"Loving God and One Another"
Sermon for December 13, 1998
What’s the purpose of this church? How do we begin to even frame an answer? Let’s do that this morning by reflecting together on who we are and why we are here. I begin here because it is not enough for us to say simply "Our purpose is love." Why is that our purpose?
Is it because God is love? Even that doesn’t take us very far, does it. We need to flesh out our purpose of love, we need to try to expound it briefly in order to get away from the fuzziness of merely saying "our purpose is love." Of course, it’s true but as it stands it is not very helpful. If we really want to communicate our purpose, our language will need more definition.
Let’s say we rephrased our purpose of love this way: as loved and loving persons, we want to love God and each deeply, truthfully, fully, faithfully and transformatively. Okay, I’m sorry about that last word but transformatively means we anticipate personal change as a result of being loved and loving others. And lest we be thought of as some humanistic, mutual admiration society, we should clarify that this agenda is not our own—it is a program that we received from on high. Loving God was God’s idea when Adam and Eve were created and for Adam to love Eve was part of our original design. Made in God’s image, in the image of a God who is the purest expression of love, we are loved and loving foundationally—that is who we really are regardless of our missteps and shortcomings. We aspire to love deeply because we know that it is health to our bones, and our spirit to have deep caring relationships. It’s not all we need, but we do need that! We work at loving truthfully, because we know that an insincere love is worse than useless—it is truth that makes love honest, dependable and real. By this we affirm that love has spiritual, emotional and mental dimensions, that it engages our whole being. That leads us, naturally enough to the fully component—we, as the sons of God and followers of Jesus Christ, claim the fullness of humanity to be the proper scope of our loving. There is nothing that we are as human beings which is off limits for loving and appropriate nurture and care. Faithfully might seem redundant, already covered under truthfully—as just another way to say "dependable"—but by faithful I mean that our love is derived from revelation, from the Word of God in scripture. Faithful love is Christian love because it is located within a tradition of faith and practice. It is connected with our Christian identity both doctrinally and historically as the church of Jesus Christ. So there we have it: we seek as those loved by God to love God and each other deeply, truthfully, fully, faithfully and with the full expectation that both we and those we love are being changed by the very act of loving.
Friends, I believe that this is a fair statement of our perspective. This is where we are coming from. It is our angle, and it is foundational to all that follows, to all that is built upon it! And that which follows is known as "process," or "mission." When you and I speak of mission in this sense, we have moved beyond identity issues to answering questions as to why we exist and what we are supposed to do. Now I trust that I am speaking for many of you if I flatly assert that we, as a church, are absolutely concerned to align ourselves with the eternal purposes of God. We know what those purposes are because they have been revealed to us in Scripture. One of those purposes is this: to win the world for Jesus Christ. We are energized by the hope of saving the lost, and in increasing the glory and praise rendered to our God and our Savior.
But I don’t want to sound idealistic and naïve. As a pastor I know that I am supposed to say those things. And, if the literature on church life today is at all truthful, I also know that the people in the pew don’t hold the priority of saving the lost anywhere near as high as do the preachers. The people in the pew, God bless them, are frankly more concerned about the church meeting their needs, and their family’s needs. Much dissatisfaction, and many disputes in the church are rooted in this precise tension. The way out of this perennial impasse lies through the pathway of obedient faith: all of us need to trust that our personal needs and our families’ needs will be met by God’s faithfulness. Our part is to be obedient, God’s part is to provide and bless. Of course our needs are important to God—He made us needy and He is glad to meet our needs! So whenever the needs of the individuals and families in the church appear to conflict, we are to put the needs of the lost, of the world first. I would call this aligned love. Aligned love, one which puts the Kingdom of God first, prioritizes all those needs and shows us what to do. . . shows us the way of obedient service.
Before we move on, I want to add that I am bold to present you as seekers of obedient faith because I know your resolve to be thoroughly biblical—that means submitted to the full authority of Scripture as well as informed students of it. We are a church that values the rigors of solid exposition and self-study.
