Sunday, November 19, 2017


A sermon based upon Acts 2: 42-48.
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday After Pentecost, November 19th    (Series:  THE MISSIONARY CHURCH)

Last week, we learned that a church on mission has only one message: Jesus is “the way, truth and life, no one comes to the Father except through him.”    Until we get clear on this very narrow message, we don’t know what our mission is.   We would be like the business that went out of business and put a sign on the door: “We went out of business, because we didn’t know what our business was.” Without being clear about Jesus, and doing church like he is the only true way, we are ‘out of business because we didn’t know what our business is’. 

Today we want to think about, in more detail, what does a church on mission look like?   I also want to ‘teach’ you a new word: Missional.   Because the world around us has become ‘our mission field’, we must learn to be ‘mission-minded’ in a whole new way.   Instead of sending missionaries, we are the missionaries:  ‘Every Baptist is a missionary’ a European Baptist used to say.   To exist in a culture like ours, we must think less about maintaining our church, and we must become ‘missional’ in our own neighborhood.

So, what should a missional church look like?   In Acts 2: 42-48 we see the kind of church culture that was a thriving, spiritual community which quickly grew from 120 to 3,000 members.  It was precisely this kind of ‘missional’ community and culture that challenged the religious status quo of that day with the saving and healing power of Jesus Christ.

HAD ALL THINGS COMMON (a church that cares, v. 44)
Let’s start with the line in verse 44 which tells us how they ‘had all things in common’.   We read how they ‘sold their possessions and goods’ to give to those in need. 

Perhaps the first thing we need to get out of the way is that this is community, not ‘communism’.   Under communism people did not ‘sell their possessions and goods’, but their property it was forcibly seized.   Under communism there the attempt to equally distribute goods, always meant the ‘leaders’ got more.   And finally, under communism, people were more in need than ever before.   No, this text is not teaching communism, but it is teaching community.

When we arrived in eastern Germany, the former GDR, right after communism fell apart, we learned why.   Communism was not true Socialism.  People did not get enough food.  People did not have any money or property.  Buildings were crumbling.  The government was corrupted.  People lived in fear.  The infrastructure of was falling apart.  Communism could not be sustained.  It was a failure not only because it was ‘forced’, but because it failed to do justice and it failed to worship God.   Communism will not work, but community can.

What is happening here is true ‘community’.   Everything that is happening is spirit led and freely given.   A true human ‘community’---is a community of the Spirit that is centered on faith in God, and focused on giving themselves to others because of a shared purpose---to the be body of Jesus Christ in the world.   Don’t make this text any more complicated.  Here, the Spirit of Jesus has taken hold of human hearts. Here, people give themselves to God and neighbor, so that community happens. 

What does this mean for us today?   It reminds us that being a church on mission means that we are people, coming together to create community around a common, shared purpose to love as Jesus loves us.   We don’t just teach or talk about being a ‘community’, but we are doing it, and literally ‘banking’ on it.    We give ourselves to God’s saving purpose that is bigger than ourselves so we can also be saved from ourselves.    A community in Christ organizes itself, not around my family, your family, our around traditions of the past, but a church that is missional, longs to create God’s family now, by sharing our lives with each other.     

DEVOTED TO APOSTLE’S TEACHING (a church that learns, v. 42)
It is also important to understand that the ‘purpose’ of God’s community, is not to meet physical needs alone, but it is to participate in what God wants to do in our lives right now.  
This brings us to the second necessary trait of a ‘missional church’.   Here it is named as ‘being devoted to the apostle’s teaching’.   

There are many types of communities, clubs, political and group associations in our world.   Many of these are worthy, good causes and Christians can and should participate in many of them.   But the church of Jesus Christ, is a community with a purpose no other community has been given.   We have been ‘commissioned’ by Christ to ‘go into the world’ and to ‘make disciples’ an d ‘teach’ all nations, what Jesus taught us.    This is what the ‘apostle’s teachings’ were and still are.   Before the church was called church, is was called ‘people of the way’.   This way of Jesus Christ is the way of love which starts with the way of ‘fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers.’   This is where it starts, but not where it ends. 

There is no being a Christian, without learning what it means to love, trust, obey to keep learning what it means to follow Jesus.   That we should follow Jesus never changes, but how we are to follow Jesus is something constantly changes.   It changes not because the God’s love changes, but it changes because the needs of the world changes.   Being ‘devoted’ to the ‘apostle’s teaching’, means that we are constantly and consistently ‘going deeper’ into what it means to be faithful to Jesus in our own time and place.   Only a church that is never satisfied with what it knows and does, can be ‘satisfied with’ and satisfy Jesus, as the song says.  

In year’s past, Baptist churches ‘made disciples’ through programs like Baptist Training Union, and through Sunday School classes.  In our society these forms of discipleship are disappearing.   I have a friend of mine, whom you know, who is pastor of a much larger church than ours.  He said:  “When we lost Training Union in our Churches, we lost our Church Leaders.  Now, that we are losing our Sunday School, we are losing the knowledge of the Bible and the knowledge of what it means to be Christian.”   He might be right.  But I’m still hopeful, that we we can find ways not to lose our ‘discipleship’, that is, our ‘devotion to the Apostle’s teaching’.    What might that look like?

When Teresa and I began to work in Germany, we were guests of one of the largest Baptist churches in all of Germany; the Hope Church, located in one of the most populated areas of all of Europe.   This was a ‘working class’ church, and it was a church on mission.  It was the first time I had ever been a part of a church that did not the kind of Sunday School, I knew.  For you see, Sunday School was a British and American invention.  It wasn’t something that had ever existed on continental Europe.  They still did have discipleship, and they type of discipleship and devotion they used,  fit an ‘unchurched’ fit their ‘unchurched’ world even better.  

Each week, or at least twice a month, a ‘teacher’ who was often a ‘deacon’, would lead a House Group in his home.   They would use a type of ‘lesson’ just like our Sunday School, except there was a very personal, informal, relaxed, relational, atmosphere.   It was much more than teaching, it was teaching and then sharing the journey of life and faith together.   People who had never been to church before, were invited become part of these ‘small groups’ which were intentionally fitted to introduce people to the truths of Scripture, and most important the truth about Jesus.   Sunday morning primarily for Worship by Christians.  How can you know how to worship, unless you know ‘who’ or ‘why’ you are worshipping?  

This is how a culture that had lost its knowledge of God, introduced people to faith.    The small group, where people came to know and care for each other, as they learned together, was how people learned to relate to God and to each other.  There are many other things I could tell you that might work, but perhaps the most important point is that the church on mission must share and care together, even before it can rightly teach the way of Jesus.  Christians must show how they are devoted to Christ’s way, before others can know that ‘the way’ is right.  

DISTRIBUTED TO ALL, AS ANY HAD NEED (a church that shares, v.45).
The early church was a community that proved its devotion to Jesus, not only with words, but also with deeds.    I find it unremarkable that the early church was a community poised to meet the physical needs of the people in its own community.    Isn’t this what we remember most about Jesus, when we think of him as someone who ‘went about doing good’?   The ‘good’ that Jesus did, was not only to die for us, but it was also to live and show us how to live with each other, and especially how to reach out ‘to the least of these’---those who still find themselves on the margins of life; the sick, hungry, lonely, or those in special need of love.   

