This past Sabbath, I preached at my home church* and had the pleasure of inviting some friends along. I was pleased when they accepted the invitation and surprised when they both showed up! The day that unfolded was more than I could have imagined.
A few weeks ago, a friend popped up on messenger. Her son had asked a tricky question for which she had no answer. They are a post-Muslim family who immigrated from Iran a few years ago. One day, as they drove past a church, her 7-year-old son asked, “What’s that building?” His teenage sister replied, “That’s a church. Christians go in there.” The boy asked, “Are people who go into religious buildings here in Australia as mean as people who go into them in Iran?” His mum was dumbstruck.
“What do I say?” she asked me.
“Why not show him?" I said, "I go to a really friendly church in Lilydale with lots of kids his age. If you are open to it, you could all come in a couple of weeks when I am telling stories.”
“That would be wonderful!” she said.
“The kids his age all play cricket on the lawn after the church service." I said, "Would your son like to join in?”
“I’m sure he would love that!” she said.
After the kids went into Sabbath School (we do church first at Lilydale) the boy joined his mum, sister and I sitting in the shade where we were chatting. He hadn’t been there for more than a few minutes before he got to his question.
“Why do people go to church?” he asked.
“Because we have friends here! Friends who love us and want to know how we are.” I said, “So, we come here to talk to each other and find out how things are going. We all love God, too. So, we worship Him here. That’s what everyone was doing when they sang songs this morning.”
“Oh,” he said.
“We’ve never been inside of a church before,” the older sister said.
“Yeah, your mum told me.” I said, “What did you think?”
“It was ok,” she said.
His weeks-old question answered, a new question was brewing inside little man’s heart.
“Why did Jesus die?” he asked.
I had been sure to give a clear Gospel message in the sermon and here it was bubbling to the surface. He was processing a lot of new material! I looked over and made eye contact with his mum. She nodded, giving me permission to tell her son what I believe about Jesus.
“He died for two reasons.” I said, “The religious people who were in charge of the big buildings in his day told everyone what to do. They told people God only cared about them if they came into their big buildings and obeyed their rules. Jesus told people God loved them. Jesus talked to them under trees, by lakes and on grassy fields like this one." I pointed to the field where they'd just been playing cricket. "Jesus talked to them outside of the religious buildings. He told them God loved them right now. He said they could talk to God right now and they didn’t need to obey the religious leaders to be loved by God. What do you think the religious leaders thought?” I asked.
“They probably hated it!” he said.
“They sure did.” I said, “They hated it so much they wanted Jesus dead. But they were religious people and couldn’t kill people and still look good. So, they told the leaders of the country that Jesus wanted to be king. Those leaders were the Romans and they killed anyone who threatened their power. So, they killed Jesus. On a cross, like I explained in the story today.”
“Oh, ok.” He said, “So the religious people lied about Jesus to get him killed.”
“Yup.” I said, “And the second reason Jesus died is because He wanted to. I know that sounds weird, but this is what Christians believe. God knows that selfishness kills us. We call selfishness ‘sin’. When we do selfish things - when we sin - other people get hurt. The more we hurt people, the more alone we become. And then we die. God knew that sin always causes death. That’s where selfishness leads. So, God and His Son Jesus made a plan. Jesus came to earth and became a person like us. But He was never selfish. He never sinned. And even though he was human like us, He was also still God. So, when He died, because He was God, He could take our place. He died for our selfishness - our sin. And then He came back to life and promised we can live forever with Him when He returns.”
“Wow.” he said.
I looked up at his mum and she said, “Let’s go now, kids. Thank Dave for inviting us today."
They both thanked me and I thanked them for coming.
The other person I invited was a young teacher I’ve known and chatted with for a few years. She has tried Christianity before and is open and interested. I didn’t even know she was in the service until she came outside afterwards.
We exchanged greetings and then she jumped right in with a question. “You said, in there (she pointed at the church) that bad things still happen to good people - even though Jesus did what He did. I know you explained why but I’m still not getting it. I’ve had a lot of stuff happen that really hurt and really wasn’t fair or loving. So, I was caught up putting myself in the story and missed the point, or something.”
“Yeah, that happens to me too,” I smiled. “It’s like our heart is wanting answers but our mind is stuck in a loop.”
She nodded. “So, why did these horrible things happen to me, if God is Love?”
“Your question is one of the main reasons Jesus died a painful death rather than a gentle one.” I said, “Jesus suffered, too. He suffered being misunderstood by everyone. He suffered the rejection of his friends and family. He suffered abuse for things He didn’t do. He suffered a horrible whipping just to please a crowd. And then, He died the most painful death the people of that day knew how to put a person through. Ultimately, Jesus suffered a death that wasn’t His to die.”
“It was ours,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, “The truth is, if Jesus shows us anything, it is that God suffers with us. He suffers for us. He feels our pain because He loves us so very much. God loves you. And, although you may have felt alone, you have never been alone in your suffering. Jesus was with you. In your suffering. In your joys. And even right now He’s with us!”
“Thanks Dave,” she said.
“Thank you for coming to hear my stories today!” I smiled.
“You’re welcome!” She said, “I’ve gotta go. I’m headed out camping with friends.”
Over the days and hours since, I’ve reflected on what made this day possible. And, I think it boils down to three things.
1. I knew my church was a safe, friendly place to invite new people.
2. I had authentic friendships with non-Christians and knew their spiritual journey.
3. I was going to be doing something I love and wanted these people to share it.
The invitation beforehand and conversation afterwards followed naturally!
There was so much more that happened behind the scenes to prepare for this day. In the weeks before, I told the pastor, worship coordinator and children’s Sabbath School leaders we had complete newbies coming.
I checked with the cricket-loving kids to make sure they brought their gear and understood while every cricket game is friendship evangelism, this was the big game! Their previous impromptu games had prepared them for such a time as this!
The teen girls came out and specially invited the new teenage girl to Sabbath School. She chose to remain with me but she felt welcomed and wanted. We had an amazing chat of our own about God and belief.
One of the Sabbath School leaders, mum of the cricket captain, arranged an extra 15 minutes between church and Sabbath School so the cricket friendships could set.
My wife ‘randomly’ met both new ladies early in the day and had further conversations with them as they walked to their cars.
My entire Sabbath School class prayed for these people beforehand and continue to do so!
There is a reason followers of Jesus are called the ‘body of Christ’ when they gather. It takes all of us to create a place filled with God’s love where each of us can bring new friends and they can receive the visitor’s welcome only the Kingdom of God can provide.
* Here's the Sermon I preached!