Losing and Finding Jesus

In church life we often focus on the theme of “finding Jesus.” Last Advent season at First United Methodist Church of Miami we spent a lot of time talking about “losing Jesus.” That’s right. We lost Jesus. Not in the spiritual sense but in the very physical sense. In 2017, First Church Miami, made a courageous decision to redevelop our property in Downtown Miami. In selling our property we would need to move our long-standing ministry with the unhoused off property in a new location. The church desperately did not want to lose its identity as a church that serves the unhoused and wanted a reminder at the new church property in the middle of downtown Miami of our dedication to those living on the streets. The church immediately raised funds and applied to receive one of the iconic “Homeless Jesus” statues by Canadian Sculptor, Timothy Schmalz. The sculptor only allows one per city and there are roughly forty around the world including at the Vatican and Capernaum in Israel. We were selected as the site for the Miami Homeless Jesus.

The statue is made of bronze and is a bench with a life-size man lying on it covered in a large cloth. At his feet you can see two holes symbolizing the nails of the crucifixion and identifying the unhoused man as Jesus. Jesus lay outside our church on Biscayne Blvd until it was time forconstruction to commence. We then moved Jesus with us to the historic Greater Bethel AME where we worshiped and hold our ministry with the unhoused. Jesus was then placed near the front of the church for about three years. Until we began to move some things from Greater Bethel to another location. One day I drove by the church and looked for Jesus as I usually do and Jesus was gone. I quickly called our coordinator for our unhoused ministry. She also had not seen Jesus and thought Greater Bethel must have moved him as they saw us moving things around. I then called the Trustees chair at Greater Bethel, Brother Wilson was also confused and thought we had taken Jesus to a new location. Jesus was lost right before Christmas. This Jesus that was so discernibly given to us over other locations in Miami. This Jesus that cost a lot of money that people so generously donated. This Jesus that symbolized our incarnate Christ who came to be one of us, the weakest of us. This Jesus was lost. How far could he have gone? Who could have moved him? I felt like Mary at the tomb, “They’ve taken the body and I don’t know where they put it.” I also did not know who “they” were in this scenario.

So, the search party began. We walked around the block. Nothing. We searched the park next door. Nothing. We searched the front parking lot. Nothing. We searched the side parking lot. Nothing. We searched the back parking lot. Nothing. We were finally about to give up when we noticed something by our shower trailer where we provided showers to the unhoused four mornings a week. There were the regular picnic tables for people to sit and wait, and then, blended in with the bushes propped up against the gated fence, there was Jesus. Some of our unhoused friends had moved him back to the showers so they had another bench to sit on and wait. Somehow this 600 lb. bronze Jesus found a way to not simply be a show piece of our service and care for the unhoused, but once again Jesus became incarnate waiting on a bench to take a shower. Somehow all over again Jesus became weak to the weak. We found Jesus.

In our scripture from First Corinthians that we read today, we see Paul making this argument for the incarnation and, in doing so, finding the blessing in sharing in the gospel. Paul spends the eighth and ninth chapters of First Corinthians defending his approach to ministry. Paul cast a large net. He has not yet used fancy platforms like mission insight to discern his specific demographic and create a church modeled after their preferences. Paul’s approach is more grassroots. He finds himself in different locations and there begins to know the people and then works to make the gospel applicable and known to them, even if this means limiting himself.

In chapter eight we can see that the question is arising among Christians in Corinth about meat. Yes. Meat. All of the sudden, our 21st century potluck problems are justified. The question about the meat is that the Christians in Corinth are meeting people and converting people who eat meat that was offered up to idols at certain meals. The question Paul’s followers have should not be strange to those of us who love meat. Paul’s followers are at these meals. They don’t believe in idols nor do they care if the meat was offered to idols. Idol sacrifice and belief has no bearing on their meat-eating choices or desires. They just want to eat the meat. Meat that was possibly somewhat rare during that time.

Paul is the party pooper at these meat-eating parties. Paul realizes that although his followers and he could eat the meat without any spiritual belief or pressure or thoughts, their new followers may not eat meat as easily. The new followers may eat the meat and feel that they should still worship the idols or be tempted back into a way of life that was not the way of freedom of Jesus Christ.

