On the fourth Sunday in Lent this year, the lectionary reading from the New Testament was John 9:1-41, the story of the man born blind. Here’s the message I preached last Sunday:
I have resisted getting into this because I keep telling myself, “This is not what you do here at Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.” Normally, I don’t engage in theological discussions, particularly those that are the equivalent of how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. But, today I can’t help myself because some discussion is taking place around the interwebs about “what is the gospel?”
We probably wouldn’t think of asking someone today, How is it with your soul?, but maybe that’s exactly what we should be doing. Of course, the question itself sounds outdated and very 19th century, certainly not the kind of question we would ask anyone in this postmodern, technological era. But our failure to ask that question may be a clue to why people are increasingly choosing to stay away from our churches. Let me explain.
The Neglect of the Soul
The concept of soul has fallen on hard times in our uber-scientific age. We no longer entertain the quaint notion that we need to attend to, or care for, our souls. As a matter of fact, the whole business of the human soul is up for grabs. I just finished reading Whatever Happened to the Soul? In it the authors discuss the various theories of the human soul, including the theory that the soul doesn’t really exist, that humans are no more than their component physical parts. The book rejects that notion, and opts for a holistic view of human beings as a unity of body and soul.
Thomas Moore, in his bestselling book, Care of the Soul, writes from a monastic background, but expands the idea of soul to include more than a person’s eternal destiny. Moore contends that we need to care for our souls, the essence of who we are as living beings, and pay more attention to the “soul” of all things both living and inanimate.
Of all places, we should be talking about and attending to the idea of soul in our churches. And, that is the way things used to be. John J. McNeill’s classic book, A History of the Cure of Souls, traces the importance of the soul in pre-Christian and Christian cultures. In short, the church used to pay great attention to the idea of soul and the condition of the souls of its congregants.
Before the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, and Descartes’ famous, “I think therefore I am”, man’s existence revolved around the idea of his soul. Granted, there was a lot of Platonic dualism, separating the idea of physical body from immaterial soul, but even with that duality, soul was more than just that part that went to heaven. Soul was the essence of humanity, the part of mankind that responded to God, and souls needed “curing” — which meant both caring for and gathering into the Christian community.
But with the Enlightenment, science and the scientific method pushed faith and God out of the public realm. One could talk about things that were provable, but of course, faith and the soul were not among those things. Hence, the loss of the soul began.
The Christian Message Becomes Centered in the Intellect
In the 20th century, the shift continued as the Christian message was intellectualized. The appeal was to what the individual had or had not done: Have you accepted Christ as your savior? Have you been born again? Do you believe the Bible?
And, mid-20th century evangelicals asserted a fundamental faith in the Bible, and several denominations engaged in what Harold Lindsell in 1978 called, The Battle for the Bible. Again, an appeal to a system of beliefs, not the state of one’s soul. Of course, belief is important and the history of the church confirms this with the ancient creedal statements of the faith that addressed doctrinal matters from an intellectual standpoint. But what was lost in the 20th century was an emphasis on the condition of one’s soul, because that was displaced by the condition of one’s mind — what do you believe?
The Church Is Uniquely a Soul Place
But if we return to asking the question, How is it with your soul?, we would accomplish several things.
- First, the human soul would again become the location of our spiritual lives. Some might call this a heart-vs-head battle, but that doesn’t really express it. To be a human soul is not to choose warm affection over clear-headed intellect. Being a human soul encompasses both. But if we must choose a focus, that focus should be on our souls, not our brains.
- Secondly, focus on the condition of our souls would remind us that the soul needs constant care. The loss of concern about the condition of our souls has come about because we think that all we have to do for our souls is to “trust Jesus as our personal savior.” That certainly is a critical part of both caring for, and “curing” our souls. But to assume that the totality of soul care is a one-time decision is equivalent to believing that we only need to eat one meal in our lifetimes to care for our bodies. We attend to our bodies each day with food, drink, and care, and our souls are no different and no less important.
- Finally, to ask, How is it with your soul?, is to invite another to search their own soul for the answer. The question can be asked of believer and non-believer alike, and can lead to further conversation about the care of souls through prayer, spiritual practice, and of course, surrender to God through Christ.
