"Outreach…a new direction…is it really?"

Date Sunday April 08, 2018
Service Outreach Message #1, Easter 2
Text Texts: Acts 4:32-35, Matthew 25:31-46
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "The Best April Fool’s joke EVER!"
Next Sermon "YOU are Witnesses!"

     Outreach…a new direction…is it really? No…it’s an old direction, as old as the parable that Jesus told about sheep and goats in the Gospel of Matthew and as old as the post-resurrection communal life of the followers of Jesus described in the Acts of the Apostles. The new direction for us is renewing our understanding of and focus on the old direction of reaching out to meet needs.

     And, so, we begin with two Bible passages that challenge us. It’s amazing, really, that the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, who teetered on the brink of scattering at the death of Jesus, never to be heard from again, not only reassembled themselves but created a Christian community.

     And what a community it was! Can you imagine? They were of one heart, of one soul, and no one claimed private ownership of possessions, but held what they owned in common. We are told in Acts 4 the how and why of this miracle. First the how; it was possible because, as they testified to the resurrection of Jesus, great power and great grace was upon them. And, the why is that by holding all in common, everyone’s needs were met.

     It’s clear that there was a spiritual transformation in the hearts and souls of some who heard and believed the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, so that the believers chose community over self. WOW!

     Of course, in the very next passage we read of a case in which that did not happen, and as time passed followers of Jesus struggled with being in community, so that when we read those few verses from Acts 4 today, they sound like a Fairy Tale. We think, “This is not something which in any way applies to us. I mean, really, who would share in such an extreme way to meet needs in the community; that is a lot to ask!

     Or is it? Perhaps not if we consider what is REALLY happening when we reach out beyond ourselves, which Jesus explains in his parable of the sheep and the goats. I won’t get caught up in the judgement scene of the text, as I’ve been known to do, and debate how it fits into our understanding of grace. Instead, let’s stick to the strong message that when we reach out to people in need, it is Jesus who is being served.

     It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in the parable both the sheep and the goats are surprised at what Jesus says. The goats are surprised that they missed seeing Jesus, and therefore did not serve him. The sheep are surprised that they served Jesus and did not realize it. In both cases they are surprised by their failure to recognize Jesus. Why was it that they did not recognize him? It’s because he showed up where they did not expect him to be, among the disadvantaged, poor, imprisoned and those in need.

     Jesus is with and for those who are suffering. If we want to experience him, to find him, that’s where we should go. As we serve those in need, we serve him. That’s the message.

     While that sounds great, we may secretly be thankful for God’s forgiving grace, because even the prospect of serving Jesus may not be enough to move us out of our comfort zone to meet needs. That’s a lot to ask!

     Or, is it? Let’s go back to that early Christian community described in Acts 4; they are a diverse group who experienced the power of God. That’s it … there was no well-developed doctrine, or church infrastructure, or hymnal, or church building, or membership roster. Yet, they were channels of God’s power, changing lives.

     This past week, just a few days after Easter, I was one of thousands of people who gathered on a chilly and windy day, on the Mall in Washington D.C., for a rally calling for the end of the sin of racism, an event acknowledging the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So many of the speakers expressed both dismay and outrage that our world continues to be devastated by this sin. Yet, that is the ugly truth that impacts every aspect of people’s lives and creates needs that followers of Jesus are called to address.

     As we headed for home after a long, emotion-filled day, a Methodist pastor who sat across from me on the bus expressed her outrage that the participation that day was, she thought, unimpressive. “This is what’s wrong with the church,” she said, “People are not taking being disciples of Jesus seriously!” Having been a pastor 20 years longer than she, I could sympathize, but also realize (as I’m sure she does too) that following Jesus is never as easy as showing up at a rally. Oh, if that were only the case! Instead, it’s grasping that like those first followers of Jesus we have access to resurrection grace, the same grace that was made known as the first Christian community provided for the needy among them.

      My friends, we are no less Easter people than those first followers of Jesus.

     We are now the living testament to a very real spiritual transformation that enables us to choose others over self and to serve Jesus as we not only meet the needs of those who are suffering, but also battle the sin that creates those needs. We too are channels of God’s power, changing lives.

     Is it a lot to ask? Yes! But, the baptized, forgiven, empowered by the Holy Spirit, Easter people is who we are and reaching out is what we do. AMEN