The Concrete Gospel

A sermon based on Psalm 23 and 1 John 3:16-24 preached on April 26th, 2015.

 Sermon audio

Just before the 2012 Presidential Election, CNN posted to its website a quiz. Kind of like the quizzes that we find all over Facebook today—ones like What career best matches your personality? or What flavor potato chip are you? CNN’s quiz question was a little more interesting than that second one at least: Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?

People who took the quiz answered a series of questions about how they read the Gospels and how they understand the message and meaning of Jesus. Their answers would reveal to them whether they believed in a Jesus who’s a strong supporter of American democratic values or a Jesus who’s a strong supporter of American republican values. And like every other internet quiz out there, it would give you a brief synopsis of the Jesus they believed in.

If it turns out you believe in a red Jesus, then a passage like John 3:16—the idea that Jesus brings salvation to those who believe—would sum up the meaning of Jesus for you the best: the red Jesus is a personal savior.

And if it turns out that you believe in a blue Jesus then Jesus is best summed up for you with the words from a passage like Matthew 25:40:

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

This Jesus is a servant Jesus—a Jesus who loves outwardly.

If you look at this quiz pessimistically, I guess you could say that the real question behind it is

Are you Republican or are you Democrat,

because we all have a tendency to create Jesus in our own image with fill that creation with our own biases.

But there’s another more interesting question lying at the heart of this internet quiz:

Is the Christian life all about faith, or all about love?

But that’s a terrible question. It’s the kind of question that forces us to choose between two things that cannot be separated in the first place. The problem is that the world we live in is not that simple—faith is not that simple. There is no red Jesus or blue Jesus. We can see right past divisions like that, and the words of 1st John 3 challenge us to take our personal faith and use it—in one single bound, take our words and our beliefs and turn them into action, to take all those nouns and adjectives we use to describe our faith and match them up with verbs that change the world with our faith. Both tenses of our faith are important. The nouns and adjectives are vital, but they’re incomplete if there aren’t any verbs to go along with them.

Little children,

John writes,

let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.

When Jesus sat down his disciples before their last meal together, he gave them only one command: to love each other just as he has loved them. That’s the way of Christ at its most basic. Our Gospel faith poured out in concrete language:

Love each other.

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Jesus saw the sorts of people that no one else saw. He took circuitous routes to get to whatever next place he and his disciples needed to go—winding pathways, out-of-the-way alleyways. And he stopped. He stopped to spend time to talk with people no one else would talk to. He touched those deemed untouchable and with his touched, he healed them. That was the heart of his ministry.

Jesus cut paths that were never cut before. He made ways that were never walked before, and he called it “The Way.” And then he invited us all to walk like he did.

In the same winding ways, inviting us off the beaten paths that most, in his time and ours, walk along. Jesus made everyone who followed him nervous, scared to follow. I can hear his disciples ask him over and over again,

Are you for real, Jesus? You really want us to go that way?!

See, most of the pathways we walk are the ones we know are safe. They’re the ones that are already clearly laid out for us. Cities and towns have sidewalks. Even our parks have clearly defined trails that lead us through the woods.

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I grew up like many my age with the poetry of Shel Silverstein. I still have the same old copies of A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Sidewalks keep us safe, but they also have their limitations. They help us move through our towns, but only on routes that are determined for us by others—by the ones who planned out where the pathways would go, and the ones who poured the concrete.

That means there’s always a place where the sidewalk ends. And when we get to the end of our sidewalks we have a choice to make: Do we stop and turn around and go back home, or do we venture forth and step off the concrete walkways—the everyday, planned-out paths everyone else takes—and see what lies beyond them?

I love the cover art on this book.

where-the-sidewalk-ends

I love that the children are right there at the precipice and peering down and around. I love that they reach the very edges of their world and they’re still not satisfied—they want to see more! I love that they ignore this warning sign that’s posted here. It says, “EDGE…KEEP OFF!” I love that both their curiosity and their courage are greater than their fear, and they walk farther than they should.

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Taking the noun of our faith and turning it into a verb takes curiosity and courage also. And John says that when the noun of our faith in Jesus Christ is given a verb to match it—that verb is “love.”

It’s always “love.”

It’s never “judge.” It’s never “condemn.” It’s never “hate” or “fear” or “divide” or “discriminate.” The only verb that gives our faith in Jesus Christ its proper inflection and voice and expression is “love.” I think the apostles John, Paul, George, and Ringo were right all along: All you need is love!

But the love John (the writer of this letter) is talking about is the kind that has us take risks—that has us step off the well-worn pathways that everyone else travels upon, past where the sidewalk ends—and into the thick of our community, so that we can care for those who so many others so easily ignore because they’re all too busy to step off all of their regularly-traveled sidewalks and into the spaces beyond them. Jesus’ commandment to love should have us peering off the edges of the world like these kids.

That’s what Jesus means when he asks us to lay down our lives for others. Jesus doesn’t ask us to sacrifice our well-being. The world doesn’t need another martyr or savior. Laying down our lives simply means responding to people around us who are in need.

That’s daily discipleship. That’s practicing Jesus’ commandment. That’s the concrete Gospel. There’s no dogma here. There’s only the practice of love. But practicing this kind of love takes curiosity and courage. It means stepping out of our safety zones, off our sidewalks, and following Jesus as he takes us places well off the beaten pathway.

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There’s a Baptist church in Jefferson City, Missouri who, one Sunday, decided to cancel all of their Sunday school classes as well as their regular worship service for the morning and instead do a day of service. They called it “Mission JC: In the City. For the City.” Some members went to houses around them and patched up leaky ceilings. Some others grabbed paint cans and brushes and refurbished a couple walls in another nearby house. Other members threw a block party in the church parking lot. They grilled up a couple hundred pancakes and handed them out for free to neighbors who came around. That morning, they made sure that no one walked away hungry.

There’s another church, this time in Texas, whose pastor handed out $20 bills to everyone who showed up to church one Sunday morning. It’s called a reverse offering. It wasn’t free money. Each recipient was challenged to spend that $20 to meet the needs they encountered throughout the next week. Some bought lunch for the person in back of them at Subway. Some used their $20 bill to fill up the gas tank of a neighbor they knew was struggling. Everyone came back with great stories about how they used their money. Some even said they kicked in some of their own cash to do whatever needed to be done.

The same church went to the bank and changed their bills in for rolls and rolls of quarters. They bought a dozen huge jugs of detergent, and they went to the local laundromat on a Saturday afternoon, and gave everyone there a free laundry day.

See, that’s going where the sidewalk ends! That’s coloring outside the lines! That’s creative love for neighbor and strangers! That’s laying down our lives for others. Jesus isn’t asking to sacrifice our well being or our sanity. He just wants us to step out of ourselves with a courage and a creativity that’s greater than our fear, and respond to people who are in need. That’s the concrete Gospel.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen!

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