Wednesday, February 22, 2017

6 Great Ends 3. The Maintenance of Divine Worship

3. The maintenance of divine worship.

We continue our series that takes a look at 6 historic statements of the purpose of the church that were first proposed at the beginning of the last century and have been a part of the Presbyterian Book of order ever since.

The Six Great Ends of the Church (From the Book of Order F-1.0304)
  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
  • The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
  • The maintenance of divine worship
  • The preservation of the truth
  • The promotion of social righteousness
  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
Today we are taking a look at the third one on the list. As with our previous session I'll be referencing a book edited by Rev. Joseph D. Small “Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church” that contains a number of essays on each of the statements.

The maintenance of divine worship

Our first session, about the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of all humankind, focused on the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. Our second session focused on ways we nurture each other through teaching and service. The third great end draws our attention to another important aspect in our mission. The maintenance of divine worship. 

The dove reminds us that it is the same Holy Spirit that enlivens and interprets the Word, who is present in our worship. The Sacraments have been described as 'enacting' the gospel. They bring the Word to life in ways that we touch, handle, smell, taste and see.

The cup, also known as the chalice, is a reminder of the Trinity, and represents the Lord’s Supper. The three drops of water, represent Baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Within the Presbyterian Church, in common with other Reformed denominations we recognize two sacraments; Baptism and Holy Communion.

The raised arms signify our response to God's love, a response of praise and thanksgiving for the freedom we have in Jesus Christ. We gather together to worship and to open our hearts to God's influence and the empowering of God's Holy Spirit. We gather and hold out our hands to God in order that our hands may be used for the building of God's Kingdom in this world.

Let's begin with a reading.

Exodus 3: 7-12
7 The LORD said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey--the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt." 11 But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" 12 And God said, "I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain." ( NIV)

When we were traveling though the Old Testament section of “The Story” we saw on numerous occasions how God intervened on behalf of God's people to set them free. One of the archetypal stories is that of their delivery from Egypt. Moses tells the Pharaoh, “Let my people Go!” But why? So they can become an independent people and establish their own state and develop their own form of government? Was it all a precursor to the “Declaration of Independence?” Freedom from the grasp of a restricting bureaucracy that taxed them beyond their ability to function as productive citizens?

We easily miss out on the commission to Moses at the end of Exodus 3:12. “ When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” In her essay “House Keeping” Veronica R. Goines writes “Between chapters and 10 of the Book of Exodus, God repeatedly says to Moses: “Tell Pharaoh to let my people go, so they may worship me.” Like a refrain “Let my people go, so they may worship me”. Again and again, “Let my people go, so they may worship me.

At a later date in Solomon's time, worship is a much funded activity... which brought to the community the presence of God, sometimes in awesome ways. 2 Chronicles 5:12-14.“All the Levites who were musicians--Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun and their sons and relatives--stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets. The trumpeters and musicians joined in unison to give praise and thanks to the LORD. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, the singers raised their voices in praise to the LORD and sang: "He is good; his love endures forever." Then the temple of the LORD was filled with the cloud, 1and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple of God. (NIV)

A read through the Book of Psalms is a cursory remind that gathering together to worship is not considered an optional extra for the people of God, but at the heart of their experience of redemption. If you travel through to the final Book in Scripture, Revelation, it is a worship saturated book. God's people rejoice and bask in the presence of their God and their redemption by the Lamb of God. The maintenance of Divine worship is an eternal responsibility directly related to our experience of salvation. The raised arms on the banner signify our response of praise and thanksgiving, the worship of the living God.

That doesn't mean things always go well! A second reading. John 2:13-17

13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father's house into a market!" 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: "Zeal for your house will consume me." ( NIV)

Worship can easily mutate into something it was not meant to be, particularly in times of decline. When there are more pews empty than there are pews that are full, it is incredibly tempting to seek other means of propping up the way we maintain our activity of divine worship. Veronica Goines describes such compromises as being “Fraudulent Sales.”

There are the Grand Opening Sales that entice folks to the newest trends, but peoples commitment wanes as the newness wears thin.
There are the 50 percent off sales, where the price of discipleship is slashed in exchange for warm bodies in the pews.
Of course the buy-one-get-one-free sale assures church goers that they will always receive more than they give.
Nearly everyone loves a swap meet sale, where the church expends its time haggling over items of little or no value.
There are silent auction sales, where nothing is asked of God's people, and as little as possible is given.
And if nothing else gets them through the door, there's always the going out of business sale, where anything and everything goes.” (p.69)

When Jesus cleansed the temple, it was a redemptive act. It was an act of restoring the temple back to what it was meant to be, a place of prayer for all nations. A place where God's presence could be known and people could be set free and empowered for service. The temple was, as Jesus explained when still a young one, “His Father's House.” His action of cleansing the temple reveals that maintaining divine worship is a cause closely aligned with God's intentions for our lives.

