The Body of Christ, the Family of God

Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 2:19-22

As we begin this Lenten season, I will be starting a sermon series that should take us through Pentecost, called “On Being the Church.” my hope is that this is of benefit to you, as you seek to serve and love Jesus Christ.

I also want to mention, because so many times I’ve said I’m not preaching from or leading a Bible study on Revelation until I’ve been twenty years in the ministry, that doesn’t mean I can’t bring an example from it.

In the Book of Revelation, we find that Jesus is walking among the candlesticks. And the candlesticks are the churches. And as he goes up and down the aisles of these churches, he observes their worship, and most of all he observes their hearts. And then he dictates seven letters to the churches whom he has observed, and there he points out their weaknesses and their strengths.

Today as I preach, I want you to visualize Jesus going down the aisles of our church here. And it is not just that he is going down the aisles but he’s also going down the rows, because that’s what he’s interested is in – your hearts.

Now if we were to imagine, what kind of letter might Jesus want to send to First Presbyterian Church in Wapello? I know he would find things to praise the church for. Our missions – the Clothing Depot, for instance, all of the various things we do with the Food Pantry, the outreach to the kids. We have a Minute for Mission every month where we tell about various things that this church does.

I think he would praise us for our heart for worship. He would praise us for the service that many people give in this church.

But we know we’re not a perfect church. What might Jesus need to bring up as weaknesses and problems? You would know better than I.

But I want to ask you, what is the church? Years ago, we adopted an eighteen-word mission statement that we publish each week on the cover of our bulletin, but I wonder how many really see it or know it. Here at First Presbyterian Church in Wapello, we are called “To love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves, recognizing the family unity of the people of God.”

That’s not hard to remember is it? Our church is a family called by God. We’ve talked about calling before, and we will again, but today, I want to talk about the church as a community – a family! – called by God to love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves, and to be unified in the bonds of love like a family.

Could I ask you to repeat this mission statement with me at this moment? Are you all ready? “At First Presbyterian Church in Wapello, we are called to love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves, recognizing the family unity of the people of God.” That’s who we are, a community, and a family.

But our culture teaches us to think, not in terms of community and family, but as consumers. Consumers think about how they will benefit from what they spend their money on. My wife Pauline remembers how her parents used to argue over how much money her father gave to his church. He wanted to tithe, but Pauline’s mother questioned whether he was really getting that much value from the church.

I heard in a radio program this week about a book by Tom Nelson called Ecclesia (which is the Greek word for church, and it means “called out”). In that book he gives four different ways in which church is perceived by some people.

The first way he gives is the church as a filling station. You know – I fill my car with gas every week, and every week I come to church to get a little bit of inspiration, to enjoy the music, and then a week later I need a little boost and so I’m there again, and I fill my tank and then I can wait until next week. The church as a filling station.

The second is church as a movie theater. You come and you want to know what’s happening, because you want to know whether or not it’s worthwhile attending church. I have invited someone to church at one time, and knowing I was a pastor and a preacher, he said, “Well, what are you speaking on?” In other words: if it’s exciting, or if the sermon topic seems to be one that I might be interested in, then I might actually attend.

And so what you have is you get to go home and play the role of Roger Ebert. You are the church critic, and you find lots that you like, perhaps, and you find lots that you don’t like, perhaps. And if the don’t-likes outweigh the likes, then you may not come back.

There’s an old story, but I love to tell it, because it’s about Baptists. If you’re a Baptist here today, in your past, I hope you have a sense of humor. You know, my wife was a Baptist before I corrupted her, so I think I can be comfortable telling this story.

There was a Baptist washed up on an island, and he was there for twenty years all alone. When he was found, one of the people in the crew that found him said, “Show me around the island,” and the guy said, “I’m glad to.”

While walking, that crew member noticed that there were three huts, and the he said “Now what’s this?” The Baptist pointed to one and said, “that’s where I live”. He pointed to a second and he said, “That’s the hut where I go to church”. And the visitor, the crew member asked, “What’s the third hut?” And the guy responded, “That’s where I used to go to church.”

So what you are is a movie critic. “OK, I liked it” or “The sermon wasn’t that interesting”. “I grade the choir and I give it an ‘A’ – the music is wonderful. The sermon was maybe a B. As far as the sacraments – well, I don’t feel I can grade that, because they came from God.” And so it’s church as movie theater.

A third view of church is those who think of it as a drugstore. I know that we tend to call the church a hospital for sinners, and that’s true. But there are those that think of it more as a pharmacy.

