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Sunday, November 26, 2017

“A God-Driven Life”

A sermon based upon  Philippians 1: 21; 3: 4-15
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Christ the King Sunday, Nov 26th,    (Series:  THE MISSIONARY CHURCH)

Last week, I spoke about what it means to be a ‘missional church’.  I shared how the early church was not just a church supporting missions but it was the kind of culture that made the church a ‘mission outpost’ for the world.  

Today I want to get personal.   While many churches teach about missions, support missionaries, or have members who have gone on mission trips, we really don’t understand what the word ‘mission’ means until we hear God asking us personally, like he did Isaiah: “Whom shall I send, or Who will go for us?   We don’t really have a clue what being Missional means, until in some intimate way we can sense the spirit of Jesus saying to us, as he did to his disciples: “As the Father sent me, so send I you!”  When these kinds of words stir and penetrate our hearts, then we are moving toward a life of purpose and mission, which could be called ‘a God-driven life’.

Several years ago now, Pastor Rick Warren wrote a book that sold over 30 million copies.  That is almost unheard of for a Christian book.   The subject for Pastor Warren’s book was “The Purpose Driven Life.” He said that everyone is driven by something.   We may be driven by responsibility, guilt, anger, fear, materialism, need for approval, or even just plain ole ‘survival’.   Since we are all some kind of ‘driven’ people, every one of us swimming against the currents of life and death, we need to have some kind of defining purpose for our lives.   Only when we discover God’s purpose, Warren suggested, can we say we are living lives full of meaning and great purpose.

Many people could say they have found a ‘purpose’ in their lives, without ever reading Rick Warren’s book or even without ever going on a mission trip, or even being Christian.   Some even think it possible to find your own life’s purpose, without even ever actually thinking about it? 

Perhaps you can find a purpose for your life all alone, but I don’t think you can have any lasting, ultimate, or meaningful hope in the purposes you find for your life, until you also reflect upon some of the things the apostle Paul is thinking about in our text today.   While he was in prison, awaiting trial in Rome, Paul had a lot of time to think about his own life.  And no words better words express the ‘mission statement’ of Paul’s life these words from Philippians, which read: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (1:21).”  

Did you catch the last part of Paul’s strange idea: ‘to die is gain’?   How could someone find meaning or purpose in sacrificing or giving up their own life, rather than having life just for or about themselves?   Doesn’t this go against most everything we think about, when we think about having joy, meaning, or purpose for our lives?   What Paul says is contrary to what most of us assume.  He says that whether he lives or dies, God’s purpose remains active in him. ahead of him, and alive in him, because it goes beyond him and bigger than him.   By tapping into God’s purposes, Paul has found life’s greatest purpose.  It is the purpose which remains true for him,  whether his life is full or empty, rich or poor, great or small, long or short.  Since Paul has aligned his own life with the purposes of God, even his own ‘sufferings’, which are now ‘in Christ’,  have purpose and hope because they are full of the power of ‘Christ’s resurrection’.   It is “In Christ’ living or dying, bound or free, that Paul has discovered life’s greatest ‘joy’ (Phil 2:17)

What might it mean for us to have a life driven by God; driven by God’s purposes, not only our own?  Paul continues to elaborates on what it means from him to both live and die in Christ.   Maybe his own understanding of God’s purpose for him can enlighten in finding a joy that can transcend life itself.

In Philippians 3:7, Paul speaks about what he used to put in the ‘plus’ column of his life.  He has gone through the things he’s done, the things he thought were of great value. He adds it all up to figure and count what matters most. 

To consider such a ‘spiritual’ exercise, wouldn’t be a bad idea for us too.   Think about what you might put in the ‘plus’ column of your life.   What has made, or still makes your life worth living?  What is it that brings true value, meaning, the deepest joy?  A lot of people pursue happiness, but later they come to find how difficult happiness is to ‘catch’ even when you diligently pursue it.  Happiness proves to more to be a byproduct of living your life for good, right, and lofty reasons, and isn’t s a commodity one finds, achieves, or creates.    

