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 number six. 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 exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
- 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 fellowship and service.
- The third great end drew our attention to the maintenance of divine worship, worship being the place where our lives connect with God.
- The fourth session looked at the preservation of the truth, in particular the truth of the gospel.
- The fifth Session looked at the churches responsibility in the public arena.
The Sixth Great End is "The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”
The dove, a representation of the Holy Spirit, is in flight over the earth, carrying an olive branch.
The reference is to Genesis 8:11: "And lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth."
This also speaks of the eighth day of creation, symbolic of God’s grace coming into the world, through the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus Christ.
The light rising behind the earth represents the dawning of God’s kingdom.
We read in Matthew 4:17 that right from the start of His ministry Jesus began to preach that "The kingdom of heaven is near." “Near,” in both English and Greek (eggizo) is an ambiguous word. In English a 'near miss' is something that didn't happen. Yet ones “Nearest and dearest” expresses an emotion embedded in your heart. In Greek the word can mean “joined together,” “just at hand,” or even “approaching”.
So when we speak of exhibiting the Kingdom of heaven to the world, what are we speaking of? Showing the world something that has already arrived, something yet to come, or maybe, something in between?
In our companion book is an essay by Tom Are Jr. titled “Life in the Waiting Room”. He references First Thessalonians 1:1-10.
1 Thessalonians 1:1 Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you. 2 We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord's message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia--your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (1Th 1:1-10 NIV)
In that passage Paul praises the Thessalonians for (v.7) being a “Model” to believers in other places. If you are modeling something you are “exhibiting” it. The exhibit in this case is their perseverance in the faith amid a situation that could easily cause them to despair. One of their faithful aspects is “Waiting” for Jesus to be revealed in all glory. So... we see how they demonstrate that the Kingdom is something that had arrived, something that was a happening, yet something they were waiting for. In that ambiguous sense... the kingdom was near.
In his essay Tom Are Jr. speaks about going on long journeys with kids in the car who keep asking “Are we there yet?” How there is always the sense, in any venture of faith, that you are never quite there, but always traveling. The song “Still haven't found what I'm looking for” by rock band U2 well captures that feeling.
“I believe in the Kingdom Come, then all the colors will bleed into one, but I'm still running. You broke the bonds and You loosed the chains, carried the cross of my shame, I believe it. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for. I still haven't found what I'm looking for.”
Tom Are Jr. compares the Church to a hospital waiting room. He writes “Paul says the church lives in a waiting room. We wait for what God will do next. We wait for the life of Christ to breathe among us. But our waiting is not sitting around. Out waiting is not simply passing time. Beverly Gaventa captures the character of Christian waiting: “To wait is to expect.” The Thessalonians waited. They expected Jesus, who lived and taught and suffered and lives again, to show up among them. They waited for the Son of God to appear among them. This hope is not passive. Hope is not a spectator sport. Hope involves the whole life, the whole heart, the whole being.”
Returning to our banner, it is significant that the dove, the image of the Holy Spirit, is carrying something. In all the other banners the dove is just a lone dove. But in this final banner the dove carries something visible and tangible, an olive branch, that represented the waters had begun to recede and peace was starting to return after the chaos of the flood.
This was not an easy time for Noah and his family. Can you imagine being on the boat and all you can see is sea, sea, sea, sea, and then see more sea? Then a dove turns up. He'd seen a dove before, but a dove with a branch? Been a while! Such a little, insignificant thing. A branch. But it was a sign, it was an 'exhibition of the kingdom of heaven.' It was a breath of peace in a time of waiting.
So we are encouraged to do the little things that show to the world we are waiting. Not sitting it out in despair... but waiting in hope. Tom Are Jr. concludes his essay; “However you think about it... there is nothing our world needs more from the church these days more than this: that we live like a people who still have hope in God's Kingdom. The world needs us to live like a people who know there is something we are waiting for.”
All this talk of kingdom come leads us towards the final book of the 66 books in the Bible, the Book of Revelation, which is precisely where M. Craig Barnes, in his essay “Living under Heaven” takes us. He offers two selections. Rev 21:1-4 & Rev 22:1-5.
Revelation 21:1 Then I saw "a new heaven and a new earth," for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Rev 21:1-4 NIV)
Revelation 22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. (Rev 22:1-5 NIV)
Barnes begins by speaking about the dire situation in which Revelation was written. It was a time of persecution and martyrdom, an age when it looked like “Game Over” for the Christians. John himself is a political prisoner, an exile on the island of Patmos.
During such times it is not unusual for religious folks to come up with predictions about the end of the world. Only takes a drop in the stock market or a an unexpected blizzard in late spring to have some sad clown out there with a placard declaring “You're all doomed, the end is near!”
