26 January 2014

Reformed and Always Being Reformed

2 Corinthians 4: 1-15

Third Sunday after Epiphany
26th January 2014

Sacrament of Baptism

This is a good Sunday, the day of our Annual Congregational Meeting, to remind ourselves that the ministry of a particular church does not belong to the members of that church; it does not belong to the people who gather for worship in that particular community of faith; nor does it belong to its pastors.  It’s true that the church is not a building; it’s technically not an institution.  The church is a people.  You might recall the Avery and Marsh Sunday School song from the 1970s: “I am the church!  You are the church!  We are the church together! …The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people!”[1]  It’s true.  The church is a people.  

            But it doesn’t end there.  The church is a people who belong to God.  People, who have been loved, forgiven, blessed, called, claimed, and sent by God.  As the apostle Paul knew first-hand, to be in Christ, to bear the name of Christ, to be a follower of Christ, means, in part, that we do not belong to ourselves.  For whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:8), which means we do not belong to ourselves.  Our lives are not our own. 

            The church is a people who belong to God, which means that the church as community, as institution (with a very small “i”) does not belong to the people.  It’s not the possession of the gathered community. It belongs to God.  God called the church into being.  God still calls it into being. Forms it. Shapes it. Supports it. Cherishes it. Loves it. Forgives it. Puts up with it (!). And sends it on a mission to be an agent of grace, a vessel of grace poured out upon the world. 

            Ministry, the work of the church, is about service: serving the ongoing mission of God in the world, extending the work of Jesus Christ to more and more people.  We are called to embody God’s mercy and grace in a world that’s desperate to hear good news.
And ministry is about grace.  We are called, as Paul put it so beautifully, “so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15).  That’s the goal, that’s the mission, that’s our calling.  

            God is involved in all of this, but don’t expect it to be easy.  It’s not.  It’s difficult.  Very difficult.  It might actually look and feel like crucifixion at times.  It’s not always going to feel good.  What we’re up against “out there” in the world is formidable.  What we’re up against “in here” within ourselves is formidable.  That’s why we need to remember that it’s not about us, it’s not about what we can achieve or accomplish or will into existence.  It’s only by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this work, therefore we must not lose heart or become discouraged or fall into despair.  If we think it’s about us it’s easy to get caught up in our own personal agendas for the church, what we want for the church, what makes us happy, what serves our needs, what reinforces our worldview or ideology or values.  But it’s not about you and me.  Thank God for that.

            However, don’t be mistaken, God needs you and me. We’re partners in this ministry.  We’re all in this together. There’s no doubt about that.  You and I have been claimed and called—every one of us—by virtue of our baptisms.  We exist because we have a calling, a purpose to fulfill for the sake of the ever-unfolding drama of God’s grace.  You and I exist—right now—in order for the light of the gospel to shine, brightly, more brightly, through our dark lives.  As Paul said, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

            That light shines within us.  That light, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, shines, is trying to shine, within us, through us, in order to bring light to the dark places of the world.  This extraordinary, priceless treasure dwells within our hearts.  It’s there.  I believe it’s there; I know it is.  Within us, fragile though we may be, it’s there nevertheless.  Remarkably, God has entrusted us with this treasure, in us, in the weakness of our bodies.  We are jars of clay.  And yet God has placed this treasure in us.  Entrusted it to us. Clay jars.  Easy to crack.  Yet, in love, God risks the treasure by giving it to us, placing it within us.  And, so, we have the privilege of being the steward’s of God’s gifts.

            For, “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7).  Power.  Dunamis, in Greek, as in “dynamite” and “dynamic.”  Same root.  What is placed within us, this treasure, has power, extraordinary power.  And when it’s used, it’s empowering.  This, too, is a remarkable claim here.  Just think about this.  By virtue of God’s grace, both individually and together, we have more power available to us than we think we do.  God’s power is available to us. If this sounds scary to consider—it is!  It might be easier, safer, and simpler to think that we’re not all that powerful, then we don’t have to take responsibility for it.  But that’s not what Scripture tells us.  God places this power in us in order for us to use it. We are the conduits, we are called to let it pour through us and when this happens we discover what the power of God’s grace is trying to do with our lives, through our lives, for our lives, and the lives of God’s people in the world. 

            And when we realize this, claim this, remember this, then God can really do something with us.  When we get out of the way, set our egos to the side, remember it’s not about us, God can really begin to work in us and through us—as individuals and as a community.  Then the church is really acting like a church. Then we discover who we really are and what we’re capable of achieving, what we’re capable of accomplishing, even the hardships we’re able to face and endure all because we know there’s a deeper power at work within us, working for us and our salvation, a power that is on our side—with us and for us, continually claiming us and calling us and sending us to extend grace to more and more people, so that thanksgiving and praise might increase to the glory of God.  This is why it’s an extraordinary privilege to be engaged in the work of the church.  There’s no place like it. There’s nothing like it.

            This is what it means to be a people reformed and always reforming according to the power of grace within us.[2]  Grace is more than a theological idea or concept, it’s the power of God and this power is real and redemptive.  It’s this power at work within us and through us in the church which God continues to use for the reformation of God’s people, for the reformation of the world.

            Several years ago one of our young, budding theologians asked her mother, “Mommy, what is the church for?”  This is what a church is for: the ongoing reformation of God’s people and the world.  And it’s this power at work in us that allows a church to be dynamic, like the Spirit’s power; never static. It’s why any church exists.

            It’s why this church exists. You can see it reflected in the annual reports.  Look around and witness it here in worship.  See it in mission and fellowship and education and advocacy.  To be baptized means we have been incorporated into God’s plan for creation, it means that all of, together, have been empowered to be agents of grace, you and me, individually and together.  It’s not an option. You can’t opt out of this.  It comes with the territory.  It’s what comes after we say, “I believe….”

            God isn’t finished with us. There’s plenty of work for us to do.  We’re still being loved and forgiven and claimed and called and sent to love and forgive and claim and call and send, extending grace, shining our light in the dark places of the world.  To be part of this work, to do this ministry, to be part of the church, to be in this ministry together—Thank you.  Thank you, God!  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

[1] “We Are the Church” (1972), written by Richard K. Avery & Donald S. Marsh, set to the tune: PORT JERVIS.
[2]Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda.  “The Church reformed and always being reformed” is a motto of the Reformed theological tradition and a core conviction of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

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