Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Hands of the Church

What does a group of people have to do in order to be considered the church? For the last several weeks, we’ve asked and answered a somewhat different question. What does a group of people have to believe in order to be considered the church? This is different. What does the church do to rightfully be considered the church?

A few years ago, this church went through a visioning process, and part of that process involved us asking basic questions about ourselves and about the nature of the church.
  • Why are we here?
  • What purpose do we serve?
  • What is our mission and how should we go about fulfilling that mission?
Here is one scenario that has always intrigued me. If the church started from scratch today, with only the Bible and our mission to guide us, how would we go about engaging that mission?

Try to imagine that there is no template for “church.” We’ve never seen this done before. We’ve never sat through a worship service or seen a VBS. We’ve never seen a youth group or attended Turkey Bingo! This is all we have: the Bible and our mission—graciously helping a fallen world stand up again. How would we do it? If we had not inherited a pattern from our parents and grandparents, would our worship look differently? Would we even have church buildings? Would we have Bible classes? How often would we meet? I think it is important to entertain those kinds of questions periodically. Because it reminds us that the mission is most important and there are many ways to accomplish the mission. And if what you are doing is not working, try something else. Because the mission is most important!

Well, that is the process we underwent a few years ago here. And at the end of the day, we agreed that in order for the church to be the church, we must do at least four things.

First, we must encounter God together. God’s people have always encountered God in special ways. God spoke directly to Abraham. God encountered the people of Israel in the wilderness. God encountered the nation of Israel in the Temple. God encountered the world through Jesus Christ. We encounter God in our weekly worship. That is what this time is for. Our worship is all about encountering God together. If you are going to be the church, you must encounter God together.

Second, we must be renewed. To put it another way, we must be changed. We are called to grow more and more into the image of God every day. If we are not being renewed, we are becoming more and more like the world. No one stays the same! If we are not being made more and more into the image of God, we are dying spiritually. Period. So, our Sunday morning Bible classes exist to provide a space for renewal. They are meant to challenge us and to deepen our faith. If you are going to be the church, you must be renewed.

Third, we must connect with each other. You’ve heard me say this so many times: we were made for relationship. This is not a fringe part of Christianity. It is at the center of our faith! Contrary to what some people in our time would have you believe, you cannot be the church alone! We were made to sharpen one another. We were made to help one another. We were made for connection and our Connection Groups exist to give us those important connections. If you are going to be the church, you must connect with other members of the church.

When we had this important conversation a few years ago about the identity of this church, we recognized one more must for the church. This one is a bit different. We do not have a specific time or place dedicated for this particular item. Nevertheless, we agreed that it is a necessity, you cannot have church without it! Here it is … a group of people must serve in order to be considered the church. To put it another way: a group of people cannot be the church if they are not serving! The Bible is filled with passages that remind us of this important fact:
Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me. (John 12:26)
So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. (Romans 12:1)
You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. (Galatians 5:13)
Just be very careful to carry out the commandment and Instruction that Moses the Lord’s servant commanded you. Love the Lord your God. Walk in all his ways and obey his commandments. Hold on to him and serve him with all your heart and being. (Joshua 22:5)
But the one who is greatest among you will be your servant. (Matthew 23:11)
And serve each other according to the gift each person has received, as good managers of God’s diverse gifts. (I Peter 4:10)
But beyond these isolated passages, there is the very Incarnation of God. At some point in history, God came here to take care of the sin problem. But let’s never forget that is not the only reason God became human. God also became human to teach us what being human should look like! So, in the model of Jesus, we see what God’s mission looks like lived out. And is it any surprise that Jesus’ life centered on service? Take this episode from his life for example:
Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.
Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing. When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”
“No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”
Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”
Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”
After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them. (John 13:1–17 CEB)
Since you know these things, you will be happy (or blessed) if you do them. Throughout history, the church has been known for its service: In its earliest years, Christians orchestrated a daily distribution of food to the widows, we read about this in the New Testament. Also, in those earliest years, the church appointed deacons to lead in service. These deacons were designated servant leaders. They helped lead the rest of the church in its service. Don’t get caught up on the name, too many people get caught up in the name! The word deacon or διακανος is translated “helper” or “servant” or “minister.” Deacons still exist in the church today. Some congregations leave the word untranslated and call them “deacons.” Other congregations translate the term and call them “ministry leaders” or “ministry servants” or “designated servants.” The church has also been known from its beginning for giving to the poor. At certain times in history, this was a regular part of the worship service. The poor, literally, would walk through the congregation and be given money or food.

In the early 20th century, in America, there was a movement called the Social Gospel Movement. It was largely led by the church. The Salvation Army was born. The YMCA was born. All of these were efforts of Christian people to serve their communities. I recently attended a Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast pre-meeting with Mayor Martin Heines. He shared with a group of Tyler ministers his philosophy of city government. But not just his philosophy, the historic philosophy of this city. He said it is the city’s job to provide basic services—water, trash pickup, road systems, public schools, police protection. It is not the city’s job, he said, to fix all of the social problems or to help the poor. That is the church’s job. I think he is right.

The church has always been centered on service. It’s one of the things that makes the church the church. I think it is important for us to take a “spiritual inventory” every now and then, asking ourselves these questions:
  • How am I encountering God?
  • How am I being renewed?
  • How am I connecting with God’s people?
  • How am I serving?
How is your life of service? You need to ask yourself that question every now and then.

There is a church in Santa Fe, New Mexico: St. Bede’s Episcopal Church. If you were to visit that congregation, you would see an interesting sight. There is a hand-lettered sign that hangs above the only door into the sanctuary. It reads: “Servant’s Entrance.” You cannot enter or leave worship without going through that service entrance! What a great reminder! Those who come into this place and who encounter God, those who are renewed and changed more into His image, those who connect with other like-minded Christ followers, we are first of all servants in this world. May we leave this place with a clear commission from God to open our hands and hearts to bless this community and this world.

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