Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
Text: II Timothy 2:16
Old Testament: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
New Testament: II Timothy 2:8-15
We’re into text messages these days. Sound bites. Words partially spelled. Simple thoughts shared. We email a sentence, or two.
This is the world of we who keep up with our children and grandchildren. Many of us entered it so we can have a conversation with those we love. Others of us stay out of it.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and a host of others are the new language.
What does it all mean?
Partial sentences. Incomplete thoughts. Emasculated words.
Will the day come when a carefully written letter will be an anachronism? Will there be a day when we no longer need linguistic symbols otherwise known as words to express ourselves?
Will the day come when speaking will vanish from the human race? Our vocal chords will shrink; our ears reduced in size. Will humans evolve into beings without audible sounds?
It will be hard to share our faith in Jesus Christ in such a world, won’t it?
It will also be hard to be in conflict over Jesus Christ’s mission.
Christians always seem to argue over words. We wrangle over interpreting Jesus’ teachings. We disagree over the meaning of a simple word: mission. Jesus commands us to go out into the world and make disciples. We call that His mission. But we can’t agree on what His mission is; how to go about doing His mission; or where His mission is.
I spent 18 months leading Pittsburgh Presbytery’s self-study arrive at a consensus over the definition of mission. Some believed it meant feeding the poor and housing the homeless without talking about Jesus. Others thought it meant talking about Jesus without helping the needy.
Some thought mission was done by paid missionaries overseas. For others mission was what social service agencies in the region do. A scattered few thought mission was what congregations are supposed to do.
Some thought mission was overseas. Others thought mission was only in America’s inner cities. Others were adamant mission happens where people are destitute – in Alaska, the American southwest, Appalachia.
Some thought mission was done only by the General Assembly. Others thought mission was just the Presbytery’s work. Still others were sure mission was done by a United Way funding agency. Only a few thought mission was done by congregations. But they disagreed over how to do it.
Jesus tells us that by our faith in Him we are saved. We disagree over the meaning of “saved.”
Some think saving a person means meeting their physical needs right now. Others think saving a person means meeting their emotional needs, today. Others think saving a person means enlightened self-fulfillment. Others think saving a person means building self-esteem in someone who is afraid.
Some believe saving a person means getting them a job. Others believe saving a person means rehabilitating a person from addiction. Still others believe saving a person means being born again in Jesus Christ.
Where two or three of us are gathered together there are two or three opinions over words. Churches are filled with Christians disagreeing over words.
Words. Words. Words. We can’t live with them. We can’t live without them. The Church is a battleground over words.
Why? Why is so much of our energy over words?
Because we’re sincere believers. Faith in Jesus Christ is precious for each of us. We’re concerned about how we live our faith. We’re surrounded by people with needs. Living our faith in a needy world relies on words to generate action.
Words explain intentions, actions, goals, and objectives. Words define direction, purpose, and meaning. Words promote accountability and initiative.
The problem we’re uncertain about key words to define our actions.
The word “Lord” is contentious inside churches. What do you mean by “Lord.” Does Lord mean God the Creator, or Jesus Christ the Savior? Does Lord mean a being who looks like a human, or an invisible spirit who is everywhere?
How does the word “Lord” connect with modern worshippers when “Lord,” is not spoken outside a sanctuary? Who knows what Lord really means?
How does the word “Savior” relate to someone who follows the laws of the land daily, helps others in need, is kind and compassionate? Why do such people need a “Savior” when they’re doing the right things, at least from appearances.?
Try the loaded word, “sin.” What is “sin” in today’s world where the topic of sin is taboo? Talking about “sin” isn’t politically correct. It’s associated with intolerance and judgment.
Yet the words, “sin,” “Lord,” “Savior,” “saved,” and “mission” are central to Christian faith. They define what a congregation does, where it does it, and what the expected outcome is from doing it. These words also define what we do – the meaning of our actions. These words expose whether we agree with our beliefs about God. They give us intentionality and transparency.
In a wordless society of sound bites, fragmented sentences, and abbreviated words, using words from our faith may seem fruitless.
Most people don’t care about the language of Christian faith. They don’t use it in their homes with their spouses or their children, even if they’re church members. But, people who don’t use Christian language in their homes miss the blessings that others receive who do use Christ’s words.
Words. Words. Words. It’s all about words. Christianity’s all about words. They’re critical for our faith. Our faith requires us to pay attention to words.
No other religion describes God as “Word.” Think about that. When you say you are a Christian, you’re committing yourself to God being “the Word.” It may seem abstract, out of touch with life. But that may be because you haven’t understood the significance of God being “the Word.”
John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
What difference does it make that God is a Word who became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth? How do you explain that to your three year-old daughter; your ten year-old son; your fifteen year-old teenager who only is thinking about the day they can drive; or yourself, for that matter?
Let’s consider four ways God’s Word makes a difference for you and your children.
First, God as Word means every word you speak expresses who God is, and, your relationship with Jesus Christ. Your vocabulary shows if Jesus is in your life. You show people Jesus is in your life when you speak words of joy; you speak words of humility; you speak words of thanks.
Your joyful words inspire people to trust God. Joyful words elevate people to see God. Your words of joy encourage people to seek after God.
God as Word leads people to want Jesus in their life. Your use of humble, thankful words to Jesus, separate you from other people. They elevate you above condemning, judgmental crowds. Your words point people to Jesus Christ.
