In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we enter our second week of worship services here in our new place at Hondros College, I want to remind us again of our call and mission. Our mission statement here at St. Augustine’s is pretty short and to the point: Changed by God to make a difference for God. But what does that mean? What does it look like and how do we get there? We have a unique opportunity to build a church culture from the ground up so that we really can live out our mission statement. But along with that wonderful opportunity come some very real challenges, both from outside St. Augustine’s and from within. This morning I want to look briefly at those internal challenges and what our OT and Epistle lessons can teach us about what we need to do and what we need to avoid to become a church that turns heads and makes a difference.
In today’s OT lesson, we see that God’s people are up to their old tricks again. Last week we saw how they grumbled for food while in the wilderness and how God graciously provided for them, giving them exactly what they needed. Today we read that God’s people are now grumbling about a lack of water. At first blush this sounds like a reasonable complaint. After all, they are in the wilderness and without water they will die. But a closer look reveals that there are deeper issues involved here, the same issues we saw at work in God’s people from last week’s lesson. What we are really seeing is human pride rearing its ugly head and making God’s people grumble, ostensibly against Moses and Aaron, but really against God. Simply put, the grumblers wanted to be back in slavery in Egypt. They were convinced they had a better plan for their lives and destiny than did God.
That human pride is involved here instead of a real concern for water should be obvious, given the fact that the grumbling apparently comes on the heels of God’s gracious and ongoing provision for his people as they wander in the wilderness. God had delivered his people from slavery through a mighty act of power and had provided for their every need. But this apparently wasn’t good enough for some of the folks. They were impatient to get where they thought they deserved to be and if God’s schedule didn’t mesh with theirs, they wanted to return to slavery. In the meantime they grumbled and dissension ensued. Sound familiar?
But as Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle lesson, this is not how God’s people are to behave. Why? Because we have been given God’s Spirit to live in and among us. When that happens, it changes us fundamentally, not usually all at once but gradually and over time. Like God did for his people Israel when he rescued them from their slavery in Egypt, God has rescued us from our slavery to sin and death by becoming human and dying on a cross for us. As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, the punishment Jesus bore brought us peace, both with God and each other, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53.5b), thanks be to God!
We believe this by faith, not a blind faith but an informed faith, and faith always manifests itself in action. We believe God has done the impossible for us and so we respond to his great love for us by faithful obedience. As Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel lesson, our obedience is the only real indicator of our love for God. God looks for our actions, not our lip service. And so we are called by God to be his people and his agents of New Creation in which we bring God’s love to bear in Jesus to his broken and hurting world and people.
And as Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle lesson, it all begins with unity in Christ because unity in Christ is made possible only by the grace of God and the power of his Spirit working in and through us. Our unity is a visible and powerful demonstration to the world that we are God’s. By contrast, if we don’t have unity (which is different from uniformity), it is almost always an indication that we are letting our pride control our behavior rather than having the humility to submit to God’s good will for his people. When that happens we will inevitably have dissension because pride is essentially selfish, which will always cause discord. And when we have dissension we are just like the rest of the world and nobody will ever pay any attention to us or believe our claim that we are changed by God so that we can make a difference for God.
So what does any of this have to do with St. Augustine’s and our mission statement? Just this. Our mission statement implies that ministry is something in which every Christian engages, not just yours truly. We believe this because we believe God calls all his people, not just some, to bring Jesus’ healing love and redemption to his world, and this is costly. It takes our time and effort. It will mean suffering on our part. You cannot help others bear their burdens and sorrows and not suffer in the process.
This is precisely where unity and humility come into play as Paul reminds us. When we have a humble spirit, we instinctively understand that Christian ministry is hard work and this will inevitably lead us to be supporters and encouragers of each other. When that happens, all of a sudden we discover that we are enjoying the fruit of being one with each other in Christ. And when that happens, we will discover that we are being equipped by the Spirit to do the work he calls us to do.
A humble spirit also reminds us that we are using our respective gifts to serve the same Lord rather than our own agendas. Paul comments extensively on the variety of gifts the Spirit gives to his people in 1 Corinthians 12 and I encourage you to check that out on your own. What is important here is to remember that a humble spirit will necessarily lead us to honor the gifts, needs, and ministries of all our fellow believers. This, in turn, helps us resist the temptation to compare our gifts and our ministries with what others are doing (or not doing) or to think our ministries are the center of the universe. And that is the surest antidote to grumbling and the dissension it causes.
