Opening, October 22, 2006 @ Brethren Community Fellowship
Good morning. I'm used to doing Bible Studies, leading Sunday School, and the great advantage of that forum is that “what I'm going to talk about” is already largely decided for me! Openings, I'm not quite so comfortable with, and part of my discomfort is in answering the question: what should I talk about? I tend to answer that question by sharing with you whatever it is I have been thinking about lately. While sometimes this leads to a less focused presentation than I would like (I think about a lot of things) I intend to do that again this morning.
Actually when I gave Tracy a call back this week, what I was thinking about was bricks. I'm in year three of a building project at my house and I'm finally working on the back yard. I've planted grass to replace the weeds and outlined flower beds and poured a patio. I'm busting out a poorly poured sidewalk to replace with pavers and so, when I saw an posting on craigslist advertising a whole stack of bricks for pennies on the dollar, I decided to get them and solve all my project needs at once. I borrowed my Dad's truck, drove out and paid the fellow selling, and started loading. Now in the picture 900 bricks doesn't look like much: just a little 5' by 3' by 3' stack. It should all fit in the back of the truck, no problem!
When I had a little more than half the bricks loaded I was tired. I got out of the bed to take a look at wheels, and sure enough, I was riding pretty low to the ground. I ended up making two trips to load and unload those bricks and spent a total of perhaps 6 hours moving them from point A to B. I did get a little help with this (thanks Daryl), but suffice it to say I've been thinking about bricks a lot this week. My back is still thinking about them. I even brought a sample for you to see this morning – your basic paver, 8” by 4”, about 3 pounds.
I'm sure you're wondering why I'm telling you about bricks. I didn't only think about bricks this week – I've also been thinking about the Church – it's role in our lives as Christians and it's future. I'm coming at this topic from a lot of different angles. I like to read (perhaps addiction is a better term for my relationship to reading) and lately I have been reading about the Church. Some of the material which has prompted my thoughts you may be familiar with: I will cite only two.
George Barna recently released a book about American Christianity. I have some reservations about how Barna defines things and what his biases are, but, consistent with the polls he conducts, Barna points to a decrease in “Bible Believing” Christians and sees a strong trend of believers moving away from the local Church as the focus of their Christian life and into online communities and para-Church groups like Bible study groups or workplace ministries instead.
Certainly as well we have heard a great deal about Ron Luce in relationship to youth and worldview. Again, I have serious reservations about the statistics that he cites (the famous 4% number) but note the general trend away from orthodox, historic Christianity and away from the Church. This trend seems to be noticed by many people – a recent CT article series asked 114 Christian leaders across a broad spectrum of ministers, educators, authors, and ministry leaders about their priorities for the next 50 years. A strikingly consistent response had to do with the ways American culture has shifted around us in ways they saw as detrimental to the life of the Church. Individualism, pluralism, materialism – a lot of 'isms are seen as growing in power in the culture and in the lives of Christians who are part of that culture.
I'm also thinking about this because of conversation I had with my Dad this week. He made one of my brick runs with me and in between loading and unloading the truck we talked about the Church. My Dad was relating to me the conversation he had been having with someone else about the differences between modern evangelicalism and anabaptism.
Those are two large words, neither one capable of easy definition – so I'll give you a couple of definitions based on example. Evangelicals as we commonly use the word refers to Protestant “low-church” Christians who hold to at least a “Mere Christianity” definition of Orthodoxy. I'm being purposely very loose – there are, for instance, Catholic Evangelicals (neither protestant nor low-Church) - but I'm giving you a careless definition because a careful one would take to much time. We here, by this definition, are Evangelicals. So are the folks who go to First Baptist or Calvary Chapel.
Anabaptism I will also define only by example – the Anabaptists were the left wing of the protestant reformation and their heirs include literal descendants like the Mennonites and (spiritually at least) Pietist groups like the Brethren. In that sense at least, we are anabaptists as well as evangelical.
The question my father posed to me in our discussion is “What's the difference between anabaptists and evangelicals?
I've noticed that people in anabaptist groups that we are aquainted with often tend to assume that the difference is mainly in practice – the things that are done or not done. Specifically Biblical issues like nonresistance or divorce come to mind here, but there are also a host of cultural practices that tend to identify members of these groups. I would like to take a different tack here, however, by asserting that the primary difference is that Anabaptists have inherited a theology of the Church. This is the most essential thing.
