The last couple weeks, I’ve been thinking that anyone who visits our congregation must feel just a little bit awkward. It’s not because you have done anything wrong, so don’t worry about that. But, I am talking about something beyond the normal awkwardness that comes from being in a new place. The main perception of Christians by those in the world is that we want to help people be good or moral. Most people in the world think that Christians exist to live a good life so that they can get to heaven. So, when you come to church, that’s what you would expect to hear. You would expect to hear about what things you should do and what you shouldn’t do. You would expect to hear a lot about what God expects out of you.
So, if that is your expectation as you walk into a church for the first time, how do you react when you don’t hear any of that? I know that I haven’t preached a single time in this Easter season that you should live a good life in order to get to heaven. In fact, I refuse to preach that message. Not only is it against the Bible, but even if preached it, you couldn’t do it. Instead of hearing that you should all be good people to get to heaven, we’ve been celebrating something completely different. Let me just read to you a couple hymn verses that we have sung these last couple months. “Now no more can death appall, // Now no more the grave enthrall. // You have opened paradise, // And your saints in you shall rise. // Alleluia!” (CW 141:3). Or this one: “Those who in a grave might sleep, // One day shall wake no more to weep! // Since Jesus Christ was made alive // We took shall one day be revived” (“Now Christ Has Been Raised from the Dead,” Albertus Haas). Or even this last Thursday at our Ascension service: “Let us gladly live with Jesus; // Since he’s risen from the dead, // Death and grave must soon release us. // Jesus, thou art now our head. // We are truly thine own members; // Where thou livest, there live we. // Take and own us constantly, // Faithful Friend, as thy dear brethren. // Jesus, here I live to thee, // Also there eternally” (CW 452:4). What do you do when you walk into a church, expecting to be told how to be good and earn heaven, but instead you find a bunch of people celebrating the fact that they’re going to rise from the dead some day?
All of this must just be absurd to them. The way Christians are portrayed and talked about in the world is usually that we are hypocrites. And, if you are expecting that we are all talking about how to be good, and we aren’t, then we really look like hypocrites. Or, Christians are portrayed with this or that political position. Or Christians are shown not affirming some sin. None of it is really that positive, but it’s also not at all what we are doing. I am surprised that they don’t talk about what we really preach, because it’s way more radical than all of that. We are here to celebrate the fact that we are going to rise from the dead one day. It’s completely subverts their expectations. We aren’t about earning heaven, that’s already been done for us. We’re all about celebrating our Savior who rose so that we too will rise. If they really wanted to make Christians look bad, they would talk about that—that we spend eight weeks talking about a man who came back from the dead, and one day we’ll do that same. Isn’t that crazier than anything the world says about Christians now? Can just imagine that news report!
Still, the reason that is not our reputation falls on us. If the outside world does not know what we’re all about, it’s probably because we have not told them. Afterall, “how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14). How well have you done at telling other people that you are looking forward to rising from the dead? If or when you tell people about our church, is that one of the things you point out to them? Do you let them know that we celebrate the resurrection of the dead, not just Jesus, but of all who fall asleep in him? Is that in the top five things you tell others about? To be honest, I know it’s easier to say things like, “We’re a friendly church!” or, “We have such interesting sermons!” or “The music is fantastic!” Those things are true, but are they the most important thing? Are they even in the top five most important things about this church? It falls on us that we are not known for celebrating the fact that we will rise from the dead.
To compound this issue a little, I have had plenty of conversations with you about, “How can we get more people to come to church?” Or, “How come our numbers are going down and not up?” Or, “How come we aren’t baptizing more babies?” Or something like that. It’s a real concern. This congregation has existed for 151 years, we want it to still be here in 151 more. But, is that going to happen in people don’t know what we’re about? What’s more, is that going to happen if we aren’t tell people? I know that we do plenty of things to connect with people in our city. We have soccer camp. We do Easter for Kids. And so on. I am not downgrading the importance of those programs, but if you are relying just on your pastors or your outreach committee, then this church will probably die. Worse than that, the people of our city won’t hear the gospel.
The statistics behind all of this is just staggering. Whenever new members of a church are interviewed, the reason they came to church in the first place is almost never a postcard they got in the mail, a program they sent their child to, or because some random person knocked on their door. 90% of people who came to a church for the first time came because a family member or a friend invited them. That makes so much sense, too. If you are going to go somewhere new, or take up a new hobby, or visit someone for the first time, it’s so much easier to do it if you have someone with you who has done it before. Coming to church works the same way.
If you have ever felt discouraged that people aren’t coming in the doors because of our programs, you probably should feel discouraged. We put way too much emphasis on that small 10%. Because it takes away the edge that comes from ignoring the 90% we’re missing. It’s like this, imagine that your house is falling down and you know why it’s happening. It’s because the house is old and no one is upkeeping it. The walls are rotten. Water pours in the roof. If you aren’t careful, you’ll take a wrong step and fall straight through into the basement. But, instead of fixing those problems, we just decide to put some nice flowers out front and call it good. Those flowers sure help the house look a lot better, don’t they? But they don’t do anything good for the actual problems. Even if we are talking just about that 10%, last October we had a special event to focus just on learning how to spread the gospel. It was called “Praise and Proclaim.” We have over 700 members in our church. Do you know how many people from our congregation came to help spread the gospel in our city that day? Less than 10. I don’t think that this congregation always has a heart for sharing the gospel with other people.
My friends, I know you have failed to invite people to church or to tell them about Jesus. I know that you have not had boldness. I know that you have you have not felt excitement when you’ve had the opportunity to share the gospel. The boldness, fearlessness, and excitement—that sense of glory—cannot come from me telling you to go out and do these things. It can only come from me reminding you how much you have gained as a follower of Jesus. Your savior has taken all of your sin, even this one, on himself and died for you. He was beaten bloody and spikes were driven through his hands and feet. He hung on that cross, and he did it for you. Then, he rose again, and he did that for you, too. It’s why we are singing so many songs of praise today. Jesus has risen from the dead, and we will, too. You will be raised from the dead one day. Everlasting, immortal life is yours by faith. All of this you have gained without earning it, without working for it, and no one can take it away from you. And even by giving it away, it will not be diminished.
In our Scripture lesson today, Paul calls this his glory. This message of Jesus Christ is his glory. His life revolves around it. There is nothing he loves more, and he desired nothing else but to share that message with others: “I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me” (Romans 15:17-18). Paul loved this so much, that his greatest pleasure was to find people who had never heard the gospel, or had never heard of Jesus, and to be the first person to tell them about the Savior: “From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known” (Romans 15:19-20).
Paul did not glory in his service to God because of some special gift given to him. This glory sprang out of his desire to thank Jesus for what he has done. I ask that you would also let thanks pour from your heart. Glory in your service to God. Go and make known that we gather here to celebrate the resurrection of the dead. Because if the world does not know that’s what we’re all about, they probably don’t know the gospel. We’re not far off from where Paul was in his culture. We are surrounded by people who do not know the real Jesus. You can be the ones that tell your family and friends for the first time that Christ is their Savior. You can be the one that invites them to worship here with you. This is your glory, my dearest friends, that Christ is known to you, and you can make him known. Glory in your service to God. Speak of what he has and will accomplish in you. You are going to rise from the dead. Go preach the gospel. Amen.
 The Inviting Church, Roy Oswald