Wednesday, September 12, 2018

It's Not About Me ('I Am a Church Member,' Part 3)

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during worship this past Sunday morning, September 9.]

Mark 9:33-35
While I was serving in my first parish, the bishop appointed a group of twenty of us in the synod--ten laypeople and ten pastors--to be trained by a prominent not-for-profit institute as conflict management consultants. After receiving our training, one layperson, the superintendent of a northwestern Ohio school system, and I were sent to mediate at a small town congregation in deep conflict. The congregation's most recent pastor had been gone for some months, the latest of a series shepherds essentially driven out by one faction of the congregation. That faction actually consisted of just three people: a prominent business-person in the community and his daughter and son-in-law, who worked for “Dad.” It was them against the rest of the church.

My lay colleague and I spent several days and nights listening to parishioners. What became apparent was that these three people were calling all the shots. They viewed other members with a smug and smiling contempt, certain that their financial acumen gave them the ability and the right to make all decisions. 

After we gave our recommendations to the synod and to the congregation, those three people continued to be in control, eventually sending it on a death skid--even though at the time it was, like Living Water, a medium-sized and growing congregation--with their arrogance and penny-pinching.

Let’s be honest. We all like the idea of being in control. We’re born with that preference. It comes from our inborn sinful nature. And, no matter how much progress God has made in what the Bible calls our sanctification, the process of making us over in the image of Jesus, as long as we are still in this world, at our core, we will want to be in charge. 

But friends, that’s not the way of life for a disciple of Jesus. 

And it’s not the way of life for those who are blessed to be part of Jesus’ Church. 

As we continue to consider the Biblical teachings on which Thom Rainer builds his book, I Am a Church Member, we come to one of the most frequently ignored essentials of church life: Being a member of Christ’s Church is not about my preferences

It’s not even about the preferences of a majority of church members. 

It’s about God’s preferences, God’s call on His Church at any given time.

Truly, if gratitude for God’s undeserved and saving grace was at the forefront of our thinking...if we consistently appreciated that Jesus bled and died for our sins and then gives a share in His resurrection with God to all who repent and believe in Him, we might never be selfish again in our daily lives or in the Church. But that’s a hard proposition.

To see how hard, all we need do is take a look at Mark, chapter 9. Please open a Bible to that chapter and consider it for a moment with me. 

Six days after telling the apostles that some of them would soon see the overwhelming glory of God, Jesus took three of them--Peter, James, and John--to a mountaintop, where His appearance was transfigured before them. The three apostles saw the perfection of heaven shining from Jesus and Elijah and Moses affirming the greatness of Jesus. They saw that Jesus was God. (Mark 9:1-13)

On returning from the mountaintop, Jesus cast a demon from a boy after the other nine apostles had been unwilling to do anything for him. (Mark 9:14-29)

Then, Jesus predicted, for a second time, that He would be crucified for the sins of the world, but rise again. (Mark 9:30-31)

Now, tell me something. If you had been, say, Peter, James, and John and you had just seen Jesus’ transfiguration, seen Him cast a demon from a child, and heard Him speak of how He was going to offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and then, rise from the dead, wouldn’t you think, “I will do anything for this man’s glory. This is God and I will do what He wants and not what I want”?

But here’s a stunning truth: On this earth, before we have died in Christ and risen in His power, even when God's presence and power are manifested obviously to us, we will tend to want our own ways

Do you doubt that? Take a look at Mark 9:33-35. It picks up immediately following the events we’ve just looked at. Verse 33: “They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house [here, the house signifies the Church, the fellowship of believers in which Jesus talks to His disciples, including you and me], he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’”

Of course, Jesus knows what they’ve been talking about. His question is a bit like that posed by God to Adam in Genesis. He knows what Adam’s been up to and why Adam is hiding, but he asks Adam, “Where are you? [and]...Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” [Genesis 3:9, 11] 

As in the garden and God’s questions of Adam (and later, Eve), Jesus is giving the disciples a chance to be honest with Him, to confess their sins and receive His forgiveness. 

Listen: The God we know in Jesus is always anxious to give forgiveness and restoration to us if we will only be honest enough with Him to admit that we have sinned, that we’ve been selfish

King David in Old Testament times knew this and so he prayed, “...a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17) 

None of us will ever be what we are meant to be as human beings and as disciples of Jesus unless we are willing to be broken in the realization of our sin and human limitations. We must leave all pretenses of being “all that” before God can make us whole through the grace He offers us in Jesus Christ.

Mark 9, verse 34: “But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” The disciples were bent on getting their ways even though they were in the presence of the Greatest of all! It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Verse 35: “Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.’” 

Imagine how the lives of our churches and the life of our world would be changed if we took these words of Jesus seriously! 

Imagine what our families and communities would be like if we tried to outdo one another in serving each other, in not wanting to get our ways, in not wanting to push ourselves forward.

Folks, do you know what most turns many people off to the Church? It’s when they come into a congregation and see the “Christians” treating each other with the same disregard and nastiness that they see in the world at large. When outsiders see Christians bent on getting their own ways, they don’t see the One they need and, whether they know it or not, crave. They don’t see Jesus.

To be sure, no Christian is perfect. 

No Christian congregation is perfect. 

But in fact, a local Christian congregation is precisely the community of which imperfect, sinful people need to be a part. In this fellowship:
  • we confess our sins together, 
  • we hear the good news of Jesus together, 
  • we together welcome new members of Christ’s body in the waters of Holy Baptism, 
  • we are strengthened and renewed by Holy Communion together, and 
  • we are together empowered by the Holy Spirit to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.  
But even then, the sin inside of us, the sin of the world, and the sin that comes from the evil one can trap us. 

I think that the author of I Am a Church Member, Thom Rainer underestimates how powerful the pull of sin is on each of us, even on Christians who want to be the servant-disciples Jesus calls us to be. Toward the end of chapter 3 of his book, Rainer writes of the commitments to church membership he has in his book, “...these commitments are not easy. In fact, without God’s power they may prove impossible.” 

I so recoiled at that last sentence that I crossed out the words, “may prove” and replaced them, in capital letters with the word, “ARE.” The sentence should read, I believe, “In fact, without God’s power they ARE impossible.”

My source for saying that is Jesus, Who has told all who would do the good to which God calls us, "
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5) 

Without prayer in Jesus’ name and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we cannot believe (1 Corinthians 12:3). 

Nor can we make good on any of the commitments we make as members of Christ’s Church

You can find the commitments that we Lutheran Christian church members are asked to make at the top of page 201 in the green hymn books. This is part of the service of Affirmation of Baptism. We commit ourselves to 
  • “continue in the covenant God made with [us] in Holy Baptism,...
  • live among God’s faithful people,...
  • hear [God’s] Word and share in His supper,...
  • proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,...
  • serve all people, following the example of our Lord Jesus, and...
  • strive for justice and peace in all the earth…” 
And when we are asked to make these commitments, knowing that we can keep none of them in our own power, we’re also told to say, “I do [so commit myself], and I ask God to help and guide me.”

In the end, our capacity to live in the community of Christ’s Church and to accept that the Church and our own lives are not about our preferences and desires, we must daily come to God, daily confess our sins, daily receive forgiveness in Jesus’ name, and the power of the Holy Spirit to live more like the disciple Jesus died and rose to make me. 

We must give each day to Jesus if we are to live as God’s people and truly be members of His Church

May daily surrender to and trust in Jesus be the lifestyle of this congregation. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]