Remember how Jesus began his ministry, quoting Isaiah, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me….”    Jesus went on to tell how he was called to ‘bring good news’, but this ‘good news’ was never only words, but God’s love was a verb.   A community in Christ must still be a community that is a verb of caring, learning, and sharing love with each other, and showing love to others in our community.  The word ‘distribute’ is simply ‘to share’ (NAS), which is ‘to share equally and fairly’ with those around us who are in need of hope and help.

In the world of the early church, there were no social programs, no insurance, nor service ministries, so the church felt inspired to ‘meet’ the needs around them.  While we have many more social and service structures in our world today, the church, if it is going to prove God’s love, must find new ways to show and share Christ’s love.   And the greatest needs are always more than physical; they are also relational, social, moral, and spiritual.   Only the church is given the ‘keys to God’s Kingdom’ which means Christ has empowered the Church to put its finger on the moral, relational and spiritual ‘pulse’ of the community to ask questions, no one else is asking, and to see needs, that no one else might see.   The less people are a part of God’s saving community today, the more these relational, emotional, relational and spiritual needs will show themselves.  But are we ready to see and respond?      

WITH GLAD AND GENEROUS HEARTS (a church that is joyful and generous. v. 46)
Next, we need to see that this community that was led by the Spirit, came to care, learn, and share with each other so that they became a community full of gladness and generosity

Reflecting on what this means for us, I sometimes wonder ‘who’ would miss this church community, if it were gone or died?   The ‘gladness’ and ‘generosity’ known in the ‘worship’ of the early Christian community found the ‘goodwill of all the people’.   It was known by all around it! 

 Are we ‘glad when they said to us, let us go into the house of the Lord’?   What brings us the kind of ‘gladness’ that makes us happy to be a community in Christ and others know us as a ‘glad’ people?  What we also see here, is that the early church was so contagious that people could not stand to be away.  They couldn’t wait for the next Sunday, the next fellowship, and the next Bible study.  The text says, that they ‘spent much time together…. They broke bread at home… they ate their food with glad and generous hearts.   Could it be that the church was glad because it was also ‘a generous’ church?   When life is about giving what you have to give, rather than holding only to get more, people will see in us something they don’t have.

AWE CAME UPON EVERYONE (a church of wonder & witness, v. 43)
Finally, the early church was full of ‘awe’ and amazement.   Now, we might at first understand that these ‘apostles’ were doing ‘wonders’ or ‘miracles’, which we can’t do.   But notice, it does not say they were doing ‘miracles’, but these are ‘signs and wonders’ which might include ‘miracles’, but points to much more.   Signs are ‘signposts’ which point to Jesus.  Wonders are simply the things that make us wonder because of Jesus showing up in someone’s life.  The wonders the church did then, are really no different than the wonders the church can still do now.   These are the things that we can do because of Jesus, which wouldn’t happen in our community with a people who are following Jesus.  Can we still imagine doing things we normally wouldn’t do, but will try because of Jesus?

When I was a pastor in Lenoir, we had a special ‘home’ located nearby which was established for recovering ‘Alcoholics’.   That ‘home’ had a much better success rate of helping, because it was a ‘home’ which included teaching men to put their faith in Jesus.   When some of them came to our church to share with us, they shared reasons for their recovery?  They needed and found Jesus.  Yes.  They learned to study the Bible. Yes.  They gave themselves to stricter discipline. Yes.   All these were true, but the most important ‘sign and wonder’ that always came through was the influence one special person, either the director, or a special partner, or sponsor, who was coming along side of them, to show them the way.   The key to the ‘miracle’ took on ‘flesh and blood’, became a friendship of someone who cared enough to  take time for them, and to be with them when they were in need.

Do you know how the greatest ‘sign and wonder’ of the early church was expressed:  “Silver and Gold have I none, but what I have I give to you in the name of Jesus Christ…..”   Even when the apostles had nothing else, they always gave themselves.   The ‘wonder’ of the early church was exactly these people who came together ‘with all things in common’,  to ‘devote themselves to learning, and to ‘prayer’ and to care and share, so that they ‘they had the goodwill of all the people’.   This is why the church grew so rapidly.   It had a culture the world didn’t have.  And even when the miracles became less, the ‘signs and wonders’ became more and more the people who cared and loved.  “People to People” as the song says, is always the greatest miracle in life.

   You too are a ‘sign’ and ‘a wonder’ when you live in a the kind of community that points people to Jesus, by being Jesus in the world and to each other.   This is always the kind of church culture that becomes missional.  When we have one purpose; to care, share, and show Christ’s love, we become the body of Christ, that is indispensable; like no ’body’ else in the world.   Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

“The Narrow Way”

 A sermon based upon Matthew 7: 13-29
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
23rd Sunday After Pentecost, November 12th    (Series:  THE MISSIONARY CHURCH)

I remember, dreading to hear of another car crash on two lane 421 highway; either heading to Wilkesboro or Winston.  I dreaded it because, like most of you, I had to travel that highway too.   And what about traveling from Winston to Greensboro, after you passed the Sandy Ridge Road exit, before they built the 8 lane Interstate 40?   Can you remember the traffic, the stalls, and traffic jams?  We all longed for the newer, bigger, broader roads.  And this is exactly the kind of big, broad, safer road we now need from Mooresville to Charlotte on I-77, if not even beginning in Statesville.   These big, broad roads not only make traveling faster, they can make it much safer too.   Bigger, broader highways can, and do save lives.

So, then why did Jesus say that only ‘a narrow road leads to life?’   Well, of course, they didn’t have cars, paved roads, or interstate highways back then.   Travel was very different, with different kinds of challenges and dangers.  But isn’t this why people don’t like to read from the Bible?  It may have meant something ‘way back when’, but now it sounds so narrow-minded. Who likes the sound of being restricted or refused anything?  In an extremely diverse culture like ours, any inclination or command toward one, single or narrow path or way of life today, sounds like having to live like Amish, or some other stringent, primitive lifestyle.  
Sorry Jesus, broad is in, and narrow is out.  Or, is it?
What can Jesus’ vision of a straight and narrow way, mean to people who prefer the way of ‘anything goes’, or the way of ‘Whatever’!   One online dictionary gave an example, of where the ‘whatever’ way can lead.  It gave the example of how one married person saying to the other after a fight:  “If you leave me, l’ll kill myself!  Answer: “Whatever.”  

We may prefer to live in a world full of unlimited options and unlimited choices, ‘no rules, just right’, as the add goes.   But the way of ‘whatever’ can lead to nowhere fast—much faster than we have imagined?    Narrow may sound negating, denying, and limiting, while ‘broad’ sounds like always including, adding, and affirming,  so that we all be ‘all that we can be’ or be what we want to be, but do could we realize that ‘anyway’ could end as ‘no way’?  

