A New Way Forward or: Why Our Mission Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

“The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

It’s a sentence that every UMC pastor, and most lay people, should be able to quote from memory. Found in paragraph 120 of the Book of Discipline, the mission of the church is defined by making disciples and transforming the world.

Which, ostensibly, makes sense because disciple making is one of the last charges Jesus leaves with the disciples (Matthew 28). But making disciples, and more importantly world transformation, have hindered the United Methodist Church from its primary mission; namely, being itself – the body of Christ.

Today, disciple making gets confused with the metrics of worship attendance, professions of faith, and even financial giving. It has resulted in the nearly universal push to get more people sitting in the pews on Sunday mornings while neglecting to interact and connect with the people already in the pews on Sunday mornings. This profound focus is part of our obsessions with a 1950’s General Electric model of denominationalism that cares far more about numbers than it does about faith.

And then we get this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission or Jesus’ mission? Does the church exist to change the people and the community around us? Are we supposed to be making the world a better place?

The church is (supposed to be) defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world. 

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Today we are deeply steeped in a world filled with the allure of large institutions and we believe that so long as we structure the church like other organizations of growth that we will necessarily grow and grow. We look to the mighty and the powerful so that we can learn how to change the world around us. But what makes the church the church? Jesus. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through a baby born in a manger, through tax collectors and fishermen, through a poor rabbi murdered by the powerful!

The church is already the better place God has made in the world.

But it’s hard for us to believe that.

It’s hard for us to believe that the church is already the better place because many of us worship other institutions or ideas or even ethical and moral claims the way we once worshipped the Lord. The many ways in which people reacted to the votes at the recent Special General Conference of the UMC (and in particular that some of the highest priority items to be discussed were pensions and disaffiliation plans) goes to show how we have traded in the Lordship of Christ for the institution of the church. Similarly, we follow this never-ending reactive news-cycle of what’s happening to the church to such a degree that we are are more concerned with reading articles about LGBTQIA people instead of meeting them where they are and learning about their faith. 

And worst, we read and repost articles about what can save the church as if those things/organizations are going to bring us the salvation we claim, through the Creed, that Jesus has already brought!

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We have been playing this game of world transformation since the time of Constantine and we are now at a point where we can almost no longer differentiate between the institution and God. Or, at the very least, we assume that if the church is not involved in the work of making the world a better place, then it’s not worth our time and attention.

In scripture, Jesus calls this behavior idolatry.

In the last few weeks there’s been a fair amount of anxiety among the pastors I serve with and within the church I serve. Many are unsure about what the future holds for the UMC. There’s rumor of schism, though many are afraid of what that will do to our pension system and our international mission work. 

I appreciate those concerns. I am currently contributing to my own pension and have been on mission trips all over the world. But for all of the talk of world transformation, we neglect the second sentence of our mission: “Local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs.” 

It’s right there for anyone to read in paragraph 120 of the Book of Discipline, and yet what about the state of the UMC today would lead anyone to believe we believe the local church is the primary expression of Methodism? 

Ask people outside the UMC what the UMC is or looks like, and if you hear anything at all you’ll likely hear something about the recent Special General Conference, or a Cross and Flames, or itinerancy. But if those are the primary expressions of our faith, then what kind of faith is that?

One of the problems with our current mission statement is that it’s transactional – it presumes a sort of Constantinian desire to change the world with a measurable system of growth that leaves little room for the gospel. I don’t want the church I serve to be responsible for fixing all of the problems in the world, not just because I know that it can’t but also because it’s not our responsibility. There are a great number of organizations out there that can make the world better, whatever that means, but the church isn’t here to fix the world. 

It is already the better place God has made in the world.

Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019 – 

Rewrite the mission statement of the United Methodist Church, or better yet, get rid of it altogether. 

Such a revision, or omission, would retain the kind of Spirit-driven and incarnational faith that it’s part of our Wesleyan Heritage, but it will also remove the exhausting expectation that “it’s all up to us.”

We, the Church, have drugged ourselves into believing that proper behavior, and world-transformation, and lots of ethical and moral claims in something like a denominational institution, are the keys to our relationship with God. But faith isn’t about what we do – instead it is about what God did for us precisely because we could not do it for ourselves.

Today, we are addicted to a version of the church that is either ABG (always be growing) or ABT (always be transforming) or both. 

We have expectations set in place about church growth that persuade churches to abandon the gospel in order to attract as many people as possible.

