Last year, I was compelled by a book that I read as part of our district Pastoral Leadership Development group called Simple Church by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger - I’ve mentioned it to you before. In it, they talk, among other things, about how in our desperation to try to keep people interested in and connected to our churches, we have so complicated things with events and activities and programs, that we have no clear message for people about how they’re actually supposed to become disciples. The mission of The United Methodist Church, and thus of this particular United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Since it is our mission, our purpose, everything we do should be able to point us to our mission. Activities and programs that are nice or fun but don’t actually help us in the work of making disciples who change the world? Well, they really don’t make sense for us. But if our mission is making world-changing disciples, what is our plan for doing that? Do people who attend this church, who call this church our faith home, know what they should be doing to fulfill the mission? Simple Church suggests that most churches are not very good at this part - having an intentional discipleship plan that simply and clearly communicates to everyone how they might go about living out the mission.
I’ve suggested to you - in our leadership teams, in our newsletter, and you see it now in our bulletin every week - that our intentional discipleship plan could be summed up in three simple parts: Meet Jesus, Follow Jesus, and Serve Jesus. Now, just coming up with a memorable slogan does not mean we have a plan. But I’m hoping that if we can capture the vision of disciple-making that helps people to meet Jesus, follow Jesus, and serve Jesus, we can begin to flesh out what the details of that would look like in our congregation. How will this church help folks meet Jesus? What does it look like to become a follower of Jesus and how can our ministries support that happening? What does it mean to live a life of service in the name of Jesus, and what opportunities can we support to help folks to do just that? Over the next three weeks, then, we’ll be looking at each component of our intentional discipleship vision, and digging deeper, exploring together.
Today, we start … at the beginning, with the most basic, and in some ways the most challenging part of our plan: Meet Jesus. Have you met Jesus? Who in our community needs to meet Jesus? How do we help folks who come here to meet Jesus? In what ways do we make it possible for folks to come here to meet Jesus? What would you do to make sure someone else could meet Jesus? To help us think about these questions, we turn to the gospel of Mark.
Our scripture text for today takes place very near the beginning of Mark’s gospel. As I’ve shared with you before, Mark rarely shares things with a lot of details if he can possibly say something in fewer words. The pace of his gospel is practically frantic. So it’s worth noting that Mark’s version of this event - Jesus healing a paralyzed man - is longer than in Matthew and Luke where it also appears. Mark, for once, gives the most details. After a preaching and healing tour through the region of Galilee, Mark says that Jesus has returned to his home in Capernaum. We don’t often think of Jesus at home, but that’s where Mark says Jesus is as this scene unfolds. Once people find out he’s home, they start crowding in at the house to see and hear him. After all, he’s been building a reputation. He can fix people, and he speaks in a new way, with a new kind of authority, about God and the scriptures. They want to meet him. They want to see if what they’ve been hearing is true.
In particular, a group of people seems to want to get their friend to meet Jesus, and they want this to happen very much. We’re not sure how many in the group - but there are at least 4 who are carrying their friend who is paralyzed, presumably hoping that Jesus will be able to heal him. The crowd is so thick, though, that they can’t even get in the door of the house. This, however, does not deter them. They simply take the man to the roof, dig through it, and lower the man down on his mat before Jesus that way. If Jesus is surprised, we don’t hear about it. Instead, he seems to be impressed. Mark tells us “when Jesus saw their faith,” Jesus tells the man that his sins are forgiven. Hear that again - on seeing the faith of the friends who brought this man to Jesus, Jesus announces that the man’s sins are forgiven. We aren’t told that forgiveness is what the friends or the man came seeking of Jesus. We’d assume that they were there for physical healing for the man. But what they get is a promise of forgiveness.
The rest of what happens is secondary - at least for our focus today. Some of the scribes - who are also hanging out at Jesus’ house - question in their hearts at how Jesus can possibly say something so presumptuous as “your sins are forgiven.” They consider it blasphemy. Forgiveness of sins is something only God can offer, and they do not believe Jesus to be God. But Jesus, perceiving their inner dialogue, calls them out. “Which is easier?” he wonders. “To forgive sins? Or to just heal this man and tell him to walk? But,” Jesus says, “just so you know that I can forgive sins …” Jesus then commands the man to get up off his mat and walk home. The man does exactly that. And everyone praises and glorifies God, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this.”
As we think today about meeting Jesus, I want us to zero in on the extraordinary measures this group of people went to so that the paralyzed man was able to meet Jesus. When have you wanted to meet someone so much? When have you been so passionate about making something happen? When have you been so committed to making something happen not for you, but for someone else?
I’ve been thinking about times I’ve been passionate about something, or dedicated enough to something that others wanted to know more, times when I’ve been able to invite others to share in something that meant a lot to me. Recently, I’ve been re-watching the TV series LOST. Were any of you LOST fans? Lost is probably my favorite TV show ever. It follows a group of survivors of a plane crash as they try to make sense of their new life on an island full of mysteries. Back when LOST was on, starting in 2004, I must confess that I was unlikely to schedule any church events that might interrupt my viewing of LOST. I read weekly recaps of the episodes so I could follow all the latest theories about what was happening next and what different events on the show might mean. I was, well, a little obsessed. And I told people about it. I think I was the first person in my family who started watching LOST, but by the end of the series, I’d convinced everyone else to watch too. Along with some friends. And some church folk. And probably some strangers. I just loved it so much, and I wanted everyone else to like it too. Somewhere in the midst of my LOST obsession, I wondered - have I ever been as good at encouraging others to meet Jesus as I have been at getting them to watch LOST? Can I say what I say of LOST: I just loved it so much, and I wanted everyone else to like it too? Sure, convincing people to watch a TV show is both an easier commitment and a less threatening, personal topic than persuading someone to follow Jesus Christ. But the question pulled at me.
