Monday, July 28, 2014

The Great Ends of the Church: The Preservation of the Truth

Preached on Sunday, July 27, 2014
Scripture readings:  2 Timothy 1:3-14; John 17:1-5; 20-26
“What is truth?”
A mom and dad were worried about what to do with their little boy who was telling lies. One day he ran into the house and told his mom, “Mommy there’s a lion in our yard!” She looked out and saw a big golden-retriever. She told her son to go up to his room and pray about the lie he had just told. The boy came down later, and his mom asked him if he had anything to say about his lie? The boy said, “Yes Mommy, I told God, and he said that he thought the dog was a lion, at first, too.”
A Limited Range of Personal Oddments:
More or Less in Temporal Order
Jesus, when he was about to be sent to the cross, explained part of his mission and purpose to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. Jesus told Pilate that he had come to bear witness to the truth. Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” But he didn’t stop and wait for Jesus to answer his question. (John 18:37-38) Pilate didn’t “stay for an answer”, either because he didn’t believe in the truth or else he didn’t want to be inconvenienced by it.
If we read on, in the story of Jesus’ trial, we would find that the governor was really only interested in his own survival, and in his own success. He served himself, not the truth.
Or you might say that Pontius Pilate, the brutal but cowardly Roman governor, was his own truth. His truth was whatever served him, what ever worked for him. And we find more and more people of the same opinion in our present day.
We live in a time when fewer and fewer people believe in an absolute truth, or in absolute standards of good and evil; right and wrong. People are more and more likely than ever to say that, “the truth is whatever works for you.”
We live in a world that asks, “What is truth?” because it doesn’t really want a truth that is truly true. We live in a world; that, more and more, doesn’t believe in the truth at all.
What if “whatever works for you” is to lie, or to take things from work, or to cheat on your tax records, or to spread a rumor about another person? What if “whatever works for you” is to use other people for your own advantage, or to pretend to be someone you are not; whether it’s on the internet or in real life?
Now during these weeks we are thinking about the great “ends” or purposes of the Church.
First, remember what the church is. The church is the gathering of the people of God into what the Bible calls the body of Christ. God wants a gathering of his people.
He wants a gathering because, in the world as it is, we see the opposite of gathering. We see a scattering. In the brokenness of our world we see division. We see conflict. Sin has made a crack in everything, and between every human, and even on the inside of every human, and God wants to bring the pieces together and mend them better than any glue on earth can do.
God wants a group of people who belong to each other; and who know that they belong to each other; who know that they need to work together. And one of the purposes of our belonging to each other and working together is that this is the way to “preserve the truth”. The preservation of the truth is a great cause that we serve in our life together: in our partnership, in our unity, in our worshiping, praying, learning, working, and carrying out the mission of Christ together.
We want to be found by each other and by the whole world to be people who are true and who can be relied upon, in big things and in the so-called little things. This is because we are witnesses, in this world, of a God who is true and who can be relied upon. The world we live in needs to know that there is a great and wonderful and transforming truth that it needs to known; and that this truth can be relied on; and that this truth is to be found in God.
There is a lot of responsibility in the job of the preservation of the truth. The preservation of the truth is like a relay race. The church is a team in the relay race of truth.
The race has lasted thousands of years. According to Paul the race included his forbearers, the people of Israel, as well as the people called the church, which includes us. Each generation, over thousands of years, has carried the baton and passed it on to the next generation.
But even in our own present generation, in this congregation and all around the world, we pass the baton back and forth as we pray for each other, and as we take our turns in serving, and as we encourage each other.
Many people are skeptical about whether it is possible to preserve the truth. They compare it to the parlor game where everyone sits in a circle and one person is chosen to whisper a message to the person on their right, and the person on the right passes the message on, in a whisper, to the person on their right, until the message goes all around the circle. When it goes all the way around, it becomes a completely different message.
Now, if I got the message mixed up, it would probably be because I don’t hear as well as I used to; or because I don’t say, “What!” But I believe that most of the messing up comes from the fact that people are playing a game. The people in the game treat the message as a game.
But we are not playing a game. We have a message that has been entrusted to us by God. We have not changed the message. Though some Christians have changed it, or tried to, or never got it right in the first place, the Church, as a whole, has never changed the message.
An example of how the message has been passed along without changing it is in the thing we call “the creeds”. The word “creed” comes from the Latin word (“credo”) for, “I believe.” The creeds are statements of the truth you believe in; the truth you live by. The creeds are ancient, and they come from people who were serious about their faith: serious about passing it on.
The creeds and the confessions of the church have a history that goes back to the beginnings of the church. We can say the Apostle’s Creed (the core material of which had already become tradition by the early second century)* and the Nicene Creed (which comes from the year 325 AD) and we can see that the message has not changed.
A century before the Protestant Reformation, during what we consider to be the darkest times of the church, in its knowledge of the truth of the gospel, there was a man who lived in the lands of Germany, who was named Thomas a Kempis. He wrote a famous book called “The Imitation of Christ.”
