That Kind of Church
(Luke 24: 36–48)
As a kid growing up in the Evangelical heartland in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the things I learned early on was that God expected me to evangelize. We called it witnessing. You know, tell people about Jesus.
I believed in some vague way that God would hold me accountable for the people I failed to lead to Jesus through, what occurs to me now was, a kind of celestial sales pitch.
Now, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not making fun of my upbringing. I’m not ashamed of where I come from; there are some sincerely wonderful Christians who—like the rest of us—are working their way toward God in the best way they know how.
But this whole witnessing thing weighed heavily on me. On the one hand, I’m a pretty good talker. I think I can be fairly persuasive when necessary—a quality much prized by those who took evangelism seriously.
On the other hand, I’m an introvert. I’m shy. Oh, I’ve learned how to act like an extrovert when I have to—my job sometimes demands it. But temperamentally, witnessing always struck me as the same kind of affair as cold calling as a Cutco knife salesman—a job at which I failed miserably.
There was always this premium on having the right words at exactly the right moment. If they say this, then you can counter by saying that—which sounds good, until you’ve had somebody do it to you. Then it’s not brilliant verbal jiujitsu that gives you control over your conversational opponent; it’s just annoying.
“Mr. Penwell, what would say if I could save you 50% on your monthly long distance bills?”
“I’m really not interested.”
“You’re not interested? So, you like giving money your money away.”
“Yes, I like giving my money away. It saves me the trouble of having to pretend that I want to talk to people who call me on the phone in the middle of supper.”
Being a verbal ninja for Jesus was always a big deal growing up. Unfortunately, it felt too much like being a telemarketer—always trying to steer people in the direction you want them to go, having to be unwilling to take “no” for an answer.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dismissing words. I love words. I use them frequently—every so often, well.
One of the problems with words, however, is that in order for them to be helpful (persuasive even), they have to line up with reality.
The fifth step on the Buddha’s Eightfold Path is “Right means of livelihood”—meaning, the way you make your living matters. In other words, if you’re seeking enlightenment, there are certain jobs you cannot do.
When I talk to my students about this, someone will invariably say, “What I do isn’t who I am. It’s my job. It’s not me.”
“The Buddha would say, however, that if you’re walking along a certain path to a final destination, anything that causes you to turn around and walk in the opposite direction is leading you away from where you’ve said you want to go.”
Puzzled looks. Then, I say: “If your life’s work and passion is to see equal treatment for women, you have to live and work in certain ways to sustain that passion and see it succeed. If your day job is as an advocate for women’s rights, you can’t punch out at the end of the day, and go to your second job as a pole dancer. It just doesn’t work like that.”
When I speak with my students about the “Spiritual but not religious” question, many of them are really positive about “spiritual,” but really negative about “religious.” That’s not unique to my students, though.
When I ask why, it usually comes down to two complaints: 1) Dead structures and rituals, or 2) Hypocrisy.
“What do you mean by hypocrisy?” I ask.
“You know, people saying one thing and doing another.”
And there it is: Words are important, but they have to have at least a vague relationship to reality, which is to say, the words and the actions have to occupy the same conceptual space.
What the young people want to know is: Do you actually live this stuff, or do you just talk about it?
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus ends his appearance to the disciples by saying, “You are witnesses of these things.”
The suffering, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. “And that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
As our text for this morning opens, the disciples have heard a story from Cleopas and another unnamed disciple, who’ve met the resurrected Jesus on a road trip to Emmaus; and Jesus was revealed to them in the breaking of the bread. So, the disciples are listening to this bizarre tale when Jesus all of a sudden appears in their midst, saying, “Peace be with you.” Luke tells us that the disciples were “startled and terrified.”
And who could blame them really. This kind of stuff doesn’t happen very often.
The disciples keep trying to figure out how a man, who just a few days before had been laid out cold on a slab, could be standing there asking whether anyone had saved him his 3-piece fish combo from Long John Silver.
What are they supposed to do with this?
Jesus says, “All this stuff? The stuff I’ve taught you, the stuff you’ve seen? Go. Be my witnesses. Do something.”
And do something they did. Acts, the second half of Luke’s account of the early days of the Jesus revolution, reports that the disciples witnessed every chance they got. They could hardly keep their mouths shut.
The early church produced some notable preachers. People good with words. Their words get a lot of attention.
Peter preaches on Pentecost and over 3,000 people convert. Paul gathers people together whenever he goes to a new town, preaches, and BOOM! A church is born.
See, but here’s the thing: These words came at great cost. These words weren’t carelessly strewn about. No, sir!
The words of witness did things. Acts shows us that speaking these words built churches, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and provided for the poor. Heck, these words even got people killed.
As angry folks raised the stones they would eventually use to kill Stephen because he wouldn’t shut up, nobody stopped to wonder: “You think he meant that?”