Still, we all have our own lists of what we think gives us purpose and bring us happiness, don’t we?  Money?  Family?  Friends?  Education?  Status?  All these things, in their own way, or in the right way, can be good things and can attribute to much comfort and joy.  There is nothing wrong with having enough money, having a good family, having friends, having a good education, or being born in a good place or at good time.  Paul would not make light of any of these things.   They can all give you advantages, and bring possibilities that may result in joy and purpose. 

Paul’s own ‘fleshly’ advantages brought him meaning and joy too.  Paul said he had many reasons to have ‘confidence in the flesh’.   He was a Jew.  He was from good stock.  He was a well-trained.  He was a religious leader.  He was righteous.   People respected him.  There was nothing wrong with how he lived or what he did. 
Even when Paul was a ‘persecutor of the church’, he was doing something he then perceived it to be ‘right’.  Just like everything else Paul was doing with his life, Paul thought it was the best he could do, was all good, and all right, because he was doing what he believed he should have been doing with his life.   What more would you want out of your life than doing what you believe is good and right?  Wouldn’t this bring you joy and fulfillment too?  What could ever be wrong with doing what is right?
Isn’t this how all good, respectable and responsible people live their lives?  What else could you ever want from your life than measuring up to your own best opinion of yourself?

But as Paul counts his own gains and losses in life, Paul’s view of everything has been challenged.  His way of valuing what is good and right has been changed by his encounter with the resurrected Christ.  There are no other words to explain the radical change in Paul’s life than revolutionary and remarkable.  He even had to change his name from Saul to Paul.  Meeting Jesus, while on the Damascus Road going to kill more Christians, had literally opened his eyes to a whole new understanding of what was right, good, and important.

You, nor I should ever expect to have a conversion experience like the apostle Paul.   The radical type of transformation that happened to Paul is seldom and unique.  But when we follow Jesus, we should know what is like to have our values, beliefs, and perceptions challenged and changed on some level.  During the recent Ken Burns Documentary on The Vietnam War, a solider told how he had one view of war going into his deployment, but gaining a whole different way of seeing things once on the battlefield in actual combat.   That lieutenant, I think he was, told how he and his regiment were ambushed.  His men were dropping like flies.  Then there was in that moment a strange stillness.  He started praying: “God, please take me. Don’t let another of my men die.”  Then, suddenly the gun fire started up again.  He quickly changed his prayer: “God, I take my prayer back!  I don’t want to die!”   After that honest prayer, he said not one more of his men went down.  You could tell by the seriousness of his voice, his life was never the same after that.

This is not unlike the life changing event Paul experienced that changed his way of valuing everything.  In the Vietnam Documentary, solider after solider told of how their view of war, the world, and even the American government changed forever from the things they experienced in Vietnam.  “It was the first time I killed a man.”    I never killed anyone else. I will never get over what happened.   War makes you see everything differently.

There are events in our lives that can challenge and change even our best, most honest and cherished, even most sacred ideas of what is right and what is wrong.  Serving in Vietnam did that to people.  War still does that to people.  Paul said that even as a zealous, righteous ‘Pharisee of the Pharisees’ and ‘Hebrew of the Hebrews’, his own life, and his own views of what was right, were completely and totally changed when he encountered the ‘surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus’ his lord.    For Him, that is for Christ, he ‘suffered the loss of all things’, and now he counts all those things that used to be in the ‘plus’ column of his life, now he counts them as dung, rubbish, and trash, placing all those things he once valued in the minus column.  No longer does he go after his own view of what is ‘righteous’, but he has found the ‘righteousness which is of God by faith….” (9).

The other day I visited one of my former deacons in Shelby, North Carolina.  Last year, at 60 years of age, he answered the call to go into the Gospel Ministry.   He told me that when I was his pastor 20 some odd years ago, he knew he was supposed to do this, but now he finally has surrendered to answer God’s call and purpose for his life.   He has acreage, a farm, 6 chicken houses, his children are all grown.   He has a wonderful wife, and a comfortable life.   But, he said, this comfort is no longer what he wants.  I’m ready to get someone else to look after these chickens for me, for now, my joy is in the Lord.   I can only find my joy in serving the Lord all the time.