We have over-programed our churches because we feel ultimately responsible for making the world a better place which has led to burnout among faithful lay people and clergy. 

Here on the other side of GC2019, our mission statement is growing more and more incompatible with Christian teaching. To have one at all is to admit how drunk we are with power and a vision of the church that looks more like Sears than it does the community of faith. 

The Church Is The Better Place or: Why Did Jesus Come?

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, broke the internet recently with the following tweet:

“Jesus didn’t come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins.”

And people went crazy.

Some reacted by strongly affirming Keller’s point, and others rejected it completely as a dismissal of the social/justice orientation of the church’s mission.

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And so, the team at Crackers & Grape Juice teamed up with Scott Jones to dissect the tweet and offer our theological reflections to it.

If you want to listen to the recording or our conversation, you can do so here: Why Did Jesus Come?

 

Devotional – Psalm 90.1

Devotional:

Psalm 90.1

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

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On Sunday we spent the entirety of our worship service talking about why we give to the church. We looked at biblical calls to generosity, we reflected on the challenges of tithing, and we even went through our Missional Budget for 2018. I know that it was a challenging service because I could see the tension it created throughout the pews, but I am happy to be part of a church that is willing to be honest and vulnerable with one another.

When looking at a church budget it is important to ask questions about money and how it will be used. Questions like: How much of our budget is going to salaries? Should we be spending that much on our copier expenses? Do we anticipate our giving increasing or decreasing next year?

I’ve spent enough time looking at church budgets to determine, rather quickly, whether a budget is designed for maintenance or for mission. A budget focused on maintenance prioritizes building expenses and maintaining the status quo over and against just about anything else. Maintenance budgets are designed to keep the church looking, and running, like the year before and insuring that the doors will be open every week. For better, but usually worse, maintenance budgets propel the idea that the church building itself is the decisive factor in what it means to be the church.

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A budget focused on mission is different in that it prioritizes ministries and vision for the year(s) ahead. Missional budgets are designed to ask: “What’s God calling us to do?” and figuring our how to live into that reality. That challenge and joy of a missional budget is the belief that God is our dwelling place more than a building or a property.

That’s not to diminish a church structure or property; churches (as in physical buildings) allow for a gathering of people on the journey of faith and they establish a place for community. But when the church (as building) becomes more important than the church (as Body of Christ) we fail to remember that God has been our dwelling place in all generations.

I am thrilled to be part of a church that puts a priority on mission rather than maintenance. The challenge, however, is committing to that reality and remembering that God is our dwelling more than the buildings we gather in on Sunday mornings.

The Politics Of The Church

Acts 2.42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

On Thursday President Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” This brought to fruition one of his many campaign promises that he would give “our churches their voices back.”

The order was designed to dismantle the Johnson Amendment that bans tax-exempt organizations, like churches, from endorsing political candidates and activities or they run the risk of losing their tax-exempt status. To be clear: fully repealing the Johnson Amendment would require congressional action, but the order certainly takes a step in that direction.

Basically, churches and other tax-exempt organizations are now on a path that will potentially lead to a time where preachers like me can stand in pulpits like this and tell you how we think you should vote according to the Lord. It means we, as a church, can give money from our tithes and offerings to specific political individuals or campaigns if we believe they match our religious convictions. And we can do all this without fear or retribution from the federal government.

Freedom.

On Thursday, the same day the executive order regarding religious liberty was signed into action, the House voted to approve legislation to repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act, another one of President Trump’s campaign promises. It still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, but the people who represent us in the House approved it.

In the wake of the vote, people on either side of the issue have been going ballistic. Some are thrilled that the bill would eliminate tax penalties for people who go without health insurance. Some are terrified that it would roll back state by state expansions of Medicaid, which covers millions of low-income Americans (40% of which are children).

Freedom.

So here we are, days after the executive order and the House vote, and I can’t help but imagine how many pastors are standing up in places like this one this morning, with a new found sense of freedom to speak either for or against what our government is doing. I can already imagine what a lot of the posts on Facebook and Twitter are going to look like this afternoon from either side of the political spectrum.

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In the early days of the church the disciples devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. And during this time awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles’, perhaps most spectacular was the fact that the Lord was adding to their number those who were being saved. And what makes that spectacular? All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Who signs up for something like that? Come join our group, we’d love to have you! And once you start participating all you have to do is sell everything you have so that we can take care of everyone. We believe in recognizing the inherent blessings of God in our lives and we don’t really believe in personal property. So join us on Sundays at 11am and don’t forget to sell your stuff!

