Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Ministry of the Church (The Augsburg Confession, Part 5)

We’re continuing our sermon series on what it means to be a Lutheran Christian, using what The Augsburg Confession proclaims about Biblical faith as our guide. Today we’re going to look at the Biblical foundations for Article 5 of the Confession. The topic is The Ministry of the Church.

But before we tackle that, I think that we may need to clear up any possible misunderstandings from last week’s discussion of justification.

The doctrine of justification boils down to this: We deserve condemnation, death, and eternal separation from God for our sin. Despite what we deserve though, God came into our world in the person of Jesus, took the punishment for sin we deserve, and then rose from the dead. Today, God offers forgiveness of sin and eternal life with God to all with faith in Jesus Christ as a free gift that we can do nothing to deserve or earn.

Faith in Jesus is foreign to our sinful natures though. So, even the ability to have faith or trust in Him isn’t something we can decide to have. Faith in Jesus Christ is a gift.

So, if even faith is a gift from God, the question arises, “Does that mean everybody will be saved?” If there’s nothing we can do or must do to be saved from sin, death, and hell and if life with God is a gift, does that mean everybody lives with God for eternity?

The short answer is, according to Jesus Himself, "No. Not everybody is saved.” After all, even when a gift is offered, it isn’t always received. That's why Jesus says in Mark 16:16: "The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned."

In Revelation 3:19-20, the risen and ascended Jesus is speaking to the members of a church of lukewarm believers in Laodicea, a city in Asia Minor, what is now known as Turkey. Jesus is disgusted with them. They’re nice people. But they compartmentalize their lives, keeping God in what they think is “His” place, while keeping Him out of “their” places.

Look at Jesus’ words in Revelation 3:19-20: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten [In other words, if God loves you and you claim Him as your God, you can expect that He will sometimes discipline you and put your life back on the right track.] Therefore be zealous and repent [Turn away from sin and turn toward God. Now look at what Jesus says next.] Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come into him and dine with him, and he with Me.”

Saving faith in God comes to those who acknowledge Jesus when He knocks. But Jesus does all the work. Faith happens when we hear Jesus calling to us and we say, “I’m here, Lord.”

But that leads to another question: How do the doors of people’s lives come to be open to Jesus? How do people come to saving faith in Christ?

Please turn to Romans 10:9. It says:
...if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved...[slip down to verse 12] For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek [or Gentile, meaning non-Jews], for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For ‘whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ [Now, please pay close attention here.] 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?...
The gift of faith in Jesus Christ enters people’s lives through the preaching of God’s Word about Jesus. Preaching about Jesus is how Jesus knocks on our doors so that He can give faith in Him to us.

“Wait a minute,” someone might say, “I learned more about Jesus from my mother or my father or a Sunday School teacher or a friend than I ever did from a pastor in the pulpit.”

If that crossed your mind, notice I didn’t say that the gift of faith in Jesus enters people’s lives through pastors. I said it happened through the preaching of God’s Word about Jesus.

If the only people in Christian congregations preaching God’s Word about Jesus are the pastors, then no Christian congregation is fulfilling the mission Christ has given to it.

The calling of every Christian is mentioned in 1 Peter 2:9. Peter writes: “But you [that’s you, if you’ve received the gift of faith in Jesus] are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, [God’s] own special people, [here comes the purpose statement] that you may proclaim [proclaim: The word in the Greek in which Paul first wrote this passage is kerusso, a word that is also translated as preach] the praises of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”

It is the call and ministry of every person who believes in Jesus Christ to preach the gospel, the good news of freedom from death and hell for all who believe in Jesus Christ.

Every believer in Jesus Christ is called to be a preacher because, whether in a chapel or sanctuary, in the waiting room of a hospital ICU, in a funeral home, at a gas station, grocery store, mall, gym locker room, on the job, or on a Facebook page, everyone we encounter every single day needs to hear about Jesus.

People who don’t know Jesus need to have His Word preached to them so that they can receive the gift of faith.

People who do know Jesus need to have His Word preached to them so that their grasp of the gift of faith in Jesus will be made stronger.

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are called to daily ask for the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit on how you can sensitively, lovingly, and persuasively, by both words and deeds, preach the Word about Jesus Christ to all the people you meet.

This is the ministry of the Church.

It is the only ministry of the Church.

As member of Christ’s body, the Church, it’s your ministry too.

We are to preach the Word about Jesus so that others have the chance to open the doors of their lives to Christ and come to faith in Him and so, have eternal life with God.

That’s what Article V of The Augsburg Confession confesses (page 13 of the buff and brown books in the pew racks):
So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments [Holy Baptism and Holy Communion] was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given...He [the Holy Spirit] works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake...
(Sharing the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion are “preaching the Word of God,” by the way, because in the water, bread, and wine, God’s words of promise make the Word about Jesus visible to us. In these Sacraments, we can “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” More on the sacraments another time.)

God creates faith in Christ in people to whom Christians, including sometimes, even pastors, preach the Word about Jesus.

I was excited, but a little discouraged. I was going door-to-door on a fall afternoon in Cincinnati, telling people who would listen that a new Lutheran congregation was coming to their community and asking if they’d like to know more about Jesus Christ or this new church that hadn’t even had its first worship service.

I kept records. In the first month of doing this, I’d already knocked on hundreds of doors and i actually spoke with 1 person for every 60 doors on which I knocked. (None of this was an efficient way to start a congregation, by the way. But it's what I was ordered to do by the Division for Outreach of the ELCA and I dutifully followed my orders.) As I went from place to place, a lot of people I could tell were at home didn’t come to the door when I knocked or rang their bells. Rejection isn’t fun. But I kept going.

I walked up to one house where I thought I had saw a couple a few moments before, the woman putting up orange and black bunting because the Bengals were playing the next day.

I rang the bell. Nothing. No sound. I waited, counting off the ten seconds I would stand there until I trudged off to the next house. One-one-hundred. Two-one-hundred. I got to nine-one-hundred, when the door swung open. A woman of about 40 stood there.

A little startled, I got off to a slow start introducing myself and explaining why I was there. I handed my brochure to her. She looked at it and looked back up at me with piercing blue eyes. Little did I know that this was an appointment made by God.

Linda and her husband Bob had two teenage sons. They had never been involved in a church. But when Linda’s dad died unexpectedly just a few weeks earlier, the words from the Bible read at the funeral and the words about Jesus preached by the pastor had stirred something in her. So too had the words and cards of comfort from Christian friends who talked about the help they got from Christ when facing tough times in their lives. God’s Word about Jesus was being preached to her. She needed Jesus. She needed faith. God sent the church, including at that moment, me, to speak God’s Word about Jesus to her.

I didn’t read Bible verses to Linda. I just invited her to get on a mailing list through which she could learn more about Jesus and this new congregation.

Sometimes it takes people years of hearing God's Word from many different sources for them to really hear the Word about Jesus. It often has to be spoken in many ways by many different people: friends, family members, co-workers, pastors, before faith takes hold.

Most often, I find, people keep the doorways into their souls closed. They won’t let Jesus in. They're too scared of giving up their freedom, too frightened to yield control over their lives to Christ.

But sometimes, the doors swing open, Jesus walks in, faith happens, and a life is changed forever.

That’s what was starting to happen for Linda on that October Saturday in Cincinnati, Ohio. She didn’t work to have saving faith. The Church just did the ministry to which it was called and faith came to her door. And Jesus did all the work!

Tomorrow, you may have an appointment set by God with someone who needs to hear the Word about Jesus. They may not open their lives to Jesus when you invite them to worship, Bible study, a project of service in Jesus’ Name, or tell them how Jesus helps you in your life.

But, if Christians are heeding Jesus’ command to pray for people to preach His Word to those who need to hear it and if all of us in Christ’s Church will be faithful in preaching Jesus’ word, you won’t be the only person God sends to knock on their doors.

Just speak the Word about Jesus in your own way at the times God shows you and leave the results to God. That’s how people come to believe in Jesus.

That’s also the only ministry of the Church.

That’s your ministry.

May we all do it faithfully because sharing Jesus with others, it turns out, is a big part of what it means to truly be a Lutheran Christian. Amen

[This is the sermon prepared to be shared at both the 8:30 and 10:15 AM worship services this morning with the people and guests of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

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