I want to thank you for giving me the time at the end of July to spend away in a setting like Massanetta Springs. When I am away, I am not available for visits or meetings or planning church activities. And I have noticed that when I am away, life at HRPC goes along just fine! That is the sign of a healthy church. I am grateful because just being in the Shenandoah valley is refreshing for me. Being there with thought provoking preachers and teachers is energizing. Being there with friends from my past is fulfilling. And being there with Hunting Ridge folks is exciting. I love to share a special place with others!
Our conference theme was “Celebrate the Church”. More than one speaker from the pulpit or lectern reminded us that church life as we once knew it is over. John Vest, an evangelism professor at my alma mater, Union Presbyterian Seminary, even suggested that we are entering a post-congregational time. That is a time when congregations gathered in a church building for weekly worship and education are no longer relevant for the world in which we find ourselves. No one sitting in a church building wants to hear that. It is unsettling. We think, what about our traditions? What about our history? What about our programs? What is there to celebrate if we don’t focus on our congregation?
Vest reminded us that we have long been focused on the what and the how of doing church. It is a natural, tried and true way of running an institution. You create a structure, build leadership, call a pastor, plan, implement, evaluate programs and events, and then plan again. We look for the next greatest curriculum that will attract adults. We work hard to create learning opportunities for children and youth at times that work for our families. We spend hours planning for and talking about our music, our worship, our education, our building, our mission near and far. We count on disciples to give of their time and their gifts, and to give of their money to keep the institution going forward.
But WHY? Why are we doing all of these things? When do we stop and take some time to ask ourselves, why? Why do you affiliate with this church family? Why are you here today, or any Sunday? Gone are the days when people came to worship out of habit, or peer pressure, or to look good in front of the boss. You come to worship in 2016 because you choose to come. But why? I hope that at least a part of your answer has to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ and your relationship to it. We claim to be believers in Jesus Christ, people entrusted with job of sharing the gospel message. So let’s go a little deeper. Why does the gospel matter? Why does it matter to you personally? Why should it matter to people on the periphery of the church? To people very, very much on the outside of the church?
This is our question to ponder this morning. In order to tackle it, we first need to reflect on what the gospel is in the first place. I am going to invite some conversation aloud about several questions this morning. First we have to be clear in our own minds: “What is the gospel?” What do you think?
Is it John 3:16? This one verse is quoted everywhere as the gospel in a nutshell. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.” Is the gospel what happened in the past? God sending his son to die on our behalf? Then the good news is that God loves us. That is true. Or is the gospel what is promised for the future? Life eternal with God in heaven? Then the good news is that there is life beyond this one. That is also true.
John Vest pushes the envelope here. He challenged us to see the gospel not only as the past deed of God in Christ nor only as the future promise of God to be with Christ, but also as the present goal of God through Christ for the world. The gospel is not just about me and what happens when I leave this physical body behind. The gospel is about what happens in a world which is clearly not operating the way God intended. The gospel is about changing the ways of the world into the ways of God. Today. Right here. Through you and through me.
Why does the gospel matter to you personally?
Why does the gospel matter for those who do not know it?
The beginning of the gospel of Mark (the good news about Jesus Christ) describes the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry, being baptized by John, publicly identified as the son of God, and then tempted in the wilderness. The first words out of his mouth are these: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” You will note that instead of the traditional “repent and believe the gospel”, the Common English Bible translation focuses on the root meaning of the Greek word for repent as a change of heart and a change of behavior. This is not someone preaching about Jesus. This is Jesus preaching: God’s kingdom is going to be different from the worldly kingdoms we are used to. You can’t keep polluting the earth and water and sky, you can’t keep polluting minds and hearts, you can’t continue to walk in the ways of injustice, violence, abusiveness, and so on. You can’t remain silent about things that truly matter. Jesus’ good news is about change. Changed hearts, changed lives, a changed world. His good news is that we must be transformed so that we can transform the world in which we live. Loving God and loving neighbor do matter. And that is the gospel.
I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on why. It is a whole lot more important than the what or how questions. Why are you a part of this congregation? Why are you here today? Why does the gospel matter? Chew on that for awhile. Continue the conversation with one another. I look forward to continuing the conversation as well. Amen.