Sunday, January 22, 2017

One Lord, One Life - 3rd Sunday of Epiphany

Isaiah 9:1-4
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

“The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men and women into Christ … If the Church is not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time [because] God became Man for no other purpose [than to draw peoples to Himself].”  C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


So if the Church is not doing the ONE THING it was established to do, what else is there?  Mr. Lewis said the physical structures, clergy, sermons, even the Bible are all a waste of time if the Church is not solely focused on bringing new disciples into Christ.  What about the many means of grace?  Prayer.  Fasting.  Worship.  Bible study.  The Sacraments.  Same thing.  A waste of time if we have no mind or heart for, or intentions of, making disciples as Jesus commanded … as Jesus requires.

The late Bishop Fulton Sheen, in speaking to the vitality of a married couple’s relationship, once said: “Without God, people only succeed in bringing out the worst in one another … Without a central loyalty, life is unfinished.”   The same may be said of the Church since She is the Bride of Christ.  If the life of the Church is not entirely about The Lord and His work (making disciples), the life of the Church is “unfinished” – still lacking but with room to grow. 

It may also be said if the Church is not entirely about The Lord and His work and has no intentions of ever being so, the life of the Church may be, or already is … “finished”, having never lived into its very identity as the Body of Christ and thus having no life whatsoever … except the life we try to create by our own means and only according to our own preferences.

There is a reason why I’ve not asked you (or any church I’ve served) to align with the Confessing Movement or any other unofficial movement within or outside the United Methodist Church.  As much as I agree with and applaud the efforts of the Confessing Movement and the new Wesleyan Covenant Association, it is still and always necessary to focus on the foundation of our very existence: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). 

So what St. Paul was warning the Church at Corinth about are those divisions that cause any organization to lose focus on the one thing for which an organization – in this case, the church in Corinth - was formed.  In the context of Paul’s time, church membership was as much about looking out for one another as it was about sharing the Gospel and making disciples.  Times were dangerous for disciples of Christ, and those times would only get worse as history reveals.  Having a “sanctuary”, then, in which to find comfort and support and encouragement for spiritual growth was – and is – as much a part of being in the Body of Christ as is making disciples; for it must never be overlooked that only disciples [not a mere ‘believer’] can make disciples.

I am not aware of any preserved writings of Apollos (1 Cor 1:12), but we are aware of the Gospel accounts, Paul’s many letters, and Peter’s letters in addition to the others who make up the whole of the New Testament.  Some of us have a preference for one over another.  It is also not hard to find what may initially seem to be inconsistencies in what we are to believe – especially when we lose sight of our Ultimate Charge to “make disciples”.  Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is proof positive, at least to some of us, that what Paul has written does not always seem to align well with other biblical writings.  Often Paul even seems to contradict himself!

The strangest inconsistency perceived by the reformer Martin Luther was the spiritual comfort and justification he found in Romans while he dismissed the Epistle of James as “an epistle of straw”.  He felt James was too heavy on “works” - never seeming to have understood “faith” and “works” to be two sides of the same coin, both directed to making disciples  – even though James and Paul both wrote essentially the same thing: “Be doers of the Law and not hearers only” (Romans 2:13; James 1:22).  Both upheld the Law (Torah) as the standard of all The Lord’s people, and both taught the need of the Church to continue to “make disciples”.

Each epistle addressed different audiences under different circumstances, and each epistle sought to convey the Message of Christ in a particular way.  Paul seemed to be trying to heal a rift between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome while James’ work seemed directed at a particular audience (perhaps Jewish Christians in Jerusalem) that should have known better than how they were conducting themselves – these in Jerusalem having become much more aligned with social status and personal preference – both of which inevitably lead to conflicts and divisions. 

In Rome and in Jerusalem, it may be said the apostles were trying to coordinate a deliberate effort to remind those Christians that no one has a claim of exclusion or spiritual superiority; in James’ case, certainly no cultural or social superiority.  To both it was still maintained that they had One Thing to do, and they would be unable to do that One Thing if they are constantly fighting among themselves or keeping others out and marginalized by the way they conduct themselves.

So what happens when the Church loses its focus on the One Thing for which it is called and equipped?  We forget altogether.  We are too easily distracted, soon becoming so focused on so many minor things that we overlook or forget altogether the Major Thing.  Once this degradation begins, it is very difficult to slow, nearly impossible to stop. 

Any effort to that end will be met with great resistance by at least a few who have “always done it this way” and will allow a church to burn to the ground rather than to give up an ounce of personal preference.  Then it becomes a matter of who yells the loudest or who gets the most folks on their “side” or who gives the most money.  Then the entire life of the Church becomes about “them”, not The Lord.  And certainly not about the Great Commission.  It becomes entirely about personal preference and “club house” rules neither of which can be maintained with any real biblical integrity.

Yet we must always acknowledge that the essential mission of the Church remains unchanged from even the early period of Jesus’ ministry.  Upon the arrest of the Baptizer, Jesus continued that mission to which St. John had devoted himself, calling upon the all the people – Jews and Gentiles alike – to “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  Never a threat, always an invitation.

From this message of repentance came the call to Peter and his brother Andrew, and then to James and John.  Jesus called out to these fishermen and challenged them to become “fishers of people”.  They “left their nets”, “left their boats”, and even James and John “left their father” to follow Jesus AND to become “fishers of people”.  Both/and … not either/or.  What does this tell us? 

These men, these brothers repented!  That’s what repentance looks like.  They turned from their old lives, from their very livelihoods, from even their families to follow Jesus and commit themselves to His work.  They were not so much “saved” as they were “called” – as we all are!  We commonly associate repentance only with a turning from a life filled with sin and wrong beliefs – and this is certainly part of it – but repentance is so much more.  It is not just what we believe to be the worst among us who are called to repentance!

Repentance does not merely stop doing what is personally and socially destructive nor is repentance only about baptism, a profession of faith, and then going back to the old life.  Repentance is a whole new direction with a strong sense of purpose – a purpose to be fulfilled in this life!  And even if some are a part of a tradition that emphasizes “personal salvation”, we cannot play down Jesus’ direct commandment to the “church” which stood before Him then - and the Church which stands for Him now: “Go and make disciples”, “teach them”, “baptize them” into the New Covenant and the fullness of the Father.  It was never so much about going to church as it has always been about becoming the Church, the very Presence of Christ on earth.

Because “The Lord is our God, The Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4), we have but One Life to live.  We do not “finish” the life we’ve chosen for ourselves, and then move to another once we are dead.  Because The Lord is our only God – and He alone the Author of Life itself! – we have but one Life to live in Him … with one another … for One Purpose.  It is the Life into which we are called by and for the One God who calls us.  This is our God and Father “who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

This is the Life – the Only Life - entrusted to the Holy Church, united in purpose and equipped for cause.  It is the One Life into which we are all invited, the One Life we are called to live fully – and forever.  For it is the Life of Christ Jesus Himself.  Amen.

No comments: