Bruce Van Blair
October 26, 2014
II Corinthians 4:1-5:1
LIFE IN THE LOCAL CHURCH
We are a community – and more than that, a faith community. What any of us faces affects us all. When you stop to think of what that includes – in all our personal and professional spheres, with all our relatives and interests and friends – by the time you put even this small congregation together, we are looking at quite an array of challenges, fears, and opportunities. In a game of chess, thirty-two pieces start out in ordered rows. Moving only one piece at a time, in ten moves there are such endless possibilities that the game never loses its fascination. And two hundred and ten of us – though we never start out in ordered rows – are making far more than ten moves every day. We never need to worry about whether or not we are having an impact. The only question is: What kind of an impact are we having? I thought it might be a good time to remind ourselves why we are here.
Jesus gives us this teaching about the eye being the lamp of the body. Can you reach out and touch the right shoulder of the person sitting in front of you? What guides your hand? Constantly, though we are seldom even conscious of it, the eye lights up the world for us so that we know where to put our feet, where to find things, how to accomplish all manner of tasks. In similar fashion, Jesus seems to be telling us: if your soul does not connect with God, you don’t know where to find anything or what to do with your days, and your life is lived in darkness. I thought it might be a good time to remember why we are here.
One of the things that most mystifies me about the Christian church in our time is the way its central dynamic has become so elusive for so many people. We live in a culture where some people are actually bored with Christianity and the church, or at least with what they think are Christianity and the church. Processes, procedures, and structures have become so familiar that, in many ways and places, they have taken over and obscured that which they exist to serve. I hope we have not forgotten. “Institutions exist for the painless extinction of the ideas which gave them birth.” (An old Quaker saying.) Institutions and organizations are also necessary for effective survival in the physical world. Therefore, our only hope is constant renewal. We must keep cutting behind what we do and how we do it, and keep getting back to the Source and inspiration for who we are and what we are about. I thought it might be a good time to remember why we are here.
Can you agree with me if I say: WE ARE NOT HERE TO PROMOTE AN ORGANIZATION – WE ARE HERE TO LIVE A LIFE. I can make that more accurate: We are not in the church to promote an organization – we are the church because we want to live the Christian Life. In our denomination, we, as a local church, own and are responsible for every part of this church’s life. Nobody stands between us and what we think the church should be – except us. I like that very much. Some days it nearly scares me to death, but I still like it very much. Yet I have noticed over the years that sometimes when we meet in boards or committees or gather in congregational meetings, we start talking as if our primary concern were to promote an organization. No, no, no, no. We do not join the church to make it big or famous. It exists to help us live THE LIFE. Only because we care about THE LIFE do we pay any attention at all to the organization. So of course we deal with budgets, elect officers, and talk about programs. But what matters is that we all walk out of the meetings TO LIVE THE LIFE. Otherwise, the whole body is still in darkness, even if we are endowed with a billion dollars and people flock to us from miles around. (Well, people come to us from miles around, but I wouldn’t exactly say “they flock.”)
Jesus Christ came to free us from sin, death, and the Devil – and Luther always added “and the Law.” Are you remembering that the real reason for what we do here is “You getting freed to be who God really made you to be”? Is the love of God in Christ still freeing you from your fears, showing you evil and temptation in a truer light, giving you an allegiance to Christ that is stronger than any allegiance you have to anything or anyone here on earth – so that day by day your mind and your heart and your soul and your schedule are being shaped by a different reality? By the way, sometimes we are troubled – not in overt disagreement, but troubled – to remember that God comes before a mate, our children, a truly dear friend, or our work. It is not the big point, but part of this higher allegiance also protects the mate, the children, the friends. Do you remember that? Would you want somebody living for you completely? Some of you have learned the hard way what an impossible burden and bind that is.
