May 6, 2018

Either/Or? Both/And? Which One Should We Be?

6th Sunday of Easter
First Lesson:  Acts 9:36-42

Second Lesson:  1 John 4:1-11

Gospel Lesson:  John 15:9-17

Sermon Text:  Acts 9:36-42

For those of you who are younger or did not grow up WELS, here is a little history for you.  We used to have a worker training school for teachers in MN and one for pastors in Watertown. To save money, they combined the two and started a new school - MLC. For one year, I went to the pastor school in Watertown, which after that year became a prep school.  The company hired to run the cafeteria was not being hired to run the prep school cafeteria the next year. So that final year they spent as little money as possible. It got really bad. One night hungry college students came in for supper, and the menu said “Chicken/Potato.” At the front of the line, we were asked a question. “Do you want the chicken OR the potato?” We were shocked. Potatoes aren’t expensive. We wanted chicken and a potato. But it was not to be.  We had to make an either/or choice, when what we wanted was both/and. There wasn’t a riot after this, but it came pretty close to being one.

Either/or instead of both/and. People ask a young couple if they want either a boy or a girl. They say they want both a boy and a girl. Kohls asks if you want either Kohls bucks or a reduced sales rate. You want both the bucks and the cheap price.  You go out to dinner and are asked if you want either salad or soup. But you’re hungry. You want both salad and the soup. 

Why mention that? Some churches proudly boast they’re doctrinally pure, teaching only the Bible. Others talk about how they work to put their faith into practice by helping the poor, feeding people, sheltering victims, etc. Sadly, it seems like many take the either/or approach. Either they’re biblically sound or they’re very active in helping others out/showing love.

That is a very generic way of saying it, so let’s get more specific.  Think about the WELS.  Go into any WELS church or talk to any pastor or members, and chances are the 1st thing they’ll say about their congregation is they preach the truth of God’s Word. That is a very good thing.  But, and lifelong WELS people, this won’t surprise you, too often the knock on our church body is that we fail to show, or don’t strive hard enough to show to others the love Christ has shown us.  We rightly preach that good works don’t save, but, some say, we don’t put enough emphasis on living out the truth of God’s love.

Contrast that to the Methodist church (and I am speaking generally here about what is being taught in the seminaries, not each individual church).  For years they were OK teaching wise. But then the idea of works took over. Now the church body has no official stand on Jesus as Savior, on homosexuality/marriage, on God’s Word being God’s Word, etc.  But they are really, really good and reaching out to hurricane and flood victims, running shelters, stocking food pantries, and the like.

What I am saying is that, sadly, both groups have taken an either/or approach. Either stand on the truth of God’s Word OR be compassionate and show love to others. But shouldn’t this be a both/and thing? Doesn’t the Bible call us both stand firm and show love? And, let’s be honest, don’t we struggle with that?  We do, so let’s hear more of what God’s Word has to say.

We are in the book of Acts, a book that details the beginnings of the Christian Church.  Peter, Paul, and gang were starting churches left and right in town after town. Christianity was new to most people. So these groups of believers, these house churches, had a wonderful opportunity to give witness to the world about the faith – what it is and how that faith shows.

One of these house churches was in a city called Joppa.  And there lived a lady named Tabitha.  Her Greek name was Dorcas, but since I can’t say that name without giggling, let’s stick with Tabitha.  We don’t know a ton about her, but the Bible does say this.  “In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha. She was always doing good and helping the poor.” Did you notice one little word in that?  And.  Tabitha was a disciple AND she was always doing good and helping the poor. 

That is super important.  It doesn’t say, “Tabitha was a doctrinally pure believer who fought heresy and false teaching wherever it raised its ugly head.”  Nor does it simply say, “Tabitha was a super nice lady who did a lot of things to help out the poor. For Tabitha, it wasn’t either/or. It was both/and. She was a disciple – a student/follower of Jesus – AND she was always doing good and helping out.  And the two are totally connected.  BECAUSE she was a disciple, BECAUSE she was a child of God, BECAUSE she knew the truth about Jesus as revealed in God’s Word – BECAUSE of all that, BECAUSE of her faith, she helped those who were in need, making clothes for them, supporting them, and encouraging them. 

If Tabitha could see the situation we described before with two church bodies, my guess is she’d say this: “Why do you feel like you have to choose to be either biblically sound OR to show love and help others? Why can’t you do both?  And doesn’t knowing what God’s Word says and standing firmly on it mean you will put Jesus’ words into practice, loving your neighbor and showing your faith as you reach out to others? It shouldn’t be an either/or choice. It should be a both/and choice.”

If Tabitha were here to say those things today, I, for one, would be a little ashamed.  Too often I have clung so tightly to the doctrinal purity thing that love too often falls by the wayside.  Don’t get me wrong – as long as I am drawing breath I will make sure that we as a congregation and a church body base everything we believe and teach on the Word of God and on it alone.  But let’s be honest – isn’t it too easy to be loveless as we do that?  And haven’t we fallen into that trap too often?

