In following the proceedings of the ACNA Provincial Assembly, I cannot help but notice that, for all its promise as a church in mission to a post-Christian world, our new provincial home has the occasional tendency to wade into the shallow waters of “church growth” and “mega-church” cultures with the hipster vocabulary characteristic of such fading fads. The message of the Gospel is not enhanced by trendy language or cutesy gimmicks. On the contrary, its effectiveness is greatly hindered when made subservient to such passing fancies.
The following is the transcript of a sermon I preached on May 2, 2004. I was, at the time, a Methodist minister. Reading it again today, I don’t think it necessary to change a single word to fit my current Anglican context.
Text: John 10:22-30
The Church is in a time of crisis. It is a crisis much deeper and a problem much more serious than most of us realize. The issue at the heart of this crisis is not the maintenance of some ancient code of Christian morality. Neither is it, as some have suggested, a question about the authority of Scripture. I would suggest, rather, that the center of the crisis is this man we call Jesus. The question is, are we truly being his sheep, listening to his voice, and responding to the challenge he presents to us? It is a question of the very nature and mission of the Church, the Body of Christ in the world today.
Jesus declares himself to be the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. The people of Israel in Jesus’ day said, “Well, if you are the Messiah, go ahead and tell us.” But Jesus says to them, “I just told you I was the Good Shepherd. Does that not resonate with you? Do you not understand that when I tell you that I am the Good Shepherd, I am telling you that I am the one who has come to bring together the true people of God?”
The mission of Jesus and the mission he has imparted to the Church is to call out from the midst of the world those who are lost and suffering into the fold of love, mercy, and grace which the Father has prepared for them. The people of Jesus’ day did not understand this because, as Jesus says, they were not truly his sheep. They were not being attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. They were not responding in faith to the gracious initiative of the Father in sending Jesus, to call them into this new and living way that God had prepared for them. Jesus came proclaiming the Good News in a language that could only be understood by those who, by the grace of God, would receive it.
That same Good News is the Good News which we, as the Church, are called to proclaim today. As the Church, we are the Body of Christ, having the mind of Christ, being bound as one through the Spirit of Christ. Our mission is to continue his mission, the work of the Good Shepherd, to feed the sheep, to tend the flock. Our message, to those who will receive it, is one of mercy and forgiveness; a gracious invitation to repent and become a part of a new community which the Good Shepherd laid down his life to bring into being.
But there are other voices out there today; voices from within the Church who tell us it is time to change our language, change our message, and change the very nature of who we are and the mission we are called to accomplish. There are those who blame the Church for the fact that many souls are lost and hurting. There are those who say the message the Church ought to be proclaiming to those lost and hurting is not one of repentance and new life in Jesus Christ, but a message of apology for having told them for so long that they need to repent of their sins. There are those who say that the message we ought to proclaim to the lost and hurting is one of regret and sorrow for having told them that they have to give up something in order to be a part of this community.
Each and every one of us had to give up something to be a part of this community. When God called each of us to be a part of this community, he called us to leave behind our life of sin. He called us to repent, believe the Gospel, place our faith in Jesus Christ, and be made a new creature in him.
There are voices out there that tell us that our message is antiquated, outdated, and needs to be replaced with a message of accommodation, compromise, and outright surrender. The world cannot live up to our standards. But rather than calling the world to change, we are told that the Church must change because the Church is the cause of the world’s hurt and suffering.
There is but one cause of hurt and suffering in this world. It is called sin. The Church, through Jesus Christ, has been given the divine mission to go out into the world and redeem those who have been devastated by sin. The Church is not the cause. The Church offers the cure, and that cure is Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
The joyful message of Easter is, “He is risen!” Yet, we become so caught up in the joy of that message that we miss another important detail of the story. When you read Luke’s account of the resurrection, when the women come to the tomb, the angels say, “He is risen!” But before that, they ask the women a question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
That question is a challenge to all of us. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
When we hear those voices that tell us that, as a Church we need to accommodate, compromise, and surrender to the world, it is a sign that we, as a Church, have become comfortable with living among the dead. If we have no message of hope, no message of mercy, no message of forgiveness and grace, then we have nothing to offer the world but a eulogy.
Yet, there’s more to the resurrection story. In Matthew and Mark, the women are told that Jesus “is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him.” When the disciples do see Jesus in Galilee, he gives them a job to do: “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.” In other words, “Go out there and wake up the dead! Go out there and tell them that there’s a new life available to them. Tell them that they don’t have to remain dead in their sins, but they can live again.”
Jesus Christ has opened the door to a new life. Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen. And he has gone before you into Galilee. Go, catch up with him. Go and see him. Listen to his voice. He is calling us, not to become comfortable among the dead, but to wake up the dead. Wake up the dead with the message of resurrection, of forgiveness, of love and joy and peace.
What do we say to the voices that would have us abandon our message of forgiveness and mercy for a message of accommodation and compromise? To them, we say this: Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, laid down his life for those who are lost and hurting and suffering, in bondage to sin. He has entrusted to the Church the only message that will bring those lost, hurting souls new life; and that message begins with the gracious invitation, “Repent and believe.”
If the Church has lost its passion for that message, then the Church has ceased to be the Church. May it never be! May we never lose our passion for speaking the language of the Shepherd: the language of forgiveness, the language of hope, the language of grace, and, most importantly, the language of uncompromised and unconditional love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.