God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Empathy Today and Its Significance for Being the Best Neighbors, Authentically–Religion Basics Part 2: a Reflection on Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 and John 3:1-17

My friends, let’s get real. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a pandemic. Over 3,100 lives have been lost. Complacency and panic are equally poor choices. Precaution, prayer and proactive hygiene are imperative. Honestly, no handshaking, cover your mouth with a clean tissue or your arm bent at the elbow and wash, wash, wash your hands. I’m being as authentic as I can be right now. No complacency or panic from this husband, father, friend and pastor.

Last Sunday, Ryan spoke of the human predicament (sin) and today, I address the solution (God’s unconditional forgiving grace). Are you ready for more exposure to what being an authentic human being is like? Tony Campolo tells the following story:

“Boys and girls, I love you all the same. I have no favorites.” This is what Miss Thompson told Teddy Stallard along with all the other members of the fifth-grade class. Teddy was unkempt, unattractive, and seemingly unintelligent. Comments on his report cards were disturbing. 1st grade-Teddy shows promise with his work and attitude, but poor home situation. 2nd grade-Teddy could do better. Mother is seriously ill. He receives little help at home. 3rd grade-Teddy is a good boy, but too serious. He is a slow learner. His mother died this year. 4th grade-Teddy is very slow, but well behaved. His father shows no interest.

Christmas came that fifth grade year. Presents were exchanged in class. Teddy’s gift for Miss Thompson was wrapped in brown paper and held together with scotch tape. Inside was a gaudy rhinestone bracelet, with half the stones missing and a bottle of cheap perfume. The other boys and girls began to smirk and giggle. Miss Thompson sensed what was happening and put on the bracelet and the perfume. “Isn’t it lovely?”

“Miss Thompson, Miss Thompson, you smell just like my Mother…and her bracelet looks pretty on you too. I’m glad you like my presents.” When Teddy and the other students left, Miss Thompson got down on her knees and asked God to forgive her. She had judged Teddy and had not taken seriously the comments on his previous report cards. Miss Thompson had made value judgments based on oral tradition about Teddy. Miss Thompson became a new person. She was no longer just a teacher. Miss Thompson had become an agent of God. Teddy showed dramatic improvement throughout his remaining elementary years.

Six years later, Miss Thompson received a letter from Teddy. “Dear Miss Thompson, I wanted you to be the first to know. I will be graduating from high school second in my class.” Four years later, another letter arrived. “Dear Miss Thompson, they just told me I will be graduating first in my class. I wanted you to be the first to know. The University has not been easy, but I liked it.” Another four years transpired, and Miss Thompson received yet another letter. “Dear Miss Thompson, as of today, I am Theodore Stallard, M.D. I wanted you to be the first to know. I am getting married next month, the 27th to be exact. I want you to come and sit where my mother would sit if she were alive. You are the only family I have now; Dad died last year.”[1]

Teddy Stallard became a new person. The love that Miss Thompson had for Teddy changed his life. Teddy had someone who believed in him. From a student who was failing to one who succeeded, God used Miss Thompson as an agent of change in Teddy’s life.

The texts in Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 and John 3:1-17 ask us to accept that everything that happens in our life is a gift from God. The good, the bad, and the ugly, that’s right, being authentic, is the way we discover how God is shaping us into amazing people. And we experience this shaping through warm relationships, relationships that make a difference. Knowing the common values we hold with all people, helps us to resist judging one another.

In John 3:1-17, Jesus and Nicodemus are discussing what it means to be “born again.” Whereas Teddy Stallard received a rejuvenated and positive self-esteem through Miss Thompson, John 3 addresses the nature of being rejuvenated spiritually that is being born again. Wayne Grudem defines born again as “the scriptural term referring to God’s work of regeneration by which he imparts new spiritual life to us.”[2] It’s late at night and Nicodemus wants to speak directly with Jesus about something very important. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council, one steeped in the Law said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. Jesus answered him “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[3] The signs and wonders that Jesus performed captured Nicodemus’ attention. Unless Nicodemus was born again that is from above, he would not see God.

