Chance Encounters: A Group Effort
Topic: Evangelism & Community Scripture: Luke 5:17–5:26
I think it’s pretty safe to say that there are few things more inspiring to us than when we witness of a group of individuals rallying together for one common, shared purpose. We see it in so many different contexts. Sometimes it is within the context of a group needing to rally together to achieve a seemingly impossible task. Stories like Saving Private Ryan, where a company of soldiers is charged with the task of penetrating hostile Normandy to rescue one of their own. J.R.R Tolkien depicted an unprecedented alliance of races, as humans, hobbits, elves, and dwarves, banding together, to destroy the one ring of power, in Lord of the Rings. The Philadelphia Eagles rallied together after the loss of Carson Wentz to advance to their first Super Bowl appearance in 13 years. Ok, that last one might be a little different than the others. But my point remains the same: We become invested in and compelled by stories depicting a group effort.
Sometimes these stories even appear in the most common of places, like a college softball field. Maybe you’ve heard this story before. Sara Tucholsky, a senior at Western Oregon, stepped to the plate in a game against their conference rival and with a playoff berth on the line. Sara had played for four years and had never hit a home run…until now. She walloped the pitch out of the field and took off on the bases, excited to give her team the lead. In her excitement though, Sara missed first base and had to double back. When she did, a ligament in her knee gave out and Sara crumpled to the ground. Both teams and the crowd were shocked and the officials were stuck. If Sara was replaced with a pinch runner the hit would go down as a single, and Sara would lose the only home run of her softball career. Any help from her coaches would result in an out. The rules restricted any kind of compassion the umpire might want to offer, and Sara’s own team was powerless.
That’s when Mallory Holtman, the star player for the opposing team, and the owner of almost every offensive record in her school’s history, asked the officials if she and members of her team could carry Sara around, and help her touch the bases. By league rules, there was nothing against members of the opposing team assisting a player of the other team. So Mallory and another player from Central Washington – a team fighting for their own spot in the playoffs – picked up the injured Sara and carried her around the diamond leaning down to touch her foot to each base until they finished at home plate. Sara’s home run would actually end up being the deciding factor in her teams win that afternoon. Mallory’s kindness cost her team a win but also produced one of the most memorable victories of the human heart that we can recall.
There’s just something about people helping people and a group working toward a single goal that inspires us. And this morning, as we continue our message series of Chance Encounters, I want us to look at a group effort that Jesus had the opportunity to witness. It’s a story of friendship, compassion, faith, and the power of the collective group. We’re going to be in Luke 5:17-26. Let’s dive in.
So we come into a scene where Jesus is teaching in a crowded space surrounded by not only members of that village, but also religious leaders from all around. And we hear about a group of men who are bringing their paralyzed friend to Jesus, so he can be healed. But when they get there, they find it is way too crowded to get their friend in. We’re familiar with this kind of scene, right? When you have your hopes set on something only to see a huge crowd or line. Craving that first cup of coffee only to see the drive-thru line going back 8 or 9 cars. Or thinking you made it to the airport with plenty of time to make your flight when you see the huddled masses standing at the security checkpoint. Maybe the worst is going out on Black Friday, looking for that one gift for a special someone.
Well, while I can’t recommend that we repel from the ceiling of Starbucks, that’s essentially what the group in our chance encounter did. They go up onto the roof and start taking off the tiles, and piecing apart the roof, and lower their friend right in front of Jesus. Can you imagine being one of the people that actually got a front row seat for Jesus’ message? You’re sitting there taking in the experience when all of a sudden dust and debris starts falling on you. You’re brushing it off and shielding your eyes and then all of a sudden there’s a guy on a mat being put right in front of you, forcing you to step back a little.
Often times what we read in the Gospel accounts is more akin to a newscast than it is a story. We get big picture flashes rather than intricate and internal dialogue. So we don’t know how Jesus responded to this. We don’t know if his face scrunched up as the roof literally caved in. We don’t know if he smiled and clapped. But we do know what he said. After seeing the faith of these friends, Jesus forgave the sins of the paralyzed man.
The religious leaders being the stuffy, rigid folks that they were, started blustering between themselves, about how audacious, profane, and disrespectful Jesus was being. They said only God could forgive sins, and who did he think he was. And Jesus, being Jesus, knew exactly what they were thinking. Maybe it was his divine power, or maybe it is akin to that uncanny ability moms have to know that their kids are grumbling about them, behind their backs. Either way, Jesus finally gets them quiet by healing the man and tells him to get up, take his mat, and go home. And that’s exactly what this formerly paralyzed man did. Our text says everyone was filled with awe. In other words, they were shocked and blown away.
So we get this bizarre chance encounter between a man who can’t walk and Jesus. The man literally walks away from his encounter, entirely transformed, inside and out. And as unbelievably moving as this part of the story is, this morning I want us to look at someone else involved in this encounter. Actually, it’s a group of people. It’s the friends of our healed paralytic. This morning our focus isn’t on a one-on-one conversation between Jesus and someone else. This morning we’re focused on a group effort.
This collection of unremarkable people worked together, and it completely changed a man’s life. Think about this: We don’t even know their names. We don’t know what they did after the healed man walked away. We are told nothing about them, except the measures they took to bring a person to Jesus. But they taught us something, sometimes chance encounters with Jesus only happen because of someone else.
