September 12, 2010

A Group Effort

So for the last couple of months we have worked our way through the New Testament epistle of 1 John. Throughout this magnificent little book we have spent a lot of time talking about reality.  We talked about how reality is defined and how we can go about making sure that we are living within its spacious boundaries.  On this note we talked about several of the ways the world tries to get us to buy into its lies.  The problem with the world’s lies is that while they are broadcasted as the only way to really be free (who wants to live with a bunch of dos and don’ts set by some far-off God anyway?), what they turn out to be is a subtle-at-first and then not-so-subtle form of spiritual slavery.  It’s like we are cows grazing at the edge of our fence and on the other side all we can see is green grass for miles and miles.  What we can’t see, however, is all the high-voltage wires creating a tight network of invisible fences and the man waiting to slap a shock collar on us as soon as we jump the rail.  I’ll be honest with you, when I planned for us to journey through 1 John two summers ago, I did not plan to focus the series on the nature of reality.  On the contrary, I came to the text a few months ago planning to spend the summer talking about love when John’s thoughts on reality hit me in the face such that I couldn’t ignore them.  Well, as I have spent time thinking about reality, a few things have occurred to me.  As broad and wide as the bounds of reality are, very few people are actually aware of their full extent at any one time.  Instead, as we journey through this life we encounter the bits and pieces God knows that we need to see in our current position.  (Whether we see them or not is another matter.)  There are times when we need to rest squarely in the middle of the pasture, far from the edges.  There are also times when we need to run right up along the edges.  Yet we cannot run along more than one edge at a time and to try will only wear us out and make us miserable.  The question, then, this quite naturally led me to ask was and is: what is the view of reality God has for Central Baptist Church at the current time?

The answer to this question turned out to be quite simple.  In fact, after spending quite a bit of time in thought and prayer with several leaders of this church, almost exactly a year ago I shared with you the answer that God set before our hearts.  This answer came out in two straightforward statements which respectively form the basis of our mission and vision.  There are three driving characteristics behind these about which you have heard quite a bit in the last year: belonging, learning, and serving.  Just nigh on all of you have been given a copy of a pamphlet on the church extolling these three characteristics as well as our succinct mission and vision statements.  Let’s talk about these for just a minute as a reminder of where we are now and where we are headed.

The mission of Central Baptist Church is to help spiritual seekers find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally.  This statement forms the current scope of reality God has set before us.  In other words, for the present time, this is who God has created us to be.  There are a lot of things that a church arguably can and should be, but for us, for now, this is who God has for us to be.  As I said a year ago, this statement does not make us better or worse than any other church, it simply defines our current God-given identity.  Does this mean this identity will change?  Not necessarily, but if the nature of this community changes significantly any time in the future then our current identity will not serve us very well in reaching the community with the message of the Gospel.  So, yes, I guess our identity will change over time, but probably not any time soon.  Now, while there is certainly a lot more to say, that’s a quick refresher on our mission.

So how about our vision?  Well, in the simplest terms possible, our vision is to become fully the church God has created us to be.  If you’ve listened very closely at all, this theme of becoming fully who we were created to be both as individuals and as an entire body has been a consistent them in my preaching for all of the last year.  Put a bit more formally, however, our vision is to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  This is the direction in which I believe God is leading us at the current time.  He has given us a powerful identity in terms of reaching our community with the message of the Gospel.  Yet we do not act consistently out of this identity.  There are times when we as a church retreat to either comfortable extremes of this identity or else we fragmentize and act out of our individualized comfort zones.  Yet if these are not reflective of the identity God has given us then they are not ultimately going to be helpful to us in terms of advancing the message of the kingdom in Dinwiddie County.  On the vision statement specifically, there are a couple of explicit assumptions undergirding this formulation of the direction God has set for our ministry.  First, we believe that people matter.  This belief plays itself out in a number of ways in terms of things like caring for members and their families through hard experiences and our prayer ministry.  Second, because we believe people matter, we want to empower them to be fully their God-created selves.  Our assumption here is that when people are thus empowered they won’t be able to help engaging their world in the name of Christ.

