Fellowship as a Tool for Evangelism

Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH, Sunday, July 19, 2009. If you would like to listen to an audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:21-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we continue our series of sermons on fellowship. You recall that we define fellowship as living life together in intimate relationships in the context of small groups so that Christ can use us to help each other grow to his full stature, which we define as Christian maturity. Last week we looked at the worthiness of the Gospel and the fact that it is the ultimate prize worthy of our best efforts and highest pursuits. Using Herod as a negative example, we saw how easily we can get sidetracked in our pursuit of gaining the prize and fall away. We looked at why it is so important for us to be part of an intimate fellowship so that Christ can use our relationships to help keep us growing to his full stature. Today I want to look at how our real and intimate relationships within the context of small groups can help us be good evangels and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to a world that so desperately needs to hear it.

Paul captures the hopelessness of the human condition quite nicely, doesn’t he? He reminds us in today’s epistle lesson that we were at one time without Christ and therefore we had no hope. Earlier in this chapter, Paul reminds us further that we are dead in our sins and objects of God’s wrath. And when we consider all this in light of our experience as we attempt to live faithful lives, it becomes quite depressing because we realize that Paul is absolutely correct. We don’t have any hope without Christ.

Where is God’s Grace?

But then Paul begins to lay out the Good News for us. Yes, we are without hope when left to our own devices. But God has done something about the problem of sin that has caused us to be separated from him and from each other. He has taken on our flesh, died for us, borne the just penalty for our sins so that through the cross we have our only hope and chance to live with him forever. While we await our final redemption at Christ’s Second Coming, we have access to the Father through the Holy Spirit. All this is a free gift, a sheer act of grace on God’s part, because none of us deserve anything but death.

Paul concludes today’s passage by making this astounding claim: Through Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are no longer strangers and alienated from God. We are no longer without hope. Instead, we are members of God’s household, a household built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. In other words, out of his great mercy, God has formed his people into the Church to be his holy, called-out people and serve as Christ’s Body. In a few short sentences, Paul has taken us from hopelessness to a life-giving and saving hope in Jesus Christ our Lord. If that is not Good News, if that does not make us want to drop to our knees in praise and thanksgiving, I don’t know what ever can.

We see this Good News echoed in today’s Gospel lesson as well. Over the last several weeks, Mark has reported in his Gospel that Jesus has created quite a stir among the people. He has cast out demons and healed the sick. In doing so, he has also attracted great crowds who eagerly seek him out so that he might heal them or their loved ones. We instinctively relate to these stories because we too have eagerly sought out Jesus, haven’t we?

And it makes sense that this would have happened when Jesus walked this earth as a human. After all, we would expect that when God took on our flesh and lived amongst us, this would have caused quite a stir because people would have sensed that something was very different about this man. We would expect folks to either be strangely compelled by Jesus or vehemently opposed to him. Indeed, all four Gospel writers paint this picture of Jesus. We never hear of anyone being neutral about our Lord. Folks either loved him or hated him, but they were never left unaffected by him. They, like us, were attracted by his goodness or put off by it because they, like us, didn’t want to be reminded about their badness.

And so when Mark reports in today’s Gospel lesson that Jesus and his disciples were harried by the crowd and that folks from all over were flocking to see him and be with him, we are not surprised. We find ourselves saying, “This all sounds true. If Jesus is who he says he was, God made flesh, then we would certainly expect him to attract and amaze huge crowds. After all, he’s God, isn’t he?”

So then, if the Good News is really good (and we believe it to be), and Jesus really was, and is, God (and we believe him to be), capable of touching and transforming lives today, then why aren’t people flocking to him today like those crowds did when he walked the earth? Why isn’t Jesus’ Body, the Church growing exponentially here in this country? There are several reasons, I think, but I want to focus on the one reason that is directly related to fellowship. I suspect a big reason why we do not see people flocking to Jesus today is because they have a hard time seeing his Presence in his Body, the Church. All too often we Christians attempt to live out our faith alone, without the help and grace of having real and intimate friendships with other Christians, and we fail to live out our faith in compelling ways, in part, because we are trying to do so alone. This is especially true for American Christians because we are still thoroughly rugged individualists who tend to look at Christian fellowship with suspicion rather than as a means of grace. Consequently, when others see us living out life, they often do not see evidence of the transforming love and power of Jesus Christ in our personal lives. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Where is the Application?

