God Calls Us: the Church

2 Corinthians 4 (Testify, week 7)




We are coming to the end of our exploration of the UCC’s statement of faith, this campfire that lights the center of our community. We have considered who God is, the eternal Spirit who is present and active in our world. We have considered what God wants: to rescue and heal us, to give us victory over sin, to lead us down the right path, the path that leads to shalom, peace and salvation for all of creation. We have considered how God does that: by coming to us in the person of Jesus, revealing exactly what God’s love is like, suffering the full weight of the evil of the world, and overcoming it in resurrection. Last week, we considered what the Holy Spirit does: binds us together, all of us, gathering our variety of differences into one dazzling bouquet for God’s glory, giving us the creativity and the courage to be the church in our time and place. And this morning we consider what is the church. What is the purpose of the church? 

Let’s hear the whole statement together again:

We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, who is made known to us in Jesus our brother, and to whose deeds we testify:

God calls the worlds into being, creates humankind in the divine image, and sets before us the ways of life and death.

God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.

God judges all humanity and all nations by that will of righteousness declared through prophets and apostles.

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord,God has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the whole creation to its Creator.

God bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.

God calls us into the church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be servants in the service of the whole human family, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.

So, last week: the Holy Spirit creates and renews the Church. This week: God calls us into the church. God calls us into something that already exists and that expands as God calls us into it. The Church. Capital C. Not Zion. Not the UCC, not the American Church, not even the Protestant Church. But the Church. Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, progressives, conservatives, those who baptize by sprinkling babies and those who baptize by dunking grownups, those whose communion table is open and those whose communion table is closed, those who play pipe organs, those who play electric guitars, and those who only sing a cappella, and all the many many many ways that we understand the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. The Church. All of us together. The people we agree with and the people we don’t agree with. The Church. All of us together, as one, bound together as Christ’s body, whether we like it or not. The Church. What the heck is it for?

I have to admit to you, I’ve struggled with this. The statement is very clear. We together The Church are to be servants in service to the whole human family, to proclaim the gospel and resist the power of evil. That’s the part you probably want me to talk about. But that’s the part that’s bothering me because that part is so subjective. HOW are we to be servants? HOW do we proclaim the gospel? HOW do we resist the power of evil? If I stand up here this morning and answer those three questions in a very specific way, I will be doing exactly what the statement is NOT designed to do. Remember, this statement is designed to make room. And if I stand up here and say, “Here are the things you need to do to be a servant. Here are the right words to use for proclaiming the gospel. Here is what is evil in the world and how to resist it.” If I do that, then I will be limiting your own holy imaginations and the way that the Holy Spirit may be whispering (or shouting!) to you to do something completely different from what I said. Because what we don’t like to admit is that there are many faithful ways to serve, many faithful ways to proclaim, many faithful ways to resist evil. And some of them look very different from each other. 

In this time in our history especially, we want our ways to be recognized as the right way. If everyone would just do what we think is the right thing to do, then everything would be fine. Honestly that’s what we think. That’s what I think. Vote like me. Think like me. Buy like me. Pray like me. Understand Jesus like me. And we’ll be fine. The hardest thing about being called into the church is admitting that grown up Christians who love Jesus are going to make different choices. Which we say is fine, until it’s the choice we don’t want them to make. And then we are mad. I am.

So. Let me tell you what I’ve been thinking about this week instead. I’ve been thinking about the other parts of this section. God calls us into the church to accept the cost of discipleship. God calls us into the church to join Christ in his passion. Those are not things progressive Christians like to hear. We want to hear the other parts, that God calls us to accept the joy of discipleship and join Christ in his victory. And with good reason. Maybe you grew up hearing a lot about the cost and the passion and not enough about the joy and the victory. But can we please not just switch sides. Can we not just make the same mistakes on the other side of the theological aisle. Can we be honest, and humble, and try to find the balance?

In 1945, one of the millions of people executed by the Nazis was a German pastor named Dietrich Bonhöeffer. Some of you have heard of him. He was only 39, younger than I am, but older than Jesus, same age as Dr. King when he was executed. This 39 year old pastor, who was a leader in the Confessing Church, which were the Christians who resisted allegiance to Hitler, this young pastor who led a renegade seminary, this young pastor who was a double agent, went calmly to his death, spending his last hours encouraging other prisoners. We know his name and his story in part because before he died, he wrote several books. One is called The Cost of Discipleship, in which he talks about the difference between cheap grace and costly grace. He says, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. It is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without contrition. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

“Costly grace,” on the other hand, “is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a person will gladly go and sell all that they have. … It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves their nets and follows Him. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a person their life, and it is grace because it gives us our only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. … Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. … We poured forth endless streams of grace. But the call to follow Jesus was hardly ever heard.” God calls us into the church to accept the cost and the joy of discipleship. This is not simply a social club. This is a training ground for people who want to be serious about following Jesus to change the world. In whatever way the Holy Spirit leads you to do that. A true acceptance of the grace we have received compels us to discipleship. Jesus promises us abundant life, but he doesn’t promise that it will be easy. Easy is not the same as abundant. 