In his essay on “Justice and Worship” Mark Labberton uses the prophet Amos to illustrate how worship was not an end in and of itself, but something to empower us for service. That we can easily be consumed by the “How” of worship rather than the “Why” of worship.

Amos 5:18-24
8 Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD! Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light. 19 It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. 20 Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light-- pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness? 21 "I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. 22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! ( NIV)

As a teenager my spiritual journey was informed a lot by the music of the bands I listened to. Their uncompromising sound was often linked to a stark message about searching for freedom and not finding it in a world full of injustice and corruption. As I became involved in a church, the message of Jesus worked it's way into my consciousness. Jesus took things further and I felt here was somebody who offered a liberation that was real. Being raised from the dead seemed to be the ultimate protest against all that cheapened and destroyed life! So I heard the call and became a disciple.

And one of the first things I did was pick up a guitar (plugged in and played louder than was needed) and started expressing my thoughts about how awesome Jesus was, about how people shouldn't be allowed to die of hunger while others had more than they needed, about how materialism was an empty and corrupting influence. I wasn't that surprised when some of my band mates, who didn't share my beliefs, told me to cool it and stop being so pushy about that Jesus stuff.

What did surprise me, was the church folk, who informed me, in no uncertain terms, that a service of worship was not a place where my sort of music was welcome. The message... about Jesus... sure. But that music? Forget it. As Amos said “Away with the noise of your songs!”

In his essay Mark writes “The American Church, for at least the last decade, if not longer, has been involved in what some have called “worship wars”. Worship wars have to do with ferocious topics like whether drums will be permitted in sanctuaries, whether drama will be allowed in a service, if video can be used, or if candles are appropriate.... Believers might think that debates about aesthetics matter with unquestioned ultimacy. If they do, they sit under the judgment of God's word in Amos 5.

Worship Wars” are about the “how” of worship, not the “Why” of worship. My early teenage experience's of “What music was acceptable in the house of God?” and “Who get's to decide that?” were certainly a prelude to an ongoing discussion that has continued and been expressed in different ways and to different degrees in every congregation I have ever served. But the “What” and “How” and “Who” questions I have discovered … are not the important question. The “Why?” of worship is the important question. Why do we consider the maintenance of divine worship a significant end to pursue? Or to simplify it, “Why do we worship?”

We worship God in order that our lives may be changed, in order that the values of God's Kingdom percolate into our personalities and we become agents for positive change in this world. That was Amos's problems with the Hebrews of his day. They turned up for worship. In their droves. And they sang just great and read the scriptures so beautifully and they were ever so generous with their offerings.

But none of it affected the way that they lived. There was such a disconnect between what they professed and what they did that Amos tells them they are being held accountable. That God was not pleased. That the “Day of the Lord” for them was not anything to look forward to, because it would be a day of severe judgment. In God's eyes their “aesthetic, refined” worship stank, their offerings were unacceptable filth, and their music was a cacophony in God's ears.

Mark writes, “What God longs for is the worship of our lives that shows up in righteousness and justice. So forget all the aesthetics; God wants an aesthetic of the heart, not an aesthetic of form.

When we worship we are called to imagine how things could be and should be as God's Kingdom is established “on earth as it is in heaven.” That's why maintaining divine worship is so important. We need a place for God to root God's visions in our hearts. But having imagined it, and envisioned it, we then need to work towards towards it.

Mark talks about William Wilberforce, the late eighteenth century abolitionist, who over a period of fifty-eight years worked at eradicating the slave trade. It seemed impossible. But by imagining what could be done, he managed to do something, that although it reflected the values of God's Kingdom, seemed like it could never be done. “Could that one person who was enslaved, who has a name, who was created and is loved by God, be treated righteously and find life in a world of justice?” And so the movement moved forward.

He closes his essay with the thought that ... “True worship is going to call us to places of tears, not just places of comfort. True worship is going to engage us in something that transforms the world, not just something that resembles our inner psyches.” I recall a visiting preacher beginning his sermon with the words, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then that, fellow Christians, is the whole problem!”

Another reading: Exodus 25:1-2, 8-9. The LORD said to Moses, 2 "Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give.8 "Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. 9 Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you. (NIV)

The idea of worship originates with God's Word. I recall reading an article, obviously not by somebody who thought much of religion, that wondered what God's problem was. What was with this almighty being who could only be satisfied by folk grovelling and bowing down to it? What kind of gross insecurity was being manifest? How is “Worship me and only me or you die!” an incentive to love?

Such thoughts really do grab the wrong end of the stick. God cannot be impoverished either by our worship or lack of worship. Worship does not change God. It changes us. God has no problem being God. We have a problem being God's people. That's why worship has to be a corporate experience. We are invited to love each other. Which means communicating with each other and opening up to one other and sharing experiences together. We are invited to love God. Which requires communicating with God and opening up to God and sharing experiences together with God.