That sounds a whole lot more like Communism than Capitalism.

            Where’s the freedom in that?

And here’s the point: Religious figures on the right and left have come out in droves about what the government has done as of recent, as is their right, but inherent in their declarations is a grave sin: idolatry.

Today we worship our government the way we once worshipped the Lord. We follow the never-ending political news-cycle like we once checked in on our brothers and sisters in faith. We read and repost articles about votes in the house and senate and executive orders like we once shared the story of Jesus Christ.

And I am guilty of this sin too; hence the great number of sermons as of recent that have revolved around the current political climate.

This story about the budding church sounds so weird and bizarre because we are so far removed from it. Instead of looking like this idyllic church community we’ve been co-opted by the assumption that our government is supposed to be the church, or at least it’s supposed to act like the church. Therefore we support political candidates who agree with our personal beliefs regarding issues like abortion rather than attempt to be present for women who wrestle with the fear of having an unplanned child. We spend more time talking about how our government should vet political refugees than pooling our resources together to bring them out of their war torn areas. We verbally attack people on the Internet for being politically opposed to our position instead of realizing that we often sit shoulder to shoulder with them in our church pews and that we have far more in common than we think we do.

Christians in America have played this political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between America and God, something that scripture and Jesus call idolatry.

The church does not exist to serve our political aspirations, nor does the government exist to serve the needs of the church. The church does not represent a particular partisan agenda to be made manifest on Capitol Hill.

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The church itself is a politic. We do well to remember that we are a politic and that there are many ways for the church to be political. But the way to be the church is not synonymous with pursuing democratically elected representatives who can therefore represent our personal political opinions. As one of my former professors recently noted, “There’s only one instance of democratic voting in the gospels, and the people chose Barabbas.”

Gathering with others around the body and the blood of Christ is one way for Christians to be political, and it is the original way. For it is in gathering around a table such as this one, particularly with people who do not necessarily agree with us politically, we live and lean into the strange mystery that we call the kingdom of God. For us, this table is an ever-present reminder that we are not the authors of our salvation and neither is our government.

Here in America we greatly celebrate our freedom, and in particular our freedom of speech. But honestly, we are mostly only concerned with our freedom to say what we want. And the moment we hear someone speak from the other perspective we either cover our ears in anger, or we rush against them with vitriol.

For far too long we’ve limited our imagination of the church to being the mechanism by which we can develop strategies that can, to put it in political terms, Make America Great Again. But that is not the task nor is it the mission of the church. The task of the church is to be a community of character that can survive as a witness to the truth.

All of this is not meant to be a critique of the policies of the political right or the political left. Nor is in meant to be an endorsement of policies representing either side of the political spectrum. No, this is about our captivity to the presumption that our politics determine our lives more than the living God.

And that is why we worship, it is why we gather together to tell the stories of scripture and break bread and say the prayers. This is why we still do what they started doing back during the time of Acts. We gather together in witness to what the risen Christ is doing in and through our community. And in so doing we respond to the risen Christ by doing strange things like freely giving of our income to bless others who are in need, like giving of our time to work down at the Trinity Kitchen so provide food to those who are in need, like showing up in a different community every summer to help with modest home repairs for those who are in need, like breaking bread with people we disagree with to create meaningful relationships for those who are in need.

We’ve come a long way throughout the centuries as the strange community we call the church. You can tell how far we’ve come, or to put it another way how far we’ve moved, by how much we bristle when we read about selling our possessions and distributing the needs to all as any have need. That doesn’t match with what the world has told us life is all about.

Instead we’re captivated by a narrative that tells us to earn all we can and save all we can, that freedom is more important than faithfulness, and that the world is ruled by politics.

No. God rules the word. Faithfulness is more important than freedom. It is better to give all that we can rather than to gain all that we can.

And so we worship. We listen to the stories of scriptures, we enter the strange new world of the bible, and we learn to speak the truth. Worship id where we begin. In worship we develop an imagination capable of forming us into the people God is calling us to be, a people who can live into the difficult reality of Acts 2, who can be political, even more political than our government, by recognizing who we are and whose we are.

As Christians, we know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we do not need executive orders to grant us freedom to speak truth. We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we believe in taking care of our brothers and sisters regardless of whether or not our government does. We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we are not captivated by political policies geared toward keeping us “safe.” After all, we worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One who mounted the hard wood of the cross.

Being a Christian is not about freedom, denying responsibility, or being safe. Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that often puts us in a place of danger. Because, as Christians, we believe in loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves, which is not the same thing as being a Democrat or a Republican. We believe in serving the needs of those on the margins, which means helping those who cannot help themselves.

We believe the greatest freedom we’ve ever received did not come with the Declaration of Independence but through a poor Jewish rabbi who was murdered by the state.

And as Christians, we know that we can act politically: we can vote, we can march, we can lobby all we want. But we also believe that gathering together to do this thing we call church is the most political thing we could ever do. Amen.

Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

Romans 4.1-5, 13-17

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) – in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

 

There are many many many versions of Christianity. And not just denominations like Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists; even within something like the United Methodist Church there is a great myriad of ideas about what it means to be the church. For instance: There are 7 UMCs in Staunton, and we could all use the same text on Sunday morning, and just about everything else would be completely different from one another.

But the one thing that might unite all churches, almost more than baptism or communion, is a desire to appear as welcoming and inclusive as possible.

All you need to do is check a church website, or bulletin, or marquee and you can find a self-made description that says something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming church. Or just try asking someone about their church and you’re likely to hear: “we love everybody!”

In the United Methodist Church, we like to say we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors.

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What a righteous slogan.

Inclusivity, being open, they’re quite the buzzwords these days. Rather than appearing at all judgmental, we want people to know that we accept all people. Rather than seeming prejudiced, we want everyone to know that they are welcome. Rather than looking at people based on their outward appearance, we want to the world to know that we care about the content of one’s character.

But the truth is, there are a great number of people who have been ignored, if not rejected, by congregations claiming to be inclusive (including our own).

A couple weeks ago I preached a sermon on the mission of the church. I made the claim that instead of being consumed by a desire to fill the pews, instead of trying to make the world a better place, the church is called to be the better place that God has already made in the world. And as the better place, church should be the one place where no one is ever lonely. I must’ve said that last part no less than three times from the pulpit.

And when we finished worship, most of us walked up the stairs to the Social Hall for a time of food and fellowship. Like we usually do, a long line was formed and one by one we filled our plates and sat down.

The time difference between proclaiming the sermon and sitting down to eat could not have been more than 30 minutes. And yet there was a young family who were here with us in worship for the very first time, who sat alone in our social hall the entire time. And there was an older gentleman, who has served the needs of this church longer than I’ve been alive, who sat by himself for nearly the entire time.

It is not possible for any church, even St. John’s, to be “inclusive” of everyone. And not necessarily for the reasons we might think. We might not judge others for the stereotypical ways often publicized about the church like being homophobic, or racist, or elitist (though there is plenty of that). No, we also reject others for mental illness, politically different or incorrect views, or for poor social skills and status.

We reject people for all sorts of reasons.

Years ago, when I first entered seminary, I went on a bike ride with some friends to another house full of seminarians. We represented the great mosaic of mainline protestant Christianity and we quickly began addressing why each of us was attracted to the particular church we would serve in the future. The Episcopalian talked about her love of the Book of Common Prayer and being united with Christians all over the world who say the exact same words whenever they get together. The Baptist talked about the beauty of believer’s baptism and getting to bring adults into God’s flock.

One of the Methodists, me, talked about the wonder of God’s prevenient grace, a love that is offered to all without cost or judgment. But then I went on to express my chief disappointment: Our slogan of open hearts, open minds, open doors. I joked about how many Methodist churches regularly lock their doors, how many of them are filled with people whose minds are already made up about God and others, and how many of them have people with hearts that have no desire to be open to the strange new reality of God’s kingdom.

To be honest, I got pretty fired up about it. After all, it was the beginning of seminary and I was trying to show off.

But I meant what I said. Our slogan is something we can strive for, but it is not a fair description of who we are. There will always be a newcomer who sits in a pew by herself without anyone coming over to say hello. There will always be a family that risks being ostracized by coming to church only to being judged from afar. There will always be sermon series that make people feel like they are not welcome into the fold of God’s grace.

So I went on and on about this until I looked at the other Methodist whose face had turned bright red. “Is everything okay?” I asked. He paused and then said, “My Dad was on the committee at General Conference that created our slogan. I think it’s the best thing about the United Methodist Church.”

We have a slogan, a nice and pretty slogan that we should strive for, but oftentimes we fall short. When we fall short, we do so because of sin. Sin captivates us in a way that makes it virtually impossible for any church to “unconditionally accept” everyone who comes through the door.

