Friday, November 13, 2009

B, Pentecost 24 Proper 28 - Hebrews 10:19-25 "Christ in Church"

We are experiencing birth pains! Since Christ ascended into heaven the earth has continued to crumble into chaos. The devil, having lost his universal authority because of the cross, now discharges his limited powers of destruction on sinful humanity and creation, and because of this, we experience birth pains.
We're not sure how advanced these birth pains have come, that is only for God to know. But Jesus tells us that end times will be quite tough — murder, hatred, political turmoil, and the upheaval of the natural world, will test all people. Christians will be captured and called to account. Many will be severely punished because the politically incorrect proclamation of the gospel will not be tolerated in any way, shape, or form.
Things are becoming tougher for us already! As our society and the advertisers tell us we're moving towards a utopia, evolving into perfection, the reality is our technological know-how and consumerism are moving us further away from perfection. These products of human knowledge reveal, more and more, humanity's failings in caring for creation and each other out of reverence for God. How much worse things will be allowed to fall, only God truly knows! But as times get tougher, Jesus also promised that whoever stands firm to the end will be saved! (Mark 13:13)
So we are encouraged by God's word in the letter to the Hebrews chapter 10 verses 19 to 25.
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:19-25)
In these words from God we are encouraged to endure in the things of God. We are encouraged to continue gathering together as church, and to not stop doing so, as many have decided to do in these troubled times.
But what is church; into what are we called to gather? And what does coming to church do; what is the function or purpose of church?
Firstly on the question: What is church? Jesus' conversation with his disciples tells us very quickly what church is "not".
We hear in Mark chapter 13 verses 1 to 5, 'As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!" 2 "Do you see all these great buildings?" replied Jesus. "Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." 3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?" 5 Jesus said to them: "Watch out that no one deceives you."' (Mark 13:1-5)
So all our massive church buildings—of which this one is one of the most insignificant in the scheme of church architecture and size—are not the church. And even if this building was the biggest in size or housed the most important ministers or bishops it still is not necessarily the church. However, what happens inside it might be church!
Even the temple structure in Jerusalem, which the disciple marvelled over before Jesus, was not to be church. Years earlier those who put their faith in the temple building were sorely warned by God through Jeremiah when he stood at the gate of the Lord's house and there proclaim this message: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, "This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!" (Jeremiah 7:3-4) But the people didn't listen and didn't trust God but rather trusted in themselves and the building, making it a den of robbers (v.11) Therefore, God thrust them from his presence into exile. And then in Roman times not long after Jesus' ascension Jesus prophesy came true that, Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down. So the Jerusalem temple was flattened by the Romans in 70ad and to this day has never stood again. So buildings are not the church?
Surprisingly also traditionalism and institutionalism are not church either. Great gatherings of people into denominations such as Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism, Baptists, Unitings, or the other traditions in the church, are, in themselves, not church either.
However, the hint we need to discover just what church is, is once again with Jesus and his word as the Jews interrogate him in the temple! Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." (John 2:19)
The church is this: God's faithful believers gathered around Jesus — past, present, and future — according to the means laid out in his word. And where "this" happens in buildings and in denominations amongst groups of people, there is the church. The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord, destroyed and raised again in three days.
So we have dealt with what the church is; now secondly, the question of function and purpose.
Many today practise not meeting together, thinking they can be Christian individuals in isolation. They say, "Jesus lives in me, why should I go to church?" But if we take the logic of this statement to its conclusion we see it's as silly as saying, "the love of my marriage partner lives in my heart so why should I live with him or her!" Or it's as unrealistic or foolish as a man setting up farm in the desert, thinking he can grow fruit without water!
Although people do live apart in marriages, and farmers struggle to farm without water, and Christians do survive in isolation, we know it's not the ideal situation. And given the opportunity we welcome what we know to be right. God encourages us in what is right in the book of Hebrews to not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.(Hebrews 10:25)
Woe to those who lead people to believe that they can be Christians without being connected to the very things that make us Christian. We all know how easy it is to explain away the wise habits of meeting together and fall into the foolish habits of thinking we're Christians, just because we think we know who Jesus is. The fruits of these misguided habits quickly reveal a lack of trust in God and his word, so although they might know him they don't trust him and fail to participate in his fellowship, life, and timeless community, and are missing out on getting his gifts of faith, assurance, and eternal life.
As our chaotic world experiences more and more birth pains before the Day arrives when Christ returns to gather those participating in him, let us not give up encouraging each other to enter through the curtain into God's presence. The curtain being Jesus' body and blood sprinkled into us at baptism. Let us confidently gather in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit trusting we are washed with pure water, so that we might draw near God and be cleansed of our guilty consciences. Let us unswervingly give our ears every opportunity to be filled with Christ's faithful promises in his word, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit who also comes to us through the Word. And let us encourage each other in these habits of Jesus; these routines of righteousness, promised in the Word of God.
Like a mother who has endured the birth pains and received her reward at the end, you who remain in the wisdom of Christ, in his word and ways, will celebrate with much joy as you shine with all the brightness of heaven, and you who wisely lead many into Christ's routines of righteousness, will glow like the stars for ever and ever. In fact even greater, we will shine just as Jesus shines. Amen.