My friend is currently serving as pastor of a small congregation.  He is attending Bible School at Fruitland.   But the most important thing happening in his life right now is what he feels within his heart.   He has lost all his joy for everything he once did.  All those things he thought were gains to him, are now put in the loss column of his life.  He counts ‘all things but loss for the surpassing knowledge of serving Jesus Christ. ‘ For my friend, like Paul, all the values of his life have been turned upside down.

What caused all of Paul’s values to change?  Paul tells us in verse 10, that his values have all changed because his desires have changed.  Paul wants to ‘win’ and ‘know’ Christ.  ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead (10-11).  Knowing Christ and the ‘power of his resurrection’ goes in two different directions.     It not only means knowing that he has hope of life after death, but it means that Paul has the power and purpose to live in Christ now, even by ‘sharing’ his his sufferings or ‘being like him in his death’ (10).  

How can understand what Paul is talking about when most of our lives are spent going after what we want?  Who in the world has any kind of ‘desire’ or ‘determination’ to suffer for what is right, let alone focus on hope for a world beyond this one?  Isn’t this why most people don’t want to know much about “Christ” is our day, except to celebrate what they have, go after what they want, or keep what they have?  Isn’t this text just too ‘otherworldly’ to be heard, appreciated or appropriated?   Who wants to suffer for anything?  Who wants to ‘be like him in his death’?   Who wants to find this kind of Christ, or this kind of purpose of life, which can only be known in pain, suffering, or giving up what you want?  Is it any wonder that biblical Christianity is doomed in a world like ours, filled, even with Christians who want only what they want?  How could anyone, in their right mind, desire to be arrested, imprisoned, alone, even facing his own execution and death?  Is Paul out of his mind?  Has he lost it?  What kind of ‘righteousness from God’ is this, to want to become like (Jesus) in his death?

Again, I want to repeat, we don’t have to have a conversion experience as dramatic as Paul’s to follow Christ.   Surely, all the deaths of those he murdered must have been on his mind as he thought about his own approaching execution.  Perhaps Paul still had the dying of face of Stephen in his mind, whose stoning he had ordered.   Perhaps he was ready to reconcile his past with his ‘desire’ to die with Christ.  Who knows?   Perhaps Paul is like that lieutenant in Vietnam, ready to give up his own life. 

What I want you to know, is that we don‘t have to be like Paul in his intensity of his desire, but we do need to be like Paul in the sincerity of his heart’s desire.   Paul’s values, and now all his desires are to ‘know Christ,’ ‘to be found in him,’ and to know this ‘righteousness from God’ which will gives him no only the ‘power’ to live fully now, but that also gives him the hope of attaining Christ’s resurrection in the life to come.   What is important for us to grasp, is Paul’s desire to ‘know Christ’.   Whether he lives, or he dies, his desire to know Christ, to share in Christ, and even to suffer with Christ, gives Paul the ‘power’ and purpose, not just to live now, but gives him hope that what he does and what he desires, and even what he wants, will outlive his own life.  

Bruce Wilkinson once told of the late Howard Hughes.  If there was one word that would describe Hughes’ ambition, Wilkinson said, it was the word ‘more’. “He wanted more money, so he invested his enormous inheritance and increased it in just a few years to a billion dollars.  He wanted more fame, so he went to Hollywood and became a filmmaker and a star. He wanted more sensual pleasure, so he used his fabulous wealth to buy women and any form of sensual pleasure he desired. He wanted to experience more excitement, so he designed, built, and piloted the fastest aircraft of his time.

“Hughes could dream of anything money could buy and get it. He firmly believed that more would make him happy.” But, of course, it did not.  In Wilkinson’s words, Hughes confused the pleasure of having more for oneself for the greater joy of giving oneself to something bigger than oneself. “His Dream,” says Bruce Wilkinson, “was not significant enough to bring meaning to his life.”