In light of this, one could say that we are in the business of developing people.  Now, some might try and argue that developing people is God’s job, but how do you think He goes about doing that job?  Through His churches.  Developing people is what Jesus did with the disciples and in handing off to us the task of making disciples, He put us in the business developing people.  In order for us to achieve the vision God has set before us, then, we must be both active and effective at developing people fully into their God-created selves.  In helping spiritual seekers find a place to belong we must love them as they are.  That is a challenge, no, doubt about it.  But the greater challenge is loving them enough to not be willing to let them stay where they are.  This is why God designed us to help people go beyond finding a place to belong to learning the Christian faith.  The great reality of Scripture is that at every moment of our lives we are either becoming more like Christ or more unlike Him.  There is no middle ground on that.  To claim we are in a holding pattern for the moment (or worse, that we have arrived and are not in need of more learning) is to yield ourselves to the ruler of this world.  The reason someone like Mildred Green was able to remain an inspiration to this church until the day she went home and even beyond is that she never let herself take up the mindset, “I am who I am and that’s all that I am.”  Her approach was instead, “I am who I am, but Christ calls me to be more.”

The results of this trek to develop people are remarkable beyond anything we could fully imagine.  Instead of simply being a place where a group of individuals come together on a semi-regular basis to go through the motions of religious worship, give away some money and time, and do a good deed or two, such an empowered church truly becomes a well-functioning arm of the body of Christ.  It becomes a place where every single member is living fully up to their God-given potential and thus all the ministries are running equally well.  In fact, on that, the ministries coming out of any church cannot run unless every member of the body is actively filling the role they have been uniquely gifted for b God.  Indeed, the body of Christ works best when everyone is doing their part.  This was how the church was designed to run from the beginning.  And this isn’t simply a hobby-horse of mine.  This comes from the words of Paul in two critical New Testament passages, one which we will look at this morning, and the other we will spend the next couple of weeks exploring in some detail.  If you have your Bibles with you this morning, find 1 Corinthians 12.  In this passage, Paul makes clear that the body of Christ can only work well when every member is doing their part.  And this is not just any part, but the part for which they have been designed by God.  Let me read these great words for you as we see that without question the body of Christ works best when everyone is doing their part.

Let’s start reading together in v. 12: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit.  For the body does not consist of one member but of many.  If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?  But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.  If all were a single member, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.  Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?  Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?  But earnestly desire the higher gifts.”

So the first thing Paul says here is that though we are many, we are one in Christ.  This is a common theme heralded by many as one of the hallmarks of the Christian church.  All people are equal in the eyes of God.  This is a noble and true sentiment.  It is enormously important in terms of eliminating the source of much modern prejudice.  With all that said, we cannot afford to make too much of it without bringing into context the other side of the statement.  We may all be one in Christ but that doesn’t mean we’re all the same.  One of the most pernicious lies of our time is that equality and sameness are synonyms.  They are not.  Every person is possessed of equal value in God’s eyes, but each person is totally and completely different from any other created being.  What Paul is commending to us here is that we should be striving for unity, not uniformity; unity in diversity, not unity in sameness.  A simple observation of the world around us reveals this reality: we are not all the same.  In spite of all the polls that seem to lump blocs of citizens into certain thought patterns based on broad similarities, we are all different.  As a church what this means is that we are all created for a different function in the church.  There are some whom God has called to preach, some to teach, some to clean, some to lead, some to cook, some administrate, some to pray, and so on and so forth.  Drawing from Paul’s analogy of the body here, a person gifted by God to fill one roll isn’t going to be the person to fill another.  My eye is uniquely gifted for seeing.  It wouldn’t make sense for me to use if for anything else.  In the same vein, when we have ministry positions open and for which we need volunteers to fill, let us set aside the lies that things like age or gender or socioeconomic standing or anything else like that matter to God when it comes to serving Him (the reality is that all He needs is willingness) and with our personal gifting firmly in mind, eagerly seek out ministry opportunities that utilize our strengths to God’s glory and our joy.  What is clear here is that the body of Christ works best when everyone is doing their part.  Each one of those parts in spite of their nature and relative visibility are absolutely vital to the healthy functioning of the church.  And unless we are committed to helping others come to a full realization of what their God-given identity is, we can hardly call ourselves a church loving people (which we defined a few weeks ago as this very thing) in the name of Christ.  We as a church are going to become fully ourselves when we are actively developing members both current and future into fully committed followers of Christ who are aware of their gifts and ready and willing to put them to their God-intended use.  In other words, the body of Christ works best when everyone is doing their part.