This is what Thomas a Kempis wrote about the center of the truth of the gospel. He wrote: “In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection against our enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of mind, in the cross joy of spirit, in the cross the height of virtue, in the cross the perfection of holiness. There is no salvation of the soul, nor hope of everlasting life, but in the cross. Take up therefore your cross and follow Jesus, and you shall go into life everlasting. He went before, bearing his cross, and died for you on the cross; that you might also bear your cross and desire to die on the cross with him.” (Second Book, Chapter 12)
This is what we believe and, when Thomas a Kempis wrote these words they were the accepted teaching of his day. Most of the corruption in the church of his day (that led to the Reformation) was about power, and ambition, and money. There were many confusing things that the church taught during that time, but the truth was still there.
The Christians of that generation carried the baton in their day, as we do in ours. The preservation of the truth means seriously taking up our positions together as faithful relay-racers in the race of the truth.
The truth we are carrying in this relay race includes a number of ingredients that all belong together. We are called to preserve a truth that is both a “pattern of teaching” and a living relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Paul says: “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching with faith and love in Jesus Christ.”
The pattern of sound teaching is the outward statement of the message. Faith and love are the living relationship with Jesus Christ that the message describes. Faith and love are what Christ makes possible thorough his cross and his resurrection.
The truth is a message about a standard of life that is called “holy”.
Holy doesn’t mean perfect. A holy life is a life that is different and unique, because God has set your life apart for himself. He has set your life apart to show his purpose, and to work out that purpose. That is God’s side of your holy life. Your side of a holy life is a commitment to live your life anchored in God’s ways and God’s purpose.
Holiness has nothing to do with perfection. It has to do with the difference that comes from a purpose.
God’s truth is also about grace. It is the message that says that grace makes the pursuit of a holy life possible. The message and the teaching are about what God has done in Christ to set us apart to his purpose.
The message is about grace; the un-earnable, unconditional love of God in Christ; and the power of the grace of God to give us a new life. Paul says: “Join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God who has saved us and called us to a holy life -- not because of anything that we have done, but because of his own purpose and grace.” (2 Timothy 1:8-9)
The message is about who the Lord is. It is about the nature of God, as he is in himself, beyond time and space. The message is also about what God has done in our world, in human history: Paul says: “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Tim. 1:9-10)
The truth that we are to preserve is about the power of God to save us by coming to our help. In Christ we are given the Spirit of God to replace our neediness with God’s abundance, our fear with God’s power, our poverty of spirit with God’s love, our immaturity with God’s discipline. (2 Tim. 1:7)
There is a pattern of teaching, here, that we are to preserve. Only a church can preserve this pattern of truth, because it is about grace; and only people who are one in the Spirit, one in their experience of a relationship of grace with God, can teach grace by example.
Only by God’s people being one can other people learn what a God of love can do. Jesus says: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23)
The Bible teaches us surprising things about the truth, and how to preserve it. Part of the truth should be rules for living: the right way to live. But if the truth was nothing more than rules for living, then our job would be to be judges of each other, and judges of the world. And this would put us in danger of self-righteousness. Rules for living are part of the truth, but the truth goes far beyond that.
Part of the truth should be the correct information of who the Lord is and what the Lord has done. But if the truth were nothing more than this information, then our job would be to be information experts, and we would be tempted to show how clever we were, how smart we were, and who could argue the best or quote the most scriptures. The knowledge of who the Lord is and what the Lord has done is part of the truth; but the truth must go beyond that.
Preserving the truth goes beyond preserving the rules or preserving the correct information. The truth that comes from Christ is a relationship; a fellowship with God. Otherwise preserving the truth would turn into just another way of trusting in ourselves.
But the truth of Christianity is about trusting God. Truth is not a thing but a person, and that person is none other than God himself. This is why Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
Paul did not write, “I know what I have believed”, although he was very clear about what Christians were to believe. Instead, Paul wrote: “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” (2 Tim. 1:12)
Trust and faith take us out of ourselves so that we remember who the Lord is.
When we remember that the Lord is God, it does another great thing; because we easily get afraid when we think about the task of preserving the truth. We feel so small and the indifference of this world seems so big. We want to give up. We get timid, or tired, or embarrassed, or ashamed, the way Timothy needed warnings about.
Sometimes we even get angry about preserving the truth, as if we could do it by shaking the world by the throat. It is much healthier for us to know that God is the real truth, and that it is not our job to preserve God; though we may work for him and be the messengers of his truth.
God can take care of himself. God is the preserver of his own truth. And God preserves us, all the time.
The Lord has entrusted his truth to us, because the Lord, as we see him in Jesus, is very humble, and generous, and gracious. We don’t deserve the honor of this calling, but this is what grace is about; and so we are messengers of the grace of God. The truth is about grace. When we are living day by day in the grace and power of God, then whatever we have to share will be the truth.
And yet the whole truth is much more than any individual can show. The whole truth is much better shared by people who are gathered together and work together by the love of God.
More than any individual, the church itself needs the grace of God, doesn’t it? The church is unworthy of its message, but grace is God’s gift to the unworthy. So, with all the church’s errors, and with all its faults, and with all its sins, it is God’s great purpose for us, together as the church, to preserve his truth in this world.

(*Concerning the early development of the creeds, see the works of Irenaeus and Tertullian.)