We have talked before about how our own discipleship can benefit from being in a small group. But how many of you have thought about small group fellowship as being an effective tool for evangelism? Indeed, when we think of small groups, most of us think immediately of Bible study. But the fruit of our fellowship can also serve as a powerful testimony to others about the transforming power of Jesus Christ and that is what I want to spend the reminder of our time on this morning.

We see the importance of small group fellowship in today’s Gospel lesson, don’t we? Jesus tells his disciples to go away with him to a deserted place for a while to get rest and refreshed. This command comes at the conclusion of their missionary work and in the midst of large crowds eagerly seeking out Christ. What is our Lord’s solution? Retreat. Rest. Intimate fellowship. Precisely the stuff of which small groups are made.

For you see, when we gather together in small groups on a regular basis, we have the same opportunity as Jesus’ disciples did. Like our Lord and his apostles, each week when we gather together in small groups, we are taking time from our busy schedules to come and re-collect ourselves in the Lord’s presence. We find our longings for intimate and deep friendships satisfied and nurtured by our Lord himself and each other when we can get real with one another and share our joys and sorrows. We find refreshment and renewal when we study God’s Word or do ministry work and/or help each other in our various struggles that each of us encounters in this life. Christ uses all of this to help us grow to become more like him, which again we define as Christian maturity.

For example, our small group is taking the summer off and I can definitely feel the negative impact on my own spiritual life. I miss gathering together each week with our small group so that we can center down together on God. I miss being held accountable by their very presence each week. Yes, I see most of them at church each Sunday but the dynamic is not the same as when we gather together for small group fellowship. Our group meets at least once a month to socialize but that too is not the same. Consequently my daily devotions have suffered and I think my sermon writing has suffered as well (this is the point where you all disagree loudly so that my fragile ego might be stroked and my cheap and shameless ploy in seeking affirmation may be satisfied). You see, the group pays me handsomely each week to keep my sermons under 30 minutes and I frankly miss the income this summer. My faith journey is not the same when we do not meet in the summer and I am the lesser for it. For one thing, I am typically not as eager to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and all that he is doing here at St. Andrew’s as a result.

There is a second way in which small group fellowship can be used as a tool for evangelism. It is sometimes more difficult for outsiders to see the Presence of Christ in even the most devout and faithful individuals, but it becomes easier to see Christ’s presence in the gathering of real and intimate Christians. It is not that Christ is not present in each of us individually, it is just harder to see in individuals because we cannot see what is going on in each other’s minds and hearts.

But when Christians gather together in Christ’s name and dare to trust him and each other enough so that he can work in and through them collectively, suddenly his Presence is easier to see than when we are looking at individual lives. Folks can see how much we love one another. They see that Christians struggle with the messiness of life just like everyone else does. But outsiders can see that when Christians live life together in small groups, they have the Power of Christ working amongst them to help them cope with all that life throws their way. In other words, outsiders get a chance to see Christ living out his promise to his church to be with them and help them become like him. This can be a compelling tool for evangelism because we can show outsiders that there is Good News and that the Lord does indeed transform lives. We have the opportunity in small groups to show the world what the Good News looks like in real life. And how do outsiders know about all this? We tell them in our daily conversations.

Does that mean we can never make mistakes? Hardly. In fact, it is precisely because we Christians are willing to confess our sins and admit our utter inability to get it right on our own that Christ can use us to witness to his broken and hurting world. For example, we have a neighbor who has been buffeted by series of bad news about her family. It is just awful to hear all this person is having to face and endure. It is even more awful when I see that she is trying to deal with all her problems alone. That is simply heartbreaking. So yesterday at a neighborhood meeting, my wife, after listening to our neighbor’s problems, decided to invite her to join our small group in the fall. My beloved bride did this because she has experienced the power of Christ when we live life together. She is confident that just as the group has helped her and the rest of the group members, so Christ can use our group to help this person. Clearly it will take some time to develop a trusting and real relationship, and everyone will have to make adjustments. But this is using small group fellowship as a tool for evangelism at its finest because it is based on our actual experience with the Lord and each other. It is what our Lord is calling each of us to do as his Church here at St. Andrew’s.

