[This was shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, during the worship celebration this morning.]
During a worship service in India, a missionary presented the Gospel, the Good News of new and everlasting life that belongs to all who turn from sin and follow Jesus Christ.
One man watched hundreds step forward to be baptized. But, as compelling as the missionary's words were, he held back, watching, wondering. At the end of the service, the man noticed that an Indian servant worked for the American missionary. He followed the servant to his house and knocked on his door.
“I was at the meeting tonight,” he explained. “I would like to follow Jesus. But I wonder about one thing. The missionary, does he really believe the things he says?” When the other man assured him that the missionary, though imperfect and a sinner in as much need of daily repentance as the next person, really did believe in Jesus Christ and really did seek to live a life pleasing to God, the skeptical man was ready to be baptized.
What won that man to Christ boils down to a single word: authenticity. The missionary believed in the God of love he proclaimed.
People the world over want to believe in Jesus Christ. People here in Logan and Hocking County want to believe in Christ. They want to be part of His Church.
That yearning for Christ and His family is behind the fact that Christianity today is the fastest-growing religion in the world. In places like India, China, across the continent of Africa, and elsewhere people like that man are being attracted to Christ through the authenticity of Christians.
They see Christians feeding the hungry, serving the victims of disaster, building houses for the homeless, teaching the illiterate to read, and other acts of Christian love. Through these actions, the faith of Christians and the Savior we follow are authenticated.
Christ has given us a mission. We call it the Great Commission. It's the mission of every Christian to make disciples of all people, to bring them the Good News of Christ so that, like us, they can live with God forever.
We're reminded of our mission and the way in which God wants us to do it every time we baptize. As happened last Sunday when we celebrated Baptism or will happen next Sunday, when we have yet another Baptism, we present the baptized with a candle with the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew, “Let your light so shine before others that they see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Our lives are meant to authenticate the faith we confess!
In today's Gospel lesson, we find John the Baptist in prison, facing the prospect of execution. All his life, John had known his mission. He was to prepare the world for the Messiah, the Christ. As last Sunday's Gospel lesson showed us, John was faithful in the pursuit of this mission. But John also had very specific ideas about what the Messiah would be like. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” John said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John had expected the Messiah to be a judge of the living and the dead. His expectation wasn't wrong, of course. Virtually every Sunday, you and I confess our belief that the Messiah will do just that on what the New Testament calls “the Day of the Lord.”
But as John sat in prison, he heard reports that the One he had thought was the Messiah wasn't judging people. Instead, He was healing them, feeding them, telling even notorious sinners like tax embezzlers and prostitutes that God forgave them their sins and wanted to spend eternity with them.
John was confused. He wondered if he'd been wrong about Jesus. And so John sent some of his followers to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus could have given a lengthy theological treatise on His being the long-awaited Messiah. Instead, Jesus points John and his disciples to the evidence of His actions. “Go and tell John,” Jesus says, “what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
“I could talk until I'm blue in the face,” Jesus seems to say. “But to decide whether I'm the Messiah, the promised King, take a look at what I've been up to.” All the actions Jesus describes in today's Gospel lesson-from restoring sight to the blind to bringing good news even to the poor and marginalized of the world-were things that the prophet Isaiah said the Messiah would do when He first appeared.
Jesus' actions authenticated Who He was…and Who He is. Jesus' actions spoke louder than words, including His submission to a cross where He died for our sin and His resurrection, when He secured eternity for all who entrust their lives to Him.
As followers of Jesus, our actions speak loudly, too. Our lives demonstrate to the world either that the Good News of Jesus is true for us or just a lot of hot air.
A friend of mine once told me of the experience of his son-in-law, Bill. It was an experience that nearly robbed him of his faith. Bill, then about eight, was at church one Sunday, when a man stood up and gave an impassioned speech about the need for every member to support a missionary their church sponsored. Moved by the speech, Bill approached the man afterward and held out all the money he had, just a few cents, to support the missionary. The man barely looked at Bill and said patronizingly, “I don't want your money, son. It was just a speech.” That man's faith wasn't authentic. It was only words.
There isn't a perfect person in the church, of course. I like to say that the church is a hospital for recovering hypocrites, each of us guilty, either by thought or deed, of violating every one of the Ten Commandments. But we Christians authenticate our faith in Jesus and our Savior when others see that, sinners though we may be, we really mean it when we say that we believe in Jesus Christ, that He's the Lord of our lives, and the Savior of our souls.
In my former parish, inspired by the ministry of my friend, Steve Sjogren, we undertook what we called Kindness Outreaches, going out to major intersections on Saturday mornings to give away things like cold cans of Coca Cola in the summer or cans of soup in the winter. We handed these and other gifts to motorists when their cars were stopped at red lights. (The police let us do this!) In five years, from June 28, 1997 to June 22, 2002, we reached 15,861 people in this way. (I'm obsessive compulsive. I kept track.) When people asked us why we did this crazy thing, we explained by saying something like, “We're just trying to share the love of God in a practical way.”
I got a letter from a woman about our outreaches once. “My husband is an over the road truck driver,” she explained. “He woke up one Saturday a few weeks ago, cranky, demanding Chicken Noodle soup. I told him we were out of it, but that I was heading to the grocery store and would pick some up for him.”
The woman wrote that she had gone to the store, but on the way home, realized that she had forgotten to get the soup. “I didn't want to go back to the store though,” she said, “I decided that my husband would have to live without it. But then, I pulled up to the intersection of Glen Este-Withamsville Road and someone from your church handed me a can of Chicken Noodle soup. They said, 'Here, we're giving this to you because God loves you' and then walked away. When I got home, I told my husband, 'God must be looking out for you. He's even got people out on the streets so that you can have your Chicken Noodle soup.'”
The woman went on to say that she and her husband hadn't been to church in a long time. But after realizing that there were still Christians who believed in God and showed them what God's love was like that soup, a free gift, they were going back to their old church.
The world is looking for churches and for Christians that actually believe in the God of grace and love that we Christians proclaim. They don't expect Christians to be perfect. But they do expect us to be authentic.
If people see Jesus working in us, guiding us, and informing us in lives of service, love, and prayer, the Church will make disciples and continue to grow.
Saint Matthew Lutheran Church will make disciples and grow.
Authenticity. It was what Jesus used to confirm to John that He was the Messiah. And authenticity is what lets others know that the Lord we follow is real, His grace is real, and His kingdom is real.
The world needs authentic Christians. May we always be just that! Amen