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.

1 comment:

  1. I like the rapt attention from the children! You know, very often, children are listening when you don't think that they are! Try saying a swear word in front of one, if you don't believe me!