Many thanks to the folks at Lakewood Church. The music was awesome. The choir (on ether side of the stage) was made up of members of many churches. The hospitality was great.
This sermon was preached at Lakewood Church on January 23, 2015 for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Welcome! Say hello to the person behind you.
My name is Mike Rinehart. I am the Lutheran bishop in Houston. And I commend you for making time to come tonight. You know the church has set aside this week to pray for unity for over 100 years?
I also want to thank Lakewood Church for graciously hosting this prayer service. I commend all of you for setting aside your scruples, your doubts and your fears of the other, and coming on a Friday night to pray for the unity of the church, as Jesus prayed for the unity of the church in John 17. Here is what Jesus prayed for: “That they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.”
Why is it so important to pray for the unity of the church? So that the world will believe.
Creator God just as you are in Christ and Christ in you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, make us one. May we be in you, so that the world might believe, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
We follow a border-crossing Jesus who calls us to be a border-crossing church. Good news, we have a God who loves sinners.
In John 4 Jesus breaks all the rules. Jesus crosses the border into Samaria. Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.
Why? Because Samaritans were different. Samaritans intermarried with other indigenous races. And religiously, they had adopted some pagan practices. Jesus should not be here.
Jews were not supposed to do business with Samaritans. No hand shake. No eye contact. It was difficult to travel in Samaria without becoming unclean by doing these things. Many Jews would go around Samaria avoid the problem. Jesus goes through. He has placed himself where he is most likely to bump into a stranger, an unclean stranger. It’s almost as if he planned it…
Where are you gonna place yourself this week, this year? How are you going to reach across the line this year and befriend someone outside your comfort zone?
Certainly he won’t talk to anyone. But no, Jesus ends up talking not just talking to a Samaritan, and a woman at that. He shouldn’t be talking to her. A man does not speak to women in public unless it is his wife, daughter, sister. Jesus strikes up a conversation with the Samaritan woman. Now he has crossed borders of race, religion and gender. Jesus crosses the borders of racism, sexism and classism, just by sitting down and having a conversation with a woman. Even the woman finds this remarkable. She says, “How is it you, a Jew are asking me, a Samaritan woman for water?”
Who will you have a conversation with this week?
C. Jesus says, if you knew me, you’d be asking for living water. Jesus wants to move the conversation past quenching physical thirst to quenching spiritual thirst. Past the water of human religion to the living water of the Holy Spirit that knows no such sectarian boundaries.
D. He says go get your husband. “I have no husband.” You’ve had five husbands, and he one you’re living with now is not your husband…” Amazed, she says you must be a prophet. But here’s the deal: We believe that this is the right mountain to worship on, and you folks believe in the other mountain. In other words, we cannot fellowship because of our religious differences. Jesus says, “Not this mountain or that mountain. The days are coming when true believers will worship in Spirit and truth.” God is bigger than your religious traditions. God is bigger than your denominational peculiarities. How do you relate to those who worship on a different mountain?
E. Then the disciples get back from their shopping trip. They come around the corner to find Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman, a five-time divorcee who is living with her boyfriend. The text says they were astonished that Jesus was talking with a woman. John 4:27. And they were afraid to say a single thing to him about it. They’re watching and learning. Jesus is the ultimate model for interfaith and interdenominational dialog.
Good news: We have a God who crosses borders, from heaven to earth. In his life he crosses borders of race, creed, gender and stigma. In his death Jesus crosses the ultimate boundary of death and resurrection. He invites us to come with him. We follow a border-crossing Jesus who calls us to be a border-crossing church.
3. So what are we going to do about it, church?
If we’re going to take Jesus seriously, follow Jesus’ footsteps, and be a border-crossing church, what do we do? I’m going to propose a seven-point plan for the unity of the church in Houston. Many gifts. One Spirit. Many wells. One living water. Now I know no one can remember seven points, I’ve already put it up on a blog, bishopmike.com. If you have your gizmo, I give you permission to follow along with me: bishopmike.com. Mind you, I have no authority to make a seven-point plan for the unity of the church in Houston, but I’m going to do it anyway. The Spirit whispered in my ear. Here we go. Are you with me? Is your mind alert?