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Great Ends of the Church: The Maintenance of Divine Worship

Preached on Sunday, July 20, 2014
Scripture readings: Psalm 104:10-35; Colossians 3:1-4; 12-17; Matthew 21:12-16
A Sunday school teacher, during class, asked her students to write a short letter to God. One child wrote this: “Dear God, We are having a good day at church. Wish you could be here.”
We are spending a number of weeks thinking about the purpose for the existence of the Church. We are doing this by looking at a rather old list of purposes that goes back a hundred years, in its present form. But the ingredients on that list go back much farther: even as far back as the Bible.
Sentinel Gap, on the Columbia River
Seen Looking North from Desert Aire, Washington
The ingredient we are thinking about today is, “the maintenance of divine worship.” Now, “divine worship” means “worshiping God”. “Maintenance” means “keeping it up”; or “keeping it going.”
Maybe maintenance implies understanding how it is supposed to work, so that we can keep it going like an engine running on all eight cylinders. So, one of our purposes, as the Lord’s people, is to make sure that worship doesn’t stop; to make sure that worship keeps going on in this world and that we keep it running according to God’s specifications; running at its best.
The presence and maintenance of worship in this world is essential for the health of the world. Worship is a healthy relationship between creatures and their creator. God creates all things and keeps them in existence. That is just a small part of the relationship, on his side. Worship holds creation in a posture of kneeling and looking up to God.
Humans hold a special place among the countless creations, or creatures, that God has made in his universe. As far as we know, all the other creatures (the galaxies, the sun and moon, water and rocks, plants and animals, molecules and atoms) worship God without any self-conscious thought or communication. Only humans (so far as we know) are capable of consciously thinking out their relationship with God, and consciously living it out and expressing it.
We give voice to the worship that flows from creation to its maker. We form the bridge or the anchor line of the worship that connects the creation with its God.
We see in Psalm 104 the world as it should have been. We see creation as it might have been if we hadn’t torn the pattern by turning from the worship of God to the worship of ourselves.
We see the rich pattern and the order and beauty of it. We see us humans as a peaceful functioning part of it. We hear our human voice as the voice that puts the whole pattern together as praise.
When God created the first human beings, in his image, it was so that whatever they did, in word and deed, they would be the tie that consciously bound heaven and earth together. Worship was the relationship that humans would have with God to make this link possible.
Before the human race rebelled against God, the words, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” were not a prayer, they were simply a description of human life as part of God’s good creation.
The words, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” were not a prayer. They described the whole universe. Even though we live in a fallen and disturbing world, there is still so much evidence of the original patterns of a whole, good creation that says “Thy will be done.” This is why we experience wonder.
God has got the whole world in his hands. It is his job to take care of the world. Our first job, at the beginning of the human race, was to take care of the world, as God’s assistant care takers, in his name. That was the other half of our the worship that human beings carried out in the Garden of Eden. Being caregivers after God’s own heart was this half of worship that was special to humans, in their role as the image of God in creation. It was also a part of the worship that the Psalmist imagined.
We can read in Genesis that the Lord walked in the garden in the cool of the day. (Genesis 3:8) The point was for the first humans to have time with God, to have God dwelling in their every day, to sum up the day that they had lived in his will (in his name), because their life, that day, was worship.
This is what the Bible says we were made for. We were made to be caregivers who lived in wonder and we were made to express this wonder as praise and caring. It is as if human beings were designed like a piece of cloth that has a pattern that is not merely stamped on, but woven right in: woven in the warp and the woof; woven top to bottom and side to side. Worship is woven into the pattern of what we are.
As the image of the invisible God, we were the visible sign of what God was like and what God was doing. We were his image actually woven into his creation. Sin actually pulls out the threads from the structure of the cloth itself in a way that damages and vandalizes the pattern of the cloth; and it weakens the strength and the usefulness of the cloth.
Worship restores the pattern and the strength. It reweaves, back into the cloth, the missing threads.
When the children in the temple were praising Jesus, and shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” (Matthew 21:15) it was because their humility and innocence opened their hearts to their God-given pattern. The Messiah, the Son of David came for the purpose of restoring the lost pattern of wonder and praise and caring. The children were his image praising him for what he was about to do. This worship was what they were made for.
The leaders in the Temple were too full of pride, too full of themselves, to admit that they were missing something. The children’s lives were made full, by Jesus. The pattern of creation had returned to them. But the leaders remained empty and the pattern of worship was missing in these leaders of worship.
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he says that, as people praise God and speak for Christ to each other, they are changed. They grow in peace. They grow in thankfulness. They grow in worship. “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)
Worship became not only what they did when they taught and sang hymns together. “Whatever they did, in word or deed,” became worship. Their families, their work, their schooling, their enjoyment of God’s gifts in this world were all part of the pattern of worship. Worship spread out over their lives to bring their words and deeds back into the pattern of creation.
Sometimes the worship of speaking the words of Christ and the singing of hymns is not worship at all. Sometimes this worship is only an old custom, or a habit, or something like a dance or a game. But, when there is a living relationship with God, worship becomes worship. And when worship becomes worship then life becomes worship.