If I were to use an analogy at this point in the sermon, I would suggest that we are, as a church, engaged in a process of restoration. We are restoring, as it were, an old house. If we are wise, and we are, we will begin by rebuilding the foundation—righting the split stone foundation that mere time may have tilted, or which usage may have unleveled. We are making the structure more sound and true because we are attending to the sills—cutting out the rot and inserting healthy timbers in place. We are careful workmen because we know that the size, shape and strength of the building all depend on the condition of our foundation. Before we can move forward, we need to know that we’ve attended to first things first.
We need to revisit our purpose (to love God and each other deeply, fully, truthfully, faithfully and transformatively) because we want the unity which comes with common purpose. We must choose to major on the essentials, the majors. An immediate benefit of majoring on the essentials is that the trivial is kept trivial—we will suffer less derailment and diversion. We also should look to our attitude—Jerusalem was rebuilt because the people had a mind to build!--and while there will be some opposition from detractors, we need to purpose to row the boat, rather than to rock it! Positive criticism and active participation as humble and faithful servants is in; but negative criticism (along with back-biting, slander, unforgiveness etc.) and passivity are out. If you can’t fish, you can cut bait! United resolve brings peace. Isaiah 26:3 reads:
You will keep in perfect peace
Him whose mind is steadfast
Because he trusts in You. (NIV)
Our church can only benefit from an energetic dose of enthusiastic constancy and continuance—that would be the opposite of passivity.
Getting clear in this way is helpful in other ways, too. It is nice to know that we are not expected to do everything—just the few, worthwhile things that we are specifically gifted by God to do. We should discover those things and then do them. When we take this refreshing perspective, we also learn that there are things we won’t do because they are either outside our purpose, or they would distract us from our mission. It is also helpful to have a standard by which to make decisions, decisions that a "criterion-based" as they say. If a program doesn’t serve our purpose, or advance our mission, it may be nice, but it is not for us! When we do this we sense that we are heading somewhere, and that we are making measurable progress. Another helpful principle goes like this: no leader, no ministry—every project needs a "mother."
Here’s a little formula: an indecisive church leads to an unstable church and an unstable church leads to an inactive one. A well-defined purpose, through focus, grants power to the church. This is not unspiritual. Jesus talked about dying to self- taking up the cross and following Him as a well-defined purpose. Those who have adopted that purpose have changed the world! You will have a great impact on society if you live by your God-given purpose—a far greater impact by the way than you could typically have if you try to change the purposes loosed in the society around you. It’s practical, spiritual self-defense to daily renew your purpose, and to review your mission. Some people wake up and their sole purpose is getting through another day—that’s not life, that’s a slow death. That spirit of negativity is a great poison. It is very important that the church’s agenda not be set by whiners and chronic complainers. When they are in charge, everyone is certain to end up miserable and poor! That’s right, poor because those who are the hardest to please also tend to be most reluctant to tithe—and, too often, their gifts have strings attached. We must be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. Worshipping with those who struggle with negativity is good, letting them lead is very unwise and it frequently leads to division and strife. Let those who’ve matured, who are content in all circumstances, have leadership along with those who can strongly exhort and encourage.
No program, no strategy of ministry (except those of divine origin!) are meant to eternally fixed and immutable. No, not one. But, because they do represent us, because they put flesh upon our commitment, we should be sure that they proclaim, shout even, our purpose and mission. Simplicity is better than complexity. We should be prejudiced towards simplicity. Why? Because great is the temptation toward complexity and many there are that fall therein! When we plan together, we need to heed these simple guidelines. If we do, our choices will reflect both efficiency (doing things right) and effectiveness (doing the right things).
Okay, so our purpose is to love God and each other deeply, fully, truthfully, faithfully and with a view to personal, interpersonal and corporate change. Our mission is align ourselves with the eternal purposes of God which is to win the world to Christ—we are to be outwardly directed and not inwardly driven. Any questions? Like: what would have to change for us to come into line with this thinking? Are we ready to do so?