He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross.
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now He has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation-- if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of His body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness-- the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
I want to begin this morning by telling you a modern day parable. It’s titled “The Missing who were not Missed.”
A Christian was having a conversation with a non-Christian friend.
“A strange thing happened at church on Sunday. Our minister fell asleep while he was preaching.”
“That is strange!”
“No, that isn’t strange, but he fell asleep in the pulpit, and no one in the congregation noticed it.”
“That is certainly strange.”
“No, that’s not strange either. What is strange is that we didn’t realise what happened. Eventually we all fell asleep as well, and only woke up on Wednesday, but when we finally left the church we found that no one in town had even missed us.”
“That’s not strange at all.”
There is enough truth in that parable to make those of us who love the Church sit up and listen. As the old saying goes, many a true word spoken in jest.
So much of the life of the Church is ingrown and self-centred, with the result that the world on the outside, where masses of people live and die, never misses us when we fail to show up. This call for us to ‘get out of the church’ is not meant to suggest that the Church should be done away with. Of course there is a place for meeting together to pray, worship and minister together, but the Church is really at its most effective when it is being the Church in the world, rather than in a building.
The Bible commentator William Barclay wrote “More people have been brought into the church by the kindness of real Christian love than by all the theological arguments in the world.”
2 Corinthians 5:19 says that “God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ.” It is on Him that we should be modeling the work of the Church. Someone once said that we should move “out of the Church buildings, out of the sanctuary and Sunday school rooms, out of the steady preoccupation with its own machinery and interests. God expects the Church in each generation to get out of the harbour and sail on the open seas of human needs, to get out of the briefing room and head for the battlefield, to give up its place on the sidelines and get in the game.”
Now every Christian knows that. I honestly think you’d be hard-pressed to find a regular Church-goer who would argue that we should batten down the hatches and lock ourselves into the Church to escape the world.
But the call to take the Church out into the world and to be relevant in the world begins to make proper sense when we understand just what the Church really is.
The Church has its roots in the Old Testament, but Jesus brought a new conception to it. The New Testament Church became a new community, a new Israel, based on personal loyalty to Him as the Messiah. Throughout the Gospels we see Him at work creating this new ecclesia, or community. He called people to repent and believe the good news. And as we move into the Epistles – the letters in the New Testament, Jesus’ followers continued the work of the early Church.
But again, what is the Church really? Paul paints a familiar but accurate picture in 1 Corinthians 12. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as He wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don't need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don't need you!’ God has combined the members of the body, so that there should be no division in the body. Its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.”
The human body is a wonderful instrument, with many different parts designed for their particular functions, but its unity and significance is dependent on the personality that dwells within it.
And so it is with the Church. At its best it is the most amazing community, made up of people who have been made new by God’s redeeming grace. And however much the members might bring to this community - its life, the mind, the heart, the soul of the Church - it is Christ who holds it together and uses it to express His purposes and grace to the world. It is Jesus who is at the centre of the Church. It is His presence that makes the Church, not denominations, doctrines or programmes, although those things do have importance in their proper places.
The apostle Paul never merely says that the Church is “a body.” The words “of Christ” are always added. So if we were to paraphrase what Paul writes in the New Testament, we might say “The Church is Christ in the body, that is, it is God acting in history - today, now - in visible, solid form.”
The call for the Church to become involved in the world not only makes sense when we understand what the Church is, but also when we understand just what the world is.
We know John 3:16 very well: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The Bible is an enormous, sweeping love story, and God’s love for the world can be seen from many different viewpoints. A point we often miss in John 3:16 is that while it speaks of the love of God, we tend to overlook just what or whom He loves. We think it is just us that He loves: men, women and children, but there is more.
Theodore Gill was a Presbyterian minister and Bible teacher in America. He once wrote “He made us flesh and blood - whole men, real live, bony, bloody, glandular, hairy human beings, and He put us in a real live, earthy, rocky, watery, substantial world, and He set us to making real live, structural, institutional, political, economic history, and it is all that that He loves. All of that is in the Word in the New Testament. All of this is the world which He loves. All of that is what He lived in. All of that is what He died for. All of that is what He wants back. All of that is what He expects us to reclaim for Him.”