And so, in his old age, Hughes became withdrawn. News reports portray him at the end of his life as drug addicted, emaciated and unkempt with decaying teeth and long, twisted fingernails. “But until his death he held onto his destructive dream that more possessions would bring more fulfillment.” His misguided quest for more made him one of the most pitiable men on earth. (From Bruce and Darlene Marie Wilkinson, The Dream Giver For Parents (Sisters, OR: Multonomah, 2004), pp. 45-46, as quoted by King Duncan).

The apostle Paul wanted more too.   But it is one thing to want ‘more’ the things that pass away.  It is quite another to go after the ‘one thing’ everyone should value and desire.   Paul says, toward the end of this great text: “This one thing I do, is to forget what lies behind, and to strain forward to what lies ahead…(to) press toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus… (14).  

The image Paul uses is right out of the ancient Olympics.   Paul finally imagines his life, as a runner approaching the finishing line, pushing his body forward to leap beyond everyone else and win the prize.  Paul is not saying that he alone will win the prize, but he means that anyone, like him, who runs the race of life with Jesus, will win the prize of finding the kind of lasting, fulfilling, and meaningful purpose we all need in our lives.   But we can’t find this kind of ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ until we have a change of perspective, a change of desire and a new focus of determination. 

Like Paul, if we want to find our focus, as a church, or as a Christian, we too must determine to focus upon ‘this one thing’ which is our ‘heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus.’   But staying focused is not easy in a distracting world like ours.    Comedian Jay Leno went into a McDonald's one day and said, "I'd like some fries." He declares that the girl at the counter asked, "Would you like some fries with that?"  Audiologist David Levy recalls a frantic client who lost her hearing aid.  She had been eating a bowl of cashews while talking on the phone.  Her tiny hearing aid was sitting on the table next to her. Yes, in the midst of her conversation, she mistook the hearing aid for a cashew and ate it.

Actor James Cagney, who acted in movies of the early 20th century, remembered that in his day, acting was not as a glamorous a profession as it is now.  Actors then were paid only slightly more than the average American.  There were no labor laws to protect actors from long hours or hazardous working conditions. Cagney remembers that in one of his early movies, The Public Enemy, his character had to run away from an enemy who was shooting at him with a machine gun. There were few special effects back then, so the actor used a real machine gun with real bullets. Because Cagney often played characters that were on the wrong side of the law, he was often in movies where he was shot at with real guns and real bullets. One wrong move and he would have been dead. I doubt that Cagney had much difficulty staying focused when he did these scenes.  He knew that each moment was a matter of life and death?

Do you realize that this life is the only life you will ever get to live in this world?  Do you know how to make it count?  Do you know what counts, what to value, what are the best desires, and what kind of focus and determination you should have?  Do you know what is the ‘call of God in Christ Jesus’ for your life?  

While it can be about many things, it still must always come back to focus on ‘one thing’.   Our focus as a Christian, and as a Church, is to go after the ‘prize’ of what it means to ‘know Christ’ and ‘share’ in God’s purposes which have been fully revealed in the suffering, crucified, saving Christ.   Can you and I still see the ‘surpassing knowledge of Christ’ as the ‘one thing’ we need?   Can we see what Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian novelist, saw, as he lay on a bed of straw in a prison camp in Siberia?   While contemplating all that he had seen in the prison camp, he finally came to see that "the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart."  

Only when Solzhenitsyn saw that evil was not just a communist problem or capitalist problem but that evil was also his problem—the problem of in every human heart, it was only then that he realized his need of a Savior.   Only then, after he understood what the real problem was, could he now discover what right purpose should be.  Until you come to know you need Christ, more than anything else, will you find the only purpose of living and dying, that ever makes sense; to know Christ.   Only when you know him, will you discover the value, desire, and determination of living a ‘God-driven’ life.  Amen.   

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.