“You have heard that it was said….” is one of the more common ways Jesus introduced principles of his gospel. Found at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew Chapters 5 through 7, Jesus introduces principles of faith that were radically–and I use that word intentionally–different than traditional or common expectations of the Jewish religious establishment of his time. The established religion was focused on following ritual, much of which had lost its meaning, and people had become more interested in how to cut corners but still get credit for being faithful. What Jesus introduced was a means of expressing faith in God that was based on the joyous motivation of gratitude for the redemption from sin that he would provide for those who followed him.
All of these changes were tough for people to accept. They were counter-cultural back then, and they are still counter-cultural. It’s not the actions themselves that make them difficult to carry out, it is the fact that they are so unlike what is considered common practice, that they will draw attention when people do them. They testify to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of someone who has been forgiven of their sin and had their life transformed by the blood of Christ’s sacrifice.
For over 20 years, I worked coordinating service projects for a ministry called “World Changers.” World Changers organizes groups of middle school, high school and college students to do various kinds of service projects, from working in community ministries to doing home renovation and construction work for low income homeowners. What made those projects effective vehicles of evangelism was the fact that seeing a group of teenagers at someone’s house, in the hot sun, during their summer vacation, spend a week working on someone’s house 8 to 10 hours a day, putting on new roofs, scraping and painting, installing siding, new doors and windows. It’s difficult for parents to get kids to mow the yard or rake leaves at home, but these students worked hard, under the direction of trained volunteers. Since the ministry began in 1992, over 100,000 students have participated and over 30,000 homes have been repaired, all across the country, by these youth groups.
The first project that I ever coordinated was in Nashville, Tennessee in the summer of 1999. We had over 300 high school and college students and we put full composition roofs on 25 homes during the week. What happens at each work site on Monday morning is similar everywhere. On Sunday, the crew goes through the neighborhood, knocking on doors, explaining what they are doing. On Monday, neighbors peek out windows and watch cautiously to see if it’s really going to happen. By Wednesday, people are stopping by to chat, asking “Why are you doing this?” It has quite an impact when a teenager tells them, “Because we love Jesus.” And at every project I’ve coordinated, over 20 years, either a homeowner of some of their neighbors have been introduced to Jesus as a result of this work.
There are some divine appointments at these projects. In 2010, in St. Francois County, Missouri, the construction coordinator was having difficulty determining whether a particular home would be on the work list. It was a large, two story home, with peeling paint and a leaky roof, a major job that would require two crews to complete in a week. But the house was right behind the busiest convenience store in town, visible from the main drag, good publicity for the project.
The owner, “Miss Patty,” a middle-aged lady in her 50’s, had inherited the house and was having difficulty keeping up with the maintenance on a fixed income. So, even with needing two crews, the house was chosen for the project.
Miss Patty was not a Christian, but she came out in the yard and sat with the students working on her house every day, bringing plenty of iced tea and enjoying the conversation. On Thursday, one of the adults on the crew who was a youth pastor, and one of the students, led Miss Patty to the Lord. So there was a reason why that house needed to be fixed, and why the construction coordinator chose it.
In November, I got an email from the construction coordinator, giving me the sad news that Miss Patty had passed away from terminal cancer. She’d been sick, but didn’t know it, when her home was repaired. But God knew what was happening, and he sent his messengers, in the form of a group of students sacrificing their summer to do hard work, to help bring her into his Kingdom, knowing that she would be home in just a few months.
Jesus tells us that loving our neighbor as ourselves is one of the greatest commandments, along with loving and serving God. Our testimony is very clear when our lives are a demonstration of our obedience to those commands, in spite of tradition or culture. Our witness can be seen in the way that we treat and care for the needs of others over our own, whether we know them or not. The students who worked on Miss Patty’s house only knew her for a few days over one summer, but she is spending eternity in heaven because they decided to give up a week of their summer break and do some hard, back-aching labor to make her house a better place to live.
We’ll celebrate Jesus’ resurrection by worshipping this Easter. Maybe we should also celebrate by going back to the Sermon on the Mount and finding a way to love our neighbor as ourself, demonstrating our faith and trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.