We judge others based on physical and outward appearance. We make assumptions about families for a myriad of reasons. We shake our heads in disgust about couples that do not fit the normative mold that society has established.

And we should be cautious about advertising or describing ourselves as such. We might think we’re righteous enough to live by the slogan, we can even hope for it, but we are far from it.

Only Jesus, the one in whom we live and move, is capable of a truly open heart, open mind, open door ministry because Jesus was God in the flesh. Jesus was righteous.

But what about Abraham? Paul uses this part of his letter to the Romans to use Abraham as an example of righteousness. Abraham was the one who was called to leave the land of his ancestors and family to go where God called him. Abraham was the one in whom the covenant between God and God’s people was made. Abraham was the one who was promised to become the father of many nations. Abraham was the one who believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Should we follow Abraham’s example? Would that make us more inclusive and righteous? Could we keep our slogan of open hearts, open minds, open doors?

Here’s the thing: Abraham did nothing to earn this honor and distinction from God. As Paul puts it, Abraham has no ground for boasting.

Whenever we read about the story of Abraham, whether in worship or in a bible study, he is often lauded for his journey into the unknown, for his faith and steadfast commitment to the Lord, and for his perseverance through suffering and tribulation. But his relationship with God, his faith being reckoned as righteousness, is only possible because of God’s faith in him. Abraham is righteous because God called him and empowered him to go into a strange new world.

Abraham, rather than being the perfect model for inclusivity and righteousness and faithfulness, is an example of a justified sinner. Abraham is one of many unlikely individuals whom God reshapes for God’s purposes. Abraham is chosen not because of anything he has done, but because of God who can do anything.

God is the one who worked in and through Abraham’s life, and not the other way around. Abraham does not justify himself, or transform himself, or redeem himself. That’s what God does.

And the same holds true for us today.

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We can have the perfect advertising campaign, with our slogan in big capital letters, but that does not redeem our sinful actions and behaviors. We might think we are righteous and that we are “color-blind” or “LGBTQ affirming” or “economically transparent” but we are nevertheless sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. We can even leave the church doors unlocked all week long, but we will still be broken and in need of God’s redeeming love.

This passage, this beautiful piece of theology from Romans, is about more than the example of Abraham and why we need to have faith. Paul’s emphasis is on the fact that God made Abraham righteous. That God has freely poured out grace on the ungodly, people like us. And that God’s gift of Jesus Christ to us and to the world is grossly unmerited and undeserved, and yet it is given to us.

She came to church pretty regularly but she kept to herself. She’d sit off at the end of a pew and keep her head down so as not to attract too much attention. Whenever it was time to sing, she would stand up with everyone else but her voice never made it higher than a whisper. When it came time to say the Lord’s Prayer she would properly bow her head and mouth the words. But whenever the congregation was invited to the front to receive communion, she never left her seat.

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Most of the church was preoccupied with thoughts about their own sins or about where they would eat lunch after the service to notice the woman who remained in her pew while they were feasting on the body and the blood. But the pastor noticed.

After a couple months he caught her after church, and wanted to know why she participated in almost every part of worship, but not in communion. She said, “I don’t feel like I deserve it.”

That, my friends, is the whole point. We don’t deserve it. You don’t, and I don’t. None of us have earned God’s salvation, there’s no list of things we can check off in order to get into heaven. This bread and this cup, the cross and the empty tomb, they are unmerited and undeserved gifts from God to us.

We cannot have a church that is open hearts, open minds, and open doors because we are already in it. Our presence, our sinfulness, makes it impossible to be a totally inclusive community.

Only Christ, only God, only the Spirit have open hearts, open minds, open doors. Only the triune God opens up the floodgates of grace to wash away our sins. Only the triune God opens up our eyes to view others without judgment or wrath or fear or anger. Only the triune God opens the doors of the church to the faithful community, to feast at the table that gives us a foretaste of heaven on earth.

Only the triune God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. To God be the glory. Amen.

 

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The Mission Of The Church

1 Corinthians 3.1-9

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now, you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

 

When I lived in Harrisonburg, I played drums for a worship service that met every Sunday evening. On Sunday mornings the sanctuary would be packed with individuals and families from the community who would listen to the organ, sing from the hymnal, pray from the pews, and worship together. On Sunday evenings however, we would set up for a very different type of worship service: we had two electric guitars, a bass, a drum set, and a couple singers. Instead of suits and dresses most people came as they were, and instead of the sanctuary being packed, we were lucky if there were more people in the pews than in the band.

