Sunday, January 20, 2008

Entrusted with God's Work

Texts: Titus 1:6-9; Matthew 4:12-23

THIS MORNING RIGHT AFTER THE sermon, we’ll be doing something Presbyterian churches all over the country are doing this month: We’ll be installing church officers. It’s something we even take for granted: it’s January, it must be ordination and installation time. I don’t know how it is with you, but in some churches, it’s just a matter of business, something to get over with so we can get on to the important stuff like the Scriptures, the hymns, and the prayers.

The fact is, though, that installing church officers is part of the foundation of the Christian Church. It’s part of a process instituted by Jesus Christ Himself. So we should never take it for granted or think it’s not important.

In fact, installing church leaders fits right in with this season of Epiphany. You’ll remember that "epiphany" means to "reveal [something or someone] to [someone]." Epiphany is the time when we celebrate how God revealed His Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to the world. Every year at this time, the lectionary includes a reading on Jesus calling the disciples to come and follow Him. Jesus reveals Himself to the world in the calling of His disciples-- and He continues to reveal Himself to the world through church officers and church helpers of every kind in every denomination.

Our passage from St. Matthew tells us that after Herod put John the Baptist in prison, Jesus left Judea-- the region around Jerusalem-- and returned up north to Galilee. And He began to preach: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!"

But what did Jesus mean by "the kingdom of heaven"?

The "kingdom of heaven" is the same as the "kingdom of God" spoken of by St. Mark and St. Luke. Either way, it describes the way things are when God Himself rules and reigns personally-- intimately-- in the hearts of women and men. It’s got nothing to do with geography and borders, it’s got very little to do with forms of government. The kingdom of heaven is God judging the injustice, unrighteousness, and shabbiness of human hearts on earth and changing them to reflect the obedience, goodness, and splendor of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is God’s doing, not ours. The coming of the kingdom of heaven requires us all to repent, to turn around and stop doing things our way and start doing them God’s way. The kingdom of heaven is a way of life that God brings, and He brings it by the God-Man Jesus Christ.

But God in His mercy ordained that His Son would have other men, and yes, women, to help Him bring in the reality of His kingdom. And so we see Jesus one day, walking beside the Sea of Galilee. He sees two brothers, the fishermen Simon and Andrew, casting their net into the sea. "Come, follow me!" Jesus cries out to them, "and I will make you fishers of men."

Shortly after that, Jesus calls the brothers James and John in the same way: "Come with me, and I’ll make you fishers of men!"

We say Jesus was calling Peter and Andrew, James and John to be His disciples. And so He was. "Disciple" means a student, or learner, and these men and their colleagues would learn a whole new world of things from Jesus in the next three years. But He didn’t call them just to learn. He was recruiting them to be His agents in the great change His life and death and resurrection would bring into this fallen world. Jesus was calling them to help Him bring people into the kingdom of heaven. He was binding them to Himself to entrust them with the great work of God.

I used to think that only Jesus had disciples. But no, we read in the Gospels and in history that John the Baptist had disciples and the Pharisees had disciples and all kinds of rabbis wandering up and down the length and breadth of Judea and Galilee had disciples. And the usual way it worked was-- Well, say a catalog for a local community college has just come in the mail. You look over the adult education classes, and you see something you’re interested in. Pottery-making or 19th century Victorian novels or how to use the Internet. And you ask around, and you find out that the teacher of that course is really good. So you sign up and for a few weeks you go to the community college and you benefit from the new knowledge and information.

That’s how it usually was with rabbis and disciples in Jesus’ time. A man might want to learn more about the Scriptures, so in the slow periods in the fishing business or maybe in the time between harvest and spring planting, he’d go join up with some famous rabbi and learn from him for a few weeks or months. Then when it was the busy time again with the fishing or the farm, he’d tell his rabbi thanks and goodbye and go back to his ordinary work. That’s how it was: the disciple chose the rabbi, and the disciple was with the rabbi only part time. What’s more, the typical disciple was there to learn from the rabbi, but he didn’t intend to leave everything behind and start a new profession. He just wanted to improve his knowledge of the Scriptures, maybe deepen his relationship with the Lord his God.

So you can appreciate how radical it was for Jesus to show up by the Sea of Galilee, right in the middle of fishing season, and command Peter and Andrew, and James and John to leave their professions, their families, everything they had and come follow Him. It’d be like that community college teacher knocking at your door and saying, "I’ve come to teach you astronomy, and I’m not taking No for an answer!"

And what if that community college teacher said, "I intend to make you an astronomer like me, and you’ll never go back to farming or business or your retirement hobbies again!"?

That teacher would have to be pretty compelling to get away with that-- compelling like our Lord Jesus. We read in the gospel of John that Peter and Andrew and James and John had met Jesus before: John the Baptist introduced them to Him after He was baptised in the Jordan River. And they returned to Galilee with Jesus. But they then they went back to their fishing-- until this day. Matthew says that when Jesus summoned them, they immediately dropped their nets and followed Him.

Did they realize what they were getting into? They'd soon discover Jesus wasn't like the other rabbis; He wasn't even like John the Baptist. Jesus was calling them to become His disciples not for a few weeks, not for a season, but forever. Being a follower of Jesus meant becoming a fisher of men to bring people into the kingdom of heaven. Being His disciple-- that wouldn’t be just a form of spiritual enrichment: from now on, that would become who they were.

