October 30, 2016

An Unstoppable Love

Let’s start with a bit of trivia this morning.  Where in this country is the furthest dry spot below sea level?  It’s Death Valley in California at 279 feet below sea level.  Interestingly, there are only two places in the whole of North America below sea level that are not in California.  One is in the Dominican Republic and the other is the city of New Orleans.  Okay, how about this one: What is the lowest dry point in the whole world?  It’s the Dead Sea on the border of Israel and Jordan.  It sits at 1,388 feet below sea level.

Have you ever wondered why they call it the Dead Sea, though?  What exactly makes it dead?  Well, for 3 million years or so, the Jordan River has been running into it with all of the minerals that it carries and for 3 million years the water that arrives in the Dead Sea hasn’t had anywhere to go.  And, because the climate is hot and dry, it does what all water does in such a climate: it evaporates.  But, when water evaporates, if there is anything in it, that stays behind.  In this case, the minerals and salt of the Jordan have slowly been concentrating over the eons to the point that the Dead Sea is almost 9 times saltier than the ocean.  The result is an ecosystem which supports almost no life at all.  Scientists have recently discovered some microbes living near some of the fresh water vents at the bottom of the Dead Sea, but that’s it.  No fish.  No plants.  No other animals.  Nothing.  It’s dead.  Thus the name.

But that’s not quite the whole story.  If you go to the Dead Sea, you can swim in its waters.  They say you can float there without even trying it’s so salty. What’s more, its unique salt is actually quite healthy for our skin.  It is used to treat acne, psoriasis, hives, cellulite, dry skin, dandruff, stress, muscle aches, and a number of other maladies.  The region is a major hub of health research for other reasons as well including the low level of allergens and the low ultraviolent radiation content of the sunlight.  So, in one sense, the Dead Sea is a really good place to be.  But, if it gets in you, the unique mineral stew is not so good for you.  If you tried to drink it, it would not only taste really bitter, but it would slowly poison you as well.  The water flowing into the Sea, but not out results in an environment that is dead.

This morning we are in the third part of our teaching series called Unstoppable Gospel.  The big idea for this journey is that as followers of Jesus, we are part of a movement—the movement of His Gospel into His world—that is unstoppable.  Nothing has ever or will ever get in the way of its advance.  In each part of this series we are looking at a different aspect of this unstoppable Gospel through the lens of the incredible story of the early church as recorded for us by Luke in the book of Acts.  Two weeks ago we kicked the series off in grand fashion at our Homecoming Celebration.  We talked then about the fact that we are part of God’s unstoppable mission.  It was a perfect theme for the day in a number of different ways.  But the point was that when we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread the Gospel there is nothing that can stop us.  And, as we talked about in my Sunday school class that morning, spreading the Gospel is not in any way limited to telling people about Jesus even though that’s a big part of it.  The reality is that it’s much bigger than that.  The Gospel touches every part of human existence.  The Good News is not good news merely for our souls, but for all of creation.  Followers of Jesus living out the Gospel in intentional ways have resulted in pretty much every positive thing our world enjoys today from schools and hospitals to orphanages and soup kitchens.  All the comforts of modern science and the benefits worldwide of capitalist economics (when pursued rightly) which have together resulted in advances in the standard of living for billions of people around the world that no other political or economic system has ever come close to achieving came from specific, intentional applications of the Gospel.  Our mission is truly unstoppable.

Then last week we spent some time clarifying our unstoppable message.  It is simple, but powerful: Jesus died for our sins, rose again, and reigns as Lord.  This three-fold refrain lies at the heart of everything we do as Christians.  When we lose this core, we lose the Gospel—we lose the mission, and all the benefits of it begin to fade as well.