When life becomes worship, it does not become solemn all the time, but it becomes important. Even fun is important. It is clear from Paul’s writings that worship brings love, and peace, and thanks, and joy.
Life is not always like that in our fallen world. But worship puts love, and peace, and thanks, and joy where they could never be without God’s help.
However good our lives might be without worship, we only discover what we were meant to be if there is worship. There are some things you can only see when you get down on your knees. Something will be missing (whether we miss it or not) without worship.
So, in the pictures of creation in the Old Testament, we see that human life was built upon a living relationship with God, and that relationship was worship. But the relationship and the worship were broken, almost as soon as they started, with Adam and Eve. And then something amazing happens in their relationship, and in their worship. At the end of the fourth chapter of Genesis, we can read that “men began to call on the name of the Lord.” (Genesis 4:26)
There is a long story here. The full life that Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden had not been enough for them. They weren’t content to be merely creatures.
They found that they truly wanted to be independent from God. They wanted to be their own gods and not live a life of worship. And so they listened to the devil, and they ate the forbidden fruit, and they were thrown out of the Garden.
The Lord never left them, but he quarantined them from the temptations of the Garden. The Lord did not separate himself from them, but they had built up an inner separation in their own hearts. They had locked the door in their lives between themselves and God. And that locked door became a part of the inherited spiritual anatomy of the human race. That locked door still stands in each one of us.
Then Adam and Eve’s son Cain killed their other son Abel. Abel was gone, and Cain was lost (driven away). The murder brought the consequences of their rebellion home to roost, and they lost hope worship stopped.
Then they had another child, whom they named Seth. And Genesis says, “At that time men began to call upon the name of the LORD.”
Somehow that child brought hope. That child, Seth, was a sign of the grace of God. A door was opened; and light came in.
When the closed door between you and God is all that you can see; or when the things that have always defined you (like the life of a loved one, or your health, or your work, or even your self-respect) are gone; the grace of God opens that door. The grace of God gives you your purpose back. The grace of God makes you alive.
The grace of God restores the pattern of the living relationship. The grace of God makes it possible to worship. Your worship becomes worship, and your life becomes worship.
To call on the name of the LORD is the sign of God’s grace. To call on the name of the LORD is to ask for help; it is to ask for grace. And the word “LORD” in the Old Testament, when it is spelled out in capital letters, is a sign of the presence of the name of the Lord hidden behind it. The word LORD (when it’s spelled in capital letters) is a hiding place for one of the Bible names for God that means a gracious, personal relationship: a covenant, a promise.
The Hebrew word that we translate as LORD (in capital letters) is Jahweh (pronounced Yahweh). Jahweh doesn’t actually mean Lord, and it isn’t really a name at all. Jahweh is a verb that essentially says “I am what I am. I am that I am. I will be what I will be.”
Calling himself Jahweh is God’s way of saying that we can meet him, and speak with him, and hear him, and belong to him, just as he is; because he promised to be simply what he is for us. We can know that he is offering to us all that he is, and all that he has. Yahweh tells us that that all that we can ever want, he will be.
We translate Jahweh as “LORD” because “LORD” is the word that the Jews substituted for “Yahweh” because they were afraid of the consequences of saying his name aloud, and talking about him, without reverence, or true worship. Still, when we follow their example and say “LORD” it is our Biblical word for the God who wants to be known. LORD is the name for the God who sets out to create a living relationship between us and him.
When the New Testament talks about God and the Lord Jesus, the word God refers to God the Father, whose power created the universe. The Lord refers to God the Son, who came down to earth, in Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins and to restore our lost relationship with him. The Lord Jesus is God restoring his promise: restoring us as creatures of worship.
The Lord Jesus made an offering of himself to open the door that our sins close against him. In his offering on the cross and in his resurrection from the dead the Lord Jesus restores the lost pattern of wonder and praise: the lost pattern of worship.
In Jesus, God gives us a new heart. He gives us a new life of fellowship and peace with him. In Jesus, we see the face of God, not just in his creating power but in his saving love.
Calling on the name of the Lord means that you are seeking the gracious love of the God who truly is gracious love. Calling on the name of the Lord ultimately finds its answer in Jesus dying for our sins, and rising from the dead.
That is where real worship is begins. That is why, in worship, you are to, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” (Colossians 3:16)
After Cain murdered his brother, there was no worship on earth; for how long, we do not know. But it was a world that needed grace, and it needed worship, and God brought it back.
The Temple in Jerusalem was supposed to be more than a building: it was a gathering of people who came together for worship. They came together for wonder, and praise, and the grace of God.
That is what the Lord meant it to be, so Jesus cleansed the temple of everything that contradicted worship and grace.  He quoted from the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah to remind the people about the kind of place where God wanted his people to gather. God wanted a place, somewhere in this world, where worship and grace could be found. That is why Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”
This is the Lord’s world, and it needs a gathering of people who form a little world in the big world: a little world of worship and grace, where a door opens, and light shines in the darkness, and people’s lives are changed into the pattern for which we were created.
When I was in seminary, I lived in the dormitory. Your dorm room was your home. I had a friend who you could tell if he was home by looking at his door. If the door was open, Cal was gone. If the door was closed, Cal was in.