What about you? Do you believe there is any good news in the Good News? Do you know your Lord well enough so that you are eager to share him with others but don’t know how or where to start? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, then look to your small group (or join one if you currently are not a member). It is precisely in our real and intimate relationships with each other lived out in small groups that allows our Lord Jesus Christ to shine through his people.

If enough of us start getting real with each other and living life together in small groups, I have no doubt that eventually we will have folks flocking to St. Andrew’s to see what all the excitement is about, just the way they did when Jesus walked this earth. They will say, “See how those Christians love each other! That’s what my heart desires too. Will you share your secret with me?” And when you invite them into your small groups and consequently into your lives, then you will be telling them you love them enough to share your most precious gifts with them—your Lord and yourselves. Together he will use you to help you to become just like him so that others can see and discover for themselves what it is like to be loved by the Source and Author of all life. That’s good news folks, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: Reflections on Elton John’s and Billy Joel’s Concert

Last night we went to see Elton John and Billy Joel at Nationwide Arena. We had center aisle tickets three rows from the stage and other than the fact that my ears are still ringing, it was an awesome concert. Today I am poignantly melancholy as I reflect on last night’s experience. I have always liked Elton John’s music and when he played Funeral For A Friend and Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, I was instantly catapulted back 35 years to another world of space and time. I listened to those two songs over and over my senior year in college during a time that was very difficult for me. I had broken off an engagement and was heartsick about it. Who would have thought that 35 years later I would be standing about 50 feet from the man who wrote those songs, watching him perform them, and many others that I loved?

It got me thinking about how quickly time passes and how much I have lost (and gained) over those years. It reminded me of how important it is to stay firmly rooted in God because he is the only constant we have in this life. My life was very different 35 years ago than it is now. A good many people whom I loved are now gone and I miss them terribly. I miss my old mates (but am thankful for my current ones). I miss the days when I was younger, when I didn’t have to worry about my health or approaching old age and infirmity, when I was a young teacher working hard at my calling, and when I had an innocence about me that has long since gone. But this is called “life” and I need to get over it.

The challenge for me personally—and judging from the large amount of fellow geezers at last night’s concert I would say I am not alone in this—is to find the blessings in the current day and time, and not grieve too much over that which I have lost. I realized again last night that my time is passing by way too quickly and that I need to make the most out of the time I have left. Since I’ve retired from education, I’ve been frankly lousy at doing that and I pray to God to help me do what he calls me to do before it is too late.

I have watched my grandparents’ generation die and most of my parents’ generation. My generation is next and the music last night reminded me that our time goes by more quickly than most of us realize; I do not have an infinite amount of time left. I cannot live in the past nor can that which I have lost be returned. I need to keep my eye on the prize of Christ and use the gifts God provides me here and now. That won’t happen without his grace and presence in my life.

Thank you Elton John and Billy Joel for your music and putting on a fantastic show last night (it lasted over 3.5 hours!). Thank you Michelle and June for those awesome tickets. Thank you Toots for putting up with my ill disposition before the show. Thank you, my God for your great and manifold blessings in our lives, and especially for the promise that someday the most important things and people we have lost will once again be restored. Best of all, we will get to live in your Presence forever. Nothing in this world can ever come close to matching that, not even once-in-a-lifetime seats at an awesome concert.

The Case for Fellowship

Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH on Sunday, July 12, 2009. If you would like to listen to the audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we begin a series of sermons on fellowship. You recall the we define fellowship as living life together in intimate relationships so that Christ can use us to help each other grow to his full stature. So for the next several Sundays we will be looking at reasons why fellowship is so important in our respective faith journeys.