But there’s something else we need to talk about this morning.  You see this message does not exist in isolation—or at least it doesn’t when it is being broadcasted properly.  It has a context.  Without this context the message isn’t going to be heard.  You know, it’s actually a God-thing that we’re talking about this context this morning.  I planned for this particular sermon series to be happening right now six or seven months ago—back before Shirley told me the Commissioning Service would happen this morning.  But God, being God, knew all the timing and lined things up just right for us.  He’s good like that.  In any event, this context I’m talking about is brilliantly illustrated in what the Friends of Barnabas Team is preparing to go and do.  This context, quite simply, is love.  Our unstoppable message is designed to exist in the context of God’s unstoppable love and this morning I want to tell you a bit more about how that love works.

Let’s start here: When Peter finished his Pentecost sermon after the Holy Spirit had come upon the disciples waiting and praying together in the upper room a huge crowd from among his audience gave their lives to Jesus, were baptized, and formed the initial surge of the Gospel movement that had just been unleashed in the world.  At the end of Acts 2, Luke describes for us the incredible community this group formed.  Listen to this starting at Acts 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.  And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

Doesn’t this just sound like an incredible community?  There are not a few folks who have argued that if the church could just make itself like this again we could avoid all the of troubles and issues we have been facing in recent days.  We could stop the decades-long decline of our numbers, and once again be the cultural powerhouse our ancient ancestors were.  And while I think there is definitely some merit to this particular argument, it’s only half true.  What the church had in these earliest days was undoubtedly amazing.  This was a community where the love of God flowed freely among the members.  It was what nearly every local church today describes themselves to be (whether they really are or not is another matter entirely): friendly.  And let’s be clear: This kind of a community is really attractive.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a part of a community like this?  Who wouldn’t want to get deeply involved in a place where you were going to be loved well by others, have your needs met, and have the chance to help meet the needs of other members of the community?  But as great as all of this is, it’s only half the picture of what the love of God unleashed into this world looks like.  It’s only part of the context of love necessary to make sure the unstoppable message of the Gospel is heard as clearly as it needs to be heard.  In this kind of a situation, if this kind of incredible community is the sum total of what’s happening, then the love of God is flowing in, but that’s it.  Having the love of God flow into a community is by no means a bad thing, but that’s not how the love of God works.  It doesn’t just flow in; it has to flow through.

Here’s what I mean: Think about times all across the Scriptures when we see obvious instances of God’s love being extended to an individual or group.  What is the intent—sometimes explicitly so—in each of these cases?  Think about God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12.  God promised to extravagantly bless Abram and his descendants—an incredible act of love.  Why?  So that he and they might be a blessing to others.  God chose Israel as a nation and gave them incredible opportunities and blessings—again, an amazing expression of His love.  Why?  Because they were particularly deserving?  Hardly!  He was going to use them to reveal Himself to the rest of the world in an undeniable way so the rest of us might have a chance to know Him and experience the blessings of being in a relationship with Him as well.  God visited Hannah, Samuel’s mother, in an incredible act of love to remove her barrenness and give her the child for whom she had been longing in agony for years.  Why?  So that the people of Israel might have the kind of leader they needed to help them get back on track with who they had been called to be in the beginning.  Jesus Himself made clear through His conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 that God’s love for the world was being mediated through Him and out from there to the rest of the world.   God’s love doesn’t just flow in; it flows through.

We see that here in Acts as well.  The church started and had this incredible community among its members where the love of God was obviously present.  But it didn’t stay there.  They continued reaching out to those around with that very same love.  How else do you think they had “favor with all the people”?  Because they let the culture around them experience God’s unstoppable love.  And when they started to turn inward, put up some walls, and started allowing God’s love to simply pool in their midst, He gave them a bit of prodding in the form of persecution which propelled them outward once again, taking His love with them as they went.  It was this love that Jesus Himself said would be our calling card as His followers in John 13:35: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The sum of all of this is that we are left with both a challenge and an encouragement.  The challenge is this: We must not let the love of God merely flow into our community.  When God’s love pools in a community it eventually starts to evaporate.  When this happens it leaves behind a film of experiences and expectations that cannot be met without a fresh source of love which no longer exists resulting in disappointment and frustration; hurt feelings and bruised egos.  Instead, God’s love has to flow through us.  In fact, if a church does not let the love flow through, then what they have in their community is not the love of God.  It is merely an approximation of it.  And when a church tries to operate with a mere approximation of the love of God rather than the real thing it ceases to be a church in any meaningful sense and instead transforms into a country club.

