September 27, 2015

Bring Here

So I wanted to take just a minute before we get started here to celebrate a win with you.  What I mean by a win is something that is a clear sign of our mission rolling forward and being fulfilled.  It is a sign that God is at work among us and that we are being faithful to the design He has in mind for us.  The win for us is this: last Sunday I stood up here and asked if there were any folks who would be willing to help out the kindergarten teachers at Midway during the lunch hour by opening various items brought by the students.  By Monday evening no less than three individuals jumped at the chance to continue pouring into our relationship with Midway.  By Wednesday two more had expressed interest.  In fact, we ended up with more folks than they needed!  That’s a win.  We were presented with a need in our community and we jumped to meet it.  That’s the kind of church we are.  That was engaging our world for Christ in about as clear a fashion as you could ask for.  Give yourselves a hand, folks.  That was a great example of being the church, of being exactly the kind of church God designed us to be.

Alright, let’s start this morning by talking about gardening and farming.  Do you know what one of the single most important parts of increasing the odds of having a big crop is?  Perhaps you could make a case for soil quality or rainfall totals or the kind of fertilizer used, but there’s something that tops even those.  It’s the amount of seed you plant.  Sure a certain set of conditions will maximize the output of a single seed, but controlling for environmental concerns for the moment, if one person plants 100 seeds and another plants an order of magnitude more than that, the odds are high that the second person is going to have a harvest that is about an order of magnitude larger than the first one.  All other things being equal, the more we sow, the more we reap.

This same idea applies to other areas of life as well.  Think about fishing.  All other things being equal, the person who fishes with a really big net is more likely to catch more fish than the person who fishes with a small one.  The person who works really hard at their job is more likely to advance her career than the one who is lazy.  The person who cultivates strong relationships is more likely to have a good support system when the problems of life rise up than the one who is a loner.  The more we sow, the more we reap.  As it turns out, this is a principle that applies equally well to the idea of loving the church and this morning I want to show you how.

Today we are in the third and final part of our annual mission and vision series.  Every year we take a few weeks to take a fresh look at our mission and vision as a church.  Every successful organization has a clear and compelling mission.  This mission sets out in plain language what they believe their purpose for existence is.  An organization without a good mission is unfortunately little more than a waste of time and money.  At Central, our mission is to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  That is what God has designed and equipped us to do in this particular location at this particular time.  Our big, overarching goal is of course to advance the kingdom of God in the lives of His people and into the lives of those who aren’t.  That’s the same for every church.  But for us, the way we have been designed to make that happen is to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  We are striving to create a Gospel community in which people can discover who God made them to be and then gain the necessary knowledge and skills to do something positive with it.

In the past I have taken time to unpack and explain the mission at this time of year.  This year, though, I wanted to take a slightly different approach.  We have spent the past couple weeks talking about what it looks like to love the church.  If we are going to see our mission succeed it will be because of the people who love this church, this group of people, doing what it takes to see it happen.  It’ll be people just like those we celebrated who jumped at the chance to serve the community when a need was made known.  What I need from you then, what this whole body needs from you then, is not for you to figure out how to do anything particularly spectacular-seeming.  What I need from you is simply for you to love the church and work out that love through some very basic things.

We’ve looked at the first couple of these each of the previous two weeks.  The first part of loving the church well is that we must show that love by showing up.  If you love the church you need to be with the church.  Notice I didn’t say be at the church.  Too often we think about the church today in terms of a particular building.  But that’s an Old Testament way of thinking.  After Jesus returned to the Father’s right hand and the Spirit came the concept of the dwelling place of God shifted from a physical place like the Temple or perhaps a church building to a people.  The dwelling of God is in the hearts of His people.  The original Greek word that gets translated church in the New Testament refers to a group of people who have been called out for a purpose; it is literally “the called out ones.”  It does refer not to a building.  We get our word “church” from a German translation of the original Greek word that, frankly, wasn’t the best work those particular translators ever did, but the word stuck and so here we are.  But, when I’m talking about loving the church, I mean that in a very New Testament-y sort of way.  In any event, we generally spend most of our disposable time (that is, time not spent at work where we may or may not love the people but we have to go anyway) with the people we love most.  Well, if you really love the church—and you’ve got to love the church because the church is the hope of the world—that will be reflected in how you spend your time.

The second part of loving the church which we looked at last week is supporting the church.  If you love the church you will support the church.  You’ll support it in many different ways, but the way we talked about specifically is financially supporting the church.  If you love the church you will give to the church.  You’ll do it as a basic function of being a member of the church, you’ll do it sacrificially, and you’ll do it out of the overflow of your love for the church.  I want for you to make an emotional investment in this place that is deep and fierce and lasting because we are doing work that no one else is doing and that work is having an impact on this community.  We are bit by bit changing our world for Christ.