In his essay “A Rendezvous with God” K.C. Ptomey Jr. speaks of how chapter after chapter in the Old Testament talks about the construction and details of the tabernacle and the temple. Why was this meeting place so important? Because that was how God dwelt among the people. God is not far away. God is with us. God has entered into history to interact with God's people who are spiritual, emotional and physical beings. So in worship we touch and taste and listen and sing. We see and we smell and we hear. In some traditions we may even dance and laugh or we may fall down and weep.

Ptomey talks of an idea culled from the Eastern Orthodox church that speaks of how when the church truly worships, heaven comes crashing down to earth. He writes of how the Celtic church had a description of certain holy places, as being “thin places” where eternity seemed to touch daily life and the reality of God's presence became tangible.

At the top of the banner is the Dove, the image of the Holy Spirit, hovering over outstretched hands and bringing light to shine upon the cup that represents the sacraments and life of our church. I think of the words of a hymn written way back in 1434 “Come down O love divine, Seek out this soul of mine, and visit it with thine own ardor glowing; O Comforter draw near, within my heart appear, and kindle it, Your holy flame bestowing

We gather together in the presence of God in order that we may be empowered to do God's work in the world. We need each other because part of that work is demonstrating to the world what loving relationships look like. We need each other because we cannot do this work alone. It's meant to be hard work. “Take up your cross and follow me” is not an invitation to a stroll in the park. We need to be empowered because it is not a work we can do in our own strength but only through the power given to us through the Holy Spirit and with each others mutual support.

Ptomey concludes his essay with this thought “Worship is not a seminar about God; it is an opportunity for a rendezvous with God.

Our final reading focuses us on the cup. Mark 14: 17-26
17 When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18 While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me--one who is eating with me." 19 They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, "Surely you don't mean me?" 20 "It is one of the Twelve," he replied, "one who dips bread into the bowl with me. 21 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born."

22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take it; this is my body." 23 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many," he said to them. 25 "Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." 26 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (NIV)

In her essay “At this table” Deborah Block speaks of how life happens around tables. “As children we eat at tables where we are corrected in our table manners, coached to say grace, told to eat with our mouth closed, taught to say 'Please' and 'Thank you.” As children we play at tables; we learn at tables. As adults we work at tables, we meet at tables; we communicate and negotiate and commit at tables. At tables we break bread and share it and pour out our hearts. We make deals and decisions, sign contracts, lift a glass to commiserate or celebrate our fortune, all at tables. Faith happens around tables... as children of God we eat at the Lord's table.”

Taking a glance at our visual aid:- the cup, also known as the chalice, is a reminder of the Trinity, and represents the Lord’s Supper. The three drops of water, represent Baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Within the Presbyterian Church, in common with other Reformed denominations we recognize two sacraments; Baptism and Holy Communion. We meet for worship around the table and around the font.

Jesus invites us to the table, together. Jesus invites us to baptize people, all people, in His name and to teach them all He has been teaching us. “Therefore 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Mat 28:19-20 NIV).

If there were no other incentive as to why the church should be committed to the maintenance of divine worship, the invitation of our Savior, that we remember Him around a table, and baptize others in His name would be reason enough. But as we've seen there is more to it than that.

We gather together in worship to celebrate that we are set free by the love of Jesus Christ. When something awesome happens the right response is to celebrate! The focal point of our sanctuary is a Cross. We gather to celebrate Christ's death and resurrection as life changing events

We saw how Moses was commanded to let God's people go in order that they could worship. The Westminster confession, a foundation confession of the Presbyterian Church declares humankind's chief end is to “Glorify God, and to enjoy God for ever.”

The tabernacle and temple came into being as a sign that God dwelt with God's people. Our places of worship and times of worship perform a similar function. Worship does not change God. It changes us. We argue about “How” to worship while God invites us to consider “Why” we worship.

Worship can become something it was never meant to be. Jesus cast out the money-changers. Amos reminded that people that worship was designed to move them towards justice. When it failed to do that... it was unacceptable to God.

Worship is designed to be a needed rendezvous with God. A time where heaven is allowed to crash down on earth. A “thin place” where eternity impacts daily life. A place where we are changed by the presence of God's Holy Spirit. A place where in the company of angels and the companionship of saints, we can learn to walk together in the presence of God and bring glory to our Lord Jesus Christ.

All this is encompassed in this third great end of the church “The maintenance of divine worship.”

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

6 Great Ends. 2 Shelter, Nurture and Protection.

2. The Shelter, Nurture and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God

We continue our series that takes a look at 6 historic statements of the purpose of the church that were first proposed at the beginning of the last century and have been a part of the Presbyterian Book of order ever since.

The Six Great Ends of the Church (From the Book of Order F-1.0304)

  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
  • The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
  • The maintenance of divine worship
  • The preservation of the truth
  • The promotion of social righteousness
  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world

Today we are taking a look at the second one on the list. As with our previous session I'll be referencing a book edited by Rev. Joseph D. Small “Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church” that contains a number of essays on each of the statements.

The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God 

The image for this second “Great End,” found on banners and in stained glass, celebrates the unity to which Christ calls us.