Country clubs are great, but they have to offer a lot of perks to their members to justify the money they expect them to give.  And if they don’t deliver well, the members first complain, and then they stop giving, which causes the perks to dry up; then they complain some more, and finally they just stop coming.  Have you ever seen a country club that’s still open, but only has a few members remaining?  Clubs like that may manage to keep the lights on for years, but the few remaining members sit around feeling super entitled to all the perks they can still provide for themselves (since, after all, they’ve paid for them) and treat new blood with great hostility because they might upset the apple cart by moving Uncle Eunice’s favorite chair—never mind that Uncle Eunice has been dead for ten years.  It’s a joke.  When it’s a church that has fallen to such a place it’s a bad joke.

We can say even more here, though.  If what our community is experiencing really is the love of God which always flows through and not merely into, there’s a question we must answer: How does God love?  What does it look like when God displays His love in His world?  Is it expressed randomly and in small bits that tend to disempower its recipients and beyond that doesn’t have much of an impact?  Or is it expressed in intentional, long-term, high-impact activities that serve to powerfully advance His interests in His world?  Did I word that sufficiently clearly as to make the answer obvious enough?  What this means, however, is that we must examine our own efforts at demonstrating that we really are experiencing the love of God.  Are they random or intentional? Are they isolated or long-term in their focus?  Are they aimed at just clearing the bar of acceptable or intended to be high-impact in their structure?  While we should certainly have room for the occasional random act of kindness and love, those should be a minor part of our overall strategy to demonstrate God’s unstoppable love.  The major part should be finding creative, impactful ways to love the people around us, to let God’s love flow through us and into their lives.  This is because, again, it’s how God’s love works.  If we want to demonstrate we have received well the love of God and love Him back, the best way to do that is to allow His love to flow through us by loving the people around us.  Loving people is a powerful expression of loving God.

Now, I told you a minute ago that there was both a challenge and an encouragement wrapped up in this idea.  I think I’ve made the challenge pretty clear.  The encouragement is this: When we are loving each other and out of that the world around us in intentional, long-term, high-impact ways, we are putting ourselves fully in line with the love of God.  The love we are experiencing among us is the genuine article.  We can say with confidence that we are tapped into the unstoppable love that was the driving force behind the salvation of the world.  In another sense, it means we are right on track with becoming fully the body of believers God designed us to be.  Loving people is a powerful expression of loving God and it is an expression we will be showing everyone who cares to look.

And do you know what one of the most powerful forms of this expression we have as a church is?  Of course you do.  That’s what we’re here this morning to celebrate.  Our partnership with the Friends of Barnabas Foundation to send medical missions teams to Honduras which as a whole group have been responsible for changing and bettering the lives of tens of thousands of people as an expression of the unstoppable Gospel is an incredible expression of the love God has for His world.  We experience it here, but we don’t keep it here.  We understand that loving people is a powerful expression of loving God and so we let it flow through us there.  This is the case whether you have been or are a member of the teams who have traveled down there, or if you have been a part of the larger group offering material and spiritual support for the team members.  What we are a part of there—and I think that’s an important way to put it: we didn’t start this powerful organization; we don’t have the resources or people-power to have done it ourselves; instead we joined with a group who did and have had a role in expanding their impact—is a perfect picture of what it looks like when we are actively living out our mission to be a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  Honduras and the people who live there are a part of our world.  God has gifted us with incredible resources and opportunities and this is a way we are seeking to be good stewards of His gifts.  And in doing so, we are advancing the unstoppable love of God into the world around us which makes the unstoppable message of the unstoppable Gospel able to be heard thereby advancing our unstoppable mission.  See how it all works?  Loving people is a powerful expression of loving God and when we do it, amazing things happen.