So then, we’ve talked through two of the basics of doing church for the past couple of weeks.  Both come out of our love for the church, but they are both bottom-line basics as far as doing church goes.  I mean, sure, someone else might argue that one thing or another is one of the basic elements of church (missions, for example), but I would argue that the things we have been talking about must come even before missions because without people to do missions and some dollars to put behind it, a church either won’t do any or else won’t be nearly as effective as it might otherwise be.  Now, that’s not to say that God can’t still get His work done if those things aren’t in place.  He’s obviously not limited at all by our lack of resources.  Churches have accomplished great things by pairing a tiny amount of stuff with a great amount of faith.  Their poverty is enviable.  What I am saying, though, is that God tends to work through human systems as they exist with all their limitations.  That is actually to His greater glory if you think about it because the odds then are stacked against Him.  But, if a church has tiny resources because of unfaithfulness in one fashion or another, their poverty does not make them enviable.  All of that being said, the third and final part of loving the church that I want to talk about with you this morning does in fact get back around to the church’s most basic mission.  In order to talk to you about this, I want to take you straight to another episode from the life of Jesus so you can see how this works for yourselves.  If you have a copy of the Scriptures nearby, find your way to Mark 5.

Let me read a bit of this to you from right at the beginning of the chapter and then we’ll talk about it.  “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes [which was in the region of Gadara near a group ten Gentile cities called the Decapolis…meaning “ten cities”].  And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit.  He lived among the tombs.  And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces.  No one had the strength to subdue him.  Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones.”

Now this all happened after Jesus had stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee.  Remember that?  Jesus told the disciples to take the boat to the other side of the lake—kind of like the other side of the tracks—and promptly fell asleep in the back.  While they were traveling a fierce storm blew up on the water.  The disciples tried to hang on for a bit but then they started freaking out and woke Jesus up in a panic.  Jesus for His part woke up, told the storm to be still…and it did, and then fussed at them for their lack of faith.  So they were still reeling from that whole thing when they arrive on shore in this very Gentile part of the region.  This was not a place that good Jews like them would have gone on their own without a very good reason.  And, true to what were perhaps their expectations, no sooner do they get out of the boat than this maniac rushes toward them.  This guy was possessed by not just one, but a whole company of demons.

Now that fact in and of itself probably raises some questions in your mind but we’ll have to come back to those another time.  In any event, this guy—or rather the demons in him—recognizes Jesus coming, rushes up to Him and the disciples, and falls on his face before them.  You see, the demons knew who Jesus was (in fact throughout the Gospels they were pretty much the only ones who consistently did), and they knew what He meant: they were toast.  The actual details of how the exorcism happened aren’t important right now, but what is important is what comes next.  Jesus gives the demons leave to go mess with a huge herd of pigs which they promptly destroy.  Now jump down with me to v. 14.

“The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country.  And people came to see what it was that had happened.  And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind…”  So word spreads about what happened with this guy and eventually—perhaps a few days—folks come out to see for themselves.  And when they get there, they see this formerly demon-possessed guy sitting there with Jesus totally cool.  And they say, “Great!  You healed him, Jesus.  We’re so glad!  Would you come and teach whatever it is you have to teach so that we can become your followers too?”

No!  You’ve got to read your Bibles.  They didn’t say that at all.  Instead, v. 15: “…they were afraid.  And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs.  And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region.”  They totally freaked out when they heard about everything that happened and wanted nothing more than for Jesus to take whatever power He possessed and to get out of their land.  He was way more than they wanted to deal with.

Rather than force Himself on them or calling down lightning to smite them for their insolence, Jesus does exactly what they ask.  He packs up shop, and gets ready to hit the road.  “And as he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him.”  And Jesus said, “Come on, friend.  You are exhibit A of what I can do if people will let Me.  Come on with us and join the kingdom party.”  No again.  Jesus “did not permit him but said to him, ‘Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you. And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.”

So what’s the point here?  The point is that this guy wanted nothing more than to physically be where Jesus was.  And yet Jesus left him in this situation with a very simple instruction: “Tell people your story.”

Now think about this with me.  A couple of years after this happened Jesus would once again rescue some people from the death grip of sin.  He would conquer the forces of evil in total and set a people back in their right mind.  Then He would leave.  And while they wanted to go with Him, He had a different plan in mind for them too.  “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  Sound familiar?  It should…and I don’t just mean because that’s the Great Commission and many of you have probably heard dozens of sermons on it.  It’s the same thing Jesus told this guy.  They were His instructions then for this man; they are still His instructions for us today.

If we are going to be consistent followers of Jesus, we need to be following Jesus’ instructions.  Now, hearing that often provokes an internal response of either guilt or fear in many Christians.  Some take the route of, “Well, I’m not a good Christian because I don’t share my faith enough.”  Others worry themselves into inaction over all the things that could happen when sharing their faith with another person.  But listen, while straight out apologetics and formal evangelistic presentations certainly have an important place in our disciple-making efforts, making disciples is at its core really just about encouraging people to follow Jesus like we do.  Do you know one of the best ways to make that happen?  Share the story of how Jesus has transformed your life and demonstrate it through your actions toward them.  That’s exactly what Jesus asked this formerly demon-possessed man to do.  Another great approach is to invite them to learn along with you the glories of following Jesus over and against any other lifestyle choice.  That’s what Jesus told the disciples to do.  And do you know where one of the best places to do that is?  Here!  The place where a whole community of believers and seekers gather together to encourage each other on in the race to experience the life that is truly life.  Just as making disciples is a fundamental part of being a follower of Jesus, inviting people to connect with the community of the church is a fundamental part of being the church.  If you love the church, you’ll bring people to the church.