Or, I think of ways in which my life demonstrates my commitment to the things I believe. Many of you have probably talked to me, at least a little bit, about the fact that I’m a vegan - I don’t eat any animal products. Going into all the reasons I’m a vegan isn’t usually a conversation I initiate, even though it might seem like something you’ve heard me talk about. It’s just that eating is part of our everyday life, and so you’ve probably been around me at some function that involved food, and you’ve probably seen that I wouldn’t eat some things that others are eating, and naturally, people start asking questions. Or, I’ve had to let someone know that I eat a vegan diet so that they could feel prepared - when I started at the church, or when I visited someone for dinner, or when I ordered meals for an event. Or you’ve witnessed my excitement over a new vegan product or dish. People are naturally curious when they see someone doing something different than what many others are doing, and so, over time, I end up having a lot of conversations about veganism. I can’t say that I’ve influenced as many people to become vegan or vegetarian as I’ve convinced to watch LOST, but it is, of course, a bigger level of commitment, and, since many people tend to get opinionated when it comes to what we eat and why, I often even deflect the vegan conversation if I can. Despite those barriers - the commitment, the complex topic - I know people who have started changing their own diets because of me. It’s a good feeling. But the point is, in this case, unlike my LOST viewing, my influence isn’t even primarily impacting people because of what I say, my influence is because of what I do. It’s not because I’m talking about animal rights all the time, it’s because every day I live out my choices in what I do, what I eat. So, again, I try to make the connection. If I want to help people meet Jesus, am I living in such a way that demonstrates the difference Jesus makes in my life? Would anyone look at my life and my choices and my way of being and want to ask questions about what it is that drives me? Centers me? Guides me?
The first step in our discipleship process is helping folks meet Jesus. There are lots of ways we can help folks meet Jesus, and I want your input and ideas about the best ways we can do that here, whether folks connect with us through worship, or starting out at RipIt, or starting out helping with We’ve Got Your Back or serving at the Friday lunch program - we have so many opportunities to invite people to connect. But do we have the will? The commitment? The desire? Are we passionate about Jesus? Has Jesus changed the way we live? How much do we want to make sure others meet Jesus too? I think of the friends of the man on the mat. A group of people that was willing to carry him from who knows where, and then persist through the crowds, and then take him to the roof and then dig through the roof and lower him to the ground. It was their faith, not the faith of the man himself, that is life-changing for this man. It is their faith that causes Jesus to respond as he does.
What would you do to make sure someone else was able to meet Jesus? Who do you wish could have the life-changing experience of being brought before Jesus and hearing the words, “your sins are forgiven”, or experiencing the healing power of Jesus from their pain and hurt - and what would you do to make that happen? I worry that sometimes our expectation for how people will meet Jesus is that they will care for that part of their spiritual journey themselves. Certainly, for some people, this happens. Some people seek out Jesus on their own, and I think that’s pretty amazing. But for this man, at least, he needed a group of friends to get him there. I worry that we’re sometimes expecting our friends who are broken and hurting and metaphorically like this man on a mat to get themselves to Jesus without our stepping up to grab a corner and help clear a path to Jesus.
For some of us who have grown up in a community of faith, who have been nurtured as disciples of Jesus since before we could talk or walk, it is hard to wrap our heads around meeting Jesus for the first time, because it seems like we’ve always known him. That’s certainly my own personal experience. Although I can turn to some meaningful moments in my faith development where I made an intentional deepening of my commitment to follow Jesus, I grew up with Bible stories, with church attendance as the core of my family’s rhythm of life, with the hymns we sing deeply embedded in my memory. When did I meet Jesus? I don’t ever remember not knowing him. I’m thankful for the foundation that I have, which has served me well in immeasurable ways over my life.
But there’s a downside, or at least an area that needs careful attention if you feel like you’ve always known Jesus. It can make it more challenging to feel the urgency in helping other to meet Jesus. Since Jesus has been a “given” in my life, I can sometimes forget the life-changing impact Jesus has had. And in turn, then, I’m less likely to give all my time and energy to carrying my friend’s mat to Jesus’s feet. That’s why sometimes that best disciple-makers, the people most excited about getting others to meet Jesus are those who just met him themselves. They still remember what it was like, meeting Jesus, and what it was like, without that core of faith. If you, like me, friends, met Jesus long ago, I want to encourage you, challenge you to really think about how your life has been shaped by knowing Jesus. Think of the gifts that have come into your life because of having Jesus at the center of your being. If you can’t get in touch with the impact Jesus has had on your life, it will be hard for you to convince anyone else that Jesus matters, and hard for you to convince yourself that you’d carry mats and dig through roofs to get others to the feet of Jesus. We’ll talk some more about how we do that - how we stay in touch with Jesus - over the next two weeks. (First UMC only) If you are new here, or you’re just learning about who Jesus is, or what this church thing is, please know that I am - and we are - so thankful that you are here. And we’re ready to learn from you too, as we can learn from the passion and hope, the seeking and searching, the growing that marks your getting to meet and know Jesus. I hope that we who have met Jesus, recently, or so long ago that we can’t even remember the details, can demonstrate the passion, the commitment, and the changed lives of our own that will help us carry others to meet Jesus.
A group of people carried a man to meet Jesus - and his life was never the same. The man was healed, and his sins were forgiven, and people praised God because of what they had witnessed. What would you do, friends, if the people in your life could experience what this man did? What would you do to help someone meet Jesus? May we live in such a way that Jesus might say of us: Their faith has changed your life. Amen.