Toward the end of Paul’s third missionary journey, he was collecting an offering to take to Jerusalem. It was an exciting project. There had been a famine in the Jerusalem area. It was politically and emotionally interesting to contemplate the impact of the Gentile Christians being so dramatically generous and coming to the aid of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, where the leadership had often been strongly opposed to allowing Gentiles into the church in the first place. Beyond that, it was doubtless a genuine expression of Christian love in action – Christians, in the name of Jesus, showing love for one another across all the lines of culture, language, distance, and disagreement. What a fabulous idea! We should try it again sometime.
So we hear snatches of Paul’s enthusiasm and efforts to make this offering a reality. As we all know, such things do not happen without somebody organizing it and doing lots of follow-up and follow-through, and we can see that happening throughout some of Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts. But if you think Paul was starting Christian churches and all the time thinking, in the back of his mind, how great it would be to “take up that offering,” you are missing the real drama. If you think that it was “taking up that offering” that was inspiring the first-century world to embrace the Christian Life, you are missing the real power of what was happening. As the Christian movement caught hold, people by the thousands were risking the rejection of family and clan to become Christians; this was an even more threatening prospect then than now, we suspect. They were risking their professional success and even their survival. They were, in many cases, taking a chance on arrest, persecution, even execution. In every case, they were inviting the personal turmoil of having to change and rework their entire value system and behavior patterns – a thing we know humans hate, sometimes even more than physical suffering.
But this great, dynamic movement that was changing the lives of so many people was not being inspired by the wondrous opportunity to send an offering to the Jerusalem church. No doubt that offering did reflect some small glint from the light that was changing people’s lives. But it was a very minor side effect to what was happening. Why am I haranguing you about this obvious point? Well, to many people today, it is no longer obvious. They think the church’s main reason for existing is to take up offerings, to help the poor, to organize charity projects, to improve the social or political affairs of the world. If we turn a minor side effect into the main event – into the main purpose of the whole show – then we also begin to lose what really matters. And inevitably, we become too weak and debilitated to even do the side effects of charity any longer.
So we are always struggling with what we mean by LIVING THE LIFE. The great aberration of our time is that so many people are saying – even teaching and preaching – that LIVING THE LIFE means we have “decided to be loving.” Can you not smell the PRIDE in that? We will now “love others” to show how great the Message is, how great the church is, how great we are. (“How great we are. Then sings my ego ...”) Pretty soon, we don’t even need God; we just need to “be loving.” People are saying that everywhere: in print, in sermons, in speeches, in casual conversations. It is about “love your neighbor,” and all the rest are the trappings and not really essential – including God, Jesus, the Cross, the Resurrection, conversion, commitment, community, prayer, or the Bible.
LIVING THE LIFE is not about us being loving. It is about us being obedient to the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is about us no longer living for ourselves but for God, via this Holy Spirit. God happens to be loving, so this obedience keeps getting us into love. And always this experience of obedience to the real Source of love keeps changing our definitions of love. But us “loving our neighbors” our way is not the Christian Life. It is about as close to Christendom as a one-night stand is to a golden wedding anniversary.
Naturally, humans keep wanting to neglect or forget the part about transformation, conversion, being born anew. It’s hard to face the magnitude of our need or admit the necessity of salvation. But whenever we turn away from being a fellowship of sinners and turn toward being an organization of do-gooders, we are in grave danger of losing everything we stand for – and our souls in the bargain. When we see ourselves as the “good guys” helping others instead of as the repentant and grateful sinners for whom Christ died – and whom the Holy Spirit of the Living Christ is still redeeming – then we are moving toward the loss of everything. Whenever we see ourselves as strong enough to help others instead of as humble enough to invite others to come partake of the same nurturing that God is offering us, then we have lost touch with the only power that can help them – or us. We do not have the power; we only know who does. (“Christ Jesus it is he, Lord Sabaoth his name, from age to age the same, and he must win the battle.”) Any time any of you want to take on Satan without Him, I hope you will let me know a day or so ahead of time so I will have time to run.
