Making a Commitment to Invitation (‘Helping My Church Grow’ series, sermon #6)

I’d like to begin this morning by telling you a couple of true stories.

The first is one that Michael Peers has often told. Michael was the primate, or presiding bishop, of the Anglican Church of Canada a few years ago. Michael was raised as a churchgoer, but like many people he quit going when he was a teenager. However, when he was a student at university a friend of his invited him to go to church with him, and Michael accepted the invitation. He must have been impressed with what he found there, because he returned to the Christian faith, and eventually was ordained as a priest. He often credited his friend for making this happen. He said, “I went back to church for the simple reason that a friend of mine invited me, and that’s how most people become involved in church”.

The second story was told by my friend Harold Percy, who used to be the rector of Trinity Church, Streetsville in Mississauga. I once heard him tell the story of a man and his son who attended Trinity for the first time one Sunday. After the service Harold was greeting people at the door; he didn’t recognize the man so he asked him if it was his first Sunday at Trinity. The man said that it was, and then he said, “I lost my wife this week; that’s why we decided to come to church today”. He was quiet for a moment, and then he went on, “You know, my wife and I talked a few times about coming to church, but somehow we never did. You know what, though? If anyone had invited us, we’d have come, no question”.

You will have guessed from these two stories that my theme today is ‘making a commitment to invitation’. In the past few weeks I’ve been preaching a series of sermons on the topic ‘Helping My Church to Grow’. We’ve been thinking about the subject of ‘growth’ in the widest possible sense: not just numerical growth, but also our own individual growth as followers of Jesus, our growth in love as a community of disciples, and our growth in influence on the world around us. I’ve been identifying some things that every single one of us can do to help this growth happen in our church. So far we’ve mentioned making a commitment to our own growth as disciples of Jesus, making a commitment to welcoming newcomers to our church as the guests of Jesus, making a commitment to ministry, and making a commitment to generosity. Today I want to go on to the fifth and final thing we can do to help our church grow: making a commitment to invitation.

Invitation is at the heart of the Gospel, and it’s a three-way thing. Sometimes the Bible talks about our invitation to Christ to come into the centre of our life, to sit on the throne of our lives and to rule there as our loving Lord and King, or to come and eat with us and we with him. But sometimes it’s the other way around; sometimes it talks about Christ’s invitation to us: Come and experience rest, come and follow Jesus. And then there’s our invitation to others: “Come and see”. Let’s think about this for a minute.

First, our invitation to Christ. In Revelation chapters two and three, John the author passes on messages from the Lord Jesus Christ to seven small churches in the western part of Turkey. In the last one, to the church in Laodicea, he rebukes them for being lukewarm; I wish you were either hot or cold, he says, but you’re not – you’re lukewarm, so I’m going to spew you out of my mouth. He then goes on to say, ‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me’ (Revelation 3:20).

This verse has become famous through a painting by Holman Hunt, called ‘The Light of the World’; many of you will have seen it. In this painting, Jesus is standing outside a gate in a wall; he has a crown on his head, and he’s holding a lamp in his hand. The other hand is raised, knocking at the gate, but the gate is overgrown with vines and there is no handle on the outside. Jesus, in other words, has taken the initiative to come to you and me, knock on our door, and wait for us to open to him and invite him in.

It seems a strange image when we think of who Jesus is: the Son of God, the one who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Surely he doesn’t need to wait for us to open the door to him? Surely all he needs to do is whistle for the heavenly SWAT team, break the door down, and take the place by force! But that’s not his way. He doesn’t violate people; he wants their love, freely given, not forced. So he knocks, and then waits for our invitation.

What does this mean in practical terms? I remember when I was a young teenager, my dad used to lend me Christian books to read. I had been raised as a churchgoer, but God was not personal for me, and I wasn’t really that interested. I wasn’t rebelling against church, but I had other priorities. But Dad used to lend me these Christian books – he knew I liked to read – and I guess he hoped that something would get my attention. And he was right; eventually something did. There were two books that I read at the time; The Cross and the Switchblade and Nine O’Clock in the Morning. Both of them were written by people who had seen the Holy Spirit at work in dramatic ways in the lives of ordinary people. The second one especially made a real impression on me; I had never imagined a God who could do the sorts of things described in that book. When I finished it, I was on a quest to find God for myself. I wouldn’t have described it in these terms at the time, but through those books, Jesus was knocking on my door, quietly and patiently, waiting for my response.

And eventually I gave a response. One night in my thirteenth year, at my dad’s prompting, I prayed a simple prayer in which I gave my life to Jesus. I didn’t feel anything spectacular or see a vision or anything like that, but looking back on it now, I know that my life was changed forever. From being on the periphery of my life, Christ moved right into the centre. Metaphorically speaking, I heard his voice and opened the door, and he came in and sat down to eat with me. As he says in John’s Gospel: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

So there’s our invitation to Jesus to come and take his rightful place at the centre of our lives, as our Lord and Saviour and King. That’s what we want to see happen in the lives of the people we invite to church. It’s not just about getting more bums on chairs on Sundays; it’s not just about adding more identifiable givers so we can meet our parish budget. It’s far, far more than that. We want people to trust Jesus enough to hear his voice, open the door, and invite him into the centre of their lives, so that they can get to know him for themselves and experience him as the Bread of Life.

Then there’s Jesus’ invitation to us, the invitation to come to him and follow him as his disciples. This invitation comes right at the beginning of the gospels, as Jesus is starting out his ministry.

‘Now after John (the Baptist) was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”’ (Mark 1:14-17).

