Welcoming Sinners (Safe Place #2)

I said earlier when preaching about a “Safe Place” that “getting grace means giving grace.”  Christians who’ve “inherited” faith or “Christian” status from parents and grandparents, i.e., people who didn’t come to Christ from out in the world (with no knowledge or perhaps no respect) for Him or our Father, have a special problem.  I am one. I wonder how many of you are 2nd generation Christians or later?  We are robbed of great joy for grace because we lack the big experience of getting it, and really of having ever needed it.  We are robbed of deep gratitude for grace because we think ourselves to be basically good folks and our lives to be good, moral lives – Jesus didn’t make any great changes in us; we had already “by our own bootstraps” made them in ourselves.  We have a sense of entitlement that God should love, save, and bless us. 

It’s heresy.  And it makes us very spiritually poor.  How can I, without fully appreciating how much it cost God to save me, ever feel the true joy of watching grace get to others – indeed helping it get to them?  Here’s something absolutely true: if you understand God’s gift of grace to you, love Him with all your heart, and love others, you will understand what a high priority we should put on becoming completely a “safe place.”  And if we don’t perceive the lost to be lost, we will tragically leave them just as they are.

Helping us to see how God really saw us and what great lengths He went to saving us is not really the heart of my sermon today.  It would be a worthy topic.  But, for now, I’ll leave you on your own all to ponder your life and the grace you’ve received as God’s “free gift.” 

No, as I preach today, I’m praying we’ll become a “safer place” for people who need the Lord.  We’re not completely unsafe now… we’ve come a ways down the road. But more is needed from us to bring Jesus to those that don’t know Him.  Some are searching.  But some we’ll have to gently and lovingly awaken to their need for Jesus.  On a t-shirt last week I saw these simple words, “UNTIL ALL KNOW HIM.”  That’s perfect!  That’s our task and our call!  So as I talk this out further, I hope you’ll listen for simple rules that I believe we must, must, follow if we wish to be a safer place.

Let’s start with some personalities we’ve developed in ourselves and our churches… Who told us that churches are some “clubs” that people have to meet certain standards to be in?  Won’t find that in the NT.  And who deputized us to protect the church’s purity and God’s flanks by manning (and woman-ing) the church’s walls to fight off the devil’s attacks to get inside and corrupt us righteous folks?  Do we ever have a major misunderstanding of Matthew 16:17!  In that text Jesus says, “The gates of hell will not prevail against it [His church].”   We’ve turned Jesus’ metaphor inside-out and backwards – on its head – the church as Jesus presents it is attacking Satan’s gates, not being attacked by him.  The Lord’s church’s job description is to march out against “hell’s gates”!

I’ve discovered something interesting thing about the internet.  It has set the stage for several websites that allow people to anonymously tell their darkest secrets and confess their sins:  

“Post Secret” publishes anonymous post cards where people disclose their deep secrets and needs – some are humorous, most are sad and disturbing.  Other “confessional” apps have appeared, all with the purpose of allowing people to get things off their chest.  One, “Whisper,” lets folks unburden themselves and get support from the “Whisper Community.”  One guy who’s struggling with his sexual orientation shared it.  A woman who’s being destroyed by bulimia tells it in hope of some support.   A guy who doesn’t know how to handle his recent breakup goes looking for help.     

They are wildly popular because everyone is overwhelmed by living in a fallen world and crushed by the sinful baggage we’re carrying around.  Folks are living in private desperation, looking for hope, encouragement, and light in a dark world.  Guess who the Light is?  Guess who’s supposed to know Him? 

If there’s a place where it should be safe for people to tell secrets, it should be in the church.  Of course, the internet can offer some consolation, but churches can and should offer Christ, pointing people to the One who forgives sins, secret or whatever, and provides a power to overcome them and keep on overcoming them.  Yes, anonymous apps can give some comfort, but it’s anonymous.  But churches can supply real shoulders to cry upon, real eyes of love to look into, testimonies of successful turnarounds, and real support and help for desperation.

So this all raises close-to-home questions:  Is Bono a safe place for open confessions?  Would a homosexual, bulimic, cutter, or high-functioning pain-killer addict feel comfortable talking about their battles here?  Are we comfortable talking about marriage dysfunctions?  Could a child report parental abuse here?  Or one of our teens report rape?  If the answer is “no,” we’re giving the wrong answer.  It goes deeper still… what if a murderer or child abuser or rapist came asking help from us?  Would Jesus love and help that kind of person?  Would we welcome Saul of Tarsus who might well have killed our mother or brother for their faith?  We have to ask ourselves how we rate on this Jesus quality of loving and welcoming all seeking and repentant sinners.  If we don’t grade well, we need to get on our knees begging God’s forgiveness and power to change ourselves to be like His Son.  So…

The church isn’t intended to be a fitness center where people come to improve themselves.  It’s a hospital where the partially-cured become “staff” to help other ill people – sometimes deathly ill – meet the Great Physician. 

