SHAKING DUST OFF YOUR FEET
John 1: 46-51
Today we will do three things: first, we will imagine what it was like for the first disciples to evangelize, that is, bring others to Jesus; second, we will look at the resistance even Jesus himself faced; and third we will look at the probable resistance that you and I might face inviting people to church or to Jesus, or both.
First, we will imagine what it was like for the disciples to evangelize. The message was perhaps not perfectly clear to those men who were busy with their trades or businesses when Jesus started to meet them and say “follow me.” To drop what they were doing in order to become, as the old saying goes, “fishers of men,” was a huge shift in their daily work. As I have read about them, these men were gruff, not ones who could easily be talked into anything. How did they answer the call of Christ? And how would they make the shift to inviting others to follow him too? In our “Hollywood Jesus” study on Wednesdays, these questions occur in what are called the “white spaces,” that is, information that the Bible doesn’t tell us between the words and we have to infer. In the Bible we read this: “Jesus decided to go to Galilee, found Philip and said to him, ‘follow me’” [After that Philip found Nathaniel. We’ll get to Nathaniel in a minute.] But in reading that, your mind may not fill in any response or reaction by Philip. If you were filming it, you’d have to decide: would Philip shrug and follow? Would Philip look at Jesus as if he had lost his mind? Would Philip start to turn away and then turn back? Notice we’re not putting words in Philips’ mouth because the Bible records no response for him. But we are making a decision about reaction. Reactions to the question like “Will you follow Jesus?” are not often followed with an instant “Okay!” The people Christ need should be loyal and not easily swayed to follow a false leader. So it is natural that they might have a reaction to dropping what they were doing to begin a complete change in their lives. Evangelizing would not be in the wheelhouse of any of those men. But meeting Jesus empowered them; and meeting Jesus in a vision empowered the Apostle Paul to evangelize the rest of his life. Meeting Jesus—through a sermon, through a hymn, through a testimony, or through the power of the Holy Spirit—has been known to change people’s lives. We’re in the business to bringing people to Jesus to change people’s lives! But how do we face the resistance caused by what some people have read, by other Christians who have sail or don hurtful things, or by a general suspicion—or even paranoia—about religion? Stay with me!
Let’s next look at how Jesus handled resistance. Today’s text illustrates how Jesus one time handled caustic comments. Listen to John 1: 15-19:
Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found the one of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph.”
Now here is where you put on your film directing hat! With what inflection does Nathaniel reply? Does he say playfully “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Or does he, with a bit of a sneer, ask” “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If I were the director, I would choose that second one. I think Nathaniel doubts that any significant gift from God could come from that backwater town of Nazareth. Remember how the Wise Men first went to Jerusalem to seek the newborn king instead of to tiny Bethlehem? People couldn’t believe that God chose to do significant things in insignificant places. So Jesus hears that sneering answer: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus could have been hurt by the words. He could have taken the words as a challenge and gotten into a shouting match. Those are natural human reactions. But instead, Jesus was ready for Nathaniel. Our Lord offered him a disarming compliment: “Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile!” (Guile means “sly or cunning intelligence.”) Nathaniel is caught off guard. And by the end of the exchange, the charisma—(compelling attractiveness, often divinely conferred)—the charisma of Jesus lowered the defensive walls around Nathaniel’s heart. This is part of Jesus’ authority and part of his draw. Once barriers of resistance drop—and they can be substantial—people who are introduced to Jesus in person, in prayer, in song, or in a sermon get to “Meet the Master,” as the Rev. Peter Marshall described it. One of his famous sermons had that title: “Mr. Jones, Meet the Master.” Today I’m inviting you to have that experience of inviting someone else to “meet the Master.” You’ll likely not use those dramatic words, but you can still invite others to come to your church to learn about Jesus! Like the parable of the sower—that describes how 100 seeds might just yield as few as one good plant—you too might invite a hundred people over the course of your lifetime. But out of those hundred, one might say “Yes” to Jesus; to following like Philip did, and like Nathaniel eventually did. Who knows if that one invitation produces the next, pastor, or Sunday School Teacher, or Billy Graham or Mother Teresa? For Jesus’ parable says, “It is worth the work for the one.”
So yes, it was not easy for the disciples to evangelize—to invite others to follow Jesus. It was not easy for Jesus to face sarcasm and rejection—in one instance he actually left the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee and went to the other side—the Gentile side—where he healed a man and gained a big following of enthusiastic believers. But now we come to you and to me.
