Anchor Sunday School Class
by Bob Marsh
WHY IS THE CHURCH IN THE WORLD? PART I
The jarring sound of the telephone’s raucous ringing yanked me out of a somnolent state of being, causing me to stumble in the dark, step on a misplaced bottle cap, quickly glance at the clock and note to my dismay that it was 3:00 AM. I had been roiled by such midnight interruptions before, often by some inebriated soul seeking a financial favor in order to continue imbibing in whatever it was that had zonked him. And there it was: a raspy voice, slurring words, and the typical pledges to “be in church next Sunday,” “give a special offering to the building fund,” “and turn over a new leaf,” if only you, pastor, would lend me $50.00. My suggestion that he call the Methodist pastor down the street elicited the rapid reply: “I called him and he told me to call you.” Quickly confessing my pre-conversion vocabulary that described my Methodist counter-part, I asked this interloper where he was located. He had jumped the curb in front of our church, as others had over the years, knocked down the stately sign (we did keep several on hand for such occasions), and was parked on the front lawn. Not a good thing! Fearing that he would continue to drive, I told him to wait, hastened to the scene, found him slumped over the steering wheel, grabbed the keys, and began the tedious process of striving to communicate. After a few minutes of shaking him and calling for him to wake up, he began to speak, and I will never forget his penetrating question and invidious gesture. Pointing to the imposing church steeple, well lighted, he sneeringly asked: “what is this all about? Why do you spend so much money on that? Why all of that stuff?”
Yes, such a question asked by one who probably had no idea where he was or had been or was going, should not be taken seriously. I took him seriously, for it was a haunting question, one that demanded a thoughtful answer. The Church: What is it all about? That question is asked by many different souls in many more favorable settings, but it is asked: “Here is the Church, see the steeple, open the door, there are the people. SO WHAT?” As disquieting as the question may be, as much as it causes our defensive mechanisms to go into high gear, and as much as we would like to shout back “take your cynicism of the church and get lost,” we are called on to answer those questions, not with pious pontifications and traditional talking points, but with humility, a willingness to listen, and a determination to give Biblical intelligent answers. “Why are we as the Church here? What is the mission that will justify our existence? Are we doing what we were placed here to do?”
When one has been ministering in and through the church for many years, some challenges facing the church become crystal clear. Such as, the Church’s challenge to UNDERSTAND ITS FUNCTION IN THE WORLD.
Any careful reading of the Gospels will smack the reader with the obvious fact that Jesus was determined to make His hearers understand the nature of His mission, why He was sent, and what He was calling them to be and do. What thunders forth from His teachings are the many figures He used to answer the question: “What are we as Church supposed to be and do?” He told His little company that they were the SALT OF THE EARTH. They were to be the LIGHT OF THE WORLD. He had turned over the KEYS OF THE KINGDOM. He compared His own work to that of BREAD and of WATER. He said that the kingdom was like LEAVEN, and that He had come to cast FIRE on earth. At first the variety of these figures is overwhelming, but clear insight comes when we are gripped by the reality that they all have in common this truth: each represents some kind of engagement, some sort of penetration. The purpose of the SALT is to penetrate the meat and thus preserve it. The function of light is to engage the darkness. The only use of the keys is to penetrate the lock. Bread is nothing unless it becomes involved in the body, and the same is true of water. Leaven penetrates the dough to make it rise. FIRE continues only as it reaches new fuel, and the best way to extinguish fire is to CONTAIN IT.
“SO WHAT?” The Church is never true to itself when it is living for itself. The nature of the Church is such that it must always be engaged in finding new ways by which to transcend itself. The main responsibility of the Church is outside its own walls in emulating the thrust of Luke 19:10, “seek and to save that which was lost.” That clearly means the Church must GO OUT from the comfortable confines of an ecclesiastical institution. The function of the Church includes engaging, penetrating the world outside the building called “The Church” with the good news of God’s love, Christ’s redeeming ministry, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Certainly Christians must come in to study, worship, care for one another, but they do so only that they may become prepared to GO OUT with greater effectiveness and power. In Luke 4:16-21, and Matthew 25:31-46 (mix in the entire letter of James) we are given marching orders that can be fulfilled only by GOING OUT. Mark 6:7 states “He called to Him the twelve and began to SEND THEM OUT.” How about Luke 10:1, “He sent them on ahead of Him.” And who among us is not familiar with Matthew 28:19-20, “GO OUT!” Acts 1:8 not only is specific in where they are to go, but begins the book of THE ACTS OF THE LIVING CHRIST WORKING THROUGH THE CHURCH IN THE POWER OF THE SPIRIT. I loved what I saw once in leaving a Church service, a sign: WE HAVE MET TO WORSHIP THE LIVING CHRIST, NOW GO AND HONOR HIM BY SERVING OTHERS. Today’s Church must be on constant alert from the suffocating danger of “business as usual,” or settling down into a comfort zone of being an “ecclesiastical merry-go-round,” plenty of motion but not much progress.
When we served the International Church in Stuttgart, Germany, we had the privilege of ministering to many service men and women. An outstanding Sunday school teacher, an army major, would often pray “Lord, help us, as good soldiers of the cross, be true to our marching orders.” He was on target, for one of the most amazing facts about the early Church was its fundamental similarity to a military company, an army of the Lord’s. Indeed, military language can be found throughout the New Testament. The concept of the Church as an army and Christians as soldiers for Christ spoke of the mood of men and women whose responsibilities were of the same demanding character as those of enlisted persons. In Philippians 2:25 we read of “Epaphroditus my brother and fellow workers and fellow SOLDIER.” Paul encouraged young Timothy to “endure hardship as a good SOLDIER of Christ Jesus (II Timothy 2:5). He spoke of “Archippus our fellow SOLDIER,” (Philemon 2). He exhorted the Ephesian Church to “put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:110.” Among the weapons are THE SWORD of the Spirit, the HELMET of salvation, and the SHIELD of faith. All to be used by SOLDIERS in the spiritual warfare facing the true Church. (Hebrews 4:12; II Corinthians 10:4; I Timothy 6:12) are some of the verses admonishing the Church to wake up to the fact that when one becomes a child of God, that person is enlisting in a spiritual army, the CHURCH, and the Christian life is going to be SPIRITUAL WARFARE. Victory is assured, but the spiritual battles can be brutal. As we march off to the battles, hold on to Revelations 12:11, words spoken of our spiritual ancestors and must be spoken of us, “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony….”
Some today may prefer a cushion to a cross, and may think of “death to self” as an awfully quaint idea that might apply to monks living in cold cloisters, but “death to self?” gets in the way of our narcissistic and often hedonistic life styles. Bonhoeffer said it well; “When Christ calls us, He calls us to come and die (to self).
So we who have decided to “receive Him (John 1:12),” and “confess Him and believe in Him (Romans 10:9, 10),” are true to His calling on us when we commit ourselves to BEING what He has called us to be, and DOING what He has placed in the world to do: His body, His company of the committed, the family of Christ, going into the world to reveal Him and make Him known. (I Peter 2:9-10). For Peachtree Presbyterian Church, these are good days to reflect on the confused question of that “inebriated on-the-church-lawn” critic: “Why are we here, and what is it the living Christ would have us do to make Him known to this city?”
Webmaster, Ryland Scott
© 2019, Ryland Scott