My conviction, as someone interested in Church history as well as theology, is that it is precisely because of this point that the Church in America feels itself in trouble as it contemplates the next fifty years. It is at this point as well that we here, as a body of Christ, will have to wrestle as we contemplate our own future together.
There is a great temptation, I think, to focus on the 'isms that threaten the Church today and, as always, threaten to separate the next generation. This is appropriate in a limited sort of way – the Church must always stand in opposition to the various 'isms as the forms of idolatry that they are. Unless we have a different focus, however, this will always be a losing battle. We cannot resist the ideologies that surround us merely by identifying them for what they are while immersing ourselves and viewing ourselves primarily in the light of the culture that produces them.
This morning I would like to talk briefly about what it might mean to “have a theology of the Church”. I'd like to look at Scripture just a bit to see how we might more fruitfully stand against the various 'isms that threaten us.
When I say “having a theology of the Church” I mean that I believe the Church is essential to the New Testament depiction of what it means to be a Christian. I'd like to illustrate this by briefly looking at a Scripture that is, in many ways, at the heart of Evangelicalism. Evangelicals (remember: this includes us!) have in part been distinguished by a focus upon evangelism (note the similarity in the words: evangelical has the same root as evangelism). As such, a key Scripture to Evangelicals is the Great Commission:
Matt 28:18-20 18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen.
This Scripture is familiar to everyone and certainly the commission of going is taken seriously by Evangelicals. This includes, I think, us here. We should and do focus on missions – on proclaiming, on going to all the earth.
One of my favorite Christian writers is Dallas Willard. Willard as long noted (and now has a book by the title) the “Great Omission” in the Great Commission. The omission is not something that is missing from the commission, but the something that, too often, we are missing. The Great Commission charges us with the task of making disciples. The audience in this case is Jesus' 11 disciples and so for them, the meaning of “making disciples” is quite clear – they've just had several years of following Christ – of learning to be his disciples. Just in case it needs elaborating, however, Jesus elaborates - “baptizing them ... teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you...”
This is, for most evangelicals, the great omission. We are often not sure what it would mean to make disciples, and many, perhaps most of us, do not deliberately set out to teach people to become followers of Christ by observing all the things He commanded the disciples. Despite its centrality, is it possible we do not understand the Great Commission? If we do not understand what is meant by “disciple”, if we do not intend to teach people to observe the things that Christ observed, is it really possible for us to claim that we intend to follow the Great Commission?
There are many reasons for this confusion; most of them historical I believe. The bottom line, however, is that our ecclesiology, our theology of the Church is dreadfully impoverished to the degree that we have made discipleship, we have made life as a part of the People of God, an optional part of Christianity.
What does it mean to be a Christian? Is it enough that I believe in the doctrine of forensic justification, that I have prayed the sinners prayer, that I understand that I am saved by grace alone? Is it enough to proclaim to others “believe in Jesus and you will go to heaven when you die” as our portrayal of the gospel as evangelicals too often boils down to...
The answer to that question, I am convinced, with all conviction and all sincerity - is “sort of”. And the illustration lies with this brick. Bricks are made – or at least they used to be – by squeezing clay in a mold and then heating it in an oven to a very high temperature. Once it has been fired a brick is a brick and cannot be anything else. It has essentially changed its character – instead of basically mud, it is now a strong building material – durable, unchanging in shape. Stable. Beautiful even, from a certain point of view.
And yet – what is this single brick good for? If I gave it to you Delbert, or Phil, could you make something from this one brick? The purpose of brick making is no more to attain a single brick than the meaning of the Gospel is found in the salvation of a single soul from hell.
Let me be very clear – salvation as a individual concept is a necessary and vital part of what it means to be a Christian. It is the starting point without which all the rest does not make sense. But we should not, and the New Testament does not, stop there. What does God desire to do with the bricks he has made? Turn with me, if you will, to I Peter 2.
