September 30, 2012

Who We Are

So last week we began a new sermon series focused on answering the question: who are we?  As a church, who has God designed us to be?  Now, the reality is that we already knew the answer to this, but the question is so foundational for any person or organization that it’s worth asking and answering on a regular basis just to be reminded.  Having a clear identity is absolutely essential for a healthy functioning life, be that an individual life or a collection of many lives all pursuing the same goal together as is the church.  When we start to lose sight of who we are, we quickly find ourselves in a place where anything can go.  Our identity helps to give us definition and sets the parameters by which we know we are being ourselves; within which we can comfortably live without losing ourselves to something very much unlike us.  Now, in truth, there are many people who live a great many years, even an entire lifetime, without ever really knowing where they are.  But, their lives are not nearly as full as are the lives of folks who do have a clear identity and are living in pursuit of that.  Our identity helps us not only avoid bad things, but it helps us say no to good things in order that we are free to receive the best things.  With all of this in mind, over the course of this series I hope to remind you (or inform if this is the first time you’ve heard it) of all these things so that as a body we are able to say no to the good in order to say yes to the best.

We started out on this journey last week by stepping back from our immediate mission and vision and spending some time defining the mission Jesus set before all churches just prior to His departure to resume His place at the right hand of the Father.  We did this by looking through the lens of last words.  We said that even if only subjective, there seems to be an importance to the final words a person speaks on this earth.  Where Jesus is concerned, His last words were bear witness.  Jesus’ last words were: bear witness.  In this bearing witness, however, we are not called to stand in one place and let people come to us.  We are called to take our witness to them.  Jesus told the disciples before He left that with the help of the Holy Spirit they were to bear witness of the coming kingdom to their immediate community, their region and nation, and finally to the uttermost parts of the earth.

The real challenge of this command from Christ is that it goes against the principle of human inertia.  Inertia, or Newton’s first law of thermodynamics, observes that things tend to want to remain in their natural state.  Consider the pulpit for a minute.  The principle of inertia says that it is not going to hop off of the stage up here on its own unless something external to it makes such a move happen.  When it comes to human inertia, being faithful to the commands of Christ, particularly those that are very likely to bring us into a place of persecution, is not our natural state.  We will not enter into it on our own.  The disciples proved this almost immediately.  Jesus told them to go and get to work and they stood there staring up into the sky until a couple of angels told them to snap out of it and get to work.  After the Spirit came they remained in the temple focusing nearly all their attention there.  Now, they were reaching a lot of people, make no mistake.  I mean, Peter’s first sermon saw 3,000 people accept Christ as their Lord and Savior.  Subsequent sermons saw similar response numbers.  They were doing incredible ministry with the temple as their base.  But they weren’t getting to all Jerusalem.  Human inertia was working against them.  And so God saw to it that they were driven out of one place after the next, taking the message of the kingdom with them as they went.  In this way, the Gospel spread across the region and the world.  How interesting that what can only be seen from the world’s perspective as a string of failures resulted in the church spreading across the face of the globe.

All of this is to say that Christ’s commission was clear.  We His people have not always been so faithful in pursuing it.  Part of the reason for this, I think, is that we have not always or even often been clear on our identity so that we have a better sense of when we are on track and when we’re not.  Christ equips His churches to accomplish His mission, but a quick survey of the world around us suggests that the way one local arm of His body strives to do this must necessarily be different from another body in a different cultural context.

So then, the question remaining before us after all of that is this: if this is what all churches are to be doing, how has Christ equipped us to do it?  In order to answer this question, I want to look with you at something Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus which we have examined before as a body in this very context.  If these words sound familiar, that’s because they ought to be for those of you who have been here very long.  In his letter to the church in Ephesus—and if you have your Bibles you can turn to chapter four there with me—Paul begins by laying out some incredible theological concepts.  Most of these revolve around the impressive truth that Christ has called those who have committed themselves to Him in faith to their current position.  If you are a follower of Christ, this is no accident.  Beginning in chapter 4, however, Paul starts to answer the question, now what?  So we are called to the kingdom by Jesus Himself—now what?  What should we do with this information?  How should this impact our lives?  Paul’s answer: live up to your call.  He then spends the next several verses talking about the fact that all believers are united in our calling.  There are no gradations of Christ-followers.  Paul then starts talking about the gifts Jesus gives to His followers that foster diversity in this great unity of calling.  After giving a hard to understand theological background for how these gifts are given, he speaks more directly about their purpose.

Look how he does this with me starting in v. 11 of Ephesians 4: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.  Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

With all of this in mind, the big picture answer to the question of how Jesus has equipped this particular body of Christ to carry out His command to bear witness is that He has given individual disciples gifts like Paul lists here.  Yeah, okay, that sounds nice.  But why give these gifts?  Why give these spiritual gifts, as they are sometimes called?  I think Paul answers this question in three parts, all of which point in the direction of our specific mission and vision as a church.