I found a limestone rock in an old quarry in the woods near the seminary. I used the rock to hold my door open when I was home.
The worshiping church is like my rock. It opens the door to God. The world can tell that God is at home and ready to be seen. He can be seen in prayer and singing. He can be seen in word and deed. He can be seen in changed lives. He can be seen in his image, in the people he is slowly making into a new creation.
God calls our worship to be like a rock that holds open the door of the God who wants to be met and known. We come in and learn to see how God is doing something wonderful. Others can come and be surprised to find that we can see them as people who have hope, as people who are loved as if they were a fair as the sun and the moon. We can teach them to see (by word and deed) that God can make us all new.
This is what we give the world when we gather. This is what we give our neighbors. This is what God has made us for, as the church.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Great Ends of the Church: The Shelter, Nurture, and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God

Preached on Sunday, July 13, 2014

Scripture readings: Romans 12:1-13; Matthew 18:1-9

There was a mom and her little boy at home one night. They were watching television together, and they heard a noise outside. Then they heard another noise, and then another. The boy got scared, and he asked his mom, “I think someone might be outside our house. Shouldn’t we call a grownup?” The mom said, “I am a grownup.” And the boy said, “Shouldn’t we call another?”
My Grandpa Evans
Good morning, Children!
You are children of God, and so am I. We need to take care of each other, and we need to reach out into the world that God loves, so that we can take care of the other children that God wants bring into his shelter, and nurture, and fellowship.
That is what, “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God,” is about.
We are thinking, during these weeks, about “the ends of the church”. This is an old Presbyterian thing, to list “the six great ends of the church” (“ends” meaning “purposes”). We have the list they came up with a hundred years ago, but their list is part of a great tradition of lists that goes back centuries: even back to the Bible.
Paul says, in chapter twelve of his letter to the Romans, that God’s purpose for the church is for its people to be the one body of Christ: a body that works as a body should. “So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Rom. 12:5) Healthy body parts care for each other.
In Matthew, we find that the Lord’s purpose for us is to be little children doing child care. Jesus’ instructions to his disciples are that, if they want to be great they need their lives turned around. They need to let themselves be changed into little children, and they also need to take care of the other little children in God’s kingdom and keep them safe. “I tell you the truth, unless you are changed, and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name, welcomes me.”
My grandma Evans
Of course it is easy to see that Jesus wants even grownups to be childlike in some way: not childish but childlike. But the second sentence about the little child, whom we welcome in Jesus’ name, and the life and death importance of not causing him or her to sin or stumble, sounds like the responsibility that grownups need to take for an actual child. So is Jesus talking about grownups, or is he talking about children? The answer to this is, yes!
Jesus never lets us off the hook of grace, because grace is unconditional love. We never get beyond our own need for grace. And we are never allowed to set conditions on who receives grace from us; whether that person is a child, or a person who needs to become a child. Every human being in the world is either a child or someone whose very life depends on becoming a child.
So, in Christ, we are children receiving other children. When a four-year-old is playing in a sand box and another four-year-old comes along, they usually play together, even though they don’t know each other’s name.
Their meeting begins in grace. They may not stay gracious; but that is another story.
Paul talks a lot about the need for us to be mature. There is the prayer that we would, “stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.” (Philippians 4:12 – see also 1 Co. 2:6; Eph. 4:13; etc.)
I have been trying, for most of my life, to figure out what maturity means; and I haven’t succeeded yet. But if we are thinking about the shelter and nurture of the children of God, then maturity plays its part in this. How we identify maturity will determine how we shelter and nurture others. How we identify maturity may decide how well we do at being God’s church.
My Uncle Don and My Dad
Paul says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1) Now, here, Paul’s model for the offering and sacrifice of our lives was the “thank offering” that worshipers brought to the Great Temple in Jerusalem.
The whole point of the thank offering was not who the worshipers were, or what they gave. The point was who God is and what God has done. Maturity has less to do with thinking about who we are and what we can give, than thinking about who God is, and what God has given.
Something similar is true where Paul says, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance to the measure of faith God has given you…in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts according to the grace given us.”
Now Paul is not saying that you can’t rate yourself until you see how big your faith is compared with other people. No! He is saying, “You can never know who you are until you have enough faith to know that every person in Christ belongs to each other, and every person in Christ is there by grace alone; even you.”
Seeing this doesn’t come easily, but this is the sober judgment Paul is talking about. This is maturity. This maturity strengthens the church, and makes it a shelter and a place of nurture for others. The more a congregation’s members realize that everyone needs plenty of grace and help, including themselves; and that everyone is like a little child, including themselves; the healthier, the more sheltering, and the more nurturing they will be. How little are you?
My Uncle Ricky, Mom, and Uncle Eddie
The giving of mercy and grace is the gift that shelters and nurtures any child, and it is the gift that shelters the children of God (and anyone who needs to become a child of God).
Sometimes giving mercy and grace requires us to give responsibility to others. Perhaps we need to give them the responsibility of helping us. It means giving them the work that we like to do for ourselves. It means giving them a job that we would do differently, according to our gifts.
Paul’s idea for maturity includes some more of what we read in Romans: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” (Romans 12:9-13) These are the priorities of maturity, and there is a basic simplicity of purpose here.
I don’t know if children always do these things, but many so-called mature people, in the world as it is, do them even less. I mean: does our maturity lead us to honor others more than ourselves? Does our maturity make us joyful in hope? Does it make us patient in affliction?
This is Christ’s maturity. A child can understand it. If you tell children to do it they will try. They will try to make a way of life which shelters and nurtures others.
Me and My Sister Kathie
There is a basic, persistent simplicity in the spirit of children, and there is a basic, persistent simplicity in Christ, and in the children of God who are the little brothers and sisters of Christ. Simplicity of spirit shelters and nurtures any child, and it shelters and nurtures the children of God, or anyone who needs to become a child of God.
Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones to sin (or stumble) it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:5-6)
This is about creating safety. Even little children can be very protective of others. Children find simple expressions of love to comfort the sadness and the weariness of their or grandparents.
Children, by nature, protect younger children. There was the six-year-old boy, in the in the devastation that Hurricane Katrina made in New Orleans, who was found leading several other children to safety. They had all gotten separated from their parents in the rescue efforts. The six-year-old was carrying a five-month-old. There was a three-year-old girl with him managing her fourteen-month-old brother, and there were three two-year-olds. They were all following the boy and, at the boy’s instructions, they were all holding hands, so that they would not get separated and lost.
The church’s purpose is to have a childlike love of safety. The church’s purpose is to love giving that safety to others.
I often ask myself whether I am safe: that is, how free are people from the danger of being harmed in some way by me? Am I likely to harm others by my attitude, or in what I say or do? Am I likely to make other people stumble or sin?
My answer is that it is the easiest thing in the world for me to do harm. It is easy for me to make things worse than they are. But I pray for the grace not to do this. And I pray for God to have mercy on all those around me who may not find me safe, but rather hurtful.
For instance, the Evans men (at least in my part of the Evans tribe) were all encouraged to be smart alecks. As a kid, I had excellent training in this. It still comes out. In my first church there was a woman named Margaret who, after she had known me a few years, felt at ease enough to comment that when she first met me, she thought I was “wise”: a “wise guy”.)
It still comes out. But that should be the least of my worries, because there are many more important ways of doing good or doing harm.
My Sisters Kathie and Nanci with Me
Safety is a gift that shelters and nurtures any child. It shelters and nurtures the children of God, and those who need to become a child of God. The church is called to be a place of safety.
I would say that there is one more thing about a childlike maturity that we are called to, in order to shelter and nurture the children of God. Jesus called one little child to come to him and stand in the middle of a crowd of men who wanted to assert their own greatness in the kingdom of God. There had to be some electricity in the air, because the disciples were like brothers (but very competitive brothers). They were in the middle of one of those competitions. It was an interesting but not very comfortable place for a little child to stand.
This child came running when Jesus called, and stood his ground while Jesus talked, knowing that he was Jesus’ living sermon illustration. It would be like me having one of you come up front to be my sermon illustration.
There was something in Jesus that was easy for a child to trust, and this made this child brave. Trusting Jesus, this child could look out at the big grownups who Jesus said needed to be more like him. He could serve as Jesus wanted.
Jesus lets us look inward. It was important for the disciples to look inward to find what they had failed to understand and what they had failed to be.
But Jesus also calls us, as his disciples, and as his church, to look outward. I don’t think the child shrunk back and huddled. The church is to be like a bold child, who makes mothers tremble. The church should be like a child who looks out and does not huddle inward.
My Parents and Sisters (I Took the Picture)
There are families that hunker down and huddle together, and that is where they are happiest. Children in those families will find it hard to go out and stand in the middle of a watching and judging world, and love that world. The church is a family that is not afraid to look out and go out into the world, to be visible and loving servants.
Then there is spiritual fellowship. There is a Greek word for this fellowship. It is “koinonia”. It doesn’t mean spending time together. It means partnership. It means having a common stake in something together.
It is not passive. It is about serving, and planning, and working together. Or maybe it enables you to relax together because it has enabled you to work together.
Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:5) What if Jesus wanted us to be like little children because Jesus, himself, is like a little child? What if we were able to see, in Jesus, the ability to give grace, after grace, after grace? What if we were able to see in Jesus the ability to be wholehearted, simple, and direct with anybody, including ourselves? What if we were able to see in Jesus the ability to be safe in the sense of being determined to do us good no matter what we did? What if we were able to see in Jesus the ability to focus outward and to focus us outward upon the whole world that he loves?
If we could hold that little Jesus in our arms, it would truly change us.
Me Doing a Children's Sermon: What Rapt Attention!
Fathers have told me that they were transformed by the experience of holding their first child in their arms. They saw something in that child that they wanted to be worthy of. They wanted to start a new way of life.
To know Jesus and take hold of him makes us want to lay our lives down for the sake of a new life. Taking hold of Jesus also means knowing that Jesus laid down his own life to give us that new life.