The basic worship formula included playing four or so songs, reading scripture, hearing a sermon, celebrating communion, and then playing one more song. Which meant that I spent most of the evenings sitting behind a drum kit looking out at everyone else. From this vantage point I quickly learned who always came late, who refused to sing certain songs, who let themselves go and put their hands in the air to praise, and who pretended to pray while they were actually texting someone on their phone.

I had been playing with the band for a while when I started to notice a young man, probably about my age, who walked in during the first song, and left during the last song every week. We had other people show up for one Sunday a month, or would be there for a couple weeks in a row only to disappear for a months at a time, but this guy was there EVERY WEEK.

Week after week I watched him arrive only to depart before I had a chance to talk to him. But, even though we didn’t talk, his faithfulness was palpable. As a college student, he came to worship week after week while others were choosing to put their allegiances in other places.

When the academic year was coming to a close, the leadership team for the service met to discuss changes for the future. It was abundantly clear that we were not growing and we wanted to make more disciples of Jesus Christ so we started discussing ways we could get more people to join us.

I suggested that we speak to the young man who snuck in and snuck out; after all, he showed up more than anyone else, and I thought he would have some ideas for us.

So the next Sunday, we purposefully ended with a song that did not use the drums so that I could talk to him before he jettisoned out of the sanctuary. We met by the doorway and I introduced myself. I explained that I saw him come in every week, and apologized for not doing more to make a connection. I then launched into a dense theological reflection about why we need more people to come to the service and that all of us thought he would be a great person to speak with. He listened as I went on and on until he raised his hand and said, “That sounds nice and all, but I’m not a Christian.”

            “Not a Christian? What do you mean you’re not a Christian? Why have you been here every week if you’re not a Christian?”

            “I don’t feel like I belong anywhere else, and I don’t have any friends.”

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We, as human beings, want to belong. We want to belong in the worst ways whether we’re in preschool, high school, or it’s been a long time since we’ve been in school. Out of this desire for belonging we join communities: neighborhood associations, sport teams, civic organizations, and even scout troops.

But they tend to disappoint us. We hope for a sense of identity and purpose and community to magically erupt soon after we begin participating, but because people are so focused on themselves, or someone forgets our name, or someone else argues with us over a matter of opinion, we become disappointed and disillusioned. And before long, we fall back into that pit of loneliness.

The same human desire for belonging was apparently true of the folk in Corinth. The church that Paul helped to inaugurate was struggling. The people wanted desperately to belong, to be part of something. And they joined the church, but then (like we always do) they broke up into factions: I belong to Paul, I belong to Apollos, or some other leader.

One need not stretch the imagination to hear the same sorts of declarations in the church today: I’m a Republican, I’m a Democrat. Zig Volskis was the best pastor we ever had. Steve Greer was the best pastor we ever had.

Paul caught word of these divisions and wrote to the church: Who do you belong to? Why are you dividing over issues of leadership? I came to you with the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, but clearly it did not take root deep enough. So long as you continue to quarrel you will not be ready to be Christ’s church.

Who do we belong to?

We have a book in the United Methodist Church called The Book of Discipline. In it, its paragraph 120 if you’re interested, we have the mission of the church written out plainly for all to read and understand.

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The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Making disciples is at the heart of what it means to be a United Methodist. I mean, its what Jesus calls the disciples to do at the end of Matthew’s gospel: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But making disciples is often confused with filling the pews.

It results in having conversations about how to get more people in the building while neglecting to interact and connect with the people already in the building. It results in infantile discipleship. It results in working for the numbers, and not the kingdom.

And then we’ve got this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission? Do we have the church to change the people and the community around us? Should that be our soul purpose? Does the church exist to make the world a better place?

The church is defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of difference and peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world.

Of course, the problem is whether or not our experience of the church matches its definition of being the better place.

I suspect that many of you have experienced the church as Paul experienced it: Disagreements, petty arguments, and at times suffocating silence between bickering factions. For some, the pews of the sanctuary are more like walls of division and less like avenues of connection.

If church is the better place that God has already made in the world, then it should, like it was for that young man in Harrisonburg, be the place to cure loneliness. Because loneliness is something all of us have experienced in some way, shape, or form, and is a wound not easily healed.