The first part of Paul’s answer is pretty clear in vv. 11-12.  Now, there’s some debate as to why Paul lists this particular set of spiritual gifts here and not others.  Some folks have proposed that Paul was not trying to be exhaustive, but was merely offering an exemplary set of spiritual gifts.  I think there’s some merit to that, but I would also argue with other folks that he lists these gifts in the order necessary for the planting of a church.  Apostles do the actual planting, the prophets and evangelists proclaim the word of God to the people to attract them to the church in the first place, and the shepherds and teachers explain what the prophets and evangelists meant along with leading them to embrace these teachings.  Whatever the reason for this particular list, though, v. 12 makes pretty clear the reason for the gifts themselves. These and other spiritual gifts are given for the purpose of building up the body of Christ, of making it fully into what it was designed from the beginning to be.  Each gift is given such that when it is put to use properly, another member of the body is able to focus on a little smaller part of the task of seeing the full body fall in line with its intention, its identity.  Come on, when all the members of the body are committed to doing whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want, then all of us are stuck focusing on a huge piece of the ministry pie necessary to keep the church running.  We have to do this because we can’t really depend on the people around us to do these things since we don’t know what they care about, what they are gifted to do, what they are actually accountable for doing.  I mean, sure, there are names floating around somewhere on a nominating committee list, but you know as well as I do that doesn’t mean that’s always the person who gets that job done.  And when we try and do this huge range of things in the body what happens?  We burn out.  We get tired of ministry.  We get sick of feeling like we have to pick up the slack for somebody else.  Are you with me?  But, when each of us are able to focus with laser precision on a narrow range of tasks, all of a sudden we feel like we don’t have to bear the load ourselves.  We can focus on getting done the things we’re actually accountable for accomplishing and nothing else.  And when each and every member of the body is doing this together, the body works in a glorious harmony and is built up faster and stronger than, sitting here right now, you would believe.  Indeed, when each part of the body is operating as it should, is resting where it belongs in the body, where it belongs in the world, really, the likelihood that the body is going to accomplish the mission of bearing witness increases radically.  It is when some members of the body sit back and let other members deemed more gifted or more responsible or more timely or more whatever carry their load for them that we run into trouble.  Let’s be honest: there are folks who’ll try and pick up their load for them because they love the kingdom.  But if they try, they’re going to burn out because they weren’t made for that.

If that speaks to the purpose of the giving Jesus does on our behalf as far as the church goes, the next couple of verses turn outward.  What about the world?  Does this gift of Christ have any bearing on our stance toward the world?  Absolutely it does.  What did Paul say?  He said that this building up will continue until we “attain to the unity of the faith,” until we are likeminded in our understanding of Jesus, until we are fully mature in the image of Christ.  But wait!  That’s just personal stuff.  I’m not finished yet.  When we become mature like this we as both individuals and as a body aren’t going to be swayed by the winds of culture swirling around us.  The reality is that we are constantly under attack from all sides by the world around us.  Remember our journey through Peter’s first letter?  We are strangers in a world that is really not terribly fond of strangers.   The world wants nothing less than total conformation on the part of all of its citizens both present and past.  And using some of the same deception and intrigue employed by Satan in the Garden with Eve, we are enticed in all directions away from the kingdom.  Sometimes when I’m really tired but Noah wants me to chase him, I’ll put on a bit more serious a face and ask him to come over to me.  He’s learned to be a little wary since I don’t get out of play mode very easily once I’m in it, but all the same, I’m his dad and so he comes.  When he gets close enough I’ll grab and tickle him.  His childlike innocence and naivety lead him to walk right into my trap.  I’m taking advantage of this now because in a very few more years he won’t fall for it so easily.  In an entirely more sinister fashion the world does the same thing with us.  It calls and beckons us to come, to change our theology just a bit so we fit in, to hold tightly to or perhaps loosen our hold just a bit on this or that practice in order to look a certain way, to embrace this or that social position in the name of good tolerant citizenship, to become something other than kingdom citizens and entirely more like the citizens of this world all in the name of conformation.  Yet the moment we leave the truth, even a little bit, we are trapped.  Such waverings are the mark of spiritual infancy.  They are the mark of a body that has not found its identity, or perhaps is holding to the wrong identity.  Jesus gives us gifts that we might grow and mature, that we might learn the Christian faith well, in order that we might stand firm on our foundation, steadily bearing witness and advancing the message of the kingdom into our community and beyond.

Where does this end, though?  What’s the purpose of it?  What’s our final shape?  Friends it is nothing less than the complete image of Christ.  We are gifted by Christ in order to grow fully, in every way, into Him.  He is both the starting point and the ending point of this giving.  He called us to bear witness and it is Him who makes us able, through the Spirit.  He makes the body grow.  Jesus gives to make us more like Him.  But look at what Paul says here.  He can only make the body grow like it should (fully into Him) when all the parts are working like they should.  A doctor can’t make your body well if all the parts aren’t working like they should.  And if you have incorrigibly malfunctioning parts, you take them out and replace them with new ones.  Until every member of the body—remember: “joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped”—is pursuing the exercise of the gifts Christ has given them in order to bear witness, to minister the Gospel to the world, to become fully who God designed them to be, the body is incomplete.  It is a shadow of its potentiality.  The answer to the question of Jesus’ gift giving is that He gave us gifts to make us more like Him.  And according to Paul here, when we put these to use, bearing witness is the natural outcome; operating on the basis of a secure identity is the natural outcome.  Human inertia can no longer hold us back.  An outside force—the Spirit—will be driving us forward to become fully who we were created to be.

