Sunday, January 20, and Monday, January 21, 2008
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In the Manitowoc County Jail, when I’d visit with a prisoner—whether a member of the church or someone referred to me by a family member or friend—the jailers would usually have me use an interview room near the entrance doors The prisoners liked that room, because they could look out through the double set of locked doors then through the lobby and actually see outside. A rare glimpse of the sun from within the windowless county jail.
What I liked about that room was how it was a great place to share the Gospel—not just by my words but also by looking at those same doors toward outside.
I explained the Gospel in the same way to a lot of prisoners but let’s take “Nancy” for an example. “Nancy” isn’t her real name. “Nancy” was in on drug charges and fraud charges. She had a long record, an abusive life, and a life torn apart by drugs. She was assisting the Metro Unit in putting some drug dealers behind bars, but she also had a no good boyfriend waiting for her on the outside who would prove to be her undoing.
Anyway, when I sat with “Nancy” in that interview room, looking out the jail doors to see outside, I’d tell her the Gospel is like if Jesus comes into the jail and talks to the Sheriff’s deputy in the bubble—the control room. He tells the deputy that He is “Nancy.” The deputy checks the computer and says there must be some mistake, because “Nancy” is already in jail.
Jesus insists, saying that He is now “Nancy.” It’s the kind of thing that only Jesus could insist on. And therefore, if He is “Nancy,” then He is on the wrong side of the jail doors.
Deputies come and escort Jesus into the sally port, the double set of locked doors. In between those locked doors, Jesus is told to remove His street clothes, and they frisk Jesus to make sure He isn’t carrying any weapons, drugs, or contraband. Deputies take His street clothes up to “Nancy”’s cell.
They go to “Nancy”’s cell to tell her that she is no longer a prisoner. In fact, it turns out she doesn’t even have a criminal record. She is told to remove her orange jumpsuit, and she is given the street clothes of Jesus. The deputies then warmly and gladly escort “Nancy” from the cell block down to the main entrance. They usher “Nancy” into the sally port where she sees Jesus—who is now wearing her orange jumpsuit.
Jesus isn’t “Nancy,” but He says that He is so that He can take her place. Jesus isn’t “Nancy,” but there He is wearing her jumpsuit and headed to a cell. Jesus isn’t “Nancy,” but He has her long criminal record and destructive behavior. Jesus isn’t “Nancy,” but He will do her time for her crime.
As Jesus goes into the jail toward His cell, “Nancy” is allowed to go out of the sally port, through the lobby, and outside. She is free. “Nancy” isn’t Jesus, but she is wearing His clothes. “Nancy” isn’t Jesus, but she has His innocence. “Nancy” isn’t Jesus, but she has His perfection, goodness, and holiness.
And after telling “Nancy” that story, I write on a piece of paper—“Saint Nancy.”
“Nancy,” along with most of the prisoners that heard this same thing from me, laughed at the idea that they are saints. It took “Nancy” a moment to realize that what I was saying with my story is that if Jesus takes her place, if Jesus chooses to wear her jumpsuit and take her record, if Jesus took her place on the cross to die for her sins, then she’s been made innocent, perfect, good, and holy. A saint is a holy one, and so because of Jesus, there’s every reason to call her Saint “Nancy”. Holy One “Nancy”. Holy with the Clean Record of Jesus “Nancy”. Holy in the Eyes of God “Nancy”. Holy Because God Only Sees Jesus When He Looks at You “Nancy”.
Regardless of what ended up happening for “Nancy” when she left the jail months later, despite the fact that she’d contact me about getting baptized but then disappear just as quickly, I know that when she realized that day in that interview room that Jesus makes her to be Saint “Nancy,” I know she understood the Gospel. I could see in her eyes that she was overwhelmed with what true love and forgiveness means.
That experience of sharing of the Gospel makes me think of our mission statement: “Equipping saints to make disciples.” It is another one of the things that thrilled me to be coming here as associate pastor to work in the area of outreach, because that mission statement shows that this congregation has a focus on reaching out, of telling people the Good News of Jesus, of inviting people to become followers of Jesus.
But remembering “Nancy,” I want you to think just for a moment on whether the mission statement should be flipped around. Instead of “equipping saints to make disciples,” should it be “equipping disciples to make saints”?
I went to the jail as a disciple of Jesus, a follower of Jesus, a learner of the ways of Christ. I went to the jail as a disciple, and I made a saint. I mean, Jesus made “Nancy” a saint, but I went with a message that made “Nancy” a saint.
Equipping disciples to make saints. That’s the heart of the message I took to “Nancy” in jail, and really that’s the heart of the message we take to all people: through Jesus, they become saints, holy ones in the eyes of God.
I don’t really think we need to change the mission statement. I just want us to think today about the fact that the message of Christ makes people fully members of the Kingdom of God. There’s no hierarchy. It’s not that we’re the saints, and the people who hear our message are just lowly disciples. It’s not that we’re the insiders, and they’re outsiders trying to work their way in. It’s not that we have the full Gospel, and they’ve just got a part of the Gospel.