Churches should be communities in which the real issues of our humanity are presented. Instead of answering questions about the soul, however, much of our effort focuses on popular problems and their solutions. While it’s fine to have a series on “how to have a great marriage” or “what the Bible says about finances” the problems of 21st century life are soul problems, not just technical problems followed by self-help answers. We must not become cultural technicians, when what the world needs are doctors of the soul.
So, how is it with your soul today? Not, did you attend church last week?, or do you have a quiet time each day?, but how is your soul doing? And how are the souls of your church members today? Are they strong souls, grieving souls, healthy souls, or lost souls? We may need a new way to ask that old question, How is it with your soul?, but if we fail to ask it we are failing to attend to the most basic need of human beings.
I led a couple of seminars at the Billy Graham School of Evangelism this week, but we’re the ones who received a blessing by being there. Everything about the week was encouraging to the participants, including Debbie and me.
The School of Evangelism staff was wonderful. This was Tom Bledsoe’s last SOE, and he’s been directing these schools for 39 years. Tom’s gracious hospitality and gentle spirit set the tone for the staff team. From the housekeepers to the restaurant hostesses to the program personalities, gracious hospitality was the hallmark of the event.
The Cove setting is magnificent — perched on the side of a mountain near Asheville, North Carolina — with postcard views of Blue Ridge Mountain vistas. The design of each building blends appropriately into the natural scenery. Wood, stone, glass, and ironwork give you the sense of rustic luxuriousness providing the perfect backdrop for relaxation and reflection.
The soaring chapel steeple punctures the blue Carolina sky, drawing your attention to the glory of God’s natural creation. But under all this beauty, The Cove is equipped with the latest in video, audio, and internet technology which facilitates teaching and learning.
We learned that the SOE staff and other BGEA staff members pray for each presenter and each participant by name, before and during the School. The setting, the surroundings, the facilities, and the staff all blend to produce a content-filled, encouraging and inspiring three days.
I was challenged again to give new energy to telling the Old Story. Our church has done a good job of engaging with our community in several large projects. But, we also need to bring alongside our social engagement, a renewed commitment to the good news that Jesus brings. Heaven knows our community needs some good news, and we have it. We just need to tell it in ways and on occasions so others can hear it and receive it well. I’ll be sharing more about how we’ll go about that in the next several weeks. Stay tuned.
This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, January 27, 2008. The lectionary reading comes from Matthew 4:12-23, where Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John, to follow him and he will make them “fishers of men.” Have a great day tomorrow!
the way to the sea, along the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”[a]
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
Our Theme for 2008
Today we’re on the third part of our three-part theme for 2008 —
- Tell the story.
- Invite others.
- Bless the world.
We took the first two Sundays in this month to say we need to “tell the story.” And, here’s what we said about “telling the story:”
- The story we tell is the story of God.
- The story we tell is found in the Bible.
- The story we tell is accepted by some and rejected by others.
- The story we tell is our story, too.
Last week we talked about inviting others. Remember the key point last week? Let me remind you —
- Andrew invited Peter after Andrew himself had met Jesus and spent the day with him.
So, here we are at the final third of our three-part theme — bless the world.
Jesus Tells the Story
Matthew tells us the story of how Jesus begins his ministry. Matthew’s perspective is a little different from Luke and from John, and includes more detail than Mark. That’s to be expected because if any four of us were asked to tell the story of a person we all knew, we would each have different memories and stories to tell.
Matthew begins by reminding us again that Jesus fulfills the prophecy of the Old Testament. This was important for Matthew’s readers, and Matthew is establishing the legitimacy of Jesus to do what he does next. And what is that?
Jesus begins to preach, or better to “tell out,” God’s story. When we hear the word “preach” now we almost always conjure up something slightly unpleasant. Like the experience you’re having now for instance. But, back to my point. We think of someone in a pulpit talking to us in a one-way monologue that we hope ends before noon, or the Methodists get to Pino’s. (A restaurant here in our town) Or, even worse, we think of someone who is fussing at us, or correcting us, or speaking down to us. Years ago, Madonna recorded, Papa Don’t Preach, to express that exact sentiment. We don’t usually like for someone to “preach at us.” I am aware of that, by the way, and appreciate your showing up here most Sundays.
