22 November 2011

SERMON TEXT: Christ's Church in Transition: Moving Beyond People and Place

One of the topics we cover in our Confirmation Class each year is "What is a Christian?" We often answer that question in one of two ways. We say the church is the people of God or we say the church is the facilities where the people of God gather. According to modern theologian Jurgen Moltmann, there is third way of viewing the church. The church is the body of Christ. It sounds esoteric but it has practical implications. You will learn more about his view of the church today and how it changes everything. Now let us turn our attention to the reading and hearing of God's word to us today, from Ephesians 1:15-23.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

When I was a child we would drive an hour in our brown station wagon to go to Grandaddy's house on Thanksgiving Day. When we arrived there were many cousins, aunts, uncles, dogs, cows, chickens, squirrels and crickets on my grandaddy's farm. The food would fill a three big tables to overflowing. Grannie's chicken and dumplings were always a big hit and her black bottom pie for dessert was unstoppable. Before lunch the women would be preparing the table while the men sat in the living room and watch the Dallas Cowboys play the Detroit Tigers. No one cared who won the game. There was not much small talk. Just an occasional, "Look at him go!" Or "Did you see that?!"
After lunch the men would get their guns and go tromping off into the deeply wooded forest in search of squirrels. A couple of squirrel dogs would be set loose to tree squirrels and let us know where to look. I felt proud to be walking with this group of cousins and uncles. One Thanksgiving Day when we were walking through the deep woods I saw large pieces of tin that had flown off the chicken house miles away and wrapped themselves around an oak tree. Other trees had fallen there where a tornado had touched the group. The power of that tornado on display made a big impression on me.
We Christians tend to think of the church as being the hunters in the woods or the trees themselves. But really, in this analogy, the church is to be found in the tornado. Gods Holy Spirit gives life like the very air we breath. Sometimes that air is stirred up into an overwhelming storm that causes destruction wherever it touches down. Yet that power that caused the damage in that storm is often only evident in retrospect. So it is in the church. We come to this sanctuary and see the evidence that God has been here before. Yet we have lost contact with the power of God which is the very church. So Moltmann would say the Church exists in the power of the Spirit. Wherever the Spirit of Jesus is moving, there is the church. So let's never get puffed up thinking that WE are the church. We are NOT the church. This building is not the church. The power of the Holy Spirit is the church.
Just like that forest that was damaged by a tornado, so you've been through tough times that changed the way you viewed the world. That is what the church is going through now. This is nothing new. Israel went through a transition in how they viewed themselves after they were exiled into foreign countries. The Old Testament prophets helped Israel understand God in a new way in that time of transition. Today, in this time of transition for the church we have theologians who are leading the way in helping the church re-imagine who we are and who God is during this time of transition and decline. One such theologian is Jurgen Moltmann. His book, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, shares his understanding of the church.
Jesus said God's kingdom is not of this world. Moltmann says the church is not of this world. The power at work in the church is the power of God that raised Christ from the dead and exalted him to heavenly places. Do you see what this shift does? It changes the question for the church. We no longer question why the church as an institution is losing influence in society. Instead, we wonder how we can get ourselves into alignment with Christ because Christ is the church. That is what we mean when we say the church is "the body of Christ." We know what happened to the body of Christ. The body of Christ was ripped and torn and crucified on the cross. So the present decline of the church becomes a symbol of the suffering Christ bore in his own body. Moltmann's view helps us reconstruct our image of the church in a way that fits with our exile from influence in society.
You belong to something greater than yourself when you belong to this church. You will see this principle in even greater detail at the Community Thanksgiving Service this afternoon. God is at work in this community through Salem Lutheran Church, Westbury United Methodist Church, Southwest Church of Christ, Temple Beth Israel, Willow Meadows Baptist Church, Corpus Christi Catholic Church, St. John's Presbyterian Church and all the other churches that compose our Southwest Houston Ministerial Association. God is at work among the people of this community. We are part of God's work in this place. That is what we will celebrate this afternoon.
Remember the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He did not ride into the city inside a taxi cab or a limousine. He rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Small children threw palm branches on the path before him. Old men and young women threw their cloaks on the ground to pave the wave for his entry into the city. Yet three days later this same crowd who welcomed him with open arms will vote to have Jesus arms stretched out on a cross, naked, on public display. Remember the suffering of the King of Jews. That is the key to understanding Christ's Kingdom that is not of this world. This is a kingdom where suffering leads to glory. This is a kingdom where it is better to give than to receive. This is a kingdom where those who mourn will be comforted. This is a kingdom in which those who are persecuted will rejoice. This is a kingdom which is not of this reality. This is an alternate reality to which we belong. We must learn to view reality with the eyes of Christ. This is a different way of seeing. It takes practice to see things in this way. It does not happen overnight. We must develop our spiritual eyesight through spiritual practices such as prayer, study, meditation, and service to others in Jesus' name.
Last Monday my wife's van needed to have the wheels aired up and rotated. We drove to a repair shop and left her van there. We wondered whether the tires would need to have an alignment. The mechanic said you'll know you need an alignment on your car when it starts veering off course. Have you ever had your tires go out of alignment on your car? You find your car veers to the right or to the left when you are driving on the freeway. When your wheels are out of alignment you can set your steering wheel straight ahead and remove your hands and your car will move off of dead center and start veering to the left or the right depending on how your wheel is out of alignment. You take your car to a mechanic and he will put your wheels back into alignment. You want to get your wheels back into alignment because driving when your tires out of alignment is dangerous and costly. It is dangerous because by veering off course the car could cause a wreck. It is costly because a tire that is out alignment requires more gasoline to make it run. An out of alignment tire will also wear out a tire faster. Our role as Christians is to align ourselves with Christ. When we get in alignment with Christ it takes less energy to get more done in the church. When we get in alignment with Christ we are all going in the same direction as Christ. There is no veering off course such as happens when we are out of alignment. Moltmann wants to get the church back into alignment. Confirmands, and all Christians, keep your life in alignment with Christ and you will stay in alignment with Christ's church.
As our text tells us, right here in Ephesians 5:22-23, "the church is Christ's body." To the extent that our lives are in alignment with Christ, then we are part of the church. To the degree that our lives are out of alignment with Christ, we are not part of the church. Even when we are in alignment with Christ, we do not own the church. To think that we somehow "own" the church is to think that we somehow "own" Christ. Of course, that is a silly thought. We do not own Christ. We do not own Christ's church. Christ is the head of this church. This church is Christ's body. If you are joined to Christ, you are part of Christ's church. Today we celebrate three young people who are wanting to live their lives in alignment with Christ's vision and mission. Take this service as you invitation to rededicate yourself to following and obeying Jesus.
The image of the church as the body of Christ relieves us of the responsibility of saving either the world or the church. That is beyond our ability to accomplish. Yet it leaves us with a clear responsibility. We must follow and obey Jesus. We live our lives in alignment with the vision and mission of Jesus. That is how we know we are part of the church. Those who make the daily effort to obey Christ are the Church. Your efforts at following and obeying Christ are either sincere or they are not. Today let us rededicate our lives to Christ. Thus will we be joined with the suffering body of Christ, the Church.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on November 20, 2011 at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035.
Phone 713-723-6262 | sjpresby.blogspot.com