The church isn’t meant to be an advanced placement class for smart kids.  It’s a remedial place for those who don’t have it together – where the battered and beaten and broken-down come looking for grace and strength, and get pointed to it by others who’ve already found it!  We need to remember we’re all beggars – and a few of us can now tell other beggars we’ve found the Bread.

So we come to Rule #1:  The “lost” and “learning” come first – we prioritize outsiders, immature Christians, children – all others display complete selfless-ness to pave the way for others’ learning and salvation.

What’s our grade for being a “safe place” for all people to come to find God’s love?  The answer will be revealed in our priorities, both personal and corporate. 

1.     Have we set things like building and budget and worship up to serve our own needs and to have things “the way we want them”?  Or have we set things up deliberately to be successful at drawing people who are unsaved and pointing them to Jesus?  That will mean getting ourselves and our wants and needs out of the way?

Veteran Christians, we’ve been conditioned to think that the years we’ve put in as a Christian and church member mean that now we’ll get attention and all things set to make church comfortable for us.  But Jesus never promised that.  Our task has always been to grow into the likeness of Jesus and to grow into the love of Jesus for the lost.  That’s the task of younger well-established Christians, too.  As we grow in Christ, a burning passion for the lost should arise in us that will drive us to do whatever is necessary and give up whatever is necessary to reach and win them.

2.    Do we love each other and manage our internal squabbles?  If we don’t, people coming will think the people who’re here already are not safe… so why would they be?

3.    Can we – will we – talk about our sins?  One of our primary tasks is helping people see how the gospel connects to and is the answer to their particular struggles and sins.  Sermons should connect the dots between the gospel and a variety of sins, and our goal should be to show everyone how the gospel connects to theirs.  Some of our conversations in smaller groups (two or three, a class, a “Life Group”) should be about our past and how God has graced us.  Or about our present and how we facing a spiritual challenge.  Using wisdom and prayer, we should open up about our own struggles, being sure to tell how Jesus has helped us through it all. 

That brings us to Rule #2.   Never harm in any way anyone who’s “wounded, seeking, and searching” (whether they come knowing they’re wounded or not).  Jesus never did!  First, let’s remember we’re all “wounded” – just that some wounds are more obvious than others.

We need to be a community that loves God, loves people, and is growing together, keeping the main thing – JESUS – the main thing, and offering a place for hard questions.  We must be a place where it’s OK to not be OK.

I preached this a few weeks ago, too… We should always think “mercy” over “sacrifice.”  When Jesus told the woman at the well that He knew she was a serial bungler of marriages, she didn’t shut him down or run away from him.  Instead, she brought the entire town to meet him.  Why?  Because He spoke to her with mercy and offered her light and a better life and eternal life.  He offered her a solution for her inability to succeed at marriage, and hope where she had none.

Let’s figure out how to offer people that hope, week after week.  Let’s turn this church – all our churches – into “safe places,” refuges, harbors, restful havens for weary, broken-down sinners.

According to lead singer Mark Hall, If We Are the Body was originally written for use as a teaching tool for his youth group.  Hall, a youth minister, said that his kids had forgotten what the body of Christ looked like, that the world is well aware of what the church is against, but they don’t always know what it’s for.  His inspiration came from James 2 where James tells us that in the church there should be no preferential treatment of one group over another.  He wanted his group to see that the body of Christ is given gifts to use in ministry and when Christians aren’t using them, the body suffers and the lost are left lost.

If We Are the Body written by Mark Hall for his Youth Group

It's crowded in worship today
As she slips in trying to fade into the faces
The girls teasing laughter is carrying farther than they know
Farther than they know                                                                                                                       But if we are the body
Why aren't His arms reaching?
Why aren't His hands healing?
Why aren't His words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren't His feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?

A traveler is far away from home
He sheds his coat and quietly sinks into the back row
The weight of their judgmental glances
Tells him that his chances are better out on the roadBut if we are the body
Why aren't His arms reaching?
Why aren't His hands healing?
Why aren't His words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren't His feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?Jesus is the way, Jesus is the way.