You are a letter from Jesus

Good morning, Friends!

I want to ask you a question this morning. It’s been a couple of weeks since Easter. And my question is, how did the church that Jesus started manage to grow from a small group of 12 frightened disciples, into a group of thousands, then millions, into the church we know today?

I’m going to give you a couple of hints. Number one, it wasn’t through technology – the invention of television, and TV evangelists, was a couple of thousand years in the future.

I’m going to go way out on a limb, and say that it wasn’t because of the Bible – because the Bible as we know it didn’t exist at the time the church got started, and for almost 1,400 years later, most people didn’t/couldn’t own a copy of their own – it took the invention of printing to make copies of the Bible affordable and available.

The answer, I think is in a letter we’re going to look at in just a moment. It’s a letter written by the apostle Paul to one of the small, struggling churches that he started.

Paul starts out the letter with his usual greeting – “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. . .”

Instead of saying, “Dear George”, or “Dear Aunt Sally, the weather here’s been fine,” he starts out by saying the thing that matters most to him. If the rest of the letter got lost, this is what he wants the people on the other end to remember – grace and peace. Grace and peace from God and from Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all of us.

Paul goes on to talk about his problems and his suffering. He doesn’t mention his nagging back ache or his lost luggage. He doesn’t say what’s wrong, but it’s obviously serious. Maybe it’s an illness, maybe it’s imprisonment, maybe he’s had problems.

He says that he’s been suffering on their behalf, that he’s been almost broken, that he was ready to give up. His self-confidence has been almost gone. But he says, “I can only boast about one thing – you, and your faith.”

He talks about plans and promises he’s had to change. He talks about how disappointed he’s been. He’s afraid that they’re going to be disappointed.

But then he says, in one of the tremendous verses in the whole Bible, to keep trusting Jesus, because, as he says, “All the promises of God find their Yes in him. . .” (2 Corinthians 1:20)

Jesus is why we keep saying yes. Jesus is the “yes” that God says to the world.

We fail. We fall. We make big mistakes. But we keep trying. Jesus rose from the dead. We rise. Because Jesus is the yes that God says to all of us. And Jesus is the yes that we say to the rest of the world.

Anyway, Paul goes on to talk about grief that he’s gone through. He talks about forgiveness. And then he says the words that I want to share with you as today’s Scripture.

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

2 Corinthians 3:1-3

About a month ago was St. Patrick’s Day. Some of you may remember a prayer poem that Patrick is supposed to have written:

“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me;
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me;
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I rise;
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me. . .”

I think that’s what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote the letter to the church at Corinth. Each one of us, Paul says, is a living letter, a living message from God to whoever meets us.

Everyone who thinks of us should think, first among the many things that could be said about us, “That person is a Christian. . .”

Whoever talks about us shouldn’t be able to help mentioning it, and whoever sees or hears us should see or hear Jesus as well. That’s the heart of today’s message.

Paul said, in the reading we just heard, that he didn’t need any letter of recommendation to anyone. “You yourselves are a letter of recommendation,” he said. “If they want to know what I teach, they should look at you.”

That is what it means to be a disciple, a follower. If someone can look at us, and see Christ, or hear about us, and hear Christ, then we’re really being disciples, or followers. But what Paul is saying is actually stronger than that.

We are living letters of recommendation, he said. Our lives are supposed to advertise.

That’s not such a strange idea. We’re used to it already. All of us advertise something, one way or another.

To give you an example, our children are the best recommendation, the best testimonial, for the kind of parents we are. All the work and care we put into our kids, shows in the kind of people they are.

How do you know what kind of a person somebody is? Look at their kids. If our children are considerate, and happy, that says something about their parents.

There’s another old poem or set of proverbs you may have heard:

“If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to be shy.
If a child lives with shame, they learn to be guilty. . .”

And so on and so forth – I won’t read the whole thing. You get the idea. But it works the other way, too.

“If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with recognition, they learn it to have a goals.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.”

(Poem by Dorothy Law Nolte)

Most of the things I just mentioned aren’t things which happen all of a sudden. Criticism is something we do all the time, in lots of different ways. Encouragement is a way of life, not something we just do now and then.

We are known by the pattern of all the little things we do every day, much more than any of the big gestures we make. People see through the big gestures pretty easily, if we’re faking it.

Paul says that each one of us is a living letter of recommendation for Jesus. We are how other people judge whether they want to follow Jesus, or not.

We judge a company by its products. We judge a carpenter or a contractor by the way the building looks when it’s finished. We judge a grocery store by the kind of fruit and vegetables on the counter.

Maybe we’ll forgive one bad tomato, or one carton of milk that’s gone bad. But if there’s a pattern there, if the butter is always rancid, we’ll stop shopping there.

Christianity is the same way. “Whoever sees you, sees me,” says Jesus. “And whoever sees me, sees the One who sent me.” (John 12:44-46)

For better or for worse, that’s the way it is. People judge God by the kind of followers we are. If we’re unfriendly, if we’re irresponsible, if we’re bad neighbors or dishonest or whatever, people will see that, and judge God.

The Quaker John Woolman wrote about that in his diary. He said he had a dream one night. In his dream, he was carried to a mine, where slaves were working. The slaves were being forced with whips to dig for rich treasures for people called Christians, and he heard the slaves cursing the name of Christ.

He says that in his dream, he told the slaves they shouldn’t curse Jesus, because Jesus’ name was precious to him.

He says that the slaves said to each other, “If Christ told them to treat us this way, then Christ is a cruel tyrant.” (Journal of John Woolman, Citadel edition, pp. 214-215)

Of course, you can turn that around. People also judge the church by whether they think people accept them or not. If we give people the impression that only perfect people belong here, they’re not going to want to come.

There are lots of people who turn away from the church and don’t come, either because someone who calls themself a Christian has been bad to them, or because they don’t think that they, themselves, are good enough.

That shouldn’t be a problem, because I’m not perfect. And I’ve got a pretty strong hunch that nobody else here is perfect, either. It’s not just how perfect we are. It’s whether we accept each other, and how we forgive each other.

Parents face this problem all the time. It’s really tough for parents to try to be good, and do the right thing, and show our kids that being good is the only goal worth really having, and still make mistakes all the time.

The problem is the same for Christians, too. To be good, to do the best we can, to show people that being good is a worthwhile goal – and to pick up the pieces when we make mistakes, without pretending we didn’t make them. If people see that, they will not only not judge us, they’ll want to join us.

I keep hammering away at this, because it’s very personal to me as a pastor. You are the best recommendation I have.

In the long run, it doesn’t matter what the outside of a church looks like. What matters is the people who fill it. Who you are is the best recommendation our church can ever have. And it’s the one that other people are really going to pay attention to.

We have a lot of loving people here at Springfield. We have a lot of thoughtful, intelligent, reflective people. When you are generous, when you speak the truth, when you listen, when you give of yourselves, that’s how other people will think about your entire church.

In the early church, outsiders would look at us and say, “See how those Christians love each other!” And they would be amazed. This is really true. It was actually written by an outsider, a stranger to Christianity.

The kind of life we live is the best recommendation that Jesus has. And it’s safe to say that people wouldn’t have flocked to church by the thousands, if it weren’t for the advertisement of their example.

The world hasn’t changed all that much. People still judge Jesus, not by what we say, but by what we do. It’s not our beliefs, but how we live.

The challenge is still a simple one – to be living letters from Christ, advertising by the everyday things we do, so that people will know we are Christians by our love.

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