Now my mother had the wisdom to choose Jesus over other ‘ways’.   So, when Sammy Campbell, my next door neighbor, asked me to go out and play with him, knowing Sammy’s tendencies toward getting us into trouble, mom would explain my limits:  “Yes, you can go play, but don’t play in the road, don’t go out of the yard, be home before dark, don’t talk to strangers, and don’t go near the construction site….don’t, don’t, don’t.  While it may seem that my mom was being restrictive, overly cautious, and way too demanding!  She was NOT trying to keep me from having fun.  My parents did have rules, restrictions, instructions, and even commands.  Why?  My parents seemed like nice people.  In fact, they were nice people, but they did still set boundaries and had limits they would not let me cross without consequences.  And besides what they told me I should or shouldn’t do, they also made me do things I didn’t always like or want to do.  I had to be respectful of people.   I had to share with others.  I had to eat my vegetables.  I had to clean my room, do my homework, watch my language, go to church, come home before dark, and be home for dinner.   Were they being narrow-minded and restrictive?  Yes.  Of course, they were.    Were they treating me like a child?  Yes, that too.  But they were also treating me like a child who was human being full of potential, possiblities and promise.  They didn’t want me to get hurt, mess up, or be less than I could be.

Did their limits always work?  Well, yes, sometimes, and no other times.  It depended upon my choice.   When I went out with Sammy Campbell to play, after we got bored with the toys, he suggested we go and take a look at the construction site of the new educational building at church.  “But…. I said.”  Sammy was a year older than me; he insisted.   When we got near the deep whole workers had dug the week before, which was still slightly wet from a recent rain, Sammy climbed down into the hole and asked me to come down too.  I did.  But when we tried to get out, I could push Sammy out, but he couldn’t pull me out.   Finally, he had to get my Mom to get me out.  That was his second mistake.    

When Mom arrived, she was more than a little ‘hot’.  She had to get muddy herself to pull me out of that hole.   I can’t remember all that she said, and don’t want to, but I do recall that she did what parents don’t do much today.   She started to threaten my little bottom on the way back to the house.  “Mom, my back hurts”, I said in a very neurotic voice.  She sharply responded, calling my bluff, holding my hand tightly:  “Your back’s not the only thing that’s going to hurt when your Father gets home!”

Now, before you get the idea that my mother and father were tyrannical, dictatorial, oppressive, or restrictive parents, nothing could be further from the truth.  My parents gave me more freedom than I ever deserved.  My mother was not putting excessive demands on me when she commanded me to follow her rules and restrictions, because she knew that life can be dangerous and even deadly.   She was afraid for my skin, and my life, because I didn’t really know how to be ‘afraid’ nor know what could happen.  And she knew that if I just went my own way, even the joy of my own absolute freedom could hurt or kill me.   She was not going to let that happen, if she could help it, so, as best she knew how---whether I wanted to be taught or not---she told me what was right, responsible, respectable, and the safest way to play and live my life.  You see it was life she was after, not narrow ways, just to be narrow.

So, if we can understand that Jesus, like my mother’s discipline, was not trying to ‘restrict’, nor ‘limit’, but to guide and save (even if it didn’t feel like it at the time), what good thing can we say about this ‘narrow way’ of Jesus for today?  Even more, how can we still say that Jesus is the way, rather than any other way people might choose for themselves?   Can we be on mission, declaring that ‘there is salvation in no one else (Acts 4:12)?”  Isn’t this a lot like saying the earth is flat, or that this earth or our sun is at the center of the universe?    We know that isn’t so, so how do we know that Jesus is still so, when everything has changed and is still changing around us?  A Baptist preacher in Georgia has said: “It’s either Jesus’ way or it’s the highway!”   Isn’t the very kind of narrow-minded, life-cramping style, that’s no longer eligible as a ‘truth’ we can swallow or accept?    

When I was a missionary pastor in Eastern Germany, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was cigarette commercial, as big as the Marlboro man, remember him.   He was in Germany too.  But in Europe, there was a Cigarette named ‘West’ and very popular, catchy motto was:  “Test The Best: Try West”.  Right after Communism fell in eastern Germany,  people were still smoking “West” Cigarettes, but now, there was a new freedom of speech and expression not known in over 50 years.   Once when I drove through eastern Berlin, once the largest communist, atheistic city in eastern Europe, I saw a huge, sign hanging across the city, with the words “Test the Best”.   I figured it was only another cigarette commercial.  Then, as I got closer, I realized the words were hanging from a large church, in the city of the city.  This church added to the words, “Test the Best in the West:  Try Jesus!” 

After communism fell, people found something in the free west, that they hadn’t had in the oppressive Communist culture.   They had freedom.  Who had given the ‘west’ this freedom?  Of course, the church told the truth:  Jesus is the ‘best of the west’.   Jesus is not only the ‘reason for the season’, but Jesus is also the source of life and all our freedom which promises us life and light, rather than death and darkness.   Jesus is why the west, though not perfect by any means, had been better than any other human system on earth.   The west has been the best because the west was founded on the freedom for Jesus to work in the hearts and lives of all people.  Because ‘Christ has made us free’ we have been ‘free indeed’, as Jesus said.  

 But today, in most of the western lands, Europe and North America, there is a loss of any trust in any ‘absolute truth claims’, and as a result, the ‘authority’ for the church’s mission to preach, teach, and live Jesus has been weakened.  Why should we continue to trust, believe, follow or answer Jesus’ freedom and God’s mission in a world filled with so many other options?    As a Christian pastor, a former missionary, and someone who considers himself an ‘evangelical’, that is, a gospel preacher, you may think I would immediately renew our calling to convert people.   But I don’t think it was ever the call or mission of the church to ‘convert’ anyone.   The church has never ever had any power to convert.   The church can only preach the truth and follow the Spirit to share with those whom the Spirit is already at work. 

And in this confusing world, it is even more important to encourage, invite, and embolden a conversation of how, what, and why we still have faith in Jesus.   In other words, we must first show how JESUS SAVES US FOR LIFE.  By conversing in both word and deed, of how we have Life in Jesus, hope still remains in our world.   Interestingly, the old English word, “Conversation” did not mean what you said, or how you spoke, but it originally meant how you lived your life.  This is how many of the older King James Bibles translated it, saying, as James did, we must ‘show a good conversation with works of meekness and wisdom’ (James 3:13). 

More than ever, we must have a living ‘conversation’, with words and deeds, based on living like Jesus.   We must show our life in Jesus with the life of Jesus, having the same ‘fruit of the Spirit’ Jesus had:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness, gentleness and self-control… (Gal. 5:22).   By showing our ‘fruit’ they will not only know us, but they also get to know him, Jesus, who is the ‘way, the truth, and the life’.

Finally, ‘why’ should we live or say anything about Jesus at all?   Well the answer can be shocking, maybe even offensive.  Hold on!  Listen closely, to the last thing Jesus says.  

Jesus not only says ‘many take’ the road to destruction, but Jesus also says: “few … the way that leads to life.” (7:14). The way of the majority, the way of the popular, and not even the way of the people, will always lead to life.  Remember, it was the voice of the ‘crowd’ that killed Jesus.   And it is always true, that the way to having our best life, is never living just any old way we want too.   This is a ‘myth’ that Satan, still uses, just like He did in the Garden, when he tricked Adam, saying “Surely, you won’t die!”   Oh, yes you will, die that is, and it can be sooner than you think, want or wish.