It’s popular today to talk about alternative ways to do church.  There’s a lot of energy around the idea that the traditional ways of doing church—like what we’re doing here this morning—are passé; they’re on the way out.  People will say that the church should primarily be a sending body, sending people out on mission and not serving as merely a Christian bunker against the warring world.  And while maybe there’s something to be said for that in some cultural contexts, even if someone is pursuing a non-traditional way of doing church, if they want their church to grow (and if you don’t want the church to grow you probably shouldn’t be doing church because it was designed by God to be a growing organization) they still have to bring people to the church in order to make that happen.  Furthermore, if we love something we are very naturally inclined to bring people back to it with us so we can share with them in the experience.  It doesn’t matter how someone pursues doing church, if they are not bringing people to it, it’s not going to work well or long.  If you love the church, you’ll bring people to the church.

Think about some other reasons why this is so fundamental to the church’s healthy and proper operation.  On occasion, some people leave a church.  The reasons for that are many and prayerfully most will leave when sent on a mission of some kind, but when they leave they create a hole.  They were doing some work that is now not getting done.  If a church is going to remain healthy, there is a great likelihood that it is going to need to fill that hole.  How can that happen?  We could try just having enough babies to plug the gap.  But that’s not really a reliable strategy and anyway, if an adult leaves, a baby is still a few years from being able to do much about it.  We could look to our youth.  We talk often about the youth being the future of the church.  But while that is absolutely true let’s be honest: in this part of the country and given where our culture is, the odds that our current youth will be the future of this church aren’t very good.  Sometimes it happens this way as in James Davis coming back to teach the youth Sunday school class on a regular basis.  But, many of them are going to leave this community one day.  They will prayerfully plug into a church wherever they happen to settle one day and we should do everything we can to make sure that happens.  I just spoke with Elizabeth Creath yesterday.  She is in the process of moving her membership to her church in Wilmington, NC where she is not only attending, but involved in a small group, and is serving in and with the community there.  That’s a huge win for our mission.  But, as a strategy for repopulating the church…not so good.  No, the simple reality is that if the church is going to last into the next generation it’s people are going to have to bring other people to church.  And this is not just to make the church big.  Big is great, but big isn’t the goal.  This is so that more people can experience the Gospel through their community thus causing the kingdom of God to expand.  If we want the church to work, we’ve got to bring people to the church.  If you love the church, you’ll bring people to the church.  And by the way, if you cannot right now think of someone you could invite to church…it’s time to start getting out more.

Now, perhaps you’ve tried inviting someone before.  You invited them several times and they never came.  You’re thinking: I’ve done my part.  I’ve done my best and it didn’t matter.  Why bother trying anymore?  Let me tell you why by showing you the rest of the story from Mark.  Flip over to Mark 8.  After Jesus left the shores of Gerasa he traveled around and did some other things, but eventually he returned.  And when He did, the people came out to see Him in droves.  They welcomed Him back with open arms.  They brought their sick to Him to be healed.  They gobbled up His teachings like they were starving and He had a bread truck.  In fact, “when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘I have compassion on the crowd, because they have bene with me now three days and have nothing to eat.  And if I sent them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way.’”  You know what comes next, right?  He feeds them.  All of them.  Four thousand plus.  With a few loaves and fish.  And why did this happen?  Well, think about what had been happening since Jesus had left a few months before.  One man had been traveling around the region sharing the story of how Jesus changed his life and inviting people to the kingdom of God.  He did exactly what he had been instructed to do such that when the time came for Jesus to move among them, the harvest was plentiful.  He sowed generously such that when the time was right there was plenty to pick.

Listen: Jesus is going to move in this community.  Jesus is moving in this community.  He’s going to move in this community.  And when He does, what kind of harvest is He going to find?  He left us as His people to share His message and left us specifically to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage the world in His name.  Listen, when people catch wind that there’s a place they can go where they will matter, where people will care for them just as they are, they’ll be drawn to it like flies to honey.  But they won’t hear about it unless they are invited to it.  If we are going to be faithful to what He gave us to do, we’re going to be sowing generously by inviting people to experience His kingdom in our midst so that when He moves in their lives they’ll be ready to join Him.  If we love the church, we’ll bring people to the church.  What, after all, is the point of a great community if we keep it to ourselves?  What we have here is too good not to share.

If we love the church, we’ll bring people to the church.  If we love the church, we’ll support the church.  If we love the church, we’ll be with the church.  Friends, this church, this body of Jesus followers, is creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  If you want this to work, the basics have to be happening.  If you love the church, the basics are going to be happening.  You’ve got to love the church.  It’s the hope of the world.  Let us together step out and become fully the church He created us to be to His glory and our joy.