I don’t think that this is what our mission statement means, and perhaps none of you have ever thought about it that way. You just saw it as a reflection of the Great Commission, how at the end of the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus calls on us to go and make other disciples.
But just in case any of us have ever gotten caught up in thinking that saints versus disciples is some kind of ranking system, if we’ve ever gotten caught in thinking us versus them, inside versus outside, veteran versus rookie, a Lutheran Christian my whole life versus the newcomer, if we’ve ever gotten caught in thinking that way, well, then flip the mission statement around: “Equipping Disciples to Make Saints.”
That’s today’s epiphany in evangelism: The Gospel message makes us holy ones through the work of Christ, so let’s go and tell others that they are saints.
That was the message that “Nancy” heard, that she so desperately needed to hear. Her life was nothing but trouble upon trouble, and through the Word of God, she got to hear that her name is now Saint “Nancy.” She is Saint “Nancy” whether she’s in jail or on the outside, whether she’s doing drugs or clean, whether she stays in her spiral of destructive behavior or straightens up her life. She is Saint “Nancy” through believing that Jesus Christ died for her sins and has made her forgiven and holy.
This Epiphanies in Evangelism series is based on Paul’s experience in Corinth. Last week we saw in Acts chapter 18 how the church began in Corinth by tapping into the community, but now the reading we heard today is from the 1 Corinthians, a letter Paul wrote around three years later.
Now some commentators will say there’s irony in the these opening words from Paul, that it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, said with a wink or a rolling of the eyes. Because Paul says, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy.” In other words, it’s a letter to the saints. Now Paul knew very well that the church in Corinth was filled with problems, inconsistent behavior, people acting like the rest of the town which had a bad reputation. In fact, the whole point of Paul’s letter is to address some of these problems, so people see the beginning of this letter and think: “Well, Paul’s just buttering them up. He tells them that they’re sanctified, holy, but he doesn’t really mean it. It’s just pleasantries, polite speech, because Paul really thinks they’re no good, rotten excuses for Christians.”
Except that’s not what Paul is talking when he says “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy.” Paul isn’t talking about the behavior of the Corinthians; Paul’s talking about the behavior of God. Paul is talking about what the Corinthians have become because of what Jesus did. Paul isn’t talking about “Nancy” sitting in a jail cell because she keeps going down the wrong path; Paul is talking about “Nancy” in street clothes because Jesus is wearing her orange jumpsuit. The Corinthians are saints because of what Jesus did. And so no matter what problems Paul addresses in his letter, no matter what sins the Corinthians have committed, no matter what sins we’ve all committed, the first and basic thing remains true: we are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy; we are saints.
Again today’s epiphany in evangelism: The Gospel message makes us holy ones through the work of Christ, so let’s go and tell others that they are saints.
You are not being sent to just point out where people have sinned. You are not just being sent to tell them that they should be wearing orange jumpsuits issued by God, because they are spiritual criminals.
You are being sent to tell people that they aren’t wearing the orange jumpsuit anymore. They are wearing the clothes of Jesus. They are wearing His perfection, goodness, and holiness. Jesus wore their orange jumpsuit on the cross, so that they can be saints.
Instead of going out feeling like it is us versus them, feeling antagonistic, conflicted, angry with people who are outside the church, instead of thinking that evangelism is some kind of fight, think instead about “Nancy” and how much she needed to hear that Jesus took her place and gave her freedom and life.
Despite the fact that I don’t know where “Nancy” is and what’s going on in her heart, the opening words of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians still apply to her, because they’re about what Jesus did for her. So I can say: “I always thank God for [“Nancy”] because of His grace given [to her] in Christ Jesus. For in [Jesus, “Nancy” has] been enriched in every way—in all [her] speaking and in all [her] knowledge—because [my] testimony about Christ was confirmed in [her]. Therefore [“Nancy” does] not lack any spiritual gift as [she] eagerly wait[s] for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep [her] strong to the end, so that [she] will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called [“Nancy”] into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, [God] is faithful.”
“Nancy” may have walked away from these promises, but the Lord has never walked away from her. “Nancy” may have chosen her old ways over new ways, but the Lord is still able to supply everything she needs for salvation. “Nancy” may be acting as if her only choice is to be the drug addicted lost person that she has been, but that doesn’t change that Jesus died on the cross to make her Saint “Nancy.”
And if I ever get to talk to “Nancy” again, it won’t be a conversation about how she threw all of these things away. It’ll be a conversation about how God made her a saint, how God is still at work in her life, how Jesus wore her jumpsuit on the cross. It’ll be a conversation about making her a saint.
So is our mission “equipping saints to make disciples”? Are we the saints going out to make disciples? Yes, that’s what the Lord has called us to do. We go out with the Gospel, calling people to follow Jesus.
But are we also “equipping disciples to make saints”? Are we also being equipped to make saints? Yes, and the Gospel is our equipment that transform people into the holy ones of Christ. The Gospel is the street clothes to replace people’s orange jumpsuits. The Gospel message makes us holy ones through the work of Christ, so let’s go and tell others that they are saints.