My first serious bush with death came at 17 years of age.   It was my senior year in high school.  I was coming home from school, minding my own business, following all the traffic laws, and turning left to go into my home driveway, when a classmate, a 16 year old, passed 4 cars and a school bus, and crashed into my car door going 80 miles an hour.   I didn’t see it coming.  I did see the telephone pole go passed my crashing windshield.  I still hear the noise in my head.  I still feel the pain in my crushed foot that has never recovered, and still swells and hurts every day.  But it is not simply a ‘pain’, but it is also a ‘reminder’ that my life is short, my time is brief, and my days on this earth are ‘numbered’.   I have a ‘narrow’ period that I can call my life, which is a gift to me, not once, but now twice, and probably many other times, I don’t realize.  I’ve had some other close calls which were my fault but I have survived.

 So, let me assure you, that the way to life can very ‘narrow’.   We can all get hurt, become lost, addicted to substances, hate or bitterness, and lose our lives way too easily.   Those who make it to the finish can be ‘few’.   But I can also tell you that “God doesn’t intend for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance.” It is only through what the Bible calls repentance that you can find the way of life.  What the Bible means by ‘repent’ is that we must all ‘turn’ toward the direction of God that leads us toward life, not death.   It is the mission of this church, of all churches, to remain true to this most basic message of all:  Only Jesus saves.  No politic can save you.  No religion can save you.   No church can save you either.  “Nothing less than Jesus’ blood, and His righteous alone’ can save.”  It is our mission not to point to ourselves, put to keep pointing to, keep speaking of, and to keep living in Jesus, for there is ‘salvation in no other name’, than his, and his alone.

Jesus is the way to find life, because life can only be found in this “God”… who “so loved the world, that he gave son, that whosoever believes in Him, should not perish, but shall have everlasting life…(John 3:16).   Faith in Jesus is the narrow way and the gate, the true door, because only the message of God’s ‘pure’ love can save us, in this death and destruction haunted world.  “Only love believes in Resurrection” said one of most important philosophers of recent years. 

This Austrian-British philosopher name Wittgenstein was born into a very wealthy Austrian family, but most of siblings committed suicide, and he almost did too.  He was brilliant, but complicated man, who taught Kindergarten in Switzerland and later taught philosophy at Cambridge.   It was,  however,  after describing a period of deep depression, with inner feelings of anxiety, guilt and fear, that on a ship to Norway, that he wrote of Christ’s Resurrection and what inclined even him, a Secular Jew, to believe in it.

If Christ did not rise from the dead,’  he reasoned, ‘then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. HE IS DEAD AND DECOMPOSED.’ If that were the case, then Christ was a teacher like any other, ‘and can no longer HELP; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation.’  And if that is all we have, then ‘We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven.’  Wittgenstein, the great 20th century thinker, a Jew who survived two world wars, realized that if he wanted to be saved, to be redeemed, then wisdom was not enough; he needed faith. 

Wittgenstein the writes some of the most important modern words outside the Bible:
And faith is faith in what is needed by my HEART, my SOUL, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can only say: Only LOVE can believe in the Resurrection. Or: it is LOVE that believes the Resurrection. We might say: Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to Resurrection …  What combats doubt is, as it were, is REDEMPTION. Holding fast to THIS must be holding fast to that belief. …”  .

What the philosopher realized is what every thinking person must realized: Eternal life can only be found in this God who loves, because He is the true God of the narrow way, who never intends to keep anyone out. God only makes the way narrow, sometimes very narrow, so you and can find the single right door to the only right way that leads to the us to true hope in the right one, Jesus Christ.  He is the only one who can give you the promise of life.  But we must hurry to him, or come back to him, before it’s too late, or gets too dark for you to find the way at all.    Amen. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

“The Master’s Plan”

A sermon based upon 1 Peter 2.21
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
18th Sunday After Pentecost, October 8th,    (Series:  THE MISSIONARY CHURCH)

We are preaching on being ‘a missionary church’.   Last week we spoke about the kingdom or rule of God and how that relates the church’s mission.   We said that Jesus came preaching that God’s kingdom had come near, but we also know that it will not be fully realized until Jesus rules in the hearts and lives of all people.

Now that we have spoken about ‘what Jesus preached’, today we need to address more directly ‘what Jesus did’.  Jesus did not only preach about the God’s saving mission, but Jesus lived and died in such a way that he caused God’s saving mission to go forward in a most unprecedented way?   Jesus lived and died according to God’s plan to bring salvation to the entire human race, but how?  And how does what Jesus did then, relate to what we should be doing now?  This is what we will be addressing today in this message.

When we think about ‘what Jesus did,’ we should be reminded of a very popular book written at the end of the 19th century, entitled, “What Would Jesus Do.”  It was a book about how to live the Christian Life, implying that this could be as simple asking ourselves each day, “What Would Jesus Do?”    It’s not a bad approach, but it can get you in trouble.  For you see, you, nor I, are Jesus.  We couldn’t be Jesus, even if we tried.  We can accept Jesus as our savior.  We can follow Jesus in discipleship.  We can also in many ways to love like Jesus did, , but we will never be able to do what Jesus did, nor should we try.  During the late middle ages many people try to copy Jesus’ crucifixion by mutilating themselves with the ‘stigmata’.  This is something we should never do, because only Jesus can be Jesus.

Still, the question of living like Jesus is not to be completely negated or diminished.    Paul said that he ‘bore in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus’ (Gal 6:7).   Paul meant that in trying to take God’s mission into the world required types of suffering.   This is still true.  When we follow Jesus it will always cost us something, but this does not mean we try to hurt ourselves.  To follow Jesus should bring as much joy as it does struggle and pain.  Even Paul considered the pain he endured for Jesus to be a privilege.   When Jesus said ‘take up your cross’ and ‘follow me’, he did not say ‘take up His cross’, but ‘take up YOUR cross’, meaning that we follow Jesus and we try to love, care and live sacrificially for what is ‘good’ and ‘right’,  but Jesus nor Paul ever meant that we should try to ‘be’ Jesus.

The way Jesus preached, lived, and died are unique and unrepeatable, but life can provide a moral and spiritual compass for how we should live rightly and carry out God’s mission in churches today.   As First Peter reads, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”  (1 Pet. 2:21 NRS).   In this way Jesus is not only our savior, but he is also an example of should be and do church (1 Thess 1:7, 2 Thess 3:9, James 5:10).  And while there are many different angles from which to look at Jesus, I want to focus on the primary ways show us God’s ‘master plan’ for being an mission-minded, evangelistic, and ministry focused church.  Back in 1962, a fellow named Robert Coleman wrote a ground-breaking book called, “The Master Plan of Evangelism.”  I’m not going to follow that book, since it is too technical for a sermon, but I do want to follow the Spirit of his book to point out three major ways Jesus showed us how to be mission-minded and evangelistic. 

If you turn in your Bible to the very beginning of the gospel of Mark, you will see a picture of Jesus that focuses upon one of Jesus’ most important agendas for God’s master plan.   It’s the first ‘healing’ story of any of the gospels.  Most of you will remember the vivid images of Jesus teaching in a house, when four friends lower a paralyzed man down through the roof on a mat, hoping that Jesus will heal him.  Jesus does heal him, but before that Jesus says to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5).  This pronouncement of forgiveness made the religious leader very angry.  “Who can forgive sins, but God?” They screamed.  It that day you had to go to a priest and follow all kinds of religious procedures to be forgiven.  Jesus bypassed all that, simply announcing that this man was forgiven, just like that.  It was even before Jesus had died on the cross and the man had not even asked to be forgiven.