Nicodemus responded immediately to Jesus. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”[4] As a leading teacher of Judaism, Nicodemus was brilliant. He knew he could not return to his mother’s womb, but the fact that he voiced the absurdity of the possibility demonstrated his urgency for a lifestyle change. Sensing Nicodemus’ urgency Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”[5] This is the doctrine of regeneration. Only God could prepare Nicodemus’ heart to believe in Jesus Christ. Regeneration is “a secret act of God in which he imparts new spiritual life to us.”[6] This definition finds expression in John 1:13. The children of God “…were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” We are passive in regeneration. Regeneration is a work of God in our lives that leads to a response to God’s effectual calling with saving faith. Behavior and desires change. We are born again.[7]

Every human being is created in the image of God. God has a warm relationship with us. God loves us and wants us to love others with that same warmth, affection and presence. A warm relationship, just like Teddy Stallard and Miss Thompson, is characterized by listening, being empathetic, caring, loving, acting and speaking with compassion.

Today is The Second Sunday in Lent. Lent is a time for us to take seriously what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Through authentic repentance, that is, confessing our sin to God and receiving the unconditional forgiving grace of God, we are assured in what we believe about God and that we belong to God and one another. When we repent of our sin, sin being the human predicament, we begin to understand that God’s unconditional forgiving grace is the solution to the human predicament. Barbara Brown Taylor, the author of Holy Envy writes, “…yes, I looked down on Christians who were not like me, including the student who sat in front of me returning the same look. Our standoff reminded me of so many other encounters since my college days: the steely confrontation between true believers, each needing the other to be wrong in order to be right.”[8] Authenticity requires truthfulness. I have to repent when I judge others who do not think, and act like me.

All humans share the predicament: sin. All humans have access to the solution: God’s unconditional forgiving grace. With this being the case, you can build empathetic and warm relationships with all people, because God is in the relationship. But, being obedient to God’s commandment to love God and others is the key. Actually, confessing your sin of being judgmental and ceasing from it, at least doing it less often is important. Actually, confessing your sin of being racist and ceasing from racist thoughts, words or actions, at least doing such less often is important. Actually, confessing your sin of “white privilege” and ceasing from using that privilege to advance yourself at the expense of people of color, at least less often is important. Obedience to the way of Jesus is the bottom line. Unless you are born again, you will not see the kingdom of God. Repenting of your sin is an opportunity to continue the process of being born again, not simply for eternal life, but for living differently today.

Are you ready not to be complacent or to panic? Like the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there’s a pandemic of being judgmental (SIN-101). It has, is and will continue to claim millions of people’s lives. Regularly repent of the sin of being judgmental. Don’t be complacent or panic about how many people are reluctant to embrace Christianity. Be Jesus’ presence in the world. Every human being is created in the image of God. Repent of your sin and receive God’s unconditional forgiving grace. Listen well to others. They very well may be like Teddy Stallard, like Nicodemus, trying to figure out who they are, and seeking a better way to live. Be authentic. Show people Jesus.

[1]Anthony Campolo, Who Switched the Price Tags? (Waco, Texas: WORD BOOKS, 1986), 69-72.

[2]Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 480.

[3]John 3:2-3, Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.

[4]John 3:4, Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.

[5]John 3:5-6, Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.

[6]Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 492.

[7]In the two paragraphs of textual analysis above, I have benefited from the thinking of David G. Garber Jr., Cameron B. R. Howard, Eric, D. Barreto, Sarah Birmingham Drummond, W. Scott Haldeman and Mikeal C. Parsons as found in Connections, Year A, Volume 2, 41-43, 43-44, 47-49, 49-51, 52-54 and 54-55.

[8]Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy (New York, New York: HarperOne, 2019), 20.

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