“I need therapy. I’m going through a bad marriage. I have difficult relationships. I am in trouble, and I need just the right prescription, and I hope that the pastor says exactly what I need to hear for my need. And if not, I’m not sure that I’ll be back next week.” And so that is the church for some people, as a Walgreens.

The fourth view of the church is by far the most common, and it’s the church as a retailer. It’s a Target or Walmart. “Where can I go to get a pretty good bargain at a low price?” That’s what you really want. I read this week a cute story about a little boy. His mother saw him after church one Sunday, eating chocolate she hadn’t given him, and said, “ Where did you get that chocolate bar?”

He said, “I bought it with a dollar you gave me.” She said “I gave you that dollar because that was for church!” He said, “I know, mom, but the pastor met me at the door and he let me in free.” So what you have is church as a retailer. “Where can I go, I want a family ministry” or “I want to have a good music program.” Or “I want something like this but I’m not necessarily committed to what’s happening now.”

I need to tell you that not all these things are inherently wrong. We have probably all attended church for one reason or another that fits into this category, and I might say also that if these are the reasons that you attended church at one time, or that someone else attends church, it is still better that you attend than not attend.

But if that’s your only reason, then folks, you’re missing it, they’re missing it. We are not just a filling station. We’re not just a movie theater. We’re not just a place where you can get a good deal. We are a body. We are a community called by God to be family.

They say you can pick your friends but not your family, and that’s true even in the church. You don’t get to pick your brothers and sisters in Christ. God chose each one of us, and we need to trust that He knows what He’s doing – even if I don’t understand why He chose me.

Today I want to lift your vision to something higher – to something better than simply coming without your understanding what participation in the body is really all about. Because we are chosen. We are one body, even while many parts.

Why do you think that God in the Old Testament had such things as festivals, where they’d all go to Jerusalem together? God was saying is we need solidarity, because it says in Ephesians, clearly, that you are called to Jesus Christ, you are called to community.

Even Jesus himself, while he was here on earth, he didn’t call one disciple, he called twelve. He had them with him almost all the time for three and a half years. And after he rose again and was ascended, the first thing that happened was that they gathered together, the believers, as a body, and they worshiped God. They broke bread together every single day. They were with each other. It’s an amazing vision that’s there in Acts.

There is no such thing as that lone Christian out there who is doing his own thing between him and Jesus. You are called to oneness as the family – the household of God, as it says, and a holy temple in the Lord. You yourselves are like a living stone. We are being built up as a spiritual house.

Through Jesus Christ we have a cornerstone, it says in verses 20 and 21 of Ephesians 2. Elsewhere Jesus is called a capstone, like in an arch, that holds everything together, that will never crack or crumble. Our structure will be firm as long as we lean on and are dependent on Him.

But here’s the point. What God says is “I’m building a tabernacle; I’m building a temple.” As with all of these different stones, He calls you and shapes you, and He brings you into community to be connected with other believers in this temple that He is building.

And He takes some stones that are older and He puts them next to stones that are younger, and some stones have different colors or have come from different backgrounds, and God puts them together in a temple so that they can worship in a very special way. That’s what God does.

One of the things I love about being Presbyterian is that, of all the denominations that are out there, our denomination is the one that has the most people that have come from other church backgrounds. They come to the Presbyterian church, they see the people of the “middle way,” people that can work with you regardless of whether you were Methodist, Catholic, Baptist, fundamentalist – or even grew up Presbyterian. We all come together. And that worship is a very special thing.

You find some Christians who say, “Oh, you know, we’re spiritual, but we would never go to church or be loyal to a church.” One of my best friends still, and someone who was a groomsman at my wedding, his name is Mike, he’s one of those kind of guys.

He believes in Jesus Christ as Savior, but he hates the institution of the church. And other friends that knew him, when he came to our wedding, and he set foot across the threshold, they all looked up to see if lightning was going to strike. Twenty-seven years I’ve been working on him, and I still haven’t gotten him to affiliate with a church community, but I’m going to keep trying.

So they say, “We’re spiritual, but we would never go to church or be loyal to a church.” You have to say, “Oh no, you don’t.” That’s like, well, it’s like walking along the street and you see a lone stone on the side of the road there, and somebody says, “Show me your building!” You point to that stone. “Well, here it is.” But it’s just a stone – one stone. And it’s a shame, to be so isolated and alone.

All too many believers have withdrawn from a local fellowship like ours. But the Body of Christ can only help each member grow when each member follows God’s call to meet in groups on a regular basis.