What is significant about John's vision is that it so overwhelmingly positive. Doom is expressed against all the forces that cheapen and destroy life, war, famine, illness, empire building and other devilish forces that make life hell on earth for some. Vindication is given to those who have suffered for the gospel. Justice comes and people fall down to worship the God, who in Jesus Christ, has fulfilled all His promises.
Revelation is the only book in the whole New Testament that contains the word “Hallelujah”... meaning “Praise God!”... a rather startling phrase to use given John's circumstances. “I'm in exile. The church is being destroyed. We might not make it. Praise God!”
Rather than being a statement about “Game Over” John's revelation is a “Game Changer.” He tells us “This is how it ends. This is how it finishes. This is what we are waiting for. This is what we are working for.” The eradication of a world where nation seeks to dominate nation, a world without war, where healing is more important than fighting, a world where there is enough for all and all have their place and at the center of it all is God. Glorious. Seen like we've never seen. Worshiped ... because this is heaven. Hallelujah. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
Barnes writes: “Here is John's point: if you believe that heaven is waiting up ahead for you, then it is always before you. Heaven exists not just as a future place you go when you die but also as an inspiration for the life you have today. If you believe that Jesus Christ is behind you and ahead of you, then you can certainly believe that he is also above you. This frees you to live under heaven every day of your life. And that will make all the difference in how you live your life. In fact in can make a world of difference.”
He speaks of how many people, in church history, who made a significant difference to the life of the world, were those who fully believed in the reality of the world to come. St Augustine, whose vision of the city of God changed the way nations grew, Martin Luther and John Calvin, who re-formed a church that had lost her way, William Wilberforce and John Newton who started a movement that dismantled the slave trade, Martin Luther King Jr. who tried to teach us to be color blind, Mother Teresa who, through her work in the slums of Calcutta, reminded us that all people, regardless of race. Color or creed, deserve to live and die with dignity.
Barnes concludes... “None of the saints in heaven are there as a reward for a life well lived. They are all there because the grace of God raised them from dead before they died. From the moment of their baptisms they lived as exhibitions of the kingdom of heaven, participating in Christ's wok of bringing heaven to earth... lift up the risen savior so that you too may find a sacred vision for making a world of difference in your corner of the earth beneath heaven.”
It is difficult to read scripture and conclude that God calls to a life of ease. This is not a Yellow Submarine “Where every one of us has all we need.” We are invited to a life of engagement, that will sometimes stretch us beyond what we feel we can endure. We are surely only prepared to do that if we embrace the vision of John, that this life is not all of life. There is something more. There is the kingdom of God. Eternal. Everlasting. But even then... we are human and we doubt and we struggle and we often fail.
Dan Chun's essay, “Do not grow Weary” encourages us to remember that the little olive branch we carry, may not seem to be much, but it can still make a huge difference. That the key is to keep sowing seeds. It's not our job to create the harvest, that is up to God. But unless the seed is sown, there never is a harvest. He directs our thoughts to Galatians 6:7-10.
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Gal 6:7-10 NIV)
Don Chun's particular work is with the International Justice Mission which seeks to rescue children from violent oppression in South Asia, Africa and Latin America. He writes of how not only is this a heart breaking tragedy, it's also heart breaking work in which the odds seemed stacked against them. Poverty, corruption, economics, violence, supply and demand... so many factors mitigate against their success. Long hours needed to be spent in surveillance, preparing legal work, finding people and agencies that can be trusted.
He talks of how – for a price – a police agent may tip off an illegal brothel exploiting children or the owner of a factory employing child labor, right before a raid... and how months of preparation could be written off in a moment. Holding out an olive branch when somebody has a gun ready to shoot the dove is not easy! Yet they carry on. Because the harvest is saving a child who needs to know that God loves them.
He talks of how evil people are depending on good people giving up. Of them growing weary, of them throwing in the towel and being overwhelmed by despair. He writes “Evil bets on good people quitting and saying “Forget it.” So the way to defeat evil is not to quit and not to grow weary in doing good – to keep on keeping on. The way to defeat evil is to persevere in doing good together with a community of encouragers. The church is called to be that community.”
It is through not giving up and not giving in that the church fulfills it's call to exhibit the Kingdom of heaven to the world. It is by consistently sowing seeds and refusing to turn a blind eye that the church, as a community, seeks to change the world into a more heavenly place!
The arena of our personal influence may not be as dramatic as that of the International Justice Mission. Yet we are all called to model Christian living in our place of work, through our family life, within our friendships. None of us are off the hook when it comes to caring!