No. Everybody knew. And they killed him for his words. Those are words that do something, words backed up by a commitment to being something, someone.
You see, that’s the thing with witnessing. For a witness to be successful, she has to be believable. And in order to be believable, her life has to correspond to the words she speaks.
“Of course,” you say.
“Everyone knows that,” you say.
Unfortunately, at least according to my students, most religious people with whom they come in contact aren’t able to pull it off. A recent Georgetown University and Public Religion Research Institute study found that young people (those born between 1980 and 1999) are leaving the church in record numbers. The fastest growing religious self-designation among this demographic is “none.”
In fact, while only 11% of young people were religiously unaffiliated during childhood, fully one quarter now don’t affiliate with any religious body—a 14% increase of people walking away from religion over the course of a few years!
The church across the board is losing people, in large part because who we say we are, and how we live seems too far apart. Our witness, if you will, apparently leaves much to be desired.
But the good news is: When we get it working together, when our words and our actions line up, when our witness is solid, we can change the world—or at least that part of it we occupy. And that’s a start.
Tony Campolo, a sociologist and theologian from Eastern College in Pennsylvania, tells the story about a time he went to a conference in Honolulu.
One of the things about Honolulu is that if you’re from the East Coast, you wake up at 3:00 in the morning because of the time difference. So, Campolo woke up and went out to find something to eat.
He wandered up a side street and found an all night greasy spoon. After sitting down at the counter with a cup of coffee and a donut, he looked up to see 10 or 11 prostitutes come in. The sat down around him.
Campolo says that the one sitting next to him was extra boisterous, and she leaned over to one of her friends and said, “You know, tomorrow’s my 39th birthday.”
Her friend said, “What do you want me to do about it? Sing ”Happy Birthday?“ Get a cake? Throw you party?”
“I don’t want you to do anything. I was just telling you it was my birthday. Why do you have to hurt my feelings? Besides, I’ve never had a party in my whole life. I don’t expect one now.”
That did it. After they left, Campolo called the guy tending grill over. His name was Harry. And he said to Harry, “Do they come here every night?”
“The one sitting next to me? The one with the birthday?”
“Oh, that’s Agnes.”
Campolo said, “It’s her birthday tomorrow. What do you say we have a party for her tomorrow night? She’s never had a party in her whole life.”
Harry grabbed Campolo’s hand and said, “Mr., that’s beautiful! Beautiful! Nobody ever does anything for Agnes, and she’s one of the good people in this town. I know what she does for a living, but she’s a good person inside.”
The next night Campolo went into the diner at 2:30 in the morning, and decorated the place. Put crêpe paper all over, put a big sign on the mirror behind the counter that said, “Happy birthday, Agnes!”
Word got out. “By 3:15,” Campolo said, “every prostitute in Honolulu was crammed into that diner. Wall to wall prostitutes.”
At 3:30 Agnes and her friends walked in and everybody screamed, “Happy birthday, Agnes!”
He said, “I’ve never seen anybody so stunned in my life. Her knees buckled. We sat her down on a stool. We sang happy birthday. But when they brought out the cake, that was it, she lost it.”
After the candles got blown out, she turned to Campolo and said, "Mr. I don’t want to cut the cake. Do I have to cut the cake?
“It’s your cake. You can do what you want to with it.”
“I want to take it and show it to my mom.”
“I just live two doors down. I’ll take it and bring it right back. I promise.”
She lifted the cake like it was the holy grail, and she walked out.
Campolo said, “We were all just standing there. Awkward silence.”
Finally, he said, “Would it be ok if I prayed?” A request, that in retrospect seems like a crazy thing to do under the circumstances—a sociologist leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner at 3:30 in the morning. But it turned out to be the right thing to do.
He said, “I prayed that God would deliver her from what filthy men had done to her, probably starting when she was too young to know what was going on. That’s how these things start, you know, some kid gets messed over by some filthy slob, and she’s destroyed, and we blame her when we ought to be blaming him. And I prayed that God would make her new, because we’re here to give witness to the claim that no matter who you are or what you’ve done, Jesus can make you new.”
Campolo said, “When I finished, Harry said, ‘Hey, you said you were a sociologist. You’re a preacher! What kind of church you preach in?’”
And in one of those moments, when you come up with just the right words, Campolo said: “I preach at a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
And in an unforgettable response, Harry said, "No you don’t. No, you don’t. I would join a church like that!
“Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all love to belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning? I’ve got news for you, that is the kind of church Jesus came to create.”
I can talk all I want, witnessing about how people need Jesus. But until I’m prepared to start throwing parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning, until I’m ready to live all this stuff out, what good is going to do? And maybe even more harm, once people see I don’t actually live what I say I believe.
Until the church can be that kind of church, it better prepare for even more young people to keep walking back out through those doors.
But if we were that kind of church? What if we were that kind of church?
Who knows what kind of craziness God could unleash through us?