#1: Make Galatians 3:28 our theme verse. Let’s start with Scripture. Every follower of Christ in what is now the most multicultural city in the U.S. memorize and internalize Galatians 3:28. “…There is no longer Jew and Greek, there is no longer slave or free. There is no longer male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.” For Paul, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus means these distinctions are irrelevant now. I’m convinced if Paul was preaching in my place here in Houston tonight, at the largest church in the U.S., he would say, “There is no longer Anglo and Latino, there is no longer Asian and African American, there is no longer rich and poor, there is no longer male and female, there is no longer Catholic and Baptist, Pentecostal and Methodist, for you are all one in Christ.” You are clothed with Christ. You are not clothed with Luther. You are not clothed with Wesley. You are not clothed with Calvin. You are clothed with Christ. Maybe the hem is Wesleyan, but you’re clothed with Christ. So step one, make Galatians 3:28 our theme verse. Memorize it and live into it.
#2: Make love of God and neighbor our highest priority. The love of Christ is the living water. Keep the main thing the main thing. Yogi Berra said “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” What’s the main thing? Someone asked Jesus that once. He responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like unto it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two rest all the law and he prophets.” Someone then asked him: “But who is my neighbor?” Who must I love? And Jesus told a story about a Samaritan. A Good Samaritan. The Samaritan is your neighbor. The stranger is the one you are called to love. If we love only those in our club, we have not heard the gospel. Loving God and neighbor is more important that being right. If we keep the main thing the main thing, the little things will become less important.
#3 in our plan: Make humility our primary attitude. Remember that God doesn’t just live on your mountain. We need to learn humility. You don know everything. Leave a little room for possibility that others have a piece of the truth. When people pray, across race and religion, there is only one God listening. That God doesn’t live just on your mountain.
Listen to what the apostle says in Ephesians 4:
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you — lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:1-6)
#4 Pray for the unity of the church. Pray weekly. Many already do. Prayer changes things. Especially when we pray together. Something always happens. Pray that Jesus’ followers might be one, that the world might believe.
#5 Work for the unity of the church. Step across the border. Every church commit right now to developing an ongoing relationship with a church of a different tradition or race. Anglo, Latino, African American, Asian, Pentecostal, Catholic, Baptist and so on. Every person make a friend from another race or religious tradition, to stretch yourself, to learn about them, and about the God who is bigger than any of us. Be a sign of the diversity of the body of Christ.
#6 Serve together. This year, serve with someone different than you. We don’t have to do everything together, for unity, but we can serve together. You don’t have to agree theologically to feed the hungry together. You don’t have to agree theologically to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit those sick and in prison. My Baptist buddy Joel Goza reminded me this week that the woman at the well returned home telling people about Jesus. That town was a different place because she had gotten a taste of living water. How will our city be different now that we’ve tasted the living water? What if the most churched city in the U.S. had the lowest poverty and the highest cooperation? Let’s make serving our common mission.
#7 Last but not least: Stop… bickering. Just stop! Christ did not die so that we could fight about predestination!
Author Craig Groeschel tells the story of going to a dog race. You know how the dogs chase the fake rabbit on the mechanical arm? Well the arm broke down. And the dog stopped running the race and started fighting amongst themselves. When people lose sight of their common mission, they stop running the race set before them and they start bickering amongst themselves. Let’s not do that. We don’t need that in Houston.
Any army that spends most of its energy fighting each other will lose the battle. Can I get an amen? When I see Christians constantly fighting I think, what kind of witness is that? It’s okay to have differences and to discuss them, just don’t go for the jugular. Don’t make it the first thing or even the most important thing.
So let’s review:
1. Galatians 3:28
2. Make love your aim.
3. Humility. Have this mind among you…
4. Pray for unity
5. Work for unity
6. Serve together
7. Stop bickering
Sound like a plan? I believe the Spirit is doing something in Houston. Let’s get on board.
Remember this: What unites us is greater than what divides us. Our differences may seem big, but they’re not. They’re tiny compared to what we have in common. You are all from different traditions.
But watch this. Let me hear you. How many of you believe in God? Put your hands together. How many believe that Jesus is the hope of the world? Holy Spirit? Prayer? Bible? The resurrection? Amen. How many believe we are one body? One Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God. Go, be a border-crossing church. Drink the living water!
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 – The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.