Jesus Christ frees us from being dominated by other people, from being dominated by earthly institutions, from living as slaves to worldly success or values. In the old language: He bought us off with blood more precious than any earthly reality or relationship. For those who struggle with the old language: He loves us so much that we end up responding to that love with our own love in return. And that causes a break in all old allegiances and sets up a whole string of new loyalties, all of them higher than any of the old ones. But the modern church keeps wanting to move off of His love and onto ours, and that only ends up showing how puny our love is until it is touched by His.
Jesus did not kill or change or fight off any of the old tyranny. He did not cancel any of the old fears. He simply said: “Don’t live for them anymore. Come live in a new Kingdom and serve a new King, beginning right now. Don’t wait until you deserve it. Don’t worry if it is safe. If you really want it, just do it – make the change of allegiance now.” That was what was turning the world upside down. People stopped living for their mothers-in-law; they stopped living for their employers; they stopped living for the Roman Empire, the Jewish Nation, or their own inner desires or will for power; they stopped living for the traditions, the clans, or whatever or whoever had them “held” in the patterns and fears of earthly life as they knew it. And they took a chance that Jesus was true and right about God. Then, out of whatever circumstance or situation they found themselves in, the only desire or goal became to please God.
Some people get tired – I mean weary unto death – of being slaves to their own passions or to the passions of others, of being controlled by their own fears or the fears of others. And so they start following Jesus instead. They want out of the old life! They want into the New Life in Christ Jesus.
When Jesus went to the Cross in preference to turning away from His allegiance to His God, they knew that He was not kidding about what He had said and showed them. It looked like the end of a lovely dream. But when He started appearing and speaking in their minds from beyond the grave, the tiny movement exploded across the known world. And that mystery of prayer – the speaking in the mind from beyond the grave, what the church has always called “receiving the Holy Spirit” – has gone on changing the lives of countless millions of people ever since.
The first act every Christian has to learn is not how to love your neighbor but how to thumb your nose at death, and at everything or anyone who threatens it on any level. You do not start out with a Ph.D. and work your way back to kindergarten. The first act every Christian has to learn is how to thumb your nose at death. It is called “baptism.” You join the Christian Faith by accepting your earthly death – by drowning: by going under the waters and being raised out of the waters by the power of Another for whom you will live for the rest of eternity. Your life is over – the one you controlled and managed. It drowned in the waters. So you have nothing left to lose. You are free at last. And a New Life in Christ Jesus has begun, through no fault or power of your own. A New Life – a truer you – with far less fear and with endless potential. And a relationship with the Christ wherein you design all things together. No matter what anybody tells you, that is different from giving a few bucks to help the poor. It is different from saving the whales or working for political peace on earth. Christianity is not about what we do for others. It is about what God in Christ does for us – and the relationship that forms between us and God as a result of that. Then how we treat others starts changing because we cannot help it – not because it is a rule or a duty or somebody said we’re supposed to.
Now, it is one thing to stack a few words together, and it is quite another to let such perceptions and awareness seep into our souls, our wills, our schedules, and the way we do everything that we do. It is the life of the local church to be a support group (family) to people who know these things on some level and who want very much to live by them on a daily basis. The local church has no other higher purpose, no other more important function.
Every individual member within the local church is supposed to be busy with the business of the Kingdom on a personal basis: dealing with inner issues of faith and fear; trust and surrender; freedom to serve God only; prayer, repentance, forgiveness, grace, hope. It is a strenuous, wondrous, lifelong task to keep letting the love of Christ rework and renew us – to keep letting the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ guide and direct us.
So that is what we are about, and that is all we are about. And the only lasting, genuine help we have to offer anybody is an invitation to come be about these same things with us – the New Life in Christ, and freedom from anything or anyone who would take precedence over it.
We are not here to promote an organization. We are here TO LIVE A LIFE.
Copyright 2014 by Bruce Van Blair. All rights reserved.