The Dove represents the Holy Spirit whose wings are tipped downward offering shelter for God's children.

The triangle of light (some suggest it is like a star... others like a communion cup with a crown) links the work of the Holy Spirit to the nurturing work of the people of God...who seek to build each other up in the faith.

The hands that reach up represent the multi-hued spiritual fellowship of children of God. Jesus commanded His disciples to go into all the world... and the church comprises people of all races who know find their identity in Him.

We saw last time that the only reason the church came into existence was because of the ministry of Jesus Christ. That the church has a unique purpose and responsibility to proclaim the message of God's amazing, saving, grace to the world, both through its words and its actions. That has always been the churches primary purpose. To lift up Jesus Christ to a needy and a lost world. To proclaim the redemption of the cross and the hope of the resurrection.

The world can be a harsh and a hard place. Gospel proclamation causes confrontation. The church needs to be a place where bruised hearts can be re-energized. The church is called to demonstrate in practical ways, through its ministries of care, that God can be trusted. The church has a call to model a new order in which ancient barriers are broken down and where diverse people can sit around a table together, knowing that they, and all who sit with them, are welcome.

Let us consider firstly those multi-hued hands and take a look at a reading from 2 Corinthians 5:14-20.

14 For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.
15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. 16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God.

The first time I ever explored the possibility of being a minister here in the United States was with a congregation in Monroe, Louisiana. It probably wasn't a good sign that the first time I'd ventured into the deep south, it snowed. For a guy just getting off a plane from Wales in January... it really didn't feel that cold... but for those used to warmth, I guess it was a shock to the system.

I noticed that in the area of the hotel there were a lot of African American folks. Being an ignorant Brit, I wandered over to a local store (that in itself quite a challenge – as they seemed to have an aversion to sidewalks in that area of town) and thought I'd ask about the neighborhood. I had not seen a single pub in that area, and I am culturally conditioned to needing a beer, the logical place to go was the liquor store.

I asked the guys behind the counter if they were church folk. One said their aunt was a big church goer. I explained that I was in town because I was meeting with some folks who were looking for a new pastor, but I explained that I was trying to understand how everybody I'd met in the church was white, whilst a lot of folk in the town seemed … well... to be not white. Were racial problems a big issue in their town?

They laughed and explained that most of the time folks got a long pretty darn well. But Sunday mornings were one of the times when the legacy of segregation became most clear. For a couple of hours every Sunday morning, black folks went to black churches, Latino folk to Latino churches and white folk to white churches. I remember thinking how ironic it was, that the one institution in town that was supposed to be all about love and reconciliation, the church of Jesus Christ, was most divided on a Sunday morning!

Of course here in the Presbytery of Baltimore we are not afraid to embrace our diversity. Our Presbytery is a mix of congregations that simply tend to reflect the racial mix of the geographic neighborhoods they are in. Right?

Wrong. At a Presbytery event held on Martin Luther King day, in our small group discussions, Yvonne and I learned that there were African American congregations in Baltimore who felt intimidated by the Presbytery. As people of color, whose churches were not generally in the best economic areas, whose people had not always attained the best educational levels, and whose worship traditions differed from those usually experienced in corporate gatherings of the churches, they felt their voices were not always heard, sometimes not welcomed, and they hesitated or simply stayed away and chose not to participate in the gatherings of the Presbytery.

It doesn't have to be that way. There's an essay in the book titled “The Ministry of Reconciliation” by a Korean pastor Jin S. Kim. Jin S. Kim is pastor of “The Church of All Nations” in Minneapolis. Back in 2004 they were a predominantly Korean congregation. They felt called to be something more. Today they are 30 % Asian, 37% white, 22% black, 10% Latino with folks from 25 nations among their membership.

Part of their history includes historic Shiloh Bethany Presbyterian Church, founded in 1884, (the same year Presbyterian missionaries began their work in Korea). Shiloh was a predominantly white congregation. In 2005 they were facing tough times, saddled with a large building they could not maintain, they prayed God would once more fill their pews. Their prayers coincided with those of Rev. Kim's congregation who were looking for a place to worship. The Church of all Nations at first rented space from them, but as they talked together, they decided to merge... and in the process... the pews were filled once more.

Rev Kim in his essay is keen to stress that their actions were intentional. This didn't just happen. They sought, deliberately to go against the tide, and move beyond cultural expectations to become a community that fulfilled the vision of those multi-hued hands that represent the spiritual fellowship of children of God.

As you may know the PC(USA) has a “Book of Confessions” among it's guiding documents. The most recent document added to the collection is the Confession of Belhar. The Belhar confession arose from the struggles of the church in South Africa to battle apartheid

The confession clearly states, “We believe that Christ's work of reconciliation is made manifest in the Church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another;...that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God.