But, back to my point, again. Jesus begins to proclaim, to tell out, to make sure those he encounters hear what he has to say. And, what does he preach about? The kingdom of God.
Mark makes this very clear very early in his account when he says,
Jesus does what we have chosen to do this year, tell the story. But, here is how Jesus does it: Jesus tells a story his hearers aren’t ready for. Jesus tells a story too good to be true. Jesus tells a story that few believe, even though they hope it is true. Jesus tells God’s story about God’s creation.
“But, wait,” I can hear you thinking, “didn’t you just tell us that Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God? Now you’re saying Jesus was preaching about creation. Which is it?”
Well, it’s both because creation is tied up in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is, broadly speaking, God’s will for God’s creation. That’s why Jesus teaches the disciples, and us, to pray,
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
The coming of the Kingdom and the doing of God’s will in His creation (on earth) are virtually one and the same. That explains why Jesus preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” The accomplishment of God’s will in God’s creation is quickly coming about.
Jesus Invites Others
Which brings us to what Jesus does next — he invites others. Matthew records the account a little differently than Luke’s Gospel, which we read last week. But, again, Matthew remembers different details than Luke does, so we don’t need to worry about that. The point is that Jesus sees Andrew and Peter casting their fishing nets and says to them,
“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”
Jesus also invites James and John, sons of Zebedee to come and follow him also. Are you beginning to see where I got our theme for 2008? Jesus tells the story, Jesus invites others, guess what’s next? Jesus blesses the world by
healing every disease and sickness among the people.”
But, I’m getting ahead of myself, again. Let’s back up and look at Jesus’ invitation. “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” What does that mean?
Of course, it’s obvious that Peter and Andrew were fishers of fish. They were casting fishing nets into the Sea of Galilee when Jesus sees them and calls them. They were fishermen who made their living in the world of fishing. They fed their families from their fishing. They bought new nets and boats, and possibly clothes, with the proceeds from their fishing. The houses they lived in, the sandals they wore, the offerings they gave in synagogue or at the Temple all were the result of their fishing for fish.
So, it is not small thing that Peter and Andrew leave their livelihood to follow Jesus, who promises to make them “fishers of men.” James and John also leave their father in the boat while they are mending nets to follow Jesus. If James and John were called the Sons of Thunder, do you think Zebedee was happy with their leaving him to repair nets and fish by himself? Maybe Zebedee was the Thunder that James and John were the sons of!
In any event, the inner circle of disciples — Peter, Andrew, James and John — two sets of brothers leave their livelihoods to follow Jesus to a new vocation — being fishers of men.
Fishers of men, not for men
When we read Jesus invitation, “Come and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” we hear it probably like it was first explained to us. Instead of fishing for fish, Peter, Andrew, James, and John, are now going to fish for men. I’ve even preached entire sermons on this idea of fishing for men. Here are three points –
- When you fish for men, you have to go where they are.
- When you fish for men, you have to use the right bait.
- When you fish for men, you’ll land some, but some will get away.
Obviously, that is not an expository outline from this passage, but all of those ideas are inferred from the idea of being a fisherman. We take the fishing analogy and extend it to the gospel. Which makes really great preaching, but really bad Biblical exegesis and interpretation, because that is not what Jesus is saying.
In New Testament Greek, which was the common language of the civilized world at the time, there is a word for “for”, but Matthew doesn’t use it here. Matthew literally writes the words of Jesus this way –
I will make you fishers belonging to men.
Which does not mean fishers for men. So, what is Jesus saying? Something like this — “You’ve been concerned with the world of fish, now you’ll be concerned with the world of mankind.” In other words, the focus of Peter, Andrew, James and John will turn from the fishing industry, to God’s purpose for creation, mankind included.