I’ll be the first one to say, and I’ve said this before from the pulpit, you don’t need the church for salvation, to go to heaven. I fully agree with that whenever somebody gives me that as an argument. That’s true. All you need is to believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and God raised him from the dead for your salvation, and it will be true.

But if you’re going to grow in your faith at all, if you’re going to strengthen your relationship, if you’re going to find a way to reflect the love of God, you need to do it within the community, within the family of God.

Sometimes when people say, “You know I am Christian, but I don’t go to church” or “I’m not committed to a church,” they say it because they have been hurt. And people remember that hurt. That hurt may be because they felt work wasn’t recognized, or because they got into an argument with someone, or something was said that hurt them.

I found an illustration of this online this week, about Nancy Reagan. She said that her dad went to Sunday school one time, and quoted some verses better than the pastor’s son, and yet the pastor’s son got the Bible – because after all, he was the pastor’s son.

And this boy, Nancy Reagan’s father, grew up and never attended church again, at least when he became an adult, because he couldn’t forget that hurt. There are others that we know that have been hurt. We need to help those people lay it down and let it go. We need to find them, love them, reach out to them, constantly, continuously, reminding them that they are part of the family of God.

They need the church, and we need them. We don’t want to allow a bad experience to keep someone from what God wants to do in their life connected with other saints. That reconciliation is part of our call as Christians and church.

We need to encourage those who make church a lower priority, and attend worship with the family only sporadically. I read a short story recently that went like this: One day a father said to his little girl, early Sunday morning, “It’s Sunday morning. we’re going to pack a lunch, and we’re going to go and we’re going to have a picnic, and then we’re going onto the lake”.

But his little daughter loved church and she said, “Daddy I want to go to church.” He said, “Well, we can worship God just as well out on the lake as we can in church, can’t we?” And she said, “Yeah, but we won’t, will we?” And we don’t, do we?

I know that there are many distractions in this world today. But in this area, for instance, there are many farmers with never-ending chores, and I know some who come faithfully almost every single Sunday, and they set an example for us all and it should be celebrated. We need to encourage other folks to do the same.

You were saved to fit into a building, and if God has led you here, it is this church building that you are to fit into, because you are not a lone stone along the highway somewhere. We come together as a community, and our text says that we are a household, and citizens of God’s kingdom. And we are, in fact, in the end, all equal before God.

This also is something I love about being Reformed, and a Presbyterian. It’s so egalitarian. Sometimes, at a committee meeting, or a luncheon, or whatever, the person in charge will look around and find me and say, “Can you lead us in prayer, pastor?” I’m glad to lead in prayer, because I love praying.

But actually, my prayers are not any better than anybody else’s. We all, as sinners, are coming in the name of Jesus. The ground is level. We are all equal before God, with one Lord. I have no special clout with God. The only person who is that close with God is Jesus Christ, and if you pray in His name, then your prayers are just as effective and will be heard by Him.

We all have a role to play in the body that is this church, and according to Paul, we are to recognize even more those that have a lack of a sense of it. We need to cherish all the people who work without fanfare, and behind the scenes; and we need to celebrate them every chance we get – even if it might make some of them a little uncomfortable.

And when someone cannot join with us in worship anymore – whether temporarily or permanently due to age or disability – we need to reach out, lift up, and remind them that they are still part of the family of God here, and that we love them and cherish them. We need to make them feel a part of the Kingdom. Many still have great advice, from much experience, to share, if we only ask the right way.

One of the ways we strengthen and celebrate this community is through the sacrament of Communion. We remember Christ’s sacrifice and love for each one of us, and how His death and resurrection make us one with Him. We are nurtured by His Spirit, and empowered by His love through this sign and seal of God’s grace.

And after we partake of it here, an elder goes with me to share it with those who are currently separated from us. During those visits, we always try to communicate how much they mean to us still, how much they are still part of the family.

There is a project that I have begun, with the help of many others here. I am hoping in the coming weeks to be able to share with you video clips of interviews with some of our members – older, younger, guys, gals, and people who are here regularly, and people who cannot be here at all.

My prayer is that through these efforts, these videos, new relationships will be established, and that old ones will be reinvigorated, as we hear what it means to them to be disciples, and to be the church.

Through this series on being the church, may God bless you and strengthen your understanding and your desire to partake of the life of this church – His church! – in ever-growing ways, so that you begin to look for opportunities to show Christ’s love, and bring others into this family of God..

May you reach out with His love, and share the good news of the Gospel as you give Him praise and glory, for His mercy and His grace that have been poured out on each and every one of us.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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