This is our third and final point, but it matters the most for the future of the faith: What will you face if you invite others to our church, to learn about Jesus; to hear that God loves them? Resistance? The word “no?” Hesitating willingness? Yes. Any and all of the above, and I’ll tell you why: religion, church, God, and others such entities are loaded with baggage for many. Almost no one is a clean slate; they have all had either good or bad experiences, or positive or negative thoughts, about all three. So you may get blowback from a person who sharply reacts to your simple invitation: “Would you like to join me at my church on Sunday?” Some may actually accept your invitation especially if they know you will meet them and sit with them. Others may “duck and cover,” not wanting to consider such a threatening or painful venture. Here’s an example: A man I admired a great deal started coming to our church because his daughter was a member. He came and he kept coming for months, and so one day, I asked him “Jim (not his real name,) would you like to join the church?” The man who I had enjoyed seeing for weeks, even months, gave me a cold stare. “No thank you,” and walked away. It was eight months later—a long time of seeing him attend, when we met each other under different circumstances. “I’m ready to tell you why I have not joined your church,” he said to me. “One day when I was a little boy (which had to be in the late 1930s) a deacon from our Baptist church came by our house unexpectedly one night. My dad invited him in asking ‘What can I do for you?’ And the deacon said, “We have noticed that you are not keeping up with your pledge. Your church needs that support and I’m here to collect.” Now times were hard during the Depression and Jim told me, “I could see my Dad’s facing starting to turn red, and the veins on his neck getting big. ‘You’ll need to go now,’ he said firmly to the deacon.” Having the deacon ask for money pushed his family away from that church. “And that” Jim told me, “is why I won’t join a church.” Nearly seventy years had gone by since that night, and the grown man sitting across from me had never joined a church again for that reason. “Goodness that is a painful story,” I said to him. “You don’t ever have to join; just keep coming. But just so you know: We will never treat a pledge like a bill, and no one will visit your home to collect.”
Jim needed to trust again; to trust a church; to trust a man of the cloth. Interestingly, I think it was through our love of baseball that he learned to trust me. He finally joined and set aside the seventy-year-old reason he had resentful feelings toward a church.
You know, I think there are a number of people out there—and in here—like that; they have been hurt, or insulted, or abused by someone in a church. Jesus said to his disciples if they were ever rejected to “shake the dust off their feet” and move on. I think that is easier said than done. Did you see the 14-year-old girl who got pulled from a mudslide in Montecito California this week? She was covered with mud. Sometimes I think the pain and anguish that others have felt not just from Christians, but from bullies or other abusers is not like dust on their feet but mud on their body and soul. So I think it helps us to realize this: we may be inviting traumatized or hurting people to come to our church. And here I hope they will find welcome, comfort, and hope. They may not trust that invitation initially, but let them be while standing with them. Maybe their hurt can turn to hope.
Carol Howard Merritt is a Presbyterian minister who wrote the book just published last year called Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church. [HarperOne, 2017] She writes painfully about some even hurt by people in their own church.
The wounds were easy to see. People on the Internet hinted at them through status updates with “trigger warnings,” soul-baring from new atheists, and tortured blogs of ex-fundamentalists. I worked with the religiously wounded in church and met them at retreats. They were people with the sort of trauma that comes when your injuries are wrapped up in the condemnation of the soul, the shunning of families, or the shaming of flesh….The lacerations ranged in acuteness. A man revealed a paper cut when he told me about being scolded by a haughty elder lecturing him on his shabby shoes. He knew his parents couldn’t afford dress shoes, and to protect their dignity and his own, he refused to attend church…. Still in other moments, I witnessed deep gouges inflicted by a manipulative man in his collar seducing a young boy …. It was staggering to see what people suffered in the name of God. [p. 24]
Friends, the walking wounded are out there, and even in here. But can you join me in gently inviting others, listening to their sometimes painful stories, or feeling their icy responses, giving space for healing, and still leading them to Jesus for unconditional love? There is a hurting world of people, some of whom are turning from churches because of pain. Others have listened to many stories and have lumped all churches and all religions together. Let’s allow the light of love and of Christ to welcome hurting, shamed, and prodigal people back to the Father’s house. He is waiting to welcome those fragile people home.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 14, 2018