I think I’m feeling so serious about this because I’m so exhausted by the world. I know it’s my job to be the hopeful one, and as a general rule, I am. But does anyone else feel like we can’t catch a break? I mean, we have it really good here, compared to Haiti and Afghanistan, and I’m still worn out. And discouraged. And resentful. And sad. And you know what? I don’t think God is disappointed in me for that. And I’m not afraid to tell you that sometimes I feel this way. Because this morning’s section also says that God calls us into the church to join Christ in his passion. Part of what we are supposed to do as the body of Christ is to be vulnerably together in our suffering. 

See, the American church does an incredibly poor job of this. In the 250 years that we’ve been building this country, we have confused the gospel of Jesus Christ with the American dream. If we read the gospels and the letters of the New Testament, nobody promises us an easy life. Nobody promises that we will have it better than our parents did, or even better than we ourselves did five years ago. Nobody promises us health and wealth. Nobody promises us that we will always get the victory over everything that troubles us individually. Nobody promises us that things are always going to go well. 

In fact, what we are promised over and over again is that we are going to suffer. The gospel of John, Jesus says, “In this world you will face suffering. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” What we find over and over again is that our suffering is an opportunity for us to draw closer to Christ, to be conformed ever more into his image. And we know that’s true, because we do not experience tremendous personal growth in the easy times of life, do we? We grow when things are hard. Plants grow in, shall we say, fertilizer. God calls us into the church to join Christ in his passion, to be people who face suffering with steadfast hearts, who cling to Jesus in those moments, trusting that, like Peter walking on the water, if we are clutching Jesus’ hand, we will not be pulled under the waves. 

And how do we do that? Well, friends, we do it in the Church. We do it in community. I know, we are Americans so we want to do it alone. Anybody ever have a toddler that said, “I can do it myself.” But honestly, we can’t. God calls us, together, into the church, to all of us together accept the cost of discipleship and join Christ in his passion. Together, as one, drawing support when we need it, which means we have to admit that we need it. Offering support when we feel least like we have anything left in the tank. Showing up, not just for ourselves, but because our presence makes a difference for someone else. Getting through the hard stuff. Together.

Because together is where the magic happens. Together is where the Spirit shows up. We said it this morning in our gathering prayer: where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, he is with us. Together, because we are willing to accept the cost of discipleship, together we will also experience the joy. Together, because we are willing to join Christ in his passion, we will also experience his victory. As we share in is baptism and eat at his table, not in a moment of private devotion but in an act of corporate worship, as we share in his baptism and eat at his table, as we sing, as we pray, as we listen to one another and the Holy Spirit, together, we will become the Church, servants in service to the whole human family, proclaiming the gospel, and resisting the powers of evil. Together. Amen.

This morning as our time of reflection, I want to share with you the scripture that I have been pondering all week. I didn’t know why I felt so drawn to it until Friday morning when I got some bad news. One more thing I was looking forward to, moved to online because of the Delta variant. And I was just done. But as I sat in the back pew of the sanctuary, where Peg O’Brien sat, as I sat there and cried, as I leaned into that suffering, asking Jesus to meet me and help me, I received this sermon. All the pieces I had been pondering, Bonhöeffer and this scripture, and not talking about service, it all made sense. Maybe I’m just preaching to myself this morning; it’s possible. But I trust that this is the word for all of us together this morning. So, in this moment, I invite you to take a deep breath. To find a place of serenity in your body. Stand up if you need to. Lie down on the ground. Hold somebody’s hand. Let go of somebody’s hand. We don’t care. Unclench your jaw. Drop your shoulders down from your ears. Open your hands. Put your feet flat down and be grounded into the earth. Take a deep breath. You may want to close your eyes to block out distractions or you may want to look up into the tree. Let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the Word and wisdom of God, and then we’ll just be quiet for a minute. 

Therefore, having this ministry, [the ministry of the church], by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every person’s  conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that this extraordinary power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

Since we have the same spirit of faith as the one who wrote, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we too believe, and so we speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

2 Corinthians 4 (Revised Standard Version)

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God. 

Amen. Amen. Amen.

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