I’ve known people in church who have gone through terrible difficulties. One thirty-year-old woman was born with a leg significantly shorter than another. Her birth mother gave her up for adoption because of her defect. Her adoptive mother re-assured her new little daughter every day that Jesus was with her.
The mother’s joy for Jesus helped her daughter go through dozens of painful operations. The little girl went through years of physical therapy. She eventually could hobble to school, where kids made fun of her.
But her mother taught her that God was blessing her every day. She helped her little girl see that despite her problems, Jesus Christ’s blessing was teaching her the joy of humility. The little girl learned to walk, at first with assistance, then on her own. She discovered that every day was gift from God.
The little girl became a teenager, and then a young woman. She went to college, married, had a daughter, and became the bookkeeper for her husband’s business. She never complained, even though every day she hobbled around. Whenever I saw Bonnie, she had a tremendous smile on her face.
She spoke grateful words for God’s blessings. She was humbled by how far she had progressed. She was deeply thankful for her mother teaching her to trust that Jesus was with her, helping her. She was grateful for the life God gave her.
She lived God’s Word and spoke the same joyful, humble, thankful words of faith in God that draw people to want to be with Jesus. You can do the same.
Second, God as Word means our faith in Jesus appeals to the mind. Our faith in Jesus convinces people that God reigns on earth as He is in heaven. Jesus is not unknown to us in the cosmic universe. Neither is Jesus trapped in a history book we call the Bible. Jesus touches your mind. Jesus illuminates your mind.
When you use truthful words, you illuminate the minds of other people. The truthfulness in your words is convincing. The justice in your words inspire confidence in people. They appeal to people’s sense of fairness. Truthful words admit responsibility for wrongs done. Truthful words generate change. Truthful words open closed-minded people to accept they need new life.
Each of these Christ-ly uses of words appeals to the mind of the person with whom you are speaking. They draw your minds together so you can be of one mind. Being of one mind is the goal of God’s Word.
During the self-study process I lead for Pittsburgh Presbytery, the key to drawing Presbyterians from so many different perspectives together was the power of truthfulness. Truthfulness illuminated the minds of the members of the self-study committee.
I gave the self-study committee data it needed to cut through the theological diversity between conservatives and liberals, between men and women, between the suburbs, the countryside, the towns, and the city churches.
When each Committee member accepted the truth that their differences weren’t as important as the church’s need to have one understanding of mission, one understanding of Savior, one understanding of Lord, and admitting the existence of sin, they began working together with one mind.
The mission plan that emerged from one mind with Jesus was truthful.
Third, God as Word means our love for Jesus appeals to the heart. Our love for Jesus reaches the heart. Jesus evokes feelings of compassion that go beyond cerebral thoughts in the mind. Our feelings of compassion are lodged in the heart, where Jesus, you, and other people who are hurting are connected by love.
When you speak Jesus’ loving words, you soften the hearts of other people. The love within your words compel people to be compassionate. Loving words evoke responsibility for those who are hurting. Loving words bring people together in the middle of situations that could drive them apart.
When you speak Jesus’ words of grace, you generate emotions of contrition that breakdown stereotypes. Words of grace in situations where grace is unexpected change the dynamics of a situation. Words of forgiveness in occasions where people would rather be condemned lay the groundwork for reconciliation.
Love, grace, forgiveness are words of sacrifice. Each of these words, in their proper context, aren’t used to manipulate. They’re deployed like medics in a battlefield, to bind up the wounded and give hope to the broken-hearted.
God as Word means the selective use of love, grace and forgiveness reach beyond the mind to the heart. They move people beyond just endless thinking to action. This is the power of words.
Words aren’t implanted on a page simply to be read. They’re the vocabulary of abundant life that brings people to God, unites people to be of one mind, and heals people’s hearts.
The challenge Christians face is not using a seminary vocabulary. We face the challenge to use Jesus’ words of love, grace, and forgiveness to reach hearts.
This brings us to our fourth and last point. Christians are called by Jesus to use these words from our faith in Him daily so other people are drawn into His mission. But, we not only need to use words of joy, humility, gratitude, truth, justice, love, grace, and forgiveness, we need to use the name of Jesus.
All of these words have no lasting meaning without attributing them to the source of our Christian vocabulary, Jesus Christ. These words come from your eternal life relationship with Jesus Christ. Your use of these words is inspired by your relationship with Jesus Christ. What He has done on the Cross for you; what His resurrection means for you; He deserves the credit for your choice of words.
These words are inspirational because of who Jesus Christ is for the world. They mean something for the entire human race because of what He has done for the world by promising abundant life
He’s the source of global unity. He’s the reason minds are brought together and hearts are healed. He’s the power that reconciles the world. He’s the world’s peace.
No one can explain this in a sound bite. Yet the world is being drawn into shallow thinking as Peggy Noonan wrote in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal. We have to overcome the gulf between shallow thinking and eternal life understanding that illuminates minds and touches hearts.
Which means you need a relationship with another person before you explain your words. You need to model Jesus Christ with another person long before you introduce these themes. You need to speak well and act well as one of Christ’s followers for a long time before you link who you are with Jesus, and how Jesus is there for your friend.
Whether that friend is your child, your next door neighbor, or your friend at work the authenticity of your words will be seen in your actions. Your case for Jesus will be compelling when the person hearing your words of joy, humility, gratitude, truth, justice, love, grace, and forgiveness experience you being a joyful, humble, grateful, truthful, just, loving, gracious, and forgiving person.
Live well, friends. Speak well – in Jesus name.