1 Peter 2:1-12 1 Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, 2 as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious. 4 Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, "Behold, I lay in Zion A chief cornerstone, elect, precious, And he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame." 7 Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, "The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone," 8 and "A stone of stumbling And a rock of offense." They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed. 9 But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. 11 Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, 12 having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.
I have not left myself a great deal of time to comment on this passage. Notice with me, however, the glorious climax Peter describes as he considers our mission in a corporate sense. He starts from our position as bricks, as spiritual babies, and describes our growth as a process of turning away from who we were and growing through the nourishment of the Word of God. I love the NEB rendering of this passage “Like the new-born infants you are, you must crave for pure milk (spiritual milk I mean), so that you may thrive upon it to your souls’ health. Surely you have tasted that the Lord is good!” Surely we have!
He builds from there upon the analogy of Jesus Christ as the “Living Stone” that is chosen by God and precious to Him. We also, in our position in Christ, are living stones as well. We are bricks, if you will, and with us God desires to build a spiritual house. This is not an innovative analogy – Paul calls us corporately the Temple of God in 1 Corinthians 3, and gives the same extended analogy in Ephesians 2:19-22 where we are no longer strangers and foreigners but fellow citizens, built on the foundation of Apostles and Prophets with Jesus as the chief cornerstone in order to make a temple in which God can dwell.
Peter goes on. Not only, by analogy, are we the stones of the building, we are also the priests who serve in the building to offer sacrifices that are acceptable to God because of Jesus. We are stones together with Jesus who is the Chief Cornerstone – the foundation, the marker of level, the determinant of square.
For those of us who believe and are built with Christ, He is our great strength – “he who believes in Him will not be ashamed”. But for those who do not believe Jesus is a scandalon – an offense, something to trip over rather than something to stand upon.
For those of us who are believers, however, something amazing has happened. We were individually lost, each one of us, but now we are chosen by God, not just as priests together but as his Holy nation, his special people. The language here is among the most precious to me in the Bible - “who once were not a people are now the people of God, who once had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy”
God's purposes do not change. And today, just as in the Old Testament, God still desires a people. Our study of Isaiah together in Sunday School has been most instructive – Why does God want a people? Why does he chastise and the forgive Israel? Why does he restore Israel and keep his promises despite their unfaithfulness and to their benefit. Then as now, God wants a people because He reveals his Own Character through His relationship to His people. His Mercy and Love in providing for them, his Justice in chastising them, his Power in protecting them... God's relationship with His people exists so that He can be revealed as He is, and we are now the inheritors of that relationship.
You should not be content to say “I am a brick”: you should desire to be a part of that Holy Building which reveals the majesty of God. Peter tells us that we are a chosen people so “that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light “ That must be our desire as Christians: to exalt God and proclaim his Praises because we are a part of the People of God as Heirs with Jesus Christ!
This perspective must be internalized for us to the degree that it shapes our identity. Who are we? Peter appeals to us by identifying us a Pilgrims and Sojourners. As a part of God's people – like Israel so often was - we are and must relate to the culture around us as a people just temporarily here. The aims and goals – the ideologies and idols of the culture around us must be as Egypt and Babylon to us. As such our relationship to the culture around us is transformed to the extent that the lost world must Glorify God because of us!
I am convinced that the appeal to forming a world view elucidated by Chuck Colson in the series the youth are going through – the emphasis on rejecting the materialism in both the economic and scientific senses – the call to be transformed in mind – is an appeal and challenge that can only be fully met by being formed as a part of the People of God.
Well. The connection between this brick I brought this morning and the role of the Church in the New Testament is perhaps a tenuous one. But given my obsession this week I feel compelled to leave you thinking about this brick once more... If we see ourselves as the people of God, the 'isms of the culture around us are no longer a concern to us – we are part of a different people and work by different values for a different goal. Our orientation is taken from Christ, our cornerstone, and in Him we are bound together in ways that makes us stronger and more useful than any of us can be individually. If, however, our conception of Christianity limits us to building individual bricks and scattering them about – if the Church, if discipleship is an optional part of what it means to be a follower of Christ, than the winds that blow across our culture will inevitably chill us as well. Our God is a creative God, a builder, and I know that He wishes to build something of us, here in this place that glorifies His name. May our ardent prayer be that we can be a people demonstrating His nature and proclaiming His praises together.