The Invitation to Everyone: Humanity’s Story
August 9, 2015
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
“But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed.”
As the old Nationwide ad campaign used to state, “Sometimes life comes at you fast.” Such describes well our family’s life over the last three-plus years! In that time we moved to Greensboro, have had the joyful busyness of all four children getting married, one combat deployment and safe return, one grand child born and another due in seven weeks, and the loss of our family matriarch, Lauralee’s mother.
All of these events meant coming together with family and friends; many of them with mailed invitations: bridal showers, baby showers, weddings, receptions and a baptismal gathering.
From sending all of these invitations and living through these events, two facts come to fore: You can’t invite everybody and not everyone invited to events will show up! With a bit of compare and contrast with these two facts we can learn something of how God’s invitation to humanity is similar and dissimilar.
This is the second of our sermons in a series entitled: Invite. Last week, we explored the story of Christ’s invitation to a festival life of joy. Next week, we’ll look at the issue of God’s invitation through the lenses of our own story. Then, we’ll wrap up considering the church’s story. Our goal as a pastoral staff is to provide some “helps” and tools for our role as inviters. Last week, we gave out some bookmark prayer cards. They had spaces and suggested categories for listing people whom you know are not active in a local congregation and to begin praying for them and seeking opportunities to bring them to worship. If you didn’t get one last week, please pick one up in the public spaces of the church. Next week we’ll have a tool to help you begin to articulate your personal story in the faith. As well, we’ll have cards for you to give to those you wish to invite. This week we look at humanity’s story.
Our text is from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. As usual he was writing into controversy. The Roman church was about to come apart at the seams because people were focusing more on that which they disagreed about that where they agreed. (As an aside, wouldn’t it be God’s dream for congregations and denominations to spend more time finding areas of agreement than focusing so much on their differing opinions? But that’s a sermon for another day.)
The Roman church had one party in it that believed being a Christian could only be achieved by keeping Jewish dietary laws. They looked down on anyone who didn’t. It had another party that was composed of folks who’d come into the faith from Gentile backgrounds. They saw themselves as supplanting and superior to folks who came to Christ from Jewish backgrounds. It was into this dire situation that Paul sent his letter to the Romans. So, in it Paul discounted a superiority of anyone in the church by pointing out areas of commonality. From his writings we can glean much of the story of humanity and find motivation to invite folks to meet Christ in his body, the church.
His first lesson about humanity is pungent, namely that ALL are in need of the invitation to life in Christ for a very specific reason: sin. A casual observer of our culture might rightly claim that our highest cultural value, a near idol is “positive self esteem.” Efforts and effects of TV, classroom, teaching, thousands of books and millions of hours of therapy have gone into and are geared at maintaining and building up positive self-esteem. All problems anyone has personally are attributed to poor self esteem. Criminal acts in our society are no longer because of personal choice and responsibility but seen as caused by poor self esteem. Now, don’t get me wrong there is a healthy level for self-esteem to be maintained at, but it would seem we’ve gone over the top as a culture. Because of our cherishing and promoting positive self esteem so much, it makes it well nigh impossible to hear a theological truth Paul relates in our passage: All have sinned. We are all sinners. We only have to look at the news or into our own hearts to know that; but it grates against a positive self-esteem culture. You see all of humanity has a condition, “a sinful nature,” that separates us from God, one another and our best self. Our condition has symptoms, actions or failure to act that are “sins.” Because we all are in that sinful condition, we ALL need the invitation to Christ, the only cure.
That’s why in Romans Paul extends the invitation to life in Christ to all. While we might have to “carve” down an invitation list, to say a wedding, God with unlimited love and grace for humanity never does so! You are always on the “a” list with God and nothing can change that!
This leads to a graceful emphasis of the people called Methodists. Taking our cue from this passage and many other passages, we are to be those who emphasize that the divine death of Christ on the cross changes the game for all of humanity! Now this may sound very normal to you, but understand that there is a huge stream of theological thought that limits Christ atoning work on the cross only to the pre-destined, chosen-before-all-time, few. If you aren’t among this group, no matter how much you love Christ and profess him, his work on the cross won’t save you. But we believe that his atoning act on the cross isn’t limited; that it’s power to save extends to any and all who believe!
So, we are those who broadly and widely extend the invitation, without prejudice. In his practice of inviting John Wesley never pre-judged who may or may not accept the invitation. He never gave up on anyone, often ministering in prisons and on death row. He never gave up and neither should we. And when we refuse to never give up on anyone, we are following the heart of God, who never gives up.
Now, love can’t be forced, coerced or programmed and be genuine love. God wants us to respond to God’s love, to choose to love God, that’s why God gave us free will and choice. This means to our eyes at a particular point and place in their life journey, it might appear that someone is not accepting God’s invitation to humanity, that is life in Christ. That’s really between the person and Christ and you can’t force them. And hear this clearly, you never know what tomorrow brings; what one more loving invitation by you or someone else may accomplish; they might embrace the invitation to the best life there is, next year or in the next hour.
Bill was an attorney for the FAA. His son and wife had died and he became a recluse. He had neglected himself in so many ways. His clothes were filthy and almost comically mismatched; his teeth were rotten and his only attempt to care for his appearance was trying to dye his few remaining wisps of hair an orange red. Bill publically and proudly told people that he was an atheist and had rejected Christ and the church for 70 years! He was in his 90’s. He would drive through the night from Washington and show up in his little Western North Carolina town and visit his sisters who were just as old as he was. For decades they had prayed for Bill and lovingly invited him to embrace Christ. They never gave up. His home church never gave up. His pastor never gave up. And Bill gave his life to Christ at 93. He left his entire estate to that church and now a youth center is there. In that youth center, young people meet Christ and someday in heaven, they will meet Jesus and Bill, who made that ministry possible. God never gave up on Bill even though for a long time Bill gave up on God. And for us, the lesson is those who follow the heart of Christ, should never give up on anyone, ever. Let us pray.