In the next couple of paragraphs, at least as my translation divides the passage, Paul deals with two notable problems which stem from distortions of this truth.  I want to shed some light on each of these issues, which are the result of out-of-balance thinking regarding our God-given identities, and then mention one other problem before setting before a picture of how things should be.  The first problem Paul mentions stems from insecurity and self-doubt regarding our identity.  The reality of these identities is that some people are further along and more developed in their understanding of how God has designed them than are others.  A second important reality is that some of the gifts God gives to His people manifest themselves in more publicly visibly ways.  Now, the reasons for these two facets of reality are manifold, but their being fact aren’t bad; what we do with them, however, can be harmful.  And one of the things we do when we come into contact with this reality, particularly if we are unsure or insecure in own identity, is to look at the person who has confidence or visibility and doubt our importance to the body.  Paul refutes this idea directly: “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”  Furthermore, “If all were a single member, where would the body be?”   They wouldn’t.  To those of you who have struggled or are in fact struggling with being unsure or insecure regarding the place God has designed you for at Central let me share something important with you.  You are here because God has designed you with a specific identity that is absolutely vital to the ministries we do and without your contribution we will not be a fully functioning church.  This is our vision: to help you understand that you matter to God and to this body and to empower you with the knowledge, training, and opportunities to use the gifts He has given you in the ways He has crafted you to use them.  The simple reason for this is that the body of Christ works best when everyone is doing their part.

The second problem Paul mentions swings the pendulum in the complete opposite direction: pride and self-aggrandizement.  You see, each of us has a different sin that we struggle with more than any others.  For some folks, this specific sin is pride.  These folks will look at their gift set (whether actual or merely perceived) and conclude that while the Bible does say that all gifts are important, theirs are doubly important.  In fact, theirs are so important that they really don’t need the gifts of anyone else in order to see the church succeed.  Another manifestation of this is that we sometimes look at the contributions others are making and judge them based on their visibility and perceived importance.  In other words, we estimate value in the same way the world does.  In this, folks with more service oriented gifts are perceived as less important because their contributions to the working of the church often go overlooked—particularly when they are done well.  Paul shoots this extreme down even more quickly than the previous one: “On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible…”  If it is true that all are of equal worth in God’s eyes, then it is not also true that some are more equal or less equal than others.  The body of Christ works best when everyone is doing their part.  And though the body might survive for a time without all of its parts, it would not be nearly as effective.  Also, the parts which are truly indispensible might surprise us.  As a hint, people will come to a church without a preacher for quite a while; a church that’s filthy or doesn’t have anyone to offer a simple greeting to visitors won’t last nearly as long.  The body of Christ truly works best when everyone is doing their part.

A third issue to mention quickly here is kind of an amalgam of the other two.  You see, we live in a society that is rapidly becoming incredible therapeutic and hyper-sensitive.  We are supposed to feel good about ourselves all the time and if we don’t it’s probably not because anything is wrong with us.  Instead, it’s someone else’s fault.  Well, take this modern sensibility and unleash it in the church.  Sometimes, when we don’t feel very secure in our God-given identity, instead of focusing on doubting our own worth, we will instead look to tear down someone else who is secure and confident.  “Why does he always get all the attention?”  “Who is she to take all the good jobs around here?”  When we take up this mindset—which usually plays itself out very quietly either through personal bitterness or a small gossip circle of like minded people—we have fallen victim to a clever lie of the enemy.  We need to turn once again to see things as God does.  Life in the kingdom is not a zero-sum game.  If one person has discovered and is living out of her identity, that doesn’t mean the opportunity for us to do so is lessened at all.  This is why our vision is to create a place where people matter.  When we properly understand our own value, we’re not going to need to tear anyone else down in order to inflate our worth.  And when we are empowered in our own worth (which takes a lot of learning), we can help others reach the same point which is one way we can engage our world for Christ.  The body of Christ works best when everyone is doing their part.

So what does this look like when it’s done right?  Well, Paul says a couple of things in the last few verses of chapter twelve that are pretty helpful in understanding this.  First, we all together are the body of Christ.  Let us not confuse this.  We are not a collection of disparate individuals, but a body that not only can but must work in concert with each other if we hope to accomplish anything, let alone the things God has called us to do.  That said, the collective is neither the only nor the most important thing.  The next thing Paul says is that we are individually members of the body.  The individual contribution we are able to make to the functioning of the body is vitally necessary in order for our mission to be fulfilled.  In other words, in the debate between the importance of the individual versus the importance of the community the answer is yes.  The body of Christ works best when everyone is doing their part.