Jesus Blesses the World
Do the words you say ever come back to haunt you? Maybe preachers have that happen to them more than most, because we talk more than most folks, publicly at least. I remember saying a long time ago in an energetic discussion with someone over healing, “Well, Jesus didn’t heal everybody!”
Matthew contradicts me in verse 23 — “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” But wait, there’s more. Before you think, “Well, curing every disease and every sickness” is not curing “everybody” — which is a logical thing to think, Matthew goes on in verse 24 –
So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.”
All the sick…and he cured them.
If you were deaf, don’t you think that Jesus would be good news to you ears? If you were blind, don’t you think Jesus would be good news to your eyes? If you were demon-possessed, don’t you think Jesus would be good news to you when he frees you from the chains of demonic slavery?
The word we translate as ‘gospel’ is euanggelion, literally, ‘good message’ or ‘good news.’ And the gospel has to be good news or it isn’t the gospel. It isn’t about the kingdom. It isn’t the message of Jesus. But, the good news is not what we think the good news is. That’s why we have to repent — turn around in our thinking and acting — which is what repentance means. Change our minds and our ways. Do a 180. A u-turn. An about-face.
Why? Because we often think good news would be we get to do what we want to do. We think good news would be if everyone saw the world like we do. Good news would be that I’m okay, you’re okay. But, that’s not the good news. That’s old news, and it’s neither good nor true.
Jesus came with some real good news — God’s creation is going to be what God intended all along. Thousands of years ago, it was not in the will of God, or the plan of God, that sickness would afflict humankind. So, when Jesus comes preaching good news, preaching the kingdom of God, he demonstrates that the kingdom is near by healing everyone he can. Why? Because the good news is “God keeps his promises” — Acts 13:32. Look it up, if you don’t believe me. What could be better news than that?
Because up until Jesus comes, everybody is doubting if God is even interested in them anymore. Where is God while the Roman army occupies Jerusalem? Where is God when God’s people are harassed, arrested, and killed for wanting their homeland back? Where is God when the Temple is used as a place of commerce and merchandise? Where is God when the High Priest is in the pocket of the emperor along with their own king, King Herod? Is God going to do anything? Is God going to keep His promises?
So, Matthew reminds the people that Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecy. Then, Matthew tells the story of Jesus, who tells God’s story, then invites others into it, and then demonstrates the story by blessing the world — healing every sick person. God is keeping His promises, that’s the good news.
We bless the world, too
Last Monday, we hosted a community-wide event celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. As I greeted the group that was assembled here last Monday, I noted that, as far as I knew, this was the first time in this community that white congregations and African-American congregations had come together on Martin Luther King Day. Applause broke out when I said that, because we all realized that we had made history that day. One of the organizers of the event, Mr. Cedric Hairston, assistant principal at Dan River Middle School, and formerly at Chatham Middle School, spoke toward the close of the service.
Looking at me, and in front of the whole assembly, he said, “Your church is doing good things in this community, and people notice.” We are blessing our world by uniting our community. We are blessing our world by inviting white children and children of color into our building to study and learn, to play, and to have a safe place after school. We are blessing the world when we open our doors to little children who are learning to play music and sing. We are blessing our world when we invite teenagers into our old fellowship hall to sing, and read poetry, and talk to each other, and have an event where they get to express themselves. We are blessing the world when we support the Northern Pittsylvania Food Bank, and provide emergency relief to neighbors in our community who need food and gasoline. We are blessing the world when we literally set prisoners free from the wrong thinking that has put them behind bars, to find new life in Christ, and new skills for living, like Karen Hearn does. We are blessing the world when we visit the sick, comfort those who mourn, and care for those who need our loving care.
So, we are doing all these good things, but we must remember the first thing — We are blessing the world, and will continue to bless the world, because we have found our place in God’s story. We know God is making all things new. We tell it over and over again. And we do it by crossing the old barriers of race and class that belong to a world that does not know God. And we do it by giving away what we have, rather than hoarding it to ourselves. And we do it by thinking of others first, and ourselves last. And we do it by giving of our time and our possessions because we know that Jesus did that and more for us. This is the kingdom of God, we are God’s people, we are to be a blessing to all God’s world.