What we see in the powerful story is that right from the start of his ministry Jesus had forgiveness as primary on God’s agenda.  And it was not just any kind of forgiveness, it was unconditional forgiveness freely given so that it could be freely received.  God’s forgiveness was being announced without any hidden agenda and without any requirement.   This forgiveness was coming straight from the heart of God.  (Every time I read this, I’m reminded of another paralytic, Reynolds Price, who was stricken with cancer of the spine, and in a dream received God’s forgiveness.  When Jesus found floating in the ocean and said his ‘sins are forgiven, Dr. Price asked, “What about my healing?”  Jesus answered, “Yes, and that too.”)

If we are going to be a church on mission for God, then our primary agenda must include the ‘forgiveness of sins’.   There is nothing more basic that being God’s church and doing God’s work in the world.   What this means is that we must offer forgiveness to people freely and unconditionally, no strings attached.   This does not mean that people can be fully forgiven without confessing their sins or without repentance of sins.  These are not ‘requirements’ for forgiveness, but they are how God’s forgiveness is received and acknowledged.   As the Letter of John writes,  “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9 NRS).

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of how Jesus offers God’s unconditional forgiveness is shown in the story told in the gospel of John, where religious leaders catch a woman in the act of adultery.  They are all ready to ‘stone’ the woman, as it was commanded in the law of Moses.  Now, most Bible scholars will tell you that hardly ever did anybody really carry out Moses’ law in this way, but this woman was caught to set a trap for Jesus.   In response, after writing “God knows what” on the ground, Jesus stands and says, “Let anyone without sin throw the first stone at her” (Jn. 8:2).   Most of you know this story, but it is what comes next that shows us how God’s unconditional forgiveness is supposed to work in us, as we receive it.  As all the woman’s accusers walk away,  Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Where are your accusers.  Neither do I condemn you.  Now, go and don’t sin anymore! (Jn. 8: 11).  

What is most important to understand is this word to the woman is not a requirement for God’s forgiveness.  Jesus already says,  “Neither do I condemn you.”  But this is how God’s forgiveness is appropriated and received into our lives.   Only when we  turn from our sin and move our lives in a different direction, is God’s forgiveness having God’s intended affect in our life.   Another case in point is those 10 lepers in Luke whom Jesus healed.  Jesus sent them away to show the priests that they were healed and acceptable again into the community.  Only one of the lepers came back to Jesus, thanking and praising God.  Only to this one, a Samaritan leper, did Jesus give the full and final announcement:   “Get up and go your way, you are made fully healed, that is ‘your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:12).   Again, this is not a ‘catch’ with forgiveness, but this simply how God’s forgiveness always works.  As Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our sins, AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO SIN AGAINST US.”

What these stories and many others in the gospel remind us, is that ‘forgiveness’ is primary on God’s agenda for being and doing church.   If a church doesn’t find ways to continue to give and receive God’s forgiveness, to each other, and to those who need it most, the church fails to fulfill its responsibility and calling as a church and as a Christian too.   And nothing destroys a church’s witness and work any faster, than a people who hold grudges against each other, or who will not confess their sins to each other, just as they are supposed to confess their sins daily to God. 

In the same way, just as Jesus forgave, even those who crucified him, when we forgive each other, even those who don’t deserve our forgiveness.  There is nothing that builds, establishes, or continues God’s mission in the world any more than daily and continual acts of forgiveness.   Hardly anything else the church or a Christian does matters, without having and showing a ‘forgiving heart.’  Can you think of any grudge you have against someone?   Can you think of any division that has happened in the past that might be holding this church back?  Why don’t you start praying for that person?   Why don’t you then go to that person?  Why don’t you deal with the matter and really put it behind you, so that God can use you and so this church might be allowed to accomplish God’s mission of forgiveness.

Along with ‘forgiveness’, Jesus had another agenda, another part of God’s master plan for mission and ministry pointing to one of the most important functions of a mission-minded, evangelistic church.   If you turn in your Bible a little further over in the gospel of Mark, to chapter 10., verse 45, you will find one of the most important sayings of Jesus anywhere in any of the gospels:  “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). 

Now before you even start to think that Jesus is only talking about his own death on the cross, you need think again.  The whole reason Jesus made this statement was to clarify what kind of followers his disciples were supposed to be.  This saying of Jesus came a couple of his own disciples, James and John, and incited all the rest of the disciples, by asking ‘to sit’ at the ‘right’ and ‘left’ of Jesus when Jesus is to sit on his throne in his glory.  Jesus answers that they have no idea what they are talking about and the other disciples are outraged.   Jesus turns to all this disciples and clarifies what it means to be a disciple of Jesus:  “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord over them, and their great ones are tyrants….BUT IT IS NOT SO AMONG YOU; but whoever wishes to be great among you MUST BE YOUR SERVANT, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark. 10: 35-44).

While it is clear to most people that Jesus ‘came to serve’ and called his disciples be ‘great’ by becoming ‘servants’ to others and to each other, what is often left unsaid is where Jesus got this idea of servanthood.   It wasn’t just that God was telling Jesus and the disciples to be nice to each other or to do something good for others.   That sells the truth in this gospel way too short.   No, the whole idea of ‘servanthood’ come directly out of the Old Testament from a unique part of the prophecy of Isaiah, which scholars call ‘The Servant Songs’.  

There are Four of these ‘Servant Songs’ located in Isaiah, chapter 42, 49, 50, and 52-53.   They originally pointed to the people of Israel as God’s chosen ‘servant’ in the world for the world.  Most of us remember the one about the servant who suffers and bears ‘our transgressions’ and by his ‘punishment’ the people are made whole.   Of course, points directly to what Jesus did as the ‘suffering servant’ to bear sin on the cross (Isa. 53: 2-7), but Isaiah also meant that all of those who serve God, humble themselves, and bear the weight of the world’s sin, so that they can ‘bring good news’ and God’s kingdom (52:7).   As Jesus says,  ‘whoever wishes to be great must…be a SERVANT.

Loving service to others has always been an important part of what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be church, but this is more important now, than ever before.   WE all know that service is a ‘hot topic’ to authenticate or verifies any ministry or mission in our world today.   If a church does not have an active ‘service’ ministry in the community, it’s message will not be heard by most people.  Today’s churches, if they are going to bear the truth of Jesus in our skeptical world, must be ‘JAMES CHURCHES’.   In the letter of James,  it says,  ‘a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’ (2:24).  “…Someone will say, “You have faith and I have works or ‘show me your faith apart from your works.’   But then James adds, every emphatically, “BY MY (Good) WORKS I WILL SHOW YOU MY FAITH (2:18). 
If you recall, during Hurricane Harvey,  TV Preacher Joel Osteen, took a lot of heat, because his large church did not immediately open its doors to receive refugees and flood victims.  Osteen later explained that they were going to, but where planning to when the city’s planned shelter overflowed.  What we see in a story like that is that no church has any voice or mission left in the world, unless it is unashamedly a ‘serving’ and servant church.  Whereas we used to sing, ‘they will know we are Christians by our love’, today we must sing, ‘they will only know we are Christians by our acts and deeds of love.’   What kind of ‘servant’ role are you playing in this church?  How are you helping this church ‘engage’ its community and prove God’s love with deeds of service in Jesus’ name?