Second, Paul gives us this list of spiritual gifts, numbers them, affirms not everyone has them, and then tells us to earnestly desire the so-called “higher gifts.”  I will grant this is a series of verses rife with potential for misinterpretation and abuse, but put in context the point is not so hard to grasp.  Paul’s numbered list of gifts is not for the purpose of assigning primary value to some and secondary or tertiary to others.  If this was the case he would be contradicting everything he had previously said.  Instead, this is probably a reference to the gifts in the order in which they are often necessary for the successful ministry of the body.  More importantly, however, not every gift is given to every person lest the extreme positions mentioned before become valid.  Paul makes this point by asking a series of questions whose answers are all assumed to be no.  Then he says something really interesting: “But earnestly desire the higher gifts.”  Though at first read this seems to point to some gifts actually being more important than others, this too would contradict Paul’s previous statements.  Instead, all the spiritual gifts can be characterized as higher gifts.  We should desire these.  It is not presumptuous or prideful for us to yearn for the spiritual gifts God sees fit to give us.  We are absolutely right to long for the identity God has created us to bear.  Because when we are working out of such a place, we will find ourselves living the life we have always longed for.  This is the abundant life Jesus came to give us.  This is the opportunity we desire for life, hope, joy, and meaning.   The body of Christ works best when everyone is doing their part.  This is to God’s glory which brings about our joy.

Here’s the thing: we all long for meaning.  We long for truth in the deepest part of our souls.  We will find both of these when we can take the clear advice of the apostle John and live according to the reality of God’s kingdom.  If we as a church can help people live their lives in such a manner, we will unquestionably be a place where people matter.  They matter enough to tell them the truth: there is but one source of reality and it is defined by God, not the garbage of this world.  This is why our vision is so important and why I am setting it before you again this year so that together we can find and take the steps necessary to see it happen.  Well, if we are to become a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ, then we must first be developing people to fully reflect their God-created selves.  This vision is one we can fulfill and we have already started taking steps in the right direction.  But, it will take effort and a willingness on the part of every member (both present and future) to first discover their God-given identity and then to help others to the same thing in the ways in which God has designed them to do even that.  The body of Christ works best when everyone is doing their part.  Now, for the next couple of weeks we are going to look closely at some of the theological underpinnings for all of this.  The implications and applications of this will offer some encouragements and a number of challenges to how we think not only about the church, but about how we do church.  We will even find challenges on how we must to church in order to create the kind of environment in which we can fully become ourselves.  For when we are fully ourselves, we can most effectively fill the role God has created us for in our current situation.  The body of Christ works best when everyone is doing their part.

To close out our service this morning, we are going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  Given all that we have been talking about this is an entirely appropriate thing for us to do.   You see, none of this would be possible without the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross.  On the night before Jesus died, He was talking with His disciples concerning everything that was about to happen.  During this conversation He told them about the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit would come when Jesus went back to the Father and not until then.  In this light Jesus said this: “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send him to you.”  We are able to find our God-given identity today only with the help of the Holy Spirit.  It was because Jesus was secure in His identity that He was able to return to the Father the way He did in order to turn over one of the most exciting implications of His ministry to someone else.  He knew His purpose and knew the Holy Spirit’s purpose and worked to see both of those purposes fully realized.  This is part of what we celebrate when we remember the way in which Jesus returned to the Father.  His body was broken and His blood was spilled so that ours didn’t have to be.  He died to bring us life and through that life the joy and hope and meaning that we as a church now seek to help others obtain.  This morning as we prepare to observe the Lord’s Supper, take a minute and thank the Father for creating you with a unique identity and role in the body of Christ.  Ask Him to help you understand more fully each day the scope of this identity as well as to provide opportunities for you to utilize it to the benefit of the body.  Thank Jesus for making His ultimate sacrifice that brought this identity within the realm of possibility for you.  And thank the Spirit for His active and present help in realizing it to your fullest potential.  Then, as you are served by the deacons in a few minutes, first the bread and then the juice, wait and we will all eat and drink as a body this morning.  If you are a member of Christ’s body you are welcomed to join with us in this great celebration.  Pray with me as the deacons come forward to serve.