To some degree, this is obvious to us, isn’t it? Even if we stop and think about our own stories. Many of us were introduced to Jesus because of our parents. Maybe it was a friend or a pastor or someone who was a complete stranger to us at the time. But I think as life continues, we can forget this powerful truth, when we start following Jesus, we join a group effort that doesn’t stop.
This chance encounter serves a reminder of what our call as a church is at its most basic parts. We are supposed to be a group of people who bring other people to Jesus. You might be saying, “We know this, Matt.” Cool. But are you living it? Let’s do a little memory recall, ok? I want you to think about the last five or so times you came into the church, or even a Bible study, or something like that. How many of those times where you knew you were going to a place where Jesus would be present, did you bring someone with you? Maybe the last five times are too small. Think back over the last year. Who have you brought to Jesus? Let’s keep expanding this – because even though you might be thinking it, this isn’t a guilt trip. I want us, all of us, to be living out what we see in this story in Luke. So let’s not even think about the walls of a church or a formal event. How many conversations have you had this year where you helped someone get closer to Jesus?
Here’s the hard truth, that I had to face personally, I didn’t like my answers. Because I didn’t count the stuff I do here with all of you. Preaching sermons and leading small groups and teaching Sunday school classes. I didn’t count that when I asked myself these same questions. Because, can I be honest with you? It is a lot easier for me to preach a 20-minute sermon than it is for me to try and have a brief conversation about Jesus with a neighbor.
But friends, that’s not an excuse. In fact, I don’t think there is an excuse. The men in our text didn’t have an excuse. Heck, they didn’t let literal and physical barriers be an excuse. Building code and architecture weren’t excuses, they were merely obstacles to be overcome. We have obstacles in our own stories. You might say that you don’t know enough about Jesus to tell someone about Him. Two things I say to that. First, ok – fine…then get to know Jesus better. Second, don’t worry about all the things you think you don’t know. Share what you do know. You might say that you don’t want to be pushy or rude or insensitive. Listen, the people in our text this morning literally had to push through a crowd, climb on top of a building, break through a roof, and drop a dude right in front of Jesus. That’s not just assertive – that’s persistent. But they did it because they believed the healing and restoration of this man was absolutely, and unequivocally dependent upon him getting in front of Jesus. If we really believe Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and we really believe that he went to a cross for us and that he is the only true source of lasting light in a world of darkness, then gosh darn it, be pushy! I’m not a fire and brimstone kind of preacher, but I believe there’s something eternal at stake.
Parents with kids in elementary, middle, or high school – I want to talk to you specifically for a second. This applies to you and your children. It is your God-given call to carry your children to Jesus. By your words, by your actions, by your intentions, by the calendar you set, and through the rhythms of your family’s life. I was a youth pastor for eight years, and every single year, I intentionally gathered all of the parents who had kids in the youth ministry, and every single time, I lead with the same declaration. As a parent, you are the primary spiritual caregiver for your child. Not the youth director. Not the Sunday school teacher. Not the pastor. The parent. Research shows that there is not a single influence in a kid or teens life that has a more weight and power on a kid’s faith, than their parents.
But whether you’re a parent or not, whether your 15 years old or 55, regardless of how long you’ve followed Jesus – there’s an excuse that all of us, myself included, tend to use at one time or another, “I’m too busy.” That is a loaded excuse that is common to all, but unique for each specific person. Kids, job, school, transition, family matters, a needy puppy…there are literally dozens of things we can say in regards to why we are too busy. But here’s what happens when we say we are too busy to live into this element of our identity as followers of Jesus. The number of hands that could bring others to Jesus becomes less and less. My life would have been fundamentally altered if a few youth leaders had been too busy to care about a teenage kid, new to the church. Don’t let your schedule determine someone else’s salvation.
You might be asking yourself, “Ok, I hear you. I want to be a part of the group effort. But how? What can I do?” That is an excellent question, and I’ve got what I hope is the beginning of a long, meaningful answer. Over the course of Lent, we’re going to focus all of our attention on the concept of spiritual gifts. What they are, where they come from, what gifts you personally have, and how each of us can be uniquely empowered to use our gifts in a way that brings people to Jesus. So mark your calendars. Starting February 18, we take a deep dive into “Spiritual Gifts.”
Until then, I want you to do two things, first, imagine the possibilities. Imagine the possibilities of what could occur if we really practiced this kind of group effort, and helped others have their own chance encounters with Jesus. How many of you have seen The Greatest Showman, the story about PT Barnum and his circus? If you haven’t, go. That’s pastors’ orders. It’s a remarkable film, and the only thing better than the music is the deep lessons about humanity it portrays. In the movie, PT Barnum has this incredible line. He says, “Men suffer more from imagining too little than too much.” Imagine what could happen in your kids’ lives if they truly knew that Christ had a call for them. Imagine what our church could look like if we spent more time talking and hearing about Jesus outside these walls than we did sitting in these pews. Imagine what God could do in Bloomington-Normal if five more people experienced the healing, freeing power of Jesus. 30 more people. 200 more people. Imagine what kind of a ripple effect that could have for the kingdom of God. So first, friends, imagine. And imagine big. The second thing - pray. Pray hard. Pray more. Pray longer. Ask God who, where, how, when. Our imagination fosters an idea. Our prayers turn that idea into a blueprint and a plan. And that’s where it starts. Whether it’s wanting to see a man be healed, or have a child know Jesus, or to see a community transformed, or the kingdom of God grown…it all can come about if we join in this group effort.