The final picture of Jesus’ example for us, as a church on mission, is perhaps the most misunderstood.   Turn finally to another gospel, the gospel of Luke, and consider one final example of the priority of Jesus, which points to the primary mission and ‘master plan’ for the church of Jesus Christ today.  You will remember this story from Sunday School.   It’s the story Zacchaeus, that ‘wee little man’ (Luke 19: 1-10), who went climb a sycamore tree, so he could get a glimpse of Jesus.   Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector that nobody liked, but when Jesus saw him up in the tree, he invited him to ‘hurry down’ so that he, Jesus could be his ‘guest’ for the day.   Jesus had gone to ‘be the guest of a sinner’ (19:7).  This is one of the few stories where Jesus directly says that he, ‘the Son of Man’, came to ‘seek and to save the lost.’   Jesus also announces to Zacchaeus very dramatically, “Today, salvation has come to this house….”
Today we use that word ‘salvation’ very freely; almost too freely.   We say easily, all you have to do is A,B, C., Admit you are a sinner, Believe in him, and confess your sins, and wallah!  You’re saved!   It sounds good, but as my daddy used to say,  “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”

While I think we all agree that faith in Jesus saves us,  we don’t always understand rightly what saving faith means.   Again, this is why the book of James was written, to correct some of the false notions, that all you got to do is believe, and you are saved, just like that.  No, as Paul said, when we are ‘saved by grace’ good works follow, not out of coercion, but out of joy and true faith.   Again, James says,  “You show me your faith apart from works, and I’ll show you my faith by my works.”  Saving Faith in Jesus is a faith that follows and serves Jesus. 

But what is also important to see in this story of Zacchaeus, is what how Zacchaeus ‘proves’ that he really does indeed have ‘saving faith’ in Jesus.   Do you see it?  What motivates Jesus to say ‘Today, salvation has come to this house….’ Is because of what Zacchaeus has just said, not only to prove his faith, but to make his faith work:  “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back for times as much” (Luke 19:8).  What makes Zacchaeus a true believer is simply that he saw Jesus and believed, but that when he believed in Jesus, he contributed to Jesus’ saving mission and ministry.  Jesus had come to ‘preach good news to the poor’, and here, Zacchaeus joins to become part of this ministry.
Now, listen closely, for I want to ask you something.   Have you ever thought of your contribution to the saving ministry and mission of Jesus?   Going back to what I said earlier, you, nor I,  can literally be Jesus.   We can’t ‘save’ people.  We are God’s son’s and daughters, but we are not ‘THE SON OR THE DAUGHTER OF GOD’.  In this way Jesus was unique, as it was noted at his baptism, ‘he was (God’s) beloved’, and ‘only begotten son’.  

But I want you to consider something else.  Think about the common language when people speak about ‘Saving the planet’ or ‘Saving the environment’.   Constantly, in our world, when it comes to doing good, the world uses the language of the Bible about what people can and should do to save the world, and even to help or rescue others.   Recall that fellow in Houston, who said, “We are going to keep saving people until this thing blows over.”    While we in the church can’t save people in that we can get them into heaven, we can save people in a way that we can keep them out of Hell.”  

What I’m mean is the most important mission and ministry we have, as a church, is to take part in God’s ‘saving’ mission in the world.   We are not ‘serving’ ministry.   We should serve and help people in need.   This legitimizes our saving work, just as Jesus’ own healing ministry legitimized His God’s saving work.   But what we all know is that Jesus did not come simply to forgive or serve, but Jesus came to release God’s healing and spiritual power into people’s lives.   As Jesus said,  “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  If we follow Jesus in our true mission calling, we will not just work in a serving capacity doing good deeds of social ministry, but we will also take part in God’s ‘soul’ ‘saving’ ministry.   The question is: What does this really mean?  How do we participate in God’s ‘soul’ saving work in the world?

Here again, we need to let Jesus be our example.   Think about it in this very strange, but interesting way.  Prepare yourself for a shock, and hear me out when I say:  “Jesus really didn’t save anybody either.”  Jesus invited people.   Jesus called disciples.  Jesus shared the truth of God’s love with people.   Jesus showed people how they could be better people and even how they could find eternal life.   But in reality, Jesus didn’t save anyone.   This is why Jesus was always saying to people he healed,  “Go, your way, YOUR FAITH HAS MADE YOU WELL.  Unless people wanted to be saved, they couldn’t be saved, even by Jesus.   Jesus pointed people to God’s saving grace.  Jesus was an example of God’s love.   But Jesus could only point people to God’s salvation by forgiving them, serving them, and by sharing God’s saving love.

So, now, when you hear the word “Jesus saves”, it really doesn’t mean that the human Jesus actually saved anybody.  The world rejected Jesus.   It still does.   What it does mean to say that Jesus saves, is that Jesus did what we can also do:  Jesus shared God’s love, Jesus showed us God’s love, and Jesus sacrificed himself to make that love real.  Now, of course, Jesus did these things uniquely, because he was uniquely God’s Son.   You, nor I, need to die on a cross to show people what God’s love means.  Jesus already did that.  But you do and I do have to do, is to die to ourselves, and become a living sacrifice for what God calls us to do and be.  We are to forgive others freely.  We are to serve others faithfully.  And we are to point people to the only kind of love that can save anybody and everybody.  God’s great love.   When we do these things, in ways that we are called to do, we take part in the Master’s plan.  AMEN.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

“Peace Be With You”

A sermon based upon John 20: 19-23
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
19th Sunday After Pentecost, October 29th,    (Series:  THE MISSIONARY CHURCH)

Twice, in today’s text, the risen Christ greets his disciples with the word, “Peace”.   This is unusual, because up to this point, the earthly Jesus has never used this greeting in any of the gospels.   While Jesus had instructed his disciples on their mission to say “Peace to this house” (Lk. 10:5), here we can clearly see that ‘peace’ was a unique priority of the risen Christ. 

Doesn’t this mean that ‘peace’ should be the priority of the church too?  When the apostle Paul was writing his magnum opus to the Romans, he made special emphasis of the ‘peace’ Christ gives to those who trust him:  “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…. (Rom. 5:1ff).  The kind of ‘peace’ Paul means is the kind only a risen Lord can give.   It is a ‘peace’ that gives us direct access to God’s grace ‘by faith’.    Listen to how Paul puts it in unmistakable terms to the Romans: “God has poured his love into our hearts by his Holy Spirit….” (Rom. 5: 5). “Christ died for the ungodly” (5:6).   “Even while we were sinners, Christ died for us…” (5:8). “We have been justified by his blood…. [We] will be saved…from God’s wrath” [9], “We were reconciled to God…” [10].  