So, Paul’s suggestion is this, although you can eat meat, restrain yourself and don’t’ eat it out of your compassion for the new Christians and your love of the gospel. Paul reminds them that they can eat the meat but, for the love of the new Christians, they can also go without it in order not to tempt the new followers. Paul invites them to limit themselves so that others may experience the freedom of Christ. Paul invites them to become weak. Paul invites them to incarnational ministry.

This leads Paul to the words he writes in chapter nine that many of us know.

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might gain all the more. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law so that I may gain those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law so that I might gain those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I may gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I might become a partner in it.

If one reads this text without the full context of chapters eight and nine, we might believe Paul to be some kind of slimy salesman. We may doubt Paul’s authenticity and question his ethics. Is Paul selling himself to sell the gospel?

Paul’s words brought to mind my Godson’s current plans for his lemonade stand. The standard first entrepreneurial move of most seven-year-olds. He is planning to call it the “Lemon Drop Stop.” When he was first dreaming about the stand, he was full of ideas to bring the whole world lemonade or at least his neighborhood. He would not just have lemonade but lemonade with ice, lemonade with a drink umbrella, lemonade with a lemon drop inside (hence the name), lemonade with strawberries, lemonade with blueberries. His “be all lemonade to all people” seemed like a great plan, until his mother and his Tia got involved. We explained to him that the overhead cost of so many options so early on would not make him any money. The goal was to make money right? Or was it just to bring the world the best lemonade? Our purpose became a bit confusing.

Not for Paul though. The purpose was never confusing. Paul was not selling lemonade. Paul was not selling anything and at the beginning of the scripture we read today he writes, “What then is my wage? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.”

Paul is doing this ministry thing for free so that in no way may a person think that he is manipulating the gospel for his own gain. Paul’s purpose is not piety. Paul’s purpose is not perfection. Paul’s purpose is clear, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel.” Even at the expense of his own preferences. At a nice dinner I am sure Paul would prefer to eat some very nice meat. Yet, instead Paul limits himself, becomes as one who may be spiritually weak in order to encourage their faith and help them resist the temptation to worship idols.

Paul’s purpose is to become like Christ so that he may be the hands and feet of Christ and then meet Christ in those for whom he is sharing the gospel. In Philippians Paul writes of Christ self- limiting measures for the same purpose. He writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on the cross.”

Paul deeply understands that, in order to share Jesus, we must do it Jesus’ way. The incarnational way. Paul understands that this is not only the means to bring others to find Jesus but to find Jesus and experience the gospel over and again ourselves. Paul’s only reward is that he may share in the blessings of the gospel, or as one version says, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I might become a partner in it.”

Paul’s reward is to experience the gospel over and again. To experience over and again the good news and the power that it has to change the life of someone. This is how Paul finds Jesus over and again.

Many of us listening today have already found Jesus and Jesus has certainly found us. Through a friend, a pastor, a mentor, a mission trip, a conversation or small group, Jesus met us where we were. Through God’s prevenient grace, Jesus came to us and set us free, comforted us, made us alive again, changed us, encouraged us. Jesus found us and we have found Jesus.

We also though have a tendency to lose Jesus – maybe not as bad as First Church Miami. I mean, who loses a 600 lb. bronze Jesus? We do at times lose our purpose and we forget at times why we do this thing called Jesus and church and life together. Maybe we do understand our purpose and we have dedicated ourselves to it, but we have lost the joy of Jesus and the newness of the message.

Today Paul invites us to find Jesus again. Paul’s argument for the incarnation is that we too become human, we sympathize with the doubter, we contemplate with the questioner, we listen deeply to the needs of our unhoused brother and we cry and spend time with our single mother sister. We make dramatic and fun plans with the seven-year-old lemonade entrepreneur and help him understand economics and the way of Jesus. We take the time to learn another language and culture. We read the story of someone whose life has been different than our own. We get involved in a life that is not our own. We get lost in the life, the worries, the hopes and the dreams of others, knowing that it is there that together we will all find Jesus again.

If our life-size, lifeless 600 lb. bronze Jesus, idol to our service, could somehow move himself to be incarnate with the unhoused men waiting for showers, we too can move with Paul, with Christ, with all who have gone before us, to get into the shoes of another, to be incarnate, to be Jesus. Knowing that when we do, we find Jesus again and a small piece of heaven finds its way to earth.

Amen. Let us pray.

Great God in heaven, we pray today that through us you may come to earth, that Jesus’ hands and feet may be known through each of us. Amen.