“Follow me” means not just “walk on the road after me” but “become my disciple”. And a disciple is a learner, a student, an apprentice. Jesus has come among us to reveal God to us and to show us how to know and love God. He’s the journeyman Christian, if you like, and we’re apprenticed to him. He’s inviting us to commit ourselves to following him as his disciples for the rest of our lives. As his disciples, each day we will make it our business to learn to see life as he sees it and to live life as he taught it.

He’s a patient and gentle teacher. In Matthew 11 he says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28). A ‘yoke’ is laid across the shoulder of two oxen so that they can pull a plough. Jesus is speaking here as if he’s the old, experienced ox who knows how this is done; you and I are the young, inexperienced oxen who need to be taught by the old-timer! “Take my yoke upon you”, he says, “and learn from me”.

Again, this is what we’re inviting people into. It’s not just about bums on chairs on Sundays and more money in the collection plate. It’s about a lifetime relationship with Jesus as his disciples, as he teaches us how to know God and love God. It’s about paying attention to his words and example, and thinking and praying each day about how we can actually put them into practice in our lives. Most people don’t realize it when they start out with Jesus, but this is the beginning of a lifetime of transformation.

But notice where this leads. In Mark, Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17). This is one of the things he’s teaching us to do. This is not an optional extra to be bolted onto the side of our Christian life if we like that sort of thing. One of the essential tasks of disciples is to go out and fish for more people, to pass on Jesus’ invitation to them. ‘Love is something if you give it away’ – and so is faith. So is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So is the invitation to follow him.

So we come to the third invitation: our invitation to others. In John chapter 1 we read two or three stories of Jesus calling disciples to follow him. One of them was Philip, who was from Bethsaida, the same town where the brothers Andrew and Simon Peter lived. The first thing Philip did was to go looking for a friend to join him.

‘Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth”. Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see” (John 1:45-46).

“Come and see”. I suppose Philip could have argued with Nathanael; they could have spent hours and hours looking at what Moses and the prophets said, and Philip could have tried to persuade his friend that Jesus really was the one those old prophecies were talking about. But there’s only so much that can be achieved by argument; in the end, you have to take the plunge and find out for yourself whether God is real and Jesus is his Son. So Philip led Nathanael to Jesus and introduced them to each other, and before long, Nathanael was a member of the disciple group.

How do we do that today? We can’t just take people by the hand and introduce them to Jesus; they’re liable to accuse us of having our own private imaginary friend! So how does that “Come and see” work for us.

Well, an obvious answer to that is, “Come and see what we do in church”. That’s why we have invitation Sundays. We believe that what we do on Sundays when we gather together is important and transformational. Every Sunday, mark you – not just invitation Sundays! So we have to make sure as a community that when newcomers come among us, we are a living embodiment to them of the love and compassion of Jesus. And then we have to take the risk of inviting others to come.

Why? Many people in this congregation ask that question. Why can’t we just wait for newcomers to choose to come of their own accord? Why do we have to go and invite them, and take the risk that they’ll say no, which will hurt our feelings?

Because Jesus did not say to his disciples at the end of the Gospels “Stay in Jerusalem and wait for all nations to come to you and ask you to show them how to be my disciples”. He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). He said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). There’s absolutely no basis in the gospels for the idea that we should just wait for people to come to us. The good shepherd didn’t wait for the lost sheep to find its own way home; he went out to look for it.

Do we run the risk of them refusing the invitation? Of course we do. Michael Harvey, who started ‘Back to Church Sunday’, says that on average, one invitation in ten is accepted. But you won’t get to the tenth one unless you’re willing to go through the other nine! And you’re not going to do that unless you believe its important – unless you believe its part of the call Jesus has given us as his disciples, to ‘go and fish for people’.

And remember Harold Percy’s story. That man and his wife had talked from time to time about coming to church, but they never did. Perhaps they’d never gone, and it was a scary idea for them to just walk across the threshold. Perhaps they’d done things they weren’t proud of and they thought people in the church would somehow be able to tell. You may think that’s far-fetched, but not long ago a young man who dropped in on this church told me that was exactly what he was afraid of!

But maybe its not a Sunday service they’re ready for yet. Maybe you need to start further back. Maybe you’ve had conversations about faith with your friend from time to time, and there have been questions raised that you don’t have the answers for. Maybe the next step is “Come with me to a Christian Basics course and see”. We used to run Christian Basics courses in this congregation two or three times a year; they were a simple way of introducing people to entry-level Christianity. In recent years its been harder to get groups together to run them. I’ve often said, “Maybe there’s someone in your life who you know would benefit from a course like this. Why don’t you invite them to come along with you?” Of course that requires a commitment from you, too, but again, do we think it’s important or not? Do we think God wants people to come to faith in Jesus or not? If we do, then surely its worth us taking some trouble to help them find their way to him?

If we look around Canada today the picture is actually clear: churches that have a culture of invitation grow more than those that don’t. It’s not enough to be a welcoming church; if no one new comes, you won’t have anyone to welcome! We also have to be an inviting church. It’s not just me saying this because, you know, ‘it’s one of Tim’s pet projects and he’s always going on about it!’ It’s about faithfulness to Jesus who says “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”.

So: out next invitation Sunday is the Sunday before Christmas. We’ll be having lessons and carols at the 10.30 service, and I’ll do a short explanation of the Christmas message at the end. And later on in January we’ll schedule a Christian Basics weekend, in case any of our Christmas visitors are interested in learning more. Now: over to you! Are you ready to pray and ask God the Holy Spirit to guide you about who to invite? Are you ready to take the risk of having people say ‘no’, because you know that sooner or later you’ll get to the ‘yes’? And more importantly: are you ready for the joy of becoming part of the process by which someone in your life falls in love with Jesus and starts to follow him?

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