In today’s epistle lesson, Paul lays out a winsome and compelling picture of the Gospel, doesn’t he? He tells us that from all eternity, God has had a plan to rescue us from our sin that separates us from him and leads to death. Paul reminds us that God has taken on our flesh, borne the penalty for our sins to satisfy his justice, and until Christ comes again to complete the work he started with his death, resurrection, and ascension, he has given us his Holy Spirit as a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance in his eternal kingdom. The Gospel that Paul talks about is truly Trinitarian and we gratefully acknowledge the work of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The writer of Revelation reminds us that God’s New Creation, his eternal kingdom, will be a place where there is no more death or suffering or sickness or infirmity or sorrow. All of this is a sheer act of grace on God’s part and there is absolutely nothing we can do to earn any of it. As Paul reminds us in the second chapter of this epistle, we are saved by grace through faith alone, lest none of us can boast that we really are good enough to get into God’s kingdom on our own merits. It really is a compelling and humbling picture, and full of Good News, isn’t it?

It is the ultimate prize that in our heart of hearts we know is worth striving for with everything we have. Yet when we strive for the prize we so often fail or we do not invest the time and energy it takes to develop a deep and lasting relationship with the Author of all life. Why is that?  In large part, it is because we are sinful and proud creatures and it makes faithful living a very difficult thing to do because we want to be in charge, we want to play God. Fortunately for us, God has provided everything we need to help us in our faith journey and this morning I want to focus on one aspect of that grace—fellowship.

Where is God’s Grace?

Today’s Gospel lesson provides us with an interesting case study of all that can go wrong in our messy lives and how God can use living life together as faithful Christians to help make us his holy and called-out people. Let’s look at Herod first. Here is a rich and powerful ruler whose personal life has truly gone down the slippery slope. He has entered into an adulterous relationship by marrying his own brother’s wife and is generally perplexed when John the Baptizer condemns this sinful behavior. The Greek word that Mark uses for perplexed, aporeo, means literally to be at a loss mentally or to not know how to decide or what to do, and it is further indication that Herod’s moral compass, if he ever had one to begin with, has gone seriously awry.

To make matters worse, Herod is apparently hanging out with the wrong crowd because no one except John has loved him enough to try to help hold him accountable for his behavior. And just when we think it can’t get worse for Herod, he holds a party and becomes quite enchanted with Herodias’ daughter, Salome. We can only imagine the kind of provocative dancing she did for Herod that night, but whatever she did, he shoots his mouth off and promises the girl anything she wants. This, of course, proves to be fatal for the Baptizer because Herodias uses Herod’s promise to the girl as the means to kill John. Note that like most of us when someone calls us to account for our questionable behavior, Herodias develops an anger toward John for speaking the truth in love to Herod and her. Herod now finds himself backed into a corner and has no choice but to execute the Baptizer.

Now before we are too quick to condemn Herod, let me ask you a question. How many of you have ever backed yourself into a corner by something you have said or done and then discovered you did not have the moral courage to get yourself out of that corner because it would be too painful or embarrassing? I have. Plenty of times. The simple truth is that most of us fall into this same boat when left on our own because we are broken and sinful creatures. We may not be guilty of murder as Herod was, but we are guilty nevertheless.

And so we see in this story a very sad picture; it is the picture of the human race. Herod has no interest in developing a life-giving relationship with God. He has no apparent interest in inviting the Holy Spirit or Christ into his life to help him develop holy habits that will help him put to death his sinful nature so that the Spirit can dwell in him and transform him into the being God created him to be (cf. Colossians 3:3, Galatians 2:20). He makes no apparent attempt to cultivate intimate and real relationships with others who desire to have a relationship with God and who will love him enough to encourage him and hold him accountable for his life and actions. He has none of that. Instead he has his sin, and as Paul reminds us the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). No, this is not a pretty picture of the human condition, especially when we choose to go it alone.

On the other hand, there is John the Baptizer, who dared to speak the truth in love to Herod in the hope that Herod might repent and seek to cultivate a life-giving and changing relationship with God. Everything that Herod did not have, John apparently did. He had the Holy Spirit living in him, to give him a loving heart and the courage, direction, and power to exhort people to develop a relationship with the Living God. John also apparently had an intimate group of followers who doubtless would have helped him in his work and provided him support and encouragement when things got bad. We can deduce this because Mark tells us at the end of the story that his disciples came and asked for John’s body so that they could give it a proper burial. That would have taken some love and courage on their part, because as Jesus reminded his disciples, “If they call the master Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household” (Matthew 10:25)?