Recall the words of Protestant pastor Martin Niemoller, who opposed the regime of Hitlers Germany and spent the last 7 years of Nazi rule in concentration camps;
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, - and there was no one left to speak for me.”
He was speaking these words in particular to the church, as he believed that the Protestant Churches, in their failure to speak out against Nazi ideology - were complicit - through their silence - in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution and murder of millions of people. "The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” is not an optional extra but an essential part of the sacred calling of the Church.
The final essay in our book, by Fairfax F Fair, pastor of Highlands Church, Louisville, Kentucky, is titled, appropriately “Exhibiting the Kingdom.” He references Matthew 25:31-40
31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.
32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' 37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' 40 "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' (Mat 25:31-40 NIV)
One of the things he talks about in this sermon is our incentive for doing good. Why do we do what we do? We can do things for many reasons. Out of duty. To get credit. But for Christian people the incentive has to come back to one thing. We love because Christ first loved us. Our incentive for reaching out to others is that God has reached out to us in Christ. Our incentive for healing others is that Christ has healed us. Our incentive for forgiving others is that God has forgiven us in Christ. We are sharing in Christ's work because He has overwhelmed us by His grace... and we respond to grace by grace and with grace.
He writes about small olive branch like actions that we can all engage in; “Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Who here could not give another sandwich, a cup of water, a friendly hello? Jesus is not demanding that we move mountains, or repay the staggering national debt, or find a cure for cancer. Jesus is talking about simple kindnesses that are within the capability of all of us. We can speak respectfully to everyone we meet and even greet them with a smile. We can stop to listen to a child or an older adult. We can make a phone call to someone we miss seeing in worship” (P163).... “We exhibit the kingdom by showing the love of God because it has been shown to us.” (P164)
In ancient Christian numerology the number 8 had a particular significance. 8 was the number of resurrection. Christians met on the 8th day to worship (Of course that was also the first day!) One reason given for the church moving from worshiping on the Jewish Sabbath (the seventh Day) to the day after (the 8th Day), was that they believed that the resurrection was such a momentous event that it changed everything... including their day of gathering together. For a group made up of predominantly Jewish folk, this was a statement that something of seismic proportions had happened, the beginning of a new age, a new covenant... a New Testament and so much more.
This new age that has dawned is not the end of the story. It's the preparation for it. It's the age in which we, in the words of N.T. Wright, are called to “Practicing in the present, tunes we will sing in God's new world.” We are not there yet! We still haven't found what we are looking for. We are called to hold out the olive branch (with the help of the Holy Spirit). We are called to keep sowing seeds and not grow weary in doing good. We are called to be 8th Day Easter people with Hallelujah as our song. We are invited to be so heavenly minded that we will not rest till we see signs that God's will is being done on the earth as it is in heaven. This sixth end... encompasses many of the previous five.
We exhibit the Kingdom of heaven whenever we are faithful to the first end – the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind. The church alone is given the task of proclaiming Jesus Christ. That uniquely, is our responsibility. "Preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:2)
We exhibit the Kingdom of heaven in our communal life as we share together in fellowship and seek to encourage one another in the faith, through both empathy and instruction. That is the second great end; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God. "Take care of my sheep." (John 21:16)
We exhibit the Kingdom of heaven as we gather for worship. It is through worship we open our hearts to the empowering of the Holy Spirit and are equipped for our mission. It is in worship we are reminded that life is not about us, but about God. That third great end; the maintenance of divine worship is essential in fulfilling the two great commandments. It is where we express our love for God and work at the tough task of loving each other. "I will worship the Lord in Hebron." (2 Samuel 15:8)
We exhibit the Kingdom of heaven whenever we uphold the truth of the gospel. In an age where moral absolutes are increasingly challenged we proclaim that there is good and there is evil and by God's help we can discern the difference. Such is our fourth end; The preservation of the truth. "The truth will set you free." (John 8:32)
We exhibit the Kingdom of heaven as we reach out way beyond our walls. We are called together, not to stay in a holy huddle, but, as our mission statement declares, we are growing in faith, because we are called to serve. The promotion of social righteousness is not an optional extra but the way the Kingdom of God impacts the Kingdoms of this world. "Let justice roll on like a river" (Amos 5:24)
Exhibiting the Kingdom of heaven, the sixth great end reminds us that while we are all just passing through God invites us to leave a mark, to leave this world a better place by living our lives faithfully in the light of the love of Jesus Christ and in the strength His Holy Spirit supplies. "The kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matthew 10:7)
So there you have it. The Six Great Ends of the Church. Thanks for traveling with me through these foundational descriptions of the mission and purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ, and in particular that strange little corner of the great church that call themselves Presbyterian (USA).
The Reverend J. Pratt B.D.