Psalm 111 – I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13 – Concerning food sacrificed to idols: Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. No idol really exists. So we are no worse off if we do not eat food sacrificed to idols, and no better off if we do. But take care that your liberty does not become a stumbling block to others.
Mark 1:21-28 – Jesus rebukes the unclean spirits, and they obey him on the Sabbath in the synagogue, and the people are amazed.
The next few weeks we’re in for a lot of healing stories. This coming Sunday we read of Jesus doing an exorcism in the synagogue. This is the first miracle in Mark’s gospel. Changing water to wine in Cana is the first miracle in John. In Mark, the first miracle is an exorcism. February 8 Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, then rises early the next morning to find time to pray. February 15 is Transfiguration Sunday already, then we are into Lent!
In this Sunday’s gospel we are told the man had an unclean spirit. There seems to be a clear message that Jesus is willing to encounter, care for and touch the unclean, as opposed to the religious leaders’ distancing themselves. This is evangelism Jesus-style. Jesus touches the untouchable, and loves the unlovable. When society ostracized, Jesus walked through the walls of stigma and fear.
Last week we heard Jesus calling the disciples. “Follow me and I will teach you to fish for people.” Well, here it is: This is what fishing for people looks like, Jesus-style. For Jesus, fishing for people means teaching and healing around Galilee. Teaching with authority (power, strength), and embarking on an itinerant healing ministry, engaging the suffering and outcast of this world.
What would this look like in your neck of the woods? How are you bringing healing and teaching in your community? I want to point out that the teaching is an important part of this. They are astounded at his teaching. I sometimes see congregations that serve at a food pantry and then wonder why no one notices. There is more to evangelism that social work. A healing ministry without teaching doesn’t feed the soul and invite others into the dance. A teaching ministry without a healing ministry in the community is hypocrisy.
Teaching and healing will not necessarily make you popular. Speaking up for people who are getting a raw deal sometimes irritates people. It pricks the conscience. It also means people have to confront their selfishness, and deal with the inequities in the system. And then there’s the very human: More for you means less for me, fear based on the assumption that life is zero-sum. Try speaking up for any group of people that are struggling or outcast. See what happens.
Someone once said to me, why don’t you stop talking about immigrants and just preach the gospel?
I responded, “Which gospel is that?”
I don’t know of any gospel without a call to love the stranger, feed the hungry, love the unloved, and preach good news to the poor.
Somewhere I read: “How effective would Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God have been had it not been accompanied by his ministry of healing in the community? Think about this. What if Jesus had just preached? I believe his message would have lacked authenticity. Our preaching informs our ministry in the world. Our ministry in the world informs our preaching. One without the other is bereft of substance.”
How effective will our preaching be if it is not accompanied by a healing ministry in the community? Will it be bereft of substance? Will it lack the inescapable sense of real world truth? “Preach the gospel always,” said St. Francis, “if necessary use words.”
Friar and priest Brennan Manning challenges our churchy private clubs: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
The preacher might consider providing a list of opportunities to participate in healing ministries of the congregation, of other congregations, and in the community. It could be part of the worship registration card or another piece. Give people an opportunity to sign on the dotted line. “I’m interested in finding out more about…” This doesn’t commit them, but gives them a chance to respond tangibly to your message. To often we inspire people, bring them to the edge of the water, the send them home without a chance to respond to the good news and call of the gospel.
Have your stewardship team follow up with these responses. Don’t limit yourself to what your congregation is doing. Another neighboring congregation may have a great Alzheimer’s program. Include it. Meals on Wheels is looking for volunteers. List it. List contact information so that they can take initiative, but don’t leave it at that. Have a team ready to call with information, and questions. “What interested you about this? “ “What have you done before?” “When have you served in the past in a way that moved you?” “Where is God calling you to serve these days?”
The power of Jesus’ witness lay in the irresistible combination of his teaching with authority and his healing with compassion. Still today, it’s an unbeatable combination. Our best evangelism program, our best fishing, will be lives given in love for the world. When people see the church doing what it’s supposed to be doing, what Jesus did, they will sit up and take notice. People want to be part of a movement that is making a difference in the world, impacting lives, serving in Jesus’ name.
I’m in Baltimore for an LIRS Board of Directors’ meeting. Here’s how it looked yesterday:
What a difference a day makes. After getting dumped on yesterday, beautiful blue sky at the Lutheran Center in Baltimore, home of Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service: