What's the point of church?
Is it entertainment on Sunday morning?
Is it a social club where we can spend time with like-minded individuals?
Is it a business meant to profit ministers?
In 1910 the United Presbyterian Church of North America, one of the predecessor denominations to the Presbyterian Church (USA), asked themselves—what are we doing here?
No record of their conversation remains.
All we have is their answer, which has been so powerful to Presbyterians that it has been recreated, nearly word for word, in the first chapter of the Presbyterian Book of Order ever since:
It's printed in your bulletin, so why don't we read it together?
The great ends of the church are:
• The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
• The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
• The maintenance of divine worship
• The preservation of the truth
• The promotion of social righteousness
• The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
As you and I begin a pastoral relationship here at Starr, I thought we should think about our mission—why are we here?
What are we as a church meant to do?
What are we already doing pretty well, and what could we be doing better?
How can we be church?
Ever since I first read the Great Ends of the Church, I have seen great truth in them.
Since few Presbyterians could even name one of these bullet points in our church's mission statement, it would do us good to learn about them as a way to consider our own church's mission and purpose.
So beginning at the beginning:
The proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.
Way to put first things first!
It's a bold statement: we are meant to proclaim the Gospel and save the world.
Doesn't it sound a bit arrogant to our twentifirst century ears?
How can we claim that we know about salvation and others don't?
Aren't Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist truths,
Aren't new age truths, or the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, as valid as the truth of Christ?
Isn't everyone already on the path to salvation?
The Presbyterian Church's mission statement seems to say no.
Romans 10 would agree.
Romans is the fullest explanation of Paul's thought.
At this point in Romans, Paul has laid out his message: what's our problem? Answer: we are sinners incapable of saving ourselves. What's the solution? Accepting the grace that comes from Jesus Christ. And now Paul turns to a new question: Well, what about those who haven't accepted the grace of Jesus Christ?
Most important to Paul is the Jewish community from which Paul, and most Christians, come.
And in Romans 10, Paul's answer is that to be saved, we need to accept Christ into our hearts and confess him with our lips.
Paul says that "being ignorant of the righteousness of Christ, they seek to establish their own."
Could this not be said of a lot of people today?
Without knowing Christ, we seek to be righteous on our own.
And, in my opinion, that path can lead us farther and farther away from God's goodness.
You may have read a news story this week that Pope Francis declared that he believes that atheists can go to heaven, that if they keep doing good works they can come into a relationship with Christ.
Like a lot of Christians, I'm a fan of Francis, and I think he can do great things for Christianity and the Catholic Church.
But I wonder, without a relationship with God, will it be easy for someone to be led astray?
Is trying to do something good enough without a relationship with God to direct you?
I've been watching the show Breaking Bad on AMC with my husband,
If you haven't heard of it, this is the story of Walter White,
Who is a chemistry teacher at a local high school.
Walt is diagnosed with terminal cancer,
And in frustration and disappointment with life, he decides that he's going to do something with his last remaining days.
He's going to leave his family a legacy.
And he's going to do it by starting up a meth lab.
With his chemistry expertise, Walt can cook up extraordinarily pure form of the drug methamphetamine
Yet at each step of the way, Walt makes more and more moral compromises.
The genius of the show is, Walt is not the exalted anti-hero in so much entertainment today,
The guy who makes some moral compromises but is still ultimately a good person.
Rather, each compromise Walt makes takes him further and further into the heart of darkness.
Lying to his wife undercuts their marriage.
Business success requires sacrifices.
Sacrifices become blood sacrifices.
And we watch as he justifies further and further depravity with his own twisted moral logic,
Repeating, "I'm doing this for my family, I'm doing this for my family,"
I'm reminded of what CS Lewis said: that evil is most tempting when it takes the guise of something good, like family, or politics, or health,
The most powerful idols are the ones that remind us of God, and so have the power to lead us astray.
"I'm doing this for my family."
With the idol of family before him, Walter White becomes more of a monster than a man.
As Paul says, "being ignorant of the righteousness of Christ, they seek to establish their own."
People follow many different paths, establishing their own righteousness,
But the witness of Scripture is that true righteousness is found only in the grace of Jesus Christ.
And that's the good news.
What I love about Christianity, distinct from all other religions,
Is that salvation doesn't depend on my actions but on God's love.
It's not about me finding the right path; it's about me having a relationship with Christ.
Paul says, "there is righteousness for everyone who believes."
According to Romans, "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
That's it. Confess it with your lips; believe it in your heart.
You can mess up and do wrong. God knows you will mess up and do wrong.
If you sincerely believe, God will help you follow Christ more and more.
We don't have to understand deep theology: Paul says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down)
If we think we have a complete understanding of the things of God,
that would be bringing Christ down.
We don't have to bring the Messiah to earth either: Paul says, don't ask, “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
It's not our job to resurrect Christ. It's not our job to be perfect or to save the world.
That's God's job.
Our job, our calling, is to receive Christ into our hearts.
And in our doing so we are compelled to share Christ with others.
To share Christ with others is not arrogance.
It's the humility to say, I am a sinner; I don't have all the answers; I realize I need a Savior; I depend on God to get through the day; and I'm telling you about it hoping He might help you.
We share the good news without shame and we share the good news without judgment.
Listen to the exact wording of this, the first great end of the church:
The proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.
We proclaim the Gospel "for" the salvation of "humankind."
This is how Presbyterians are different from other traditions that speak more frequently about saving souls.
There are two differences of emphasis:
One, the salvation of humankind is not the same as personal salvation.
The salvation of humankind is the physical, economic, social, emotional, personal, communal, and spiritual salvation of all people.
It goes beyond a one time experience of one person accepting Christ.
Second, we preach the Gospel for the salvation of humankind, but we don't preach the Gospel so that we can save humankind.
Saving humankind is God's job.
We are only His instruments.
Any preacher knows that when you preach, it's not your words that reach people.
It's God's Word.
I have had many people come up to me and say, "It was amazing what you said, when you spoke about thus and so, it was like you were speaking right to me."
But I never spoke about thus and so. People have told me I said things I never said.
And I don't know a preacher this has not happened to.
God wanted that person to hear something, and between my mouth and his ears he heard it.
When we set out to proclaim the Gospel, God uses us beyond our own capability.
We are God's instruments, but we never know what music God is making through us.
We can't determine how God will save humankind.
It would be arrogant to say that a person is unsaved because she is Jewish or he is a New Ager.
We don't know how others might accept Christ in ways we can't see.
As Paul says in Corinthians, "It is before their own Lord that they stand or fall."
What we know, what we are called to do, is to be good instruments.
To share the Gospel.
As Romans recalls the words of the prophet Joel,
"For How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?
And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?
And how shall they hear without a preacher?"
We are all called to be preachers, to share the Gospel with everyone we meet,
To share it one by one and by the thousands,
To share with passion and to share with compassion,
To share the great Story and to share our own stories,
To share, and then to be ready to listen to how God is moving in our world.
And God is moving.
This is World Communion Sunday.
Growing up I used to think about people in far-off lands who had never heard of Christ,
And I would feel sad and anxious thinking of them not knowing Jesus.
"How shall they hear without a preacher?"
But today, Christ has been proclaimed to nearly every nation and tongue,
And where he has been proclaimed, millions, billions have accepted him as Lord and Savior.
We celebrate today because people are communing with Christ in Africa, and the Middle East, in Asia, in South America, and all over the world.
We celebrate a great gathering of believers whom we may never meet, but who are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
And let me tell you from my mission experiences and my relationships with Christians from around the world, particularly Christians I have known from Africa and Central America:
They are not afraid to proclaim the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.
We could use some of that global evangelical zeal here, where so many have fallen away.
Where so many have sought to be righteous on our own,
And found themselves breaking away from God's goodness,
Have found themselves breaking on a bad path.
We are called to lead them back.
We are called to show them the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
We are called to tell them His name. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.