We won’t be saying things like, “Look at all the things I do for this church and others. Why don’t the rest of these knuckleheads step up and do their share?” Assuming others are doing some kind of ministry, if we catch ourselves thinking or making statements like this, our pride has gotten the better of us and we are surely just like the grumblers among God’s people in the wilderness in today’s OT lesson. Instead, when by the Spirit’s help we have developed a humble spirit we will be content to focus on how our own work is serving the Lord rather than how it stacks up in comparison to others.
That is why Paul tells us to look to the example of Christ so that we understand what humility looks like and imitate it in our life and ministries. That is also why Paul tells us to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling. Paul isn’t advocating some kind of salvation by self-help. He is reminding us that we are responsible for our relationship with God and how we conduct ourselves as Christians. In other words, Paul is reminding us that we have to do our part to develop the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, the very virtues that the Spirit uses to help us develop a healthy dose of humility.
And as we develop a humble spirit, we instinctively understand that Christian ministry is hard work and that will inevitably lead us to be supporters and encouragers of each other. When that happens, all of a sudden we discover that we are enjoying the fruit of being one with each other in Christ. And when that happens, we will discover that we are being equipped by the Spirit to do the work he calls us to do.
Of course, this all starts with taking our relationship with God seriously because our ministries should be based on what we perceive God is calling us to do on his behalf. Once again, there is no room for human pride here. We have to be humble enough to be obedient to God’s call to us and live as his called-out (holy) people, something that is no easy matter given how profoundly broken we all are. But here too we will be encouragers to each other when we imitate Jesus’ humility, precisely because we do know how hard it is to persist in engaging in a devotional life and living in obedience to our Lord’s commands.
This, then, is what today’s lessons can teach us. If we are going to be changed by God to make a difference for God, we have to be a humble people, not proud ones. Humility is an essential ingredient if we are going to succeed in our collective ministries because we are all so profoundly broken and need each other’s tangible help, support, and encouragement. Pride, on the other hand, will inevitably lead to dissension and strife, just as it did for God’s people in the wilderness. It is easy for us to fall into this trap because we are proud creatures by nature and so we have to work hard to grow in our relationship with God and each other so that by God’s help and each other’s support we can overcome our pride. We do this through regular Bible study, prayer, worship, humble service, and partaking in holy communion. We also must continue to monitor our behavior and thoughts to see if we are encouragers or criticizers. And when we see that we’ve gotten it wrong, we must be honest and humble enough to acknowledge our wrongdoings and ask God to forgive us and help us change what needs to be changed.
In closing, I want to stress that I have not observed any of these proud behaviors I have just talked about. In fact, just the opposite. From what I have observed, God has blessed us richly with his Spirit and that is why I have great hope for us as a congregation to fulfill our mission statement. Instead, I have raised these issues because given the human condition, they always present a real danger and we need to be constantly on our guard. In other words, we need to take care of the business of working out our salvation in fear and trembling and always be willing to encourage each other in that difficult work because we are each members of Christ’s body, the Church, and he expects us to love each other in that way.
When, by the Spirit’s help, we learn the grace of humility, the sky is the limit for what we can do together as God’s people. We learn to trust God and see that he really is big enough to care for us and our needs. We see that he has blessed us with other faithful Christians in our lives and over time we learn to trust and support each other, all of which helps produce unity in Christ. And when that happens, we learn to take the pressure off ourselves to produce for God and be content to deal with whatever God chooses to bring our way (or withhold from us).
If we really do want to make a difference for God, we have to pay attention to the rules of engagement, rules that require a humble spirit on our part that will lead us inevitably to a life a loving service based on our faith in Christ and grounded in our hope in his death and resurrection. None of this is easy, but we are not alone. We have God’s very Spirit living in each of us and collectively to shape us into the humans God created and intends for us to be so that we can make a difference for God. And just as importantly, we have each other. All this reminds us that we really do have Good News, here in the wilderness and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.