Maybe a specific example helps.  Let’s say someone walks in the door here and asks you some questions. They mention that they are really struggling with… go ahead and pick something – money, certain abuse, or whatever.  During the discussion the person mentions he or she grew up Catholic or Baptist or with no involvement in church.  Isn’t it easy to find excuses to get away from that person?  Isn’t it easy to think that if we help, we could somehow be tainted by things we know are not quite what the Bible says? Isn’t it easy to get away, find someone you know, and forget the whole issue came up?

Now imagine someone from Good Shepherd of Zion in Allenton shows up with the same request.  Wouldn’t it be much easier to reach out to that person?  Wouldn’t it be easier to run around and find people and ways to help the person who is struggling?  Wouldn’t it be easier if the person was “one of us”?

I bring all this up because, again, trying to be honest here, too often we make an either/or choice instead of a both/and choice.  We can share the truth about Jesus with a neighbor AND help her rake her lawn because she is elderly or shovel his driveway because he just had back surgery.  We can talk about God’s Word AND help out at a local shelter.  We can be bold witnesses to what God has said AND give money to help stop slave trade of a very graphic nature around the world.

But too often, we make the either/or choice, don’t we?  And why?  Because it is easier.  It is relatively easy to know in general what God’s Word says and speak out about that.  But reaching out in love?  That can get messy.  That can shake up your self-constructed world.  That can mean moving things around on the schedule.  That can mean making sacrifices in regard to what you want to do.  Admit it – we have all been there.  And too often we have us have taken the easy way out.  We stand firmly on the disciple thing but come up short in the “doing good to all” category.

Simply said, that should not be.  Think about the old spiritual: “They will know we are Christians by our love.”  If I only talk about being a disciple of Jesus but never put that into practice, what kind of message am I sending?  If I only do good and help others but never utter a word about Jesus as the Savior, what good am I really doing in the long term?

Tabitha wasn’t either/or, but more importantly, Jesus wasn’t either/or either.  He stood more boldly on the Word of his Father than anyone ever has.  He preached openly and clearly about sin and forgiveness, heaven and hell, how a person is saved, and all that good stuff.  But he also showed the truth of that Word as he loved people. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, drove out demons, and comforted the sad, the scared, and the lonely.  Far from being either/or, he was both/and.

And that means everything to us.  If Jesus had only taught the truth of the Word but failed in the doing good area, he would not have gone to that cross.  And had that not happened, we would be dead in our sins, suffering through this life miserably and waiting for something far worse when we die.  If Jesus had only shown love but failed to teach what that love meant and why it was so important, the only thing we would have is a great example of a nice guy whose work, in the end, doesn’t really mean anything. If Jesus was only either/or, we can’t put into words how horrible that would be for us.

But because he was both/and, we gather today as confident, hopeful people.  We know the Jesus who taught the pure Word about how we are saved and why his work is so necessary is the same one who showed love in the greatest way possible as he gave up his life for us.  He both taught abut the danger of sin AND proved he was the Savior from that sin.  He both talked about why his sacrifice was necessary AND followed through and made that sacrifice.  He both spoke about love often AND showed the depth of that love as he who had everything made himself nothing for us and for our salvation.  Both/and – in every way, that is our Savior.  Thank God for it.

Tabitha knew this.  Tabitha relished this.  And because of all this, Tabitha didn’t make an either/or choice.  She was a disciple – a follower and student of Jesus – AND she showed her faith as she lived out her life.  That is what Jesus did, and living this way was her way of thanking Jesus for doing that.

If all that was good enough for her, isn’t it good enough for us?  Absolutely!  And realize the impact God can have through us when we are both/and instead of either/or.  Tabitha suddenly became sick and died.  Peter was called.  When he got there, people showed him stuff Tabitha had made for them, and I bet they shared a lot of stories about how loving and kind she was.  As a disciple, and as one who put her faith into practice, she had an impact in the lives of others.  Yes, she helped them with their temporal, earthly need, but in doing so she also was a witness to the love that Christ had shown her.

Do you think it is any different with us?  When we stand firmly on God’s Word and on the truth about our Savior, and lovingly share that truth and the love God calls us to share, don’t think that doesn’t have an impact.  There is an old prayer that goes something like this: “Help me to be Jesus to everyone I meet today.”  Would Jesus speak firmly about what the Word says?  Yes.  Would Jesus also do everything he possibly could to show love and help that person?  Yes.  Both/and.  That was Tabitha.  That is our Savior.  And, God willing, that is all of us as well.

I am not going to end by listing 15 charities you should be involved with.  There are so many ways to live out our faith and help those who need assistance.  I simply pray that we all stop and think about the either/or vs. both/and situation.  And thinking about it and praying about it, as disciples – followers and students – of Jesus, we seek every day to BOTH grow in our faith and stand firmly on it AND show that faith, that love – show our Jesus, our Savior – to everyone we meet.  Amen.