Kim's essay concludes “Reconciliation is a messy affair. Reconciliation is a costly affair. It is not a “technical rationality” but a “possible impossibility”. The ministry of reconciliation is God's mandate to the church so that the church may be a gift to the world.” The Church is called to be a shining light that model's the spiritual fellowship of ALL God's people. Hence the multi-hued hands. Another reading.... Mark 2:1-12.

Mark 2:1 A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. 2 They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. 3 Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, "Son, your sins are forgiven." 6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" 8 Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking these things? 9 Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins." So he said to the man, 11 "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." 12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!" (NIV)

I'm associating this passage with the image of the Dove representing the Holy Spirit whose wings are tipped downward offering shelter for God's children.

Though our society is saturated with material things people are not happy and often suspect there is more to life than consuming. If you visit Barnes and Noble (or a similar store) and wander into the spirituality section you will discover a whole constellation of resources that attempt to satisfy our spiritual cravings. Everything from healing crystals to place under your pillow to complete life makeovers are on offer for our spiritual satisfaction.

How does the church fit into such a marketplace? In her essay “Starting at the Ends” Christine Chakoian presents the argument that the church is not meant to be a cafe or a venue for consumers, but a place of refuge and shelter. That “Am I getting what I want out of Church?” is the wrong question for us to ask. Not because our needs don't matter but because all of the programs and good causes in the world always fail to meet our deepest hunger. If we come to church like consumers in a store, we will often be disappointed. She writes (P35)...

Instead, God invites us to come here expecting more... to come expecting a real relationship with God. To come, trusting that the Lord can and will feed our deepest hungers. To come expecting, as Isaiah declares, that “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places.” To come and find within these walls nothing less than the 'shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God'

That seems to be what is happening in the story of the paralyzed man. Here is this poor guy, literally flattened by the physical toll on his body. Yet more than that, we discover that he needs to hear from Jesus the words “Your sins are forgiven.” Externally and internally he is desperate.

So are those who are trying to care for him. We don't know the relationship between the man and the stretcher bearers, but they are also desperate. One suspects this is not the first time they have sought help. So committed are they to the notion that Jesus is the One who could help that they find a way around the crowds and start vandalizing the roof of the house in order they can be in His presence.

Chakoian continues “ 'Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee' prayed St Augustine. When we are willing to let God's house become more than a cafe at which we come to graze – when we let it be -“our hearts true home” - then we will find rest for our souls.

She talks of how much of our church life is mirrored in the story. Sometimes we are the carriers. Sometimes we are the one being carried. We reach out into our community. We have programs like “Our Daily Bread” and “Operation Christmas Child.” We try and carry others through when life has knocked them down. But we are also aware that we get knocked down and need each others help to get back up again. We both give and receive.

She concludes “We are hungry, all of us. And often we are lost. But God provides for us a place of healing, a place of belonging, a family of faith in which we discover who we really are, a shelter that welcomes us to find our way home. It is easy I suppose, to take this home, God's house, for granted. It is easy to find ourselves grazing on the programs of the church, to forget why we are here, to lose ourselves in committees and board meetings. It is easy to get distracted from building 'beloved community' where everyone who walks into our doors can feel the 'shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God'. “

There are two essays in the book in this section, “Treasure Seekers” by Jennifer Holz and “Treasure in our hearts” by Rodger Nishioka. In our visual the triangle of light links the work of the Holy Spirit to the nurturing work of the people of God...who seek to build each other up in the faith. I like the way the triangle is gold... like a treasure. That it resembles a golden cup with a golden crown. That it has the symbolism of light, from God, that nurtures and refreshes us.

A couple of Scripture passages are relevant here. Let's look at them both. Firstly Mathew 6:19-24 and Secondly Luke 2: 41-52

19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! 24 "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Mat 6:19-24 NIV)

41 Every year Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it.
44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him.
46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you." 49 "Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them. 51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. (Luk 2:41-52 NIV)

The rich gifts that God bestows upon us through the Holy Spirit nurture our hearts. They truly are treasures from heaven.

Jennifer Holz speaks of how the biblical concept of the heart goes beyond the heart being the center of our affections or focus of our emotions, but is seen as the core of our spiritual life. The heart drives our life, forms our aspirations and moves us forward. So... to love God “with all our heart” is a huge commitment, way beyond just having warm fuzzy feelings about Jesus.

We are told that “We cannot serve both God and money.” Yet we live within in a culture of accumulation. We swallow the lie that we need the next thing or the latest thing or the new thing and when we get it we remain as spiritually hungry as we were before. One of the great gifts that can nurture us in church is being part of a tradition. The knowledge that there are ancient paths and tried ways of living that provide a deep foundation to a fulfilled life. Life is more than things. Life needs relationships and laughter and love!

The 'triangle of light' reminds us that this is the work of God upon our hearts. God works to change us. Our calling is to hear the Word and respond in faith. As we live out God's instruction, we begin to treasure the right things.

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis writes “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you (the heart), the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature.”

