This sermon was prepared by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the NewMillenniumChurch in Little Rock, Ark., on September 27, 2009.
Genesis 12; Acts 1:1-14
Beginning today and for the next several weeks, I will preach a series of sermons centered on the followers of Jesus that we call “the Church.” Several factors inspired me to do so.
· New Millennium Church is a new congregation establishing a presence for Christ in the Broadmoor/UALR neighborhood of Little Rock. How do we connect with our neighborhood for Christ?
· Organized religion faces a crisis. Traditional denominational life and ties are not popular. The Information Age, changes in the meaning of family and other relationships, and dissatisfaction about the way that organized religious institutions and their leadership have functioned are affecting how people think about religion, whether they want to be part of a religious group, and the way religious groups behave. More people than ever now choose to self-identify as “un-churched,” meaning that they intentionally do not want to be associated any religious congregation or community. Un-churched people belong to every age, racial/ethnic, economic, and religious group. They are not hostile about morality or faith, only not part of an ongoing faith community. How does a new congregation become part of the lives of people in Christ when those people are ambivalent about, or simply not interested in, being part of a congregation?
· Scientific and technological innovations allow humans to do things not even imagined two generations ago. Yet, we are as challenged about how to relate to ourselves, other people, the creation, and our Creator as people have been throughout history. How are we to relate to our age for Christ?
· Access to Bibles, churches, and Christian literature, music, and other information is higher than ever. Meanwhile, publicized reports about in-fighting, controversy, and religious scandals have made people more perplexed and leery about church involvement. More people than ever are likely to echo the words of Gandhi, who when asked by Howard Thurman in 1936 to identify the greatest handicap to Jesus Christ in India, responded, “Christianity as it is practiced, as it has been identified with Western culture, with Western civilization and colonialism. This is the greatest enemy that Jesus Christ has in my country—not Hinduism, or Buddhism, or any of the indigenous religions—but Christianity itself.” Almost 75 years later, Gandhi’s words remain true not only for India, but for Little Rock and the rest of the world also. That is a real challenge as New Millennium lives out the gospel of Jesus Christ in a multi-cultural neighborhood that is part of Little Rock, Arkansas, a place made famous because of the un-welcoming events of 1957.
For these and other reasons, what New Millennium and other 21st Century followers of Jesus Christ makes our ministry challenges resemble what the first followers faced when Jesus ended his earthly ministry. Like the first followers, we have a world to reach with the world-healing love and truth of God. Like the first followers, we are ordinary souls with ordinary strengths and flaws. Like the first followers, we want to be faithful to Christ.
Each sermon will contain three elements made of one “what” and two “how” questions. First, what problem or situation must we address? Next, how does the problem or situation affect our efforts for Christ and the world around us? Finally, how can we deal with the problem or situation so that God is glorified? For today, the “what” question is, “What is the Church of Jesus Christ called to be?” The first “how” question is, “How does that call affect what we do as a Christian congregation and the people around us?” The final “how” question for today is, “How can we accomplish our call and overcome the challenges associated with it?”
What is the Church of Jesus Christ called to be? Jesus answered that question for us. Shortly before his ascension, His last words to the first followers were, “[W]hen the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.” (Acts 1:8, The Message). We are called to be witnesses, to provide testimonial evidence, about God’s truth, grace, and justice, and hope as it has been revealed in Jesus Christ. We are called to be the living evidence about God’s truth in Christ, God’s grace in Christ, God’s justice in Christ, and God’s hope in Christ, to people who need this proof. Jesus Christ is to be known to the world thru us, by us, and because of us.
The English word that is translated “witnesses” comes from a Greek word for “martyrs.” This does not mean that followers of Jesus will always die from persecution on account of their fidelity to Christ—although that did happen to many people—but that we will present Jesus by our lives. Our living is the evidence that people will have about the life of Jesus and our relationship to Him.
The first followers of Jesus asked, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?” That question exposes something about them and us. They wanted to know when God was going to do what they wanted more than they wanted to know what God wanted them to do and be. But neither they nor we have been called to be God’s timekeepers. We are not called to be divine clock watchers but divine evidence of what God has done to redeem humanity and creation thru Jesus Christ.
Whenever God does whatever God is supposed to do is not our concern, not our business, and not our message. We have no credentials or experience in divine time-keeping. But because of our experience with the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have credentials in divine grace, truth, justice, and hope. So Christ has called us to be expert witnesses about Him so that people will have evidence about God’s grace, truth, justice, and hope. When we engage in divine clock-watching, we are missing the boat, dropping the ball, and stepping out of bounds.
I will not preach “Left Behind” sermons about how the Christian age will end, when it will end, and what will happen when it ends. That is all outside my call from Christ, and outside my sense of His mission for New Millennium and any other body of His followers. Our job is not to predict Christ but to present Christ! We are called to present Christ as God’s love answer to the world, God’s truth about Himself and human potential, God’s justice about how we are to treat each other, and God’s powerful hope that overcomes all our enemies and fears, including death. Knowing what we are called to do and be liberates us to focus on that and not become distracted by divine clock-watching or other things.
Before leaving the “what” issue, let me emphasize one other aspect of our call. As the first chapter of Acts shows and as is clear in many other ways, it is also tempting for Church people to become spectators rather than active agents of God’s grace, truth, justice, and hope. When Jesus left, his first followers had to be prodded into action and out of their Heaven-gazing spectator poses. That is still a common situation. Much of God’s work in Christ goes undone by people who profess to be followers of Jesus because we are gazing into Heaven rather than entering into fellowship with people around us.
How does that call affect what we do as a Christian congregation and the people around us? We are called to give evidence about Jesus Christ to people who need that evidence if they are to know Him, and thru Him, to know God fully. Yes, they can have a sense of God without knowing Jesus Christ, but their sense of God will be incomplete, and to that extent, less accurate, than it might be based on knowing Jesus Christ. The followers of Jesus are called to present Christ to people who don’t know Him so those people can know God fully. This is our central function.
We present Christ to the world by presenting ourselves as agents of His life, ministry, death, and resurrection. By living as agents of His humanity, humility, compassion, love, devotion to God, truth, joy, and sacrificial death, we show people God’s plan for how we should live before Him and with each other. That is what Jesus did. Jesus lived as God’s Person of compassion, love, devotion, truth, joy, humility, and sacrifice, and we are called to live before God and love God and others as followers of Jesus Christ (meaning in His name). In other words, our call from Christ means that we live for Christ, live by the example of Christ, for the purpose of Christ, and in keeping with the will of Christ.
Our actions as followers of Jesus Christ will work, for better or worse, to give people clues about who God would have them become in Christ. Because the first followers knew Christ personally, their actions were persuasive clues about what Christ said, did, and the purpose for how He lived. Because we know Christ by faith, our actions can be persuasive clues about these things. We are called to be witnesses about Christ. Our actions provide the substance of our testimony and show whether we know Christ or not.
We accomplish our call and overcome the challenges associated with it by the power and leadership of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is both the power for our actions and the guide for what we are to do and how it is to be done as witnesses of Jesus Christ. We are not smart enough, kind enough, or anything else enough to love as Jesus did, live as Jesus did, sacrifice as Jesus did, or do anything else that Jesus did. However, the Holy Spirit is able to equip us to be effective witnesses about the life of Jesus, love of Jesus, power of Jesus, and devotion of Jesus. Remember that Jesus lived, prayed, and loved in the power of the Holy Spirit. We cannot do better than that.
Guided by the Holy Spirit, let us meet every person and situation as witnesses of Jesus Christ. Strengthened by the Holy Spirit, let us confront every temptation and respond to every trial as witnesses of Jesus Christ. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, let us encounter broken, bruised, oppressed, and guilt-ridden people in the name of Jesus Christ. Let us comfort grief-stricken people in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us confront every agent and system of sin that oppresses people in the power of the Holy Spirit. Where there is pain, let us heal by the Spirit. Where there is fear, let us encourage by the Spirit. Where there is loneliness, let us comfort by the Spirit. Where there is need, let us meet that need by the wisdom and in the power of the Holy Spirit. And where there is despair and defeat, let us lift people to live with resurrection hope over every situation and every setback in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We have been called by Jesus Christ to be His witnesses. The Holy Spirit will guide and strengthen us for this great effort. This is the highest living we can do. Let’s get on with it for God’s glory, in obedience to Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.