Did you catch the verb tense of the language here? “We have been…We will be….We were…”?    All ‘three verb tenses’ of our salvation are represented: the past-what God has already accomplished; justification and reconciliation which carries into the present as righteousness and sanctification (Rom. 6.9).  Then Paul speaks of the future-what God will one day complete—our full redemption and glorification (8:17-30).  But there is even ‘more’ (v. 10) being said here, which Paul calls “much more”.  Consider verse 10 in its entirety: “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, MUCH MORE SURELY, having been reconciled, WILL WE BE SAVED BY HIS LIFE.”    Jesus not only saves us by his death on the cross, but Jesus will save us by the ‘life’ he lived.    It’s not either or, but both and.  It is not only Christ’s ‘death’ that saves, but salvation is not complete until we join in living a Christ-centered ‘life’ which promises more life to come.    What kind of ‘life’ is this?  How does life ‘in Christ’ bring us the peace and promise of more life?

Our text has the disciples meeting the risen Christ for the first time.   Peter and John had witnessed the empty tomb and the neatly rolled up grave clothes, but Jesus wasn’t there.   A weeping Mary Magdalene had informed Peter about the empty tomb, but only later did she report having ‘seen the Lord’ (18), but it was not until that first Easter Sunday evening, John says, that Jesus finally appeared among his disciples.  They were all together, except Thomas, but were hiding behind ‘lock doors’ (19).  They were still hiding because of their ‘fear of the Jews’ who had crucified Jesus.   But it was through all that ‘fear’ and even through those ‘locked doors’ too, that the risen Jesus came wishing them ‘peace’.
This ‘peace’ became real, not merely by seeing Jesus, but when ‘he showed them his hands and his side’ (20).  In other words, God’s peace is passed to them through the ‘stigmata’; the sign of the crucified Christ.   As Paul said, ‘we have been justified by his blood…(Rom 5:9) and ‘we were reconciled…through the death of his Son….(Rom. 5:10).  What Jesus was ‘showing’ them was ‘proof’ of their reconciliation with God.  Now, through the risen Christ, God offers them the peace and power they need to transcend their situation.  They didn’t need to fear the ‘Jews,’ nor do they have to ‘fear’ the ‘wrath of God’ (Rom. 5:9).   The ‘hands’ and ‘side’ of the crucified one ‘proves God’s love’ and gives peace (Rom. 5:8).  

Living in God’s peace is the priority of the risen Jesus.   So, “If God is for us, who can be against us”? (Rom. 8:31), Paul wrote.   It is not simply the words of Jesus, but it is also God’s work in Jesus that peace comes.   Jesus overcame ‘sin and death’ (Rom 8:2) and now his disciples will gain ‘life and peace’ (Rom. 8:6) because they can overcome any situation.   The risen Jesus comes with this new kind of ‘peace’.   It is the ‘peace’ that ‘the world cannot give’.   As Jesus told them, ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give as the world gives.  Don’t let your hearts, be troubled….do not let them be afraid….’ (Jn. 14.27), ‘I have overcome (or conquered) the world! (Jn. 16:33).   Thus, this is not mere Sunday greeting of peace, but this is the ‘greeting’ for a whole new way to look at life and death.

Recently, I visited one of my cousins in Statesville, who lost her husband last year.  I had not been able to get to the funeral home, and this was the first time I’d seen her since his death.   She told me about his passing.  He had been released from the hospital and he was sitting in his chair.   He felt hot.  He wanted me to fan him.  Then, he made a loud noise.  Just like that, she said, he was gone.  When I called 911, they told me to try to do CPR.   I couldn’t get him on the floor.  Then, when EMS arrived, they also tried to revive him.  But it was too late.  He had already died right in his chair.

We all could live in ‘fear’ of what might happen, what will happen, or what has already happened.   Because of what ‘happens’ to us in life, we could live the rest of our lives behind ‘locked doors’.   But the Risen Christ walks through ‘locked doors’ to bring us ‘peace’.   He comes not just to bring us peace in death, but also peace for life.    He does ‘not give as the world gives’, but he gives us His peace is a unique life-giving way.   Can you see it?

Jesus gives his ‘disciples’ peace not by taking all their ‘fears’ or ‘frustrations’ away, but Jesus puts a greater purpose into their lives:  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you….”  Rather than taking away all their fears, Jesus replaces and displaces them with resolution and determination.   Jesus ‘sends’ them into the world on God’s mission. 

But what Kind of peace can come from this?  In another place Jesus told his disciples, “I’m sending you as sheep among wolves… (Matt. 10:16, 10:3).   This is definitely not an ‘easy’ mission.   Jesus has spoken of ‘persecution’, and even ‘peril or sword’ (Rom 8.35).    This is not some kind of refreshing ‘holiday’ or ‘vacation’ volunteer mission trip experience.   This is to be the ‘way’ and the ‘future’ of the rest of their lives.   Being sent on mission is the way of God’s ‘peace’, that is not ‘as the world gives’.   This is ‘my peace’, Jesus says.  It is God’s peace—which is a peace the world can’t give or guarantee.  It is the kind of peace that comes from the purpose in life that only God’s work and purpose can give.  

Do you recall that crazy cult classic movie ‘The Blues Brothers’?  They constantly said throughout the movie, ‘We’re on a mission from God’.   They wanted to put their ‘Blues Brothers’ band back together:  “For me and the Lord,”  the John Belushi character said, “we’ve got an understanding.  We’re on a mission from God….   This bigger than any domestic problem you’ve got…this is a holy thing….We’re on a mission from God…. There’ not gonna catch us… We’re on a mission from God….  The Lord works in mysterious ways….Yeap!      Now this was just a ‘movie’, but the language they were using is the language of the Bible, and the language of mission, which brings ‘peace’ through answering the call to mission, no matter how difficult or the cost.

Jesus came not calm the storm, but he came to give us the kind of peace comes even while we are in the storm.   Jesus told Peter that the church is to intentionally cause a storm by ‘storming’ the gates of Hades and Hell with the saving truth of Jesus Christ (Matt. 16: 18).   “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades (Hell) will not prevail against it.”  This text is not simply saying church cannot die, but it is saying something much more dramatic.  It is saying, as one translation puts it, that “The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it’ (CEB).  It is ‘death’ and ‘hell’ are to live in fear, not the church that is on the mission of God in the world.  Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the victory over death and hell has already been accomplished.

This is exactly the kind of peace my cousin found, after she lost her life-long husband.  This is the kind of peace that keeps her meeting with friends, being faithful in church, loving her children, and talking about her grandchildren, included the one is currently on a full scholarship to study political science at Wake Forest, and is currently working for a Semester in Washington D.C.   She has found the peace to remain involved by trusting, healing, hoping, and moving on in Jesus’ name.   Death did not overtake her, but she overcame death.   

When we are facing the unknown or taking on the world, we have the peace, the assurance, and the promise that no matter what we go through, God is at work, and that ‘all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8.28).’   Did you get the ‘called according to his purpose’ part?   The peace of God is not automatic, but it is conditioned on answering the ‘call’ and ‘mission’ of God in our lives.     Like a soldier who is sent into battle, we march straight into the conflict and warfare, on this mission that helps us transcend our life and fears.   The cause of God we answer is bigger than any fear, real or imagined, which we might have.