Holz concludes her reflections by telling us that “Seeking relationship with God our Father is a quiet, gentle, relational pursuit that is done in the secret places of our hearts, and done today without worrying about tomorrow. It's a day by day, moment by moment, heart shaping movement towards a God who has created us, loves us, knows us and longs to breathe life unto us.” (P43)

Rodger Nishioka reflects on how in the passage about finding her son Jesus in the temple, though initially exasperated and confused by His reply that His parents should have expected Him to be in “His Father's house”, the passage concludes with the statement in verse 51 “His mother treasured all these things in her heart,as she watched Him grow in wisdom and stature over the years.

He points out that to shelter, nurture and provide spiritual fellowship for the children of God is “To Treasure.” That to treasure all the children of God is about engaging each other in conversation, sharing stories of faith, providing opportunities for spiritual growth and praying for and with each other.

He closes his essay be telling of how he asked his youth group to name adults in the congregation who had influenced their spiritual journey. He is rather surprised when one of them names a lady called Mrs. Shelton. A conversation ensues.

You know, Ian, I was surprised that Mrs Shelton is one of your adults. Are you friends?” “Friends! Are you kidding?” he replied incredulously “Dude, she is a mean old lady!” I confessed that is exactly what I thought. But then Ian went on to explain that Mrs. Shelton taught his church school class when he was in third grade. She made them recite memory verses and scolded them when they messed up. But Ian explained that though she was mean, she always called him by name and stopped to talk to him. She also sent him a birthday card every year. I didn't know any of this. Ian said that while she seemed a little mean, he thought she really loved him (Plus he still remembers those bible verses).

That is what treasuring is all about. It is what sheltering and nurturing and spiritual fellowship is all bout. No doubt there are times when we are amazed, astounded and even overwhelmed by our children, our youth, our young adults, middle aged adults and older adults. The mother of our Lord teaches us that the best response is to treasure each other in our hearts so that all children of God know that the one who created them in God's own image, redeemed them through God's only Son, and sustains them through God's Holy Spirit, treasures them in God's own heart forever. May it be so!

The Second Great End “The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God”

We are called to reach out with multi hued hands that offer all people of all places the embrace of Christ's love.

We are called to seek to meet the spiritual hunger of our times, not with fast food, but through genuine encounter. To create an environment where we feel safe to ask questions that nurture our faith and bring us to wholeness. To be a community of healing and forgiveness.

We are called to embrace the notion that to shelter, nurture and provide spiritual fellowship for the children of God means “To Treasure” each other in our hearts.

Next Time... a third end... The maintenance of divine worship .

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

6 Great Ends. 1 The Proclamation of the Gospel

1. The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind

Over a hundred years ago the Presbyterian church in this land was seeking to define what the essentials of it's faith and mission actually were. In 1910 the United Presbyterian Church of North America, following various actions between 1904 and 1910, formulated something that became known as “THE SIX GREAT ENDS OF THE CHURCH.” They have been part of the constitution of our Presbyterian Church, in all it's different varieties ever since and appears as part of our constitution within the Book of Order. They are peculiar Presbyterian and just as relevant now as when they were first proposed.

As we have been going through the “New Beginnings” process, and last year went through “The Story”, this seemed like a good topic to consolidate what we have been learning! So... The Six Great Ends of the Church (From the Book of Order F-1.0304)

The great ends of the church are:
  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
  • The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
  • The maintenance of divine worship
  • The preservation of the truth
  • The promotion of social righteousness
  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
Each of the “Great Ends” has been represented visually through banners, stained glass windows... (maybe even T-Shirts) that we will use during our studies. So onto business... our first great end....

The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind”

In the midst if all the stuff that we do it is never a bad thing to pause and ask ourselves, “Why does the church even exist?” Back that up a little and we could ask, “What was the purpose of the life of Jesus?”
Simply stated Jesus came to bring us a revelation of the Kingdom of God... to reveal to us who God was (and in the process who He was) and how God's love could change everything through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The church exists because we have a dynamic world changing message about a person called Jesus that changes everything! No Jesus. No church. No Jesus. No message. No Jesus. Nothing to say... nothing to proclaim... nothing that we can offer that can be of salvation to anybody or solve anything.

We exist to proclaim the gospel. Of course we do lot's of other things as well, and we proclaim the gospel in many different ways... but the bottom line is we were created by Jesus to proclaim His message of reconciliation and salvation to a world that is lost without it. No other organization has that agenda. It is ours alone.

We find our inspiration for doing that in a couple of places. Firstly (but theses are not in order) we have the Scriptures. Without the Scripture we wouldn't really have any content or message to declare. But scripture alone cannot save us. As we saw in “The Story” our scriptures consist of 66 books that need interpretation and understanding. So secondly we have the living influence Holy Spirit (the very presence of Jesus) to guide us and help us.

At the center of our message... the very symbol of our faith... is the Cross. We proclaim the Christ of the Cross as savior... that what happened at the Cross... was an event of death shattering significance. All of that is contained within this first great end of the Church.... “The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.” This is where visual representations come in handy!

