Sunday, June 27, 2010

Christ's Vision for Christ's Church

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; 16-32; Matthew 28:16-20


It's not just us, of course. So do doctors and computer programmers and football players. In the Church we have special theological words like "incarnation" and "resurrection" and "atonement." All Christians should learn them, because they say in one word what would take us preachers half a sermon to explain otherwise.

But this morning I thinking about something different, about the new and trendy words and phrases we come up with to try to keep ourselves relevant and cutting-edge. Phrases like "faith journey" and "worship experience" and "purpose-driven." Words like "missional" and "emergent" and "vision." All these terms have a kernel of meaning in them; maybe some more than others; what we must do as members of the body of Christ is make sure that those meanings match up with what the Holy Spirit has revealed to us about Christ and His Church in His written Word.

The word for today is "vision." Proverbs 29:18 says "Where there is no vision, the people perish." And it goes on to say, "but he that keepeth the law, happy is he." That tells us from the start that the true vision for God's people is always the one given by God. The Law of Moses was God's perfect picture of what life on earth would be like if His people would love Him with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and if they would love their neighbors as themselves. Where that godly vision is lost, people do what is right in their own eyes, the covenant between God and man breaks down, and the end result is death.

In Christ and through Christ, we are God's new covenant people. We are the new Israel, His body, His Church. The vision that keeps us from perishing and gives us eternal blessing Christ Jesus Himself and His perfect will. This is God's revelation for His Church in every time and place. It's not something we have to reinvent to match our particular circumstances; we can read it plainly in the everlasting words of the Holy Scriptures. Hear now the vision for the Church that our Lord Himself declared to His disciples in Galilee after He rose from the dead:

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Christ's vision for Christ's own church is that men and women of all nations should made members of His body, forgiven and saved by Him, following Him, being conformed to His image and obeying His commands. This vision is to be carried out in His authority and under His supervision, not in our power or according to our worldly ideas. Wherever the Scripture speaks of the purposes of Christ's church, it all fleshes out what it means for us to be His obedient baptised disciples, as Jesus Himself ordains here at the end of the Gospel of Matthew.
As this congregation embarks on your interim period, you will be called upon to define your vision for the church's future. I urge you to remain focussed on the vision Christ Himself has given. Make the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit your unwavering destination. From the very beginning of your interim process, I exhort you never to confuse methods and strategies with your ultimate goal, which must always be to glorify God as you add to your number and grow as faithful disciples of His Son Jesus Christ.

If you read very many Church Information Forms, you'd be shocked to see how few church vision or mission statements say anything about Jesus Christ at all. Our more liberal brethren in the PC(USA) tend to feel that the primary goal of the church is to carry out programs of social justice. But we evangelicals do Christ no honor by adopting the latest mega-church program for seeker-sensitive church growth. Or by demanding that our pastor come up with some unique new vision that somehow will work faster and better and-- you'll pardon the term-- sexier than Christ's own vision for His own church.

The trendy term for that is "vision-casting." The idea is that if the pastor is a really good vision-caster, the whole membership will get charged up with a glorious new vision of what the church should be and do, usually having to do with numbers, quantities, budgets, and so on. And that if the leadership can't or won't do this kind of "visioning," God can't or won't do anything with that church.

This process might be all right if it would leave the origin of the vision where it belongs: with God. It's no accident that the Hebrew word that Proverbs 29:18 that the King James Version translates as "vision" is rendered "revelation" in the New International Version. The vision or revelation that keeps us alive and makes us blessed is from God and not from ourselves. Making disciples by baptising and teaching people doesn't tend to conform to visionary thinking. It's plodding, ordinary, every day work. But it's the method of church growth that Jesus Himself has ordained.

But "vision-casting" by nature seems to try to go God one better. Frankly, the term itself gives me the willies. Maybe because it sounds so much like "spell-casting," which is witchcraft. Actually, "vision-casting" and "spell-casting" aren't so far different from one another, because both have to do with frail and fallen human beings trying to manipulate God's reality in spite of God's revealed will for their own profit and ends instead of for His glory.