I spend an hour every week with the youth of our church at our gathering called The Circle. We always have communion and answer questions and study the bible. But we often just talk about what’s going on in each other’s lives. And, without breaking their trust, I’ll tell you: their lives are not easy. There is such a tremendous amount of pressure placed on them by outside forces. They feel compelled and pushed to change their image, the way they talk, the way they think, and even what they believe in order to be accepted.

Some weeks I leave our Circle meeting feeling broken by what they have to endure on a regular basis, only to have a conversation the next day with an adult who is going through basically the same things in a different context.

The world would have us change. Change your image, hide your faults, be someone else.

As Christians, however, we walk with our wounds and our cracks and our brokenness instead of running away from them. We cannot accept who we are until we discover that we are loved by God because of who we are.

The church can be the better place that God has made in the world because the church is the place where we walk with our wounds and loneliness because of Christ and him crucified. The broken and lonely Christ on the cross knows our brokenness and our loneliness. But he also carries our wounds so that we might see the One who truly loves us.

God is transforming the world. God is the one who makes the first last and the last first. God does, and should, get all the good verbs. Our God is a God of action, of change, of transformation. We are the church, we are the vineyard of God’s garden, we plant the seeds, we water the seeds, but God is the one who makes them grow.

You and I, with our sins and our disappointments, with our fears and loneliness, we have a place here. God invites us to the better place where we are welcomed not because we fit the mold, but because we do not fit the mold. We have a place in this better place because we are caught up in God’s great story.

Just look at the cross, consider the waters of baptism. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through the weak and through the shamed; through babies and wandering Israelites; through tax collectors and fishermen; through a poor rabbi murdered by the state.

This is the better place God has made in the world. And in this place we remember our baptisms, we remember our death to self and our resurrection in Jesus Christ. We remember our baptism and through that water we remember the story of creation, of the flood, of the exodus. We remember that in our baptism we became part of the body of Christ, the church, where we should never be lonely. Where we should never be made to feel as if we are not enough.

In baptism we joined the better place God has made in this world.

Who then do we belong to?

Do we belong to political rhetoric and partisan ideology? Do we belong to church growth programs co-opted by a desire to see more people in the pews? Do we belong to isolationism or interventionism? Do we belong to a world that pressures us to become that which we are not? Do we belong to Paul or to Apollos? Do we belong to the flesh and are consumed by jealousy and quarreling?

No.

            In this better place, we belong to God. Amen.

 

(With thanks to Jason Micheli, Stanley Hauerwas, and Will Willimon)

Devotional – Psalm 63.3

Devotional:

Psalm 63.3

Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
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When we saw the article in the newspaper we knew we had to do something; the local Valley Mission was in desperate need of items for young children and babies. They were thankful for all of the food and adult clothing they had received over the years, but what they really needed were diapers, toys for toddlers, and an assortment of other items.

Two couples at St. John’s are currently pregnant and we decided to harness the excited energy the church is feeling about new life and channel it into blessing the children at the mission. For weeks we have talked about the items needed during worship, we have sent out email reminders, and it has been an integral part of our prayers. Yesterday was the conclusion of the “baby shower” drive and we encouraged everyone to bring their items into the social hall and enjoy some food and fellowship as we prayed over the items before dropping them off.

Honestly, when we make pleas like this from the pulpit, they can often fall flat. It’s not that the congregation is unwilling to bless others; it just falls in among the many needs the community faces. When we hear about how much someone needs something on a weekly basis, it is very easy to just assume that someone else will take care of it.

Therefore, when I entered the social hall after worship yesterday and saw the tremendous amount of items donated I was shocked: Diapers were falling off the tables, crayons and coloring books were stacked on the floor, baby clothes were neatly arranged, in addition to all the other things that were brought in. It was a holy moment seeing all of the material that had been generously donated to bless others.

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When we can connect a need with something tangible, (when we see pregnant women in the sanctuary and imagine how badly other people might need baby supplies) it encourages a profound generosity within us. When we can remember how badly we needed those types of items for our children, it encourages us to do more than usual. When we can truly proclaim that God’s steadfast love has changed our lives, it encourages us to use our lips and our lives to change others.

God’s steadfast love is revealed in the people around us. Whenever we need something and a friend steps up to help out, that is God’s love in action. But God’s steadfast love is also revealed in scripture through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. This week, as we continue on the way that leads to life, let us look for ways to act like Jesus so that others may experience God’s steadfast love through us.