Re-Forming the Church: Jesus’ Intention? 11.5.17

Matthew 25:31-40:  This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. 500 years ago this week, Martin Luther kicked it off with his 95 complaints against the way the church was operating nailed to the wooden doors of the church, which served as the community bulletin board. Last week we nailed some of our statements of belief to the doors in our church, statements taken from different periods of Christian history. The dates are printed on each statement. You will find words dating from 325 all the way to 1986.
This morning I asked you to consider the church today, jotting down descriptive words that capture today’s church from your perspective. Then you added those words to our doors. Over the next several weeks, we will be exploring together where today’s church might need re-formation by paying close attention to the kind of church Jesus intended. Our primary text will be his teaching about the nations toward the end of Matthew’s gospel…the last teaching before Jesus eats the Passover with his disciples for the last time. I am indebted to Dr. Rodney Sadler, professor of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Charlotte campus, who inspired this sermon series with his week-long Bible study last summer at Massanetta Springs Bible Conference.
Did Jesus even intend for a church to grow out of his efforts to preach good news? What did he have in mind for the future of his disciples and those who would follow them? The only gospel account which even uses the Greek word for church, ekklesia, is Matthew. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ words describe Peter as the rock for his church (ch. 16) and the need to use the power of the congregation in disciplining those who have strayed (ch. 18). There is no list of do’s and don’ts for forming a church. There is no description from Jesus of what the church should look like going forward. It is not really until we read the letters of Paul that we find usage of the word describing the formation of this group of Jesus followers into an institution with norms and standards like any formal gathering of human beings does. Paul talks about the church, addresses the church, shapes the church, teaches the church, but Jesus really doesn’t.
Could it be that Jesus really had in mind more of a movement and less of an institution? Looking back over almost 2000 years of church history, what have we done? How have we stuffed Jesus’ movement into buildings and books of order and budgets? How have we twisted his teachings into membership requirements and ministers and misguided attempts to save the world? What does he really think of the church we have become, divided, splintered, competing with one another for members, for dollars, for time, for recognition?
This is a scary topic to bring up during stewardship season, isn’t it? Here we are, asking each of you to make a commitment of your time and your money to what I like to refer to as Christ’s work through Hunting Ridge for next year. You will be hearing soon from a member of our church, Suzanne Jewell, as she describes how her faith impacts her giving. You will hear from others in the coming weeks, encouraging you to pay close attention to your own commitments to support Christ’s ministry in this place. We are asking you to commit to support salaries of a pastor, a music director, an administrator and a bookkeeper. We are asking you to commit to support the expenses of teaching and caring. We are asking you to commit to funds which leave this building and serve the community around us, the work of our denomination across the country, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. We are asking you to support the church with your financial giving and your time and talents. And I am wondering if we don’t have it all wrong. Did Jesus want a church? Does Jesus want a church? Or did Jesus expect a movement?
That would be a movement of people committed to living justly and rightly, a movement of doers, not sitters. When Jesus describes those on the king’s right hand, those who will be ushered into the kingdom, they are people who have acted justly and rightly, not just people who say the words on Sunday. They are people whose lives fulfilled the words of the prophets like Micah, who said: What does the Lord require from you? To do justice, to embrace faithful love and to walk humbly with your God. They are people who at first seem surprised to be told they have cared for Jesus when they have cared for the vulnerable ones of society: the poor, the sick, the incarcerated, the immigrant.
Jesus stands on the shoulders of the Old Testament prophets who shouted out again and again: it is how you treat the vulnerable among you that matters to God. What about the children? The widows? The poor? The immigrant? Jesus highlights a list of the vulnerable and makes it very clear that the ones who are doing what the king desires are seeing to justice, righting wrongs, ending discrimination. I spent some hours this week at the National Museum of African American History, and continue to be blown away by the repetitive cycle of injustice that has stretched for centuries with regards to people of dark skin. Where has the church been in all of this? Unfortunately, for many years and in many places, the church has been complicit—by not speaking up, we were supporting the status quo. Unfortunately, for many years and in many places, the church has been insular—it is about me and Jesus not about me and Jesus and the world. Unfortunately, for many years and in many places, the church has focused on a charity model instead of a justice model—we give a hand out from a place of privilege instead of a hand up to include a brother or sister. Unfortunately, for many years and in many places, the church has been about self-preservation instead of living the gospel of Jesus.
As the church, filled with centuries of tradition, could it be that we have missed the point? If we were the doers of justice and righteousness all these years, why is the world still in such a sorry condition? Why do we read news stories that make us shake our heads again and again? Why do so many people pass right by our buildings, never giving a thought that they could be a place for them to find hope, to find comfort, to find community?
As the church, we are in need of being re-formed, re-shaped into the vessels God can use to further the Movement which Jesus began. We could think of Jesus as symbolically pounding his ideas on the doors as well—-his message about moving in a direction of justice, in a direction of paying attention to what we do as well as what we believe, in a direction of paying special attention to those on the margins of society, whoever they might be. Jesus is not really coming up with anything new here. God has always had a preferential option for the vulnerable in society, for the overlooked and underserved. God has always had a goal of transforming the world into a kingdom of justice and peace. God has always wanted upright actions and just judgment, for us as individuals as well as for our government at all levels. Jesus is pounding these old ideas on the doors—is it on the doors of our churches today? Is it on the doors of our hearts? I believe it is both. Jesus has started a movement which insists on justice and right relations between human beings, wherever and whoever they are. My prayer is that we will be part of this movement. See you next Sunday. Amen.

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