What all of this means is that God is not only concerned about us, but He is concerned about all of His creation, because it is out there in the ‘real world’ where non-believers can see tangible, real results of ministry.
Our worship, our teaching and our fellowship can be of the highest possible quality, but these things only benefit those of us who come to Church regularly. Christian life and action are initiated, envisioned, and inspired in the Church. But they count most when tangible results are seen outside the Church, in the world.
It is of vital importance that something happen to us and in us when we are in a worship service. But being an effective Christian is not merely a matter of letting ourselves and spirits be moved by the Spirit of God. John 3:17 might help us to understand what we should be doing: “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” Christ is the head of the Body, and we are to continue the work begun by Him when He walked on this earth in human form. Remember that the modern Church represents the fullness of Jesus today, so another paraphrase which might help to illustrate the point even better is “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through His Church.”
The incarnation of Jesus was God getting right into the thick of things, and the Church is being true to its mission when it gets right into the thick of things and takes seriously the call to go beyond the walls of the Church building and take the message of God’s redeeming love into the world where people live and work and fight and suffer and die.
I used an example a couple of years ago which you may remember, but it describes very accurately how easily we become distracted from the real purpose of the Church. The Christian author Tony Campolo tells a story in his book ‘It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming’:
A man went on a tour of an oil refinery. The tour guide showed him the various aspects of the refining process and the various departments in which those processes are carried out. At the end of the tour the man asked the guide a simple question. “Where is the shipping department?” The guide responded, “Shipping department? What shipping department?”
The man answered, “I'm looking for the place where all the petrol and oil products in this plant are shipped out for use in the world at large.”
“Oh”, said the tour guide, “you don't understand. All the energy generated in this refinery is used up keeping the refinery going.”
Campolo goes on to say that this story is a good parable of the Church, for most of the wealth and energy generated by the Church is used in keeping the Church going instead of being used to minister to the needs of those within whom the resurrected Christ has chosen to incarnate Himself.
The Bible teaches that God identifies with the poor and the oppressed, and that anybody who loves Him must love them. When Jesus saved us, He saved us for a high and holy purpose. He saved us so that He might use us to meet the needs of others. He saved us so that He might begin to transform His world into the kind of world that He willed for it to be when He created it. When He saved us, He saved us so that we might be conduits through which His love would flow into the lives of the hurting people of the world.
When we realise the purpose of our salvation - when we grasp why it is that Jesus saved us, we will begin to know what our purpose in life is. There will no longer be doubts about what we were meant to be or to accomplish. Through Christ there is a purpose for living.
Of course, the ultimate purpose of our salvation is that we will spend eternity in the presence of God, but until such time, while we are still here, there is work to be done.
Jesus speaks directly about the purpose of the Church in our reading from Matthew 5 today: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
In Revelation 21:22, the apostle John is describing his vision of the New Jerusalem, when he says something which should jump out of the page at us: “I did not see a temple in the city.” What this suggests is that the Church is transitional. It is provisional. It is here to do a job, and the job is in the world. Not the Church for the Church: that is missing the entire point of the work of the Church. The Church is for the world. I heard someone say once that the Church is the only institution which exists for the benefit of its non-members.
I want to remind you of a quote I used on Christmas Day: “When the song of the angels is silent; when the star in the sky is gone; when the kings and princes are home; when the shepherds are again tending their sheep; when the manger is darkened and still; the work of Christmas continues - to find the lost, to heal the broken-hearted, to feed the hungry, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among men, to befriend the lonely, to release the prisoner and to make music in the heart.”
So what about us? What does the Lord have in store for Upper Umgeni in 2013? To be honest, we don’t know the specifics, but what we do know is that the call to us is the same which He has been making to the Church for two thousand years – to be the Church in a lost and dying world.