John’s love for God and his faithfulness to his call cost him his life. But unlike Herod, John had a future ahead of him because he had a relationship with the Living God and used both the spiritual and human means of grace to help keep him on the narrow path that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14). As Jesus reminded us, those who seek to save their life will lose it, while those who lose their life for his sake or the sake of the Gospel will gain it (Mark 8:35). Herod had none of that and his sad life is a powerful testimony to what can happen to us if we seek to live life on our own.

Where is the Application?

So what lessons about fellowship can we learn from this story? There are two, I think. First, it is not fellowship in itself that is important in out faith journey, but rather fellowship that is rooted in Christ. And second, when fellowship is Christ-centered, to be effective it must be real, which will never happen without a deep level of mutual trust and intimacy.

Herod enjoyed fellowship, but it was not the kind of fellowship that was rooted in Christ or driven by the Holy Spirit. The folks with whom Herod hung out were apparently no more interested in developing a relationship with God than he was. Neither did they love him enough to hold him accountable for his adulterous behavior. Like many of us they probably thought that they were being good friends to Herod by their tacit approval of all the things that were leading to his death.

No, real fellowship is always grounded in Christ and is real enough and intimate enough to allow the Lord to use it to help us grow to become more like him, and that, of course, takes time and effort to develop. For example, do you find it easier or harder to be more Christlike when you are here on Sunday morning? Now the cynic might answer that this is nothing more than Christians being rank hypocrites on Sundays, and while some of that is doubtless true, I would argue that the reason most of us find it easier to be faithful on Sunday mornings is because we come to worship God and be in his and each other’s presence. It is a healthy and holy dynamic that changes us over time.

But what about the other six days of the week? It is a lot harder to be faithful in our discipleship during the week because we generally do not take the time to cultivate holy habits of daily prayer and Bible study and because we do not have each other watching over us in love. I wonder, for example, about Governor Sanford of South Carolina. I wonder what would have happened if he had Christian friends whom he trusted enough to confide in them about his struggles to stay faithful to his wife, friends who loved Sanford enough to encourage and admonish him to stay faithful and warn him that he was playing with fire in corresponding with his eventual paramour. I wonder if things might have turned out differently. I think they might have. But like many leaders, I suspect the governor did not feel that he could allow himself to develop that kind of intimate friendship with other faithful Christians because he could not bring himself to trust them or their motives, and as a result he was left to deal with his temptations on his own. Does this make Governor Sanford a bad person? No more than any of the rest of us because each one of us has the capacity to do what he did (or worse). The point is that when we try to live out our faith by ourselves without the help of loving and true Christian friends, we will be defeated more often than not.

True, we have the Holy Spirit working in us and transforming us. But we are also creatures of flesh and blood who need the human touch as well as the Spirit’s. God knows this and has given us fellowship as a powerful means of grace to help us in our faith journeys. It has been the consistent testimony over time and across cultures that when Christians allow themselves to get real with each other so that they can hold each other accountable for their behaviors, they grow in grace and in the Spirit. That kind of fellowship is only possible in a small group context and requires that we check our pride at the door when we enter into that fellowship.

The choice is yours. Do you want to live a life like Herod’s or John’s? Life is messy and our Christian journey is difficult. Joining a small group is not some magic elixir that will make our problems disappear or even easier to deal with. But here’s the deal. God has called us into relationship with him and each other and has promised to give us his Holy Spirit to help us live life together so that he can use our fellowship as a means of grace along with the other means of grace to transform us into his image.

What are you struggling with in your life? Whether it’s an addiction or finances or health or relationships, God has promised to never leave or abandon you. He wants you to take advantage of all the means of grace he offers you, and that includes both spiritual resources and human ones. He has promised that wherever two or three of us gather together in his Name, there he will be amongst us. Are you willing to love and trust him enough to enter into real relationships with each other so that we can allow our Lord to work in and through us to build each other up? If you are, you will find that you have resources sufficient to meet any contingency that this messy life throws our way. That’s good news folks, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.