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.

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