Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Six 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.

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