His offering on the cross shelters and nurtures us. It makes us partners. His offering on the cross makes the church into a community whose nature it is to shelter, and nurture, and involve others in the spiritual partnership of gathering more of God’s little children together.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Great Ends of the Church: The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind

Preached on Sunday, July 6, 2014
Scripture readings: Colossians 1:15-23; Luke 24:36-49
Pontoon Boat Trip on the Columbia River, July 2014
There is a cartoon of a minister standing in front of the congregation, and this is what he says: “Now, before I begin the sermon, I have something important to say.
The church is a living, breathing sermon. It is the living message of something important. But the church often talks and acts as if something else were more important that the message. Our purpose and the message is this:
“The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind”
That is a mouthful. But that is a part of our job. It is the job description of the church.
This job description comes from a statement made, more than a hundred years ago, on the purposes of the church. This statement was made by Presbyterians at their 1910 General Assembly, but we shouldn’t think any less of it because of where it comes from. The ideas behind it go back to the Bible.
In the New Testament, Paul says that there is a message, there is a gospel. Gospel means good news. Paul says that this news was spreading, even in their day; and that he, and the congregation to which he was writing, were all a part of the spreading of that good news, and we are a part of it, too.
It was an essential part of their job description. It is essential to our job, as well.
Paul says that he is a messenger of that good news. He lives to be at the service of spreading that good news. And he says that Christ is what the good news is all about.
And he says that the church (the people who belong to Jesus; and who are gathered together by Jesus) forms his body. We embody Jesus.
We are an extension of him in this world. We are his voice. We are his hands and feet. And are we wounded too?
Paul says that the good news is about Jesus because Jesus is God showing his face to the world; doing great things; doing wonderful things (things good for us, good for our neighbors, good for the whole world. We are the body, the extension into the world, of the God who has done (and is doing) great things, wonderful things for the whole universe.
The God, who cannot be seen, became visible, in Jesus, to reconcile the world to himself; to reconcile the whole universe (things on earth and things in the heavens).
Reconciliation means making peace between people in conflict, and bringing them together in friendship. The good news of the gospel is that our God is a reconciling God.
God did what was necessary to reconcile us to himself. God making peace with us was necessary because something had gone wrong, something centered on the earth, something centered in the human race (centered in us). We humans, from the very start, centered ourselves and our world outside of God. But there is no real life outside of God.
Without the help of the love of God to interrupt us, we serve ourselves. And there is no real life in that. We justify ourselves at the expense of others. We blame others. We fight for the biggest piece of the pie, or for the first pancake off the griddle.
So some families have a rule that, if they let one of their kids cut the pie, the other brothers and sisters get the first pick of the pieces. That way, the cutter of the pie will not cut it to his, or her, own advantage. Bringing justice to human nature requires rules like that, even in families, or especially in families.
There is the story of the two boys whose mother was making pancakes, and the older boy asked for the first ones. And the mother told him, “You know that Jesus would let his brother have the first pancakes.” And so the boy turned to his younger brother and said, “OK, Donny, you be Jesus.”
Of course it’s funny: but all the greatest miseries and evils of hatred, and injustice, and cruelty have their roots in the nature of the human race that wants to turn its back on God to serve itself. We are all born with something within ourselves that is not a friend of God.
The Jews in the time of Christ believed that God would appoint a descendent of the ancient King David to be a new kind of king. With God’s help, this king would conquer the world’s evils with armies and laws.
The surprise was that God did not appoint anyone. God came himself. God, himself, became the descendant of David, and fought the world’s evils, not with armies or laws, but with his own body, by taking evil upon his own shoulders, on the cross. God came in Christ to conquer sin and death by letting them fall upon him, and pierce him, and shed his blood.
It was our sin and death (the sin and death of each one of us; the sin and death of the whole world) that Jesus bears on the cross. This is what forgiveness is about. This is the real cost of it. This is what turns you around and gives you a whole new way of thinking, and seeing, and feeling (which is the meaning of repentance).
Repentance means reversing direction. It means having a new mind and heart.
The veterans who have served in time of war (and the families who have lost a member in time of war) often live in a different direction than others. They see our country with a different mind and heart than others see it.
They see our nation as having the sacred value of a precious thing that someone important has died for. The people of Jesus look at the whole world and they look at every person in it as having the value of a precious thing that someone has died for. That person is Jesus.
Jesus is the love of the invisible God made visible: made real, made to be more than words, because love is what love does. God is real love. Love is what God does.
This is what God offers to us, and to the whole world. This love has the power to reconcile us to God. It has the power to make us God’s friends. This makes an essential change around us. It is how God’s good news comes into the world through what he did in Jesus.
There is no other offer in the whole world like the offer that God makes in Christ. God stretches out his arms to the world on a cross. There is no other message like that.
On the cross God offers to disarm us of everything that is a weapon of pride, or fear, or anger, or lust, or greed. God stretches out his arms to the world from a cross and God offers to re-arm us with something beside weapons. He disarms us with forgiveness, and peace, and love, and then these become the arms we bear in this world.
This is also repentance. Repentance is a complete turn-around. It is life in a new direction. There is really no other offer like this in the whole world. It is good news for the salvation of humankind. It has power to change the world.