Well then, who is that?  Who are we as a church?  Why has God sustained this body as long as He has?  Central Baptist Church exists to help spiritual seekers find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally.  That is our identity.  That’s what we are all about.  That’s the method by which we bear witness.  That’s what all the gifts Jesus has given us to make us more like Him as individuals and as a body are intended to accomplish.  And how does this happen?  It happens as we create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.

Let’s run through this quickly, but listen closely because I don’t want you to miss it.  As a church, our primary function is to first help spiritual seekers find a place to belong.  Everyone in this world needs a place where they belong.  Everyone needs a family of some kind.  Well, we’re a family church, literally in a lot of ways.  We’re a place where people are more than a number or a face in the crowd.  Yeah there are traditions to learn and norms to which we have to adjust, but those are present in any family.  But we value people here as people.  There is a love that flows through this body even when we have spats and don’t like each other sometimes!  You can see this in the concern expressed when we pray together.  You can feel this when we gather around the Kitchen Table once a week together—and if you haven’t experienced the Kitchen Table recently or yet, you have an impoverished experience of this family.  You can hear this in the conversation buzzing through the building when we gather for any reason.  Belonging, though, isn’t enough.  People can find places to belong be it a Ruritan Club or a poker group.  That’s why there’s more.  Here you can learn the Christian faith.  Here you can learn what it means to be a follower of Christ.  Why does this matter?  Because as a church we believe that people are important enough to teach them what we believe is necessary to live life to the fullest.  We believe people matter.  We don’t want to make mindless drones that simply fit a mold.  We want to make dynamic, thinking, reasoning, kingdom citizens who are equipped to advance the mission of the Gospel at every opportunity they get.  And we don’t want simply to make ourselves bigger.  We want to train people such that even if they go away from here—and we’ve sent out several of our own this year to plant themselves in new places—they are still prepared to have a kingdom impact wherever they are.  Finally, learning isn’t enough by itself.  Unapplied knowledge doesn’t do anything for anyone.  That’s why we are a serving body.  We are committed to serving without conditions.  There is great service that goes on around here.  We are involved in serving in multiple locations around the globe.  And in coming months we are going to get more involved in serving in this community.  This is because serving is one of the primary vehicles for bearing witness we have as a people.  The words coming out of churches have been heard for so long and in so many different ways and so often without a lifestyle to back them up that words aren’t enough.  Now, words are important, don’t get me wrong.  If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t be up here.  I wouldn’t spend twenty or more hours a week planning, studying, writing, and teaching.  But words aren’t enough.  Behavior reveals true belief.  And so we serve.  Not merely as individuals, but as a body committed to using the gifts Jesus has given to expand His kingdom.  Jesus gives to make us more like Him.  We’re committed to seeing that happen.

One last word and then we’re out of here.  Since this mission and vision were launched three years ago there are great signs of it taking hold.  There are people who have gotten involved in serving in areas around this church who would not have otherwise done so because of the call of our mission.  They are putting into action what I’m saying we believe.  This community is centered on the word of God and this has become even more apparent in the last three years as we’ve put it into action.  We’ve recently launched the Kitchen Table and it has quickly become a part of the fabric of who we are.  Think about it: a kitchen table is the place in every home where everyone has a place to belong.  How many of you have “your seat” at the kitchen table?  The kitchen table is the place where family and faith are made real.  That’s exactly what it is here and this is the result of our mission and vision.  Over the last three years we’ve focused a great deal on belonging and learning.  Moving forward it is time to start putting some emphasis behind the last part: serving.  In the next couple of weeks I’m going to share some things that have been on my heart relating to this and you won’t want to miss it.  I’m going to talk about some places where as a church we can invest ourselves more heavily in this community such that when people think about Church Road, they think about Central Baptist Church.

So what do I want you to do with this today?  I want you to put it into action.  My invitation to you is to get on board with the mission and vision.  If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines because you’re not sure about all of this, let me ask: who else do you want to be?  If there’s another identity that better captures the heart of this church and how it can best live out Christ’s command to bear witness, what is it?  My invitation is also this: get involved in this community.  If you’ve been coming and hanging out with us for any length of time in some kind of “unofficial” capacity, let’s talk about making things official.  What are you waiting for?  My invitation is, thirdly, this: if you’ve made a decision that needs to be made public, let’s do it.  Don’t hold back.  There’s too much at stake.  We want, we need you to be fully engaged with helping to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  Jesus gave to make us more like Him.  We pursue that here by creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  I hope you’ll be a part of this.