The First Great End

"The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind"

The book represents the Scriptures.

The dove is rising from the Scriptures indicating the source of both the original witness and our present understanding. The same Spirit that inspired the original writers enables us to receive the gospel.

The cross behind the book and dove reminds us that the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ, God with us and for us.

I'll be referencing a book edited by Rev. Joseph D. Small “Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church” that contains a number of essays on each of the statements (but no pictures!) So if you want to go deeper... I highly recommend it.

So let's engage some scripture in our discussion. (This is a bible study after all!) Getting back to reasons why we exist and do what we do... we feel a need to proclaim salvation, because one of our core convictions is that the world as it is... is not the world as it is meant to be. This conviction is not just about the physical world but touches upon every one of us who lives in this world. A passage that speaks to this is Mark 10:17-31.

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18 "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good--except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.' " 20 "Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy." 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 22 At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." 26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?" 27 Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God." 28 Then Peter spoke up, "We have left everything to follow you!" 29 "Truly I tell you," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields--along with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first." (Mar 10:17-31 NIV)

In many ways this is quite a disturbing passage. Here is this guy who outwardly is doing everything right. He recognizes Jesus as good. He has done well for himself and prospered. He has kept the commandments ever since he was a boy. He wasn't a liar. He honored his parents. He was faithful. No doubt, there were those down in the synagogue who thought that his favorable financial fortune was related to the inherent goodness of his life. He is concerned, after all, about eternal things. His question is 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Here is a person who is very, very, like ourselves.

And what do we make of the words of Jesus? We, who are dwellers in the richest nation on earth and lack for nothing? “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" What kind of message is this? Maybe we feel a little offended like the disciples who ask “Then who can be saved?”

We keep proclaiming this message that God is with us and God is for us. Why would Jesus be so down on this guy who seemed to have taken such a message on board and had it all together? I suspect it has something to do with concealment. I say that because the answer Jesus gives the man, exposes something about the man. That maybe his trust in God, was not actually trust in God, but in his own ability to be a godly person. That maybe this person had found his worth, not in God, but in the things he presumed God had blessed him with... and which granted him a level of security and respectability.

There's a place in Wales called Trefeca, the ancestral home of a unique preacher from the time of the Methodist revival in Wales called Howell Harris. One of the most fascinating architectural features is in his sitting room, in that the whole ceiling features a mural of the eye of God. Unblinking. Staring down at you. Wherever you are in the room you cannot avoid glancing upward and feeling somehow exposed. It always raise the question; “Is the eye of God something fearful or something comforting? Is the thought that God sees all, knows all, reveals all, tells all... something that sets us free or something that causes us concern?”

The one sentence, in the conversation between the rich young ruler and Jesus that we can miss, is the very first section of verse 21 “Jesus looked at him and loved him.When we understand that whatever Jesus told this man, was out of love, it changes the conversation. It speaks of the scandal of grace. It reveals to us the complete futility and utter impossibility of earning our inheritance. (A concept Jesus reinforces in parables like that of the prodigal son). We can no more earn favor with God than we can earn our genetic make-up or choose who our parents are.

C.S. Lewis once wrote that there are no such people as ordinary people. Only needy people. That God sees right through every one of us. Yet this passage reminds us that the vision that sees us with unblinking eye, stripping us naked and seeing what we struggle to face... is a loving vision. That Jesus says with God all things are possible.

The salvation of the rich young man was possible. He was not a hopeless case. As you read the gospel accounts of the many encounters with people that the world dismissed as hopeless cases, we realize that with God there are no hopeless cases. Challenging ones. Tricky ones. Impossible ones. Desperate ones. And ones that don't even realize that they are lost!

Jesus looks at them with love and tells us "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” That is the gospel. That's why number one of the great ends of the church is "The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind". We need to let the world know that salvation is possible. Not only possible but necessary. Which brings us to another passage. John 19:16-19, 28-30

16 Finally Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.17 Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others--one on each side and Jesus in the middle. 19 Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:16-19 and 28-30 NIV)

In our banner image the Scripture and the Spirit lead us to the Cross. The question we seek to answer through proclaiming the gospel is “Why did Jesus die?” Movies like Mel Gibson's “The Passion” go to great lengths visualizing “How Jesus died”. But such portrayals do not answer the more pressing question; “Why?”

Traditionally Christian theology has offered many theories. A financial theory. He died to redeem us. A military image. He died to defeat evil. A legal image. He took the penalty of our guilt that we deserve. A sacrificial image. In the book of Hebrews Jesus is both priest and sacrifice. None of these are wrong. But they are all incomplete. None of them get to the heart of the matter that Jesus died because SIN is a BIG deal.

Sin is concealed. Within us. All around us. Pervading our world and our culture and our church and our politics. We don't see it. We don't recognize it. It conceals itself. (As it did with the rich young man in our last passage). It convinces us that it is not really what it is.