Do you recall that powerful scene in the more sensible, true story of Desmond Doss, an Adventist Christian who answered the call to sign up and serve in World War II?   Desmond was a conscientious objector, who believed it was not God’s will for him to carry a weapon.  But Desmond still wanted to serve.   His brother had already signed up.  All his friends signed up.  However, Desmond’s father, who was a decorated War Hero from the Great War, and lost most of his friends in battle, did not want his son to go.  But Desmond had to go.  “This is something I must do….I could not live with myself if I don’t go.”  Desmond Doss, found his ‘peace’, even while serving on a battlefield, as a medic, rescuing others.   He had risked his own life over and over, caring not for his own life.  The other soldiers in his platoon, had laughed at him for not being willing to carry a gun.   But now, after Desmond had pulled many of them off of the battlefield, no one is laughing.  

In one scene, they are about to go up on the ‘hacksaw’ ridge once more.  They are commanded to go, but nobody is movie.  The colonel in charge is outraged.  “Why aren’t they going?”   The captain answers back.  “They are waiting all waiting on Desmond.”  “They are what?”   “They are waiting on Desmond to pray for them.”  They may not all believe the way Desmond believes, but they all respect the belief that Desmond has, and they want him to pray for them before they go back on that ridge and no that they will probably not return.   They did not have the ‘belief’, but they all needed the ‘peace’ that Desmond had. 

Nowhere does the risen Christ impart God’s peace, unless his disciples are participating in God’s mission.    And it is the same for us.   There is no ‘peace with God’ by only accepting what Jesus did.   We will be saved by his ‘life,’ not just his death. 

In the New Testament saving faith is never merely accepting an idea.  Saving faith, James said, ‘apart from works’, that is, apart from participating in God’s work, does not work and does not save (James 2: 18-26).   The peace God gives is imparted to us as we follow Jesus in God’s mission in the world.  Just as there is no salvation through our works (Eph 2:9), ‘faith without works’ that participate in God’s mission ‘is dead’ (James 2:26).

This is why, as Jesus sent his disciples on mission, he ‘breathed’ on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit!”     It this ‘Holy Spirit’ who not only grants peace, but who also gives the power to accomplish God’s mission.   Here, finally, John points to specific life-saving mission of the church—the power to ‘forgive’ or ‘retain’ sins (23).  

This charge is repeated twice in the gospel of Matthew with similar words and Luke’s gospel also refers to it, as the preaching of ‘repentance and remission of sins to all nations…(Luke 24:47).   Even though Mark may have been written too early to formulate this with such clarity (see Mark 16:15),  it is Mark who gave us best picture of Jesus’ daring to ‘forgive the sins’ of a man who was both physically and religiously paralyzed (Mark 2:1ff).   The religious leaders countered that ‘only God could forgive sins,’ but Jesus made his point by forgiving the man’s sins anyway, even without repentance or before God’s forgiveness was displayed on the cross. 

It is into this ‘drama’ of forgiveness that Jesus calls the church to its true mission.   This language of ‘forgiving’ and ‘retaining’ sins is a message the church cannot forget, even if it is not acceptable to the culture around us.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, Speaking of Sin, tells about how her mother took her out of the Catholic Church, right after she was baptized as an 5 day old infant.  The priest spoke such terrible things about her baby, saying that the devil and sin was in her, and she needed the waters of baptism to wash it all out.  But her mother said, saying to herself that her baby was the best thing that ever happened, took Barbara out of the Catholic Church to a Methodist Church, where they never heard ‘sin’ mentioned once. 

Yet, as Barbara came of age and started going to Baptist youth group where she heard a more biblical word, she began to realize that that there were some very important things being said in church, that no one else the power or mission to say.   The law speaks of crimes; medicine speaks of sickness, which are both accurate ways of speaking; but if the church loses its voice to speak of sin, then God’s voice for salvation will be lost, and so will the world eventually lose hope to be challenged and to change.   

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus called the church’s mission to preach, teach and challenge the world’s sin, ‘the keys to the kingdom’.   Have you ever lost your keys, car keys, house keys, or safety deposit box keys?  When you misplace your car keys, you have this nice, shiny vehicle, a motor on wheels, just outside the door, but there is no way to get it going, or to go anywhere in it, until that is, you find your keys.   In the same way, when the church loses it’s primary calling and mission, it’s spiritual, saving mission to name, listen for, forgive, and even to retain sins, then the church only becomes a nice building with nice people, but going nowhere fast.  Whereas the church has many ministries, like feeding the poor, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned; it only has one mission.  This one mission is the ‘key’ to everything else we do.   If we are not confessing our sins and receiving God’s forgiveness for our sins, then we have lost the key.

Of course, to take the mission of naming sin and forgiving sins seriously, we have to name and confess our own sins first.  This is never easy to do, but this is where the mission begins, as Scripture says, ‘Judgement begins at the house of the Lord’.   I’ll never forget how this became the realization of a church in Greensboro.  We had been discussing having a consultant come and help us design a Family Life Center.  Before that, the deacons and I had spoken about how many names were on our church rolls, but most of the people where nowhere to be found.  We had over 1,000 members on roll, but less than 160 were attending our church.   I suggested that we start making calls and figure who wanted to stay on the rolls.  Many of them, where probably already passed on to glory, or had moved to Florida.  The deacons let it drop, like a lead balloon.  Later, when the consultant was figuring out how much to charge our church for his services to make a drawing of our new Family Life Center, he said that he would figure his fee based upon how many ‘resident’ members we had.  We still had over 1,000.  Everyone on the deacon board took a deep breath when they realized only 160 people, and maybe less would be paying the bill for over a 1,000 members.

This is also what will happen when the church loses the key, its voice and its only mission to speak of and forgive sins.  When we fail to pass on our mission to our children and continue to speak of sin in our culture, we are just waiting, even begging to pay the price of what will happen in our homes, our churches, our communities, in our nation and in our world.   The reason speaking of sin is so important, is not so that God can judge us, but so that we can fully receive God’s forgiveness and be changed and challenged by God’s offer of peace.   For you see, the language of sin is not the language of medicine, nor is it the language of civil law, because it goes deeper than both.   Sin is the language of the human soul that takes us back to the time when we stood ‘naked’ before God’s truth.   We can only find ‘peace’ this deep, when we go this deep, and we will only go this deep, when we confess and receive God’s forgiveness where only we and God can go.   

This is where the preaching of the gospel tries to take you each and every Lord’s day.   The preaching of sin is to take you to God’s altar, where the price of sin has already been fully paid,  and where you can find peace, not by walking away, but by continuing to confess your sins and by being sent by the Holy Spirit into the world to take this life, saving message of peace.  

Even if you are not a preacher, or a teacher, you take part in supporting this saving message, not just by saying Amen, but by getting to the point, and helping others get to the main point of all we do.  The main point is of both the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Christ is the ‘forgiveness of sins:  “God has poured his love into our hearts by his Holy Spirit….” “Christ died for the ungodly” (5:6).   “Even while we were sinners, Christ died for us…” (5:8). “We have been justified by his blood…. [We] will be saved…from God’s wrath” [9], “We were reconciled to God…” [10]  and finally, when we join in God’s mission, we gain God’s peace in a way we never thought possible.  In is only then that we realize, we are just as much being saved by participating in his ‘life’ as we have already been saved by his death.   Amen.