God’s promise is that whoever who lays down their arms and receives this good news will become a part of a new heaven and new earth, with which God plans to replace this fallen creation. In fact God promises to give his people the power to make a glimpse of this new creation possible in what we say and do in our present lives.
It is the church’s job to proclaim this, to give this glimpse of a new creation. This is not just the job of individual Christians. It is not the job of the preacher (although “proclamation” sounds like a preaching word). Proclamation isn’t a skill for the gifted; it is a state of mind that is meant for everyone. It is the state of mind that comes from seeing great and wonderful things.
You see it and you want to say, “Look!” You see how much others need to see it and you want to say, “Look!”
Proclamation sounds like a shouting word. But it doesn’t have to be so. There are people whose lives shout. They live noisy lives and everybody has got to notice, whether they want to or not. But there are other people whose lives shout quietly, because they are different. It is like a teacher in a noisy classroom quieting the class by talking in a whisper.
The cross is like a whisper in a noisy world, and it can be quietly proclaimed by a body of people, a gathering of people, a church, better than just by individuals. The cross is about forgiveness, and love, and a new mind and life. And these are things that you can see best in a family of people. And these are things that you can see in the way a whole family reaches out to the world around them.
The cross that brings forgiveness, and love, and a new mind and life is the gospel, the good news of God in Jesus Christ. It comes from God to you, but it probably came from God through someone else. Maybe it came from God through a strange network of people working in some strange pattern in your life. In what they said, in what they did, and in how they shared the love of Jesus, the gospel was proclaimed to you.
For the good news to truly change you in its fullness, it requires this strange network, the body of people who may seem unconnected, but they aren’t. And you see them best when they are together. You see the good news best when you see them as a family, and when you find yourself in the middle of that family. Maybe your own family and friends were a part of this family of Jesus. Or maybe it first came to you from outside your family and circle of friends.
“How do these Christians live together? How do they greet me together? And how on earth do they put up with each other?”
One person alone can show a lot of love and forgiveness, and new life. But if that one person can take a stranger to meet a family of people gathered by Jesus, he or she can show a lot more. The proclamation of the gospel is really everyone’s work.
Of course, how we live together can also destroy the proclamation of the gospel by disgracing it; by living in contradiction to it. But that is another story.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:48) It is the job of witnesses to tell the truth, but they also must tell the truth of what they have seen and not just what someone has told them second hand. When we are told that it is our job to proclaim the gospel, it means that it is our job to know the gospel by experience.
The message is Jesus, and we have to know Jesus in order to be his witnesses. We have to know for ourselves the good things and the great things that Jesus has done, and continues to do. We cannot proclaim unless we can see.
One time in my life I was a witness in a civil case concerning a contested will. I went to the stand very sure of what I knew. I knew the woman whose will was being contested, and she had told me what she had changed in her will. She told me why she had done it.
But the process of being a witness was very confusing and full of anxiety. The lawyer who cross-examined me did a good job. He made me sound like a shaky witness, even though I knew the truth first hand.
This world we live in cross-examines us all the time, as Christians and as a church. This world looks to see if we make decisions and live like people who really know Jesus and trust him.
The part of the world that has not become God’s friend is complicated. It’s laid out like an obstacle course, to make us stumble and contradict what we believe.
Jesus said that we need “the power from on high” in order to be his witnesses. (Luke 24:49) We need the Holy Spirit to give us strength and help us to remember what we know clearly, and to be able to proclaim it consistently in how we conduct our lives and in how we speak. To say that the proclamation of the gospel is our job is to say that we need a power from beyond ourselves.
We need the gift of the Holy Spirit to live and speak as the friends of God. How can anyone be silly enough to think of being a friend of God without God? How can you be anybody’s friend without them? The Holy Spirit is the presence and power of Jesus who is your friend.
But the Holy Spirit also makes the presence of Jesus real between us, and among us, as a church. And the Holy Spirit also makes the presence of Jesus real through us, and through the church, to those who do not know him.
I remember a communication chart in a college textbook of mine. It showed two heads facing each other across the page. There was a little arrow inside the first head, pointing from the brain to the mouth. Then there was a longer arrow pointing across the page from the mouth of the speaker to the ear of the hearer. Then there was another short arrow pointing from the ear of the hearer to the brain of the hearer.
The proclamation of the gospel is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to fill that space between you, as the speaker, and the person who is listening to you. Or it is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to fill the space between your life, your actions, and the eyes of the person who is watching you and trying to read the message of your life. It is also a prayer for the Spirit to fill the space inside your head and the space inside of the head of the other person!
The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind is a call to prayer. It is a prayer that the Lord would send his Spirit to somehow stand between us and the world, to enter the eyes and ears of others who see and hear us. Otherwise how can they see and hear Christ through us? We need “the power from on high.”
And so the Lord gives what he commands. He gives us, in Christ, what he calls us to give to the world. He gives us brothers and sisters, whom he calls the church, to help us.

His Spirit is the soil and the water and the sun that makes the good news grow in us. His Spirit is the wind of Pentecost that breathes in our words. His Spirit is the fire of Pentecost that warms hearts. And so we do our job: the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.