Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
I love Bible study. I enjoy the exchange of words and thoughts with students over stories and lessons in the Bible. This was especially true 20 years ago when I served as a missionary in Latvia immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Every Wednesday evening a dozen or so men and women, Latvian and Russian speakers who had been taught that the Bible was a dangerous book, gathered around little round tables in the basement of the church, sipping tea from cracked and chipped cups, snacking on dried, hard cookies waiting their weekly Bible introduction to the Word.
One evening, when the Bible study had ended, a quiet older woman, with a worn, tired face stopped me on the steps of the church. “Pastor, what does the Lord require me to be Christian?” I stared at her for a moment. In our purest evangelical tradition we boldly confess “to be Christian” you need not do anything at all. The American evangelist Philip Yancey writes, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. And there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” We must simply trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ alone, but I knew that that wasn’t the word of counsel she needed. All around her in that past-Communist world, she had seen men and women who had given lip service to the Christian faith and were baptized because it was the politically correct thing to do. She had seen former members of the Communist party who once vehemently persecuted the Church now standing in the front rows of the church for all to see. And so she raised the question, “What does the Lord require of me to be Christian?” It is a poignant question for every man or woman who struggles to know Christ and to follow as a faithful.
Since Jesus was first baptized at the River Jordan, men and women have been drawn to him, and have wondered what is required of them. In the passage we have heard today from St. John’s gospel, Jesus was given many titles, Lamb of God, Rabbi, Son of God, the Messiah, and King of Israel. Each name revealed something unique about Jesus’ character. But the passage tells us something else as well. It teaches us that the Christian faith is not so much taught as caught. It is passed on from one person to another. That’s how it started with Jesus, and that’s how it’s been for 2,000-plus years.
Now you may be wondering: So what was it about Jesus that caused people to believe in him and follow him? We don’t know. Even Jesus leaves the wonder of faith and discipleship to his followers. No doubt, in Sunday School, we are all taught the story of Jesus walking along the Sea of Galilee invited the fishermen with the words, “Follow me” and they left everything and followed him But St. John’s gospel offers another word of invitation. It is written for all those who are curious and for those who are seeking God in the shadow of their fig tree. It is the word, “Come and see.” And that’s where our task of Christian discipleship begins. But what should others see in us? What is required?
When I arrived here at Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church two years ago, I was given a pound of Viking Biker coffee beans and two cups. The cups were imprinted with the words of the Old Testament Prophet Micah, Micah 6:8. “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” It is a good starting point, but what exactly does all this mean? What should those curious seekers see in you? My friends, let us meditate this morning on these three qualities of faithful discipleship. 1) to do justice, 2) to love mercy and 3) to walk humbly with your God.
So what does it mean to do justice? Let me assure you that to do justice is not a romantic ideal nor an abstract concept. Doing justice is hard work. Justice, you see, is to share the gifts of God’s creation fairly among all his children. It is at the heart of Jesus’ own teaching, “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all you soul, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” To do justice is to care for your neighbor as you care for yourself. But to do justice also demands that God’s people must work together. There will be personal sacrifice, and at times a community, a church or a nation, will need to suffer discomfort for the sake of others. To do justice begins by learning to see, and feel the pain and oppression of those who are experiencing injustice. Surprisingly, over the years, I have learned that even the smallest eyes know what is right to do- what it is to do justice.
Charlie was one of those kids in Sunday School who teachers simply didn’t know how to manage. He was a free spirit. When it came time for the Christmas pageant, the teachers decided to give Charlie a simple part just in case. Charlie would be the innkeeper and this would mean saying, “No room” three times. The night of the pageant two of the children dressed as Joseph and Mary came to the inn. “No room,” Charlie said. The couple knocked on the door a second time. “NO ROOM!” Charlie repeated loudly. Banging on the door even harder, desperately seeking space for themselves and their new baby, Joseph and Mary pleaded with the innkeeper, “Please, is there any room in the inn?” And moved with compassion, Charlie forgot his line. “Oh,” he said, “why don’t you take my room tonight?” The pageant came to a complete halt. Some parents were upset. But for many, Charlie’s words taught them something important. Even a child can see the injustice in the world. My friends, a Christian cannot avoid the pain of the world, but the Christ-like man or woman must work to ease injustice.
The word mercy, like justice, is another good biblical word. Mercy simply means to be tenderhearted, generous, giving, and forgiving. As we know it in Jesus Christ, mercy is love freely given, costly and undeserved. To show mercy, it to show gracious, and open hearted love and charity to those around you- even to those who do not deserve it. And we all need a good dose of mercy. There was a woman who went to a photographer, and after her pictures were developed, she said to the photographer, “These pictures don’t do me justice.” The photographer looked up at her and said, “Madam, you don’t need justice; you need mercy.”
Interestingly, the Prophet Micah doesn’t emphasize “showing mercy” as a discipline of faith. Instead, he says, that God requires that you “love mercy.” Now that may seem odd to you, but the Prophet seems to be saying that only the heart that has known and experienced mercy, can do justice freely. Without the love of mercy, even our acts of charity are calculated. As James Thom once said, “Too often we seek justice, for just us.” And the same can be said of mercy. We love God’s mercy for just us, and we regret when it is poured out freely upon those who we look upon as undeserving.
“To love mercy” begins with the act of remembering the grace that has been poured out upon you. I used to think that eventually I would reach a place in life where I wouldn’t be wrestling with problems. That was when I was very young. I’m not sure when it began to dawn on me that life seems to be a series of problems. I know it now. Family problems, health problems, aging problems, and money problems. We never reach a place where there aren’t problems to overcome. And they are not always our own problems. Sometimes I am invited to help someone else with their problems. It is the way life is. But it is precisely in these moments, when I look back, that I see the places where God has poured his amazing love and mercy into my life. And it is in remembering and loving his mercy that I can dare to offer mercy to others. It is in remembering God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, that you and I find the strength to offer mercy and caring and forgiveness to our neighbors- even those we do know. But I’ll warn you. Beware of loving mercy, it may be more difficult than doing justice.
Finally, we are called to walk humbly with the Lord. For me to walk humbly is to know that God alone provides ultimate peace. It is to view the problems and messiness of the world, and still to live and feel the peace which only God can offer. And we do live in a messy world. We have seen the rights of the French press revenged upon Christian communities in Africa. We have experienced the warmest year on record, and scientists, industrialists politicians can agree on what to do. In such a troubled world, to walk humbly is to acknowledge your own limitations and accept them, but also to confess and trust that God’s power and strength is greater still, and so step by step, you walk out time again to do justice and show mercy. You walk out humbly trusting that God’s presence is with you.
It is true, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. And there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” But my friends, God is inviting you to experience something more. He is inviting you to serve him as his disciple in a divine fellowship of believers transforming this world. God invites you to follow in his only Son’s footsteps and to be the man or woman he created you to be inviting others- and for other to experience in your life something that they want to come and see.
Our task as Christians is not to “prove” the truth of the Christian faith, although many scholars and apologists have written persuasively of the truth of Christianity. Our task is to say, “Come and see.” Philip could have argued with Nathanael and given him his own opinions. Even when Nathanael expressed his skepticism about “anything good coming out of Nazareth,” Philip might have countered with a list some of successful people from Nazareth. But he didn’t. Instead, he simply and energetically invited him to join him on his own journey to come and see. And Nathanael came.
My friends, is your Christian faith so active and visible in your life that others long to come and see? If not, consider again the word of the prophet Micah. Be God’s faithful disciples and “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your Lord” so that in you, your neighbors may know Christ. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep yours hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.