God is at work in our lives before we even realize it. God has placed a longing for the eternal in each of us – a longing for meaning, for answers, for a way to “make sense” of this world.
This is true for all of us, because we are God’s children – just because we are blind or deaf to God’s work in our lives, doesn’t mean he is absent!
Everyone, whether they know it or not, is waiting to hear more about God. We all need a spiritual dimension to our life to be whole. Some people may only understand “God” as “something more to life,” or “some unknown force in the universe” or a vague feeling that they are “a religious kind-of-person.” According to UMC.org, about 32% of people seeking deeper meaning in life are looking for a welcoming church.
That means every third person who is looking for meaning in life will find it in a church with open, and welcoming arms.
People are looking for God (God is placing that need within them – if they realize it or not). People don’t know God until they see Jesus; people don’t see Jesus until they see him in us!
Guess what? Jesus knew this. He taught this when he had “saved the best for last” in the gospel of John.
In his last hours with his disciples, he showed them humility and service by washing their feet. He warned them of the troubles that were about to come – through the betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. Then he said to his disciples, his. closest friends:
34 “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:35)
How will people know disciples of Jesus are indeed disciples of Jesus? How will people know they have found the answers they seek? How will they know it is Jesus that provides those answers?
By watching us love each other.
Some church leaders, teachers, or preachers may favor outreach over “inside the walls” relationships, but if we – within these walls – don’t love one another, then no one is ever going to believe we love Jesus. And they’ll never believe Jesus loves them, if they don’t see it in us!
Relationships are built as we express God’s grace by accepting all people (because God loves them) and inviting them to discover the fullness of God’s love for themselves.
This is more than just “getting along” with each other; more than just “liking each other,” or “being happy where we are.” This kind of relationship takes work – prayerful work! We pray for the grace to accept and invite; we pray that when people accept our invitation, they see Jesus among our relationships with one another.
Jesus prayed for that, too, in his last meal with the disciples (John 17:20-23):
“I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. 21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. 23 I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.
Jesus prays that we (the ones who believe because of the words of the disciples in that room):
- will be one – just as he and God are one.
- Will be “in us” – that our closeness with God will grow, and become Jesus’ closeness to his Father; with the goal of “being one as they are one.”
- Will, by our unity with God and one another, show the world that God loves them just as he loves his own Son.
Phil Maynard, in his book Shift: Helping Congregations Back into the Game of Effective Ministry, lists three specific ways that our relationships can help people know Jesus.
Forgiveness: we can’t go through life without messing it up from time to time. We hurt others. We get hurt b others. How do we respond when we get hurt? How do we respond when we do the hurting?
When others hurt him, Jesus responded with forgiveness. Daily, he was persecuted. Daily, he forgave that persecution and kept going. He held no grudges. Can we say that about our relationships?
The very last earthly thing he did for us was to forgive. From the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
We are constantly challenged with opportunities to forgive. Yet, many times we allow hurt to fester. Little slights grow into relationship-destroying barriers. One of the ways sin works in our lives is to cause us to ruminate on small hurts, hurts that might be a result of miscommunication or mistake. We add other hurts to it, ascribing conspiracies where there are none. Have you ever had a problem arise in one relationship and start to look at everybody suspiciously? Assume that they’re all “talking about you,” that the first person has “turned them all against me!”?
Don’t let the little slights destroy relationships.
There are bigger injuries that take long, arduous work to forgive. I am, by no means, insinuating that we need to ignore abuse. God doesn’t want any of us to suffer like that. Some relationships need to end for the health and safety of one, or both, partners. But most of our relationships get torn apart by the little things.
The relationships that show Jesus to the world happen in this room, between church members. Don’t let our witness be destroyed because a small hurt became a gaping wound.
Acceptance: day after day, in every interaction, Jesus exhibited acceptance.
All four gospels tell us that Jesus accepted and welcomed the outcasts of his world. The handicapped. The sinners. Those excluded by religion or race – Samaritans and Gentiles. He consistently welcomed and ministered to all.
When he met a woman with a questionable reputation, who was a member of a different branch of his religion – the “Woman at the Well” – he talked to her like a friend. He treated her with respect. He showed love to her.
Jesus famously “ate with sinners” because he knew that they needed his love, too. He didn’t close off his heart to them.
The least amount of tolerance Jesus ever showed was with religious people who didn’t accept and love. He condemned those who should have known better, who should have “loved because God first loved them,” but insisted on judging and condemning and casting out.
Then, the Holy Spirit exploded on the scene and that acceptance only increased. The Book of Acts is full of examples – Peter preaching to Gentiles; Paul being chosen; the Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch; Peter and Cornelius. One barrier after another was torn down by the Holy Spirit.
Look around. Do we show that same kind of acceptance? Look around. Who, in our lives, might not feel welcome here?
Accountability: even when Jesus condemned the behavior of another, he did so with the goal of repentance. With the “Woman at the Well” he knew all about her many husbands, and understood how that had made life difficult for her. He still offered her a chance at acceptance and forgiveness.
When the “Rich Young Ruler” approached him, looking for meaning in life, Jesus held him accountable for his greed. He pointed out the sin in the young man’s life. It’s not enough to follow all the rules, Jesus said, you’ve got to rid your life of the things that get in the way of you approaching God; in this case, that would be your possessions.
Wesley founded the Methodist movement with the same value on accountability. Examine our hearts, confess to one another, seek to grow closer in a relationship with God. Back then, Methodists would help one another do that.
People everywhere are looking for meaning in life. They might be watching us to see what life means to us. Do we, by our actions with each other, show what life means?
When some people look for meaning, they look to Christians and the church to provide that meaning. Are we showing them Christ?