The problem with some of the traditional theological images is that they suggest God has a problem with sin. That somehow on the Cross the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were involved in some huge struggle with each other. God v Jesus with the Holy Spirit playing the role of Switzerland.

Yet as Paul often seeks to make clear, on the Cross it is ALL of God against ALL of sin, it is ALL of God acting all for the salvation of humanity. God is not the problem. Sin is the problem. On the Cross we see the loving arms of God stretched wide in a loving embrace. The words from the Cross “It is finished” apply not simply to His own struggle, but refer to God's victory over sin, evil and death. They are defeated. Finished. Vanquished. They are the losers. God is the winner.

Through “proclaiming the gospel for the salvation if humankind” we are inviting people to realign their lives. To choose to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. To deliberately and consciously choose to stand for justice and hope and peace... and against their opposites... even if it costs and it hurts and it is not easy.

We invite people to a lifestyle that is shaped by the Cross. In the words of Heidi Armstrong “A lifestyle marked by authenticity, transparency, love and forgiveness. Isn't that why Jesus died? Not to provide us with a ticket to heaven someday, but to be the key to a new kind of existence now, an existence that proclaims the gospel of salvation with our very lives.” (p16)

We are invited to proclaim the Cross.

Our basis for this message of salvation, looking again at our picture, is the Bible. Another reading . 1 Corinthians 9: 16-18.

16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel. (1Co 9:16-18 NIV)

In his essay on “The Dogma in the Drama,” K. Nicholas Yoda talks about how the bible was not given to us just to satisfy our curiosity, but given that our lives may be changed by it. (P28). He notes that this is not an easy process and talks about Paul's relationship with the Corinthian church.

The Corinthians attack Paul's voice. They don't like the way he speaks. They question his courage. They question his motives. They don't like the way he looks. He counteracts them by inviting them to scrutinize the content of his teaching, to watch the conduct of his life and think about the motive of his message... in terms of... “Why would I even bother dealing with all the stuff you put me through if it wasn't true?

Yoda quotes a sermon by John Newton in which Newton tells his listeners, “I entreat you... receive nothing upon my word any further than I can prove it from the Word of God. And hold every preacher and every sermon that you hear to the same standard.

The measure of our message has to be the Bible.
But how do we proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind?
A wonderful example is given in the account in John 1:43-51 about Nathaniel.

43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, "Follow me." 44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote--Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." 46 "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked. "Come and see," said Philip. 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, "Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit." 48 "How do you know me?" Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you." 49 Then Nathanael declared, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel." 50 Jesus said, "You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that." 51 He then added, "Very truly I tell you, you will see 'heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on' the Son of Man."

John's gospel begins with a great philosophical and theological opening about who Jesus is. 'In the beginning was the Word. … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us... and we beheld His glory!” Having declared His identity John moves on to explain how people get to know Him.

There is no uniform pattern of reaching out. There is no one size fits all. Some just seem to get it. They hear the proclamation. Jesus says to Philip “Follow Me” And Philip follows. But the Philip's seem to be the exception. More of us it seems are like Nathaniel.

Nathaniel is a seeker. Nathaniel needs to ask questions. Nathaniel needs space. Nathaniel needs moments of personal understanding and revelation. Most of all Nathaniel needs to hear the invitation... “Come and See!”

So this tells us something about the way we are called to proclaim.

Firstly, there needs to be the clear invitation for people to become follows of Jesus Christ. That gets the “Philips” to follow.

But there are the Nathaniel's who will say, in the face of our proclamation “Bah. Can anything good come out of Nazareth” (For Nazareth substitute negative thoughts of your own devising.)

So we say... “Well. Just come and see. Think about it”.

And we have to trust that those who seek will encounter Jesus.
Nathaniel is pictured under a fig tree, a traditional image for a place of thought and consideration.
We have to trust that Jesus knows how to deal with people we ask to “Come and See”.

He does.

Our task? “Out of love for for neighbors and in obedience to the Lord's command, stating our convictions about the savior and then graciously inviting others to 'Come and See' ” (P9)

The first of the Six Great Ends of the Church. "The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind"

As we consider the future, a question to ask as a church would be “How much of our programming aligns with that core purpose?” Yet we need to go deeper than that. We need to ask, “How much of our lives are aligned with that purpose? How much dies that statement define our relationship and hopes for our church?”

But don't panic... it's only one of six. 5 more are on their way!

To recap.

The first great end is "The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind"

The churches unique role is proclaiming the good news about Jesus Christ. That Jesus is the Savior. That is nothing is impossible with God. That evil is a reality that can be defeated by faith in what God has done in Christ at the Cross. That with God there is hope and healing for humankind.

We do this in many ways. By being faithful to our foundational documents we find in the Scripture. By recognizing that we cannot do this alone, but in partnership with God, whose Holy Spirit both interprets God's Word to our hearts and empowers us to be Kingdom people. We invite others to “Come and See” and create opportunities for them to question, to reflect and to respond.

And next time... Number 2 “The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God”

Rev Adrian J. Pratt B.D.