Was this call just for those fisherman a long time ago? No, Jesus lays that eternal call on every last one of us who bears the name of Christian. But He particularly lays it on those who are called by the voice of His Church to be ordained Church officers.

As a Christian, but especially as an elder or a deacon, it is Jesus who calls you; He calls you for His purpose; and He calls you for life. Even while you labor at your weekday job, even while you enjoy your retirement, Christ has made you a servant of God, an apostle called to bring people into the kingdom of heaven.

In St. Paul’s letter to Titus, we see what an elder or overseer is supposed to be like. Whatever we do, we mustn’t read this as a list of human qualifications, as if it said, "If a man has his household in order, if he’s good-tempered and honest, and godly, righteous, and sober, he’s got the right stuff-- make him a deacon or an elder." Or, "If a woman is hospitable, upright, holy, and disciplined, make her a deacon or elder." That makes it sound as if church office is something someone deserves, like it’s a reward for good behaviour. No, what Paul is saying is, "Pastor Titus, look for people who have evidence of Jesus Christ already working in their lives. Look for people who are already following our Lord in their behaviour and conduct, whether it’s at home or in the community, in public or in private." Jesus could look straight into people’s hearts and know what they were when He called them. We have to go by the evidence of the Holy Spirit working in a person’s life when we the Church call them to ordination.

Those signs of the Holy Spirit are essential, because being an elder or a deacon is not all about budgets and plans and activities. It’s about making the local church a living model of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

We often forget that as church officers. I’ve sat in a lot of Session and Deacons’ meetings when you’d think our only job was to keep track of money. And I’ve sat on a lot of Nominating Committees where somebody will say, "Oh, let’s get ole Whatsisname to be an elder. He never shows up to church, but he’s good at fixing roofs. He can go on the building committee!"

Money is important in church life, and so are buildings and activities and plans. But they aren’t the goal Jesus has in mind when He calls you by the Church to be an elder or deacon. As St. Paul writes to Titus, elders and overseers of the church are entrusted with God’s work. And what is God’s work? God’s work is exhibiting His Son Jesus Christ to the world as the one and only way for human beings to escape the just punishment for their sins and to enter into the peace that comes though Christ alone. God’s work is instituting His kingship here on earth, and making sure everyone knows that He is King. God’s work is defeating the power of Satan in people’s lives and bringing them out of bondage to enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God.

So you, deacons and elders, you are responsible for making sure the people of this congregation are taught and discipled with the good news of the kingdom of heaven. You are ordained to equip the people of this church to take that good news into the wider world, by word of mouth and by deeds of love and mercy. You officers have been commissioned through the Holy Spirit to encourage others with the trustworthy message of Christ crucified for our sins and risen again for our new life. You have been set apart to defend that gospel and to give a gracious but confident answer to anyone who tries to deny it.

Most of all, you are called by Christ to display Christ in all you are and say and do.

Scary, isn’t it? It’s a tall order. The best of us find it hard to be blameless. Some of you may have experienced the tragedy of a divorce. Everyone knows what it’s like to have children who sometimes refuse to obey. We’re all tempted at times to be over-bearing and quick-tempered. We may not be greedy for dishonest gain, but there may have been times when we almost wished we could get away with something not quite honest. We’re not always fondest of what is good or all that upright, holy, and disciplined. If we have to have a lock on all those virtues to be called and ordained church officers, we may as well all resign!

But that would be forgetting Who it is that calls you. It’s Jesus who calls you. It’s Jesus who puts His Spirit upon you. It’s Jesus who forgives you your weaknesses and enables you to stand approved in His presence. It’s Jesus who entrusts you with the good news of the kingdom of heaven, and it’s Jesus who brings in that kingdom, sealed and guaranteed with His own blood.

When Jesus calls you to be a leader in His church, you don’t choose Him, He chooses you. When Jesus calls you to be a leader in His church, it isn’t just a segment of your life, it’s a sign and symbol of who you are in Him. When Jesus calls you to be a leader in His church, it’s not just for the time you’re actively sitting on Session or on the Board of Deacons, it’s for the rest of your life.

And you know, that goes for all of us who are called by Christ’s name, whether you are ordained or not, whether you have a special church job or not. Our Lord Jesus Christ has extended to us the benefits of His cross to all of you, to set you apart and make precious to Him. Jesus Christ has chosen you all to be His disciples; you have not chosen Him. He calls you all to forsake the evil and ambitions of this world and to live for Him instead. And for all of you, whatever your role in the church may be, His claim on you is forever.

So I charge you, all members of this congregation: Serve your neighbor in His name. Be His faithful disciples, learning more and more of Him and from Him. For the more you learn of Jesus Christ, the more you will love Him and the more you can show unbelievers what the kingdom of heaven is like in this world.

And you, deacons and elders, you have been ordained and installed to help this congregation heading always towards that goal. And so I charge you, by the new covenant made in His blood, keep faith with Jesus who called you. Hold firmly to the trustworthy message of new life in Christ as it has been handed down to you by faithful apostles and teachers. Follow your Master Jesus Christ in your ministry, teaching the good news of the kingdom and ministering to the sick and hurting and lost of this church and in the world.

And most of all, I charge you to carry out your calling in the power of Jesus Christ and not in your own. You have been entrusted with God’s work. Remember always, it is God’s work. He is the King of the kingdom, and He-- and it-- can never fail.

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