jesus did.
Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out
demons, and wherever you go tell them the Kingdom has come near.
But here’s another
thing I’m learning:
You may end up in
Stage One again. You may
get so beat up out there on the mission field that you come to
church like an injured football player being carried to the
sidelines on a stretcher.
You may need the love and care of your fellow believers to
build you up again, to make you healthy and strong.
Or you could end up in Stage Two from time to time, where you
were doing well but suddenly you come down with sickness of the
body, mind, soul, or spirit.
You need to be helped and healed.
You need to be “saved” in the way Jesus used that word.
You could end up in Stage Three again, and maybe you should.
Maybe that’s what our Sunday morning Bible study is for—to be
a place where you get replenished so you can go back out onto the
mission field. Maybe you
need someone to remind you why you’re doing all this, and someone to
encourage you along the way, and someone to pray for you when you
get weary, as you certainly will.
Maybe these are not stages at all, where you progress from
one to the other and never look back; maybe this is a cycle, and
maybe we all go through it from time to time, maybe from day to day.
What I’m confessing
to you in all this is that I have probably stood up here too many
times like a high school football coach at halftime, giving you a
rousing pep talk, and telling you to get back out there on the field
when you may be thinking, “I can’t, Coach.
I’m in no shape to play.
I’m too beat up, too worn out, too dazed and confused.
I just need a place where people will love me, and help me,
until I can stand on my own two feet again.
Maybe then I can hear you talk about the mission.
Maybe then I’ll be ready to get back in the game.”
If that’s you then
hear me say, “I’m sorry.”
I don’t want you to feel like you’re letting me down.
I don’t want you to feel like you’re letting Jesus down.
He would want this to be the kind of place where all people
are welcome: the ones who are ready to charge out onto the mission
field and the ones who aren’t; the ones who have it all together and
the ones who don’t; the ones who are looking for love and the ones
who have enough to share; the ones who are rejoicing in their
salvation and the ones who are yet to be saved.
But in the end I believe that God sent Jesus to love us, and
save us, and change us, and send us, and I believe that even though
the church in America is in
decline, if we give people a Jesus like that they will come.
I believe they will come in droves.
And if they won’t come to us,
We will go to them.
Let me end with a
prayer I have been praying for six months now:
Gracious God, pour out your
blessing on Richmond’s First Baptist
Fill the pews
to overflowing with people who love you and long to sing your
Fill the plates to overflowing with the generous gifts
of a grateful people,
Fill the classrooms to overflowing with
disciples who lean over open Bibles, eager to hear and obey your
Fill the hallways to overflowing with brothers and sisters
who greet one another with hugs and laughter.
Fill their hearts
Fill their souls with faith,
Fill their minds with
And fill their lives with every good thing until it
And spills out onto the streets of our city and into
every surrounding suburb.
Generous God, pour yourself out through
Until your kingdom comes, and your will is done,
In Richmond as it is in heaven. Amen.
Rachel Held Evans, “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church,”
CNN, July 27, 2013.
In The Heart of
Christianity, p. 215, in which Borg describes religions
as “communities of transformation.”