False ministry and false visions were at the root of the disobedience that brought God's Old Testament people Israel to destruction and exile. "Woe," declares the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah, "woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!" Woe to the priests and Levites who refused to care for the people! These shepherds were to offer worthy sacrifices to make atonement for the sins of the people, yes. That was part of their work. But they were also to instruct the people in the truth of the law and build them up spiritually. As it says in Malachi 2:7, "The lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty." But the priests and Levites of Jeremiah's time couldn't be bothered to teach the message of the Lord's will to the people. If some poor slob wanted to bring a lamb to the Temple to sacrifice it, yeah, okay, the priests'd get up and burn it on the altar, but they couldn't be bothered to instruct that Jew to make sure he understand how he'd sinned against the Lord. They didn't care whether ordinary Israelites knew what their sacrifices meant in terms of blood atonement and God forgiving them their sins. As long as the tasty animals kept coming, that was the thing. The priests and Levites by law got a portion of most sacrifices, and the ordinary people, the flock of God, represented a steady income for them, not pastoral responsibility. And so the Lord's sheep were scattered and driven away. Literally scattered, for the shepherds' neglect and the people's own disobedience brought the judgment of exile upon them, and they were taken captive by Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, and scattered among many nations in the greater Near East.

But Christ's vision for His church is that people should be made His disciples. How? First of all by baptising them. Unpopular as it may seem, it is important and essential that people be formally incorporated into His body by the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is the sign and seal of our dying to sin and rising to new life by the washing of Christ's blood, shed for us on the cross. No one can be Jesus' disciple who is unwilling to commit themselves and all they are to Him in holy baptism. For those who have been baptised previously, being His disciple in a local church involves reaffirming the covenant of baptism as we formally commit to join. Truly, there is no salvation outside the church-- for to belong to Christ is to belong to His body. And to belong to the Church Universal, we must physically join ourselves with a local congregation. This is Christ's vision for His church.

Why? Because the local congregation is where the godly teaching is done! It's where the sheep are cared for and fed. But many "seeker sensitive" or "new vision" pastors go the way of the scattering shepherds of Jeremiah's time. They say that church members should feed and pastor themselves, that all the leadership's effort should go towards attracting seekers and unbelievers. But why should a church want to attract new believers if not to instruct them in the ways of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?

You may be thinking that Concord Church would never fall into that trap. I hope that's true. But there's another snare that trips up traditional churches, that's just as deadly. And that's confusing pastoral care with chaplaincy or social visiting. Yes, we pastors must be present with the people, both in times of crisis and ordinarily, house to house. But if we drink your coffee but never offer to pray with you, if we never inquire after your spiritual welfare, if we never instruct you one-on-one in the faith once delivered to the saints, if we never call you to repentance over offenses you're trying to hide, rebuke us and call us back to our Christ-given jobs! Teaching disciples to obey everything Jesus has commanded us certainly starts in the pulpit, but it doesn't end there!

But oh! said the false prophets of Jeremiah's day! Oh! say the false visionaries of our time! Don't ever talk to people about their sin! Tell them that God loves them just as they are! You'll never meet your membership objectives if you offend people!

Yes, it's true that when God loves you, He loves you just as you are. But He doesn't love you in and with and for your sins. He loves you because you are elect in Jesus Christ and when He looks at you, He sees not your sin, but the righteousness of His Son.

That's not what the false prophets ancient and modern mean, though. They mean that sin means nothing to God and He's willing to overlook it, Just Because. But the Lord Almighty says through Jeremiah,

"Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you;
they fill you with false hopes.
They speak visions from their own minds,
not from the mouth of the LORD.
They keep saying to those who despise me,
‘The LORD says: You will have peace.'
And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts
they say, ‘No harm will come to you.'"

Sound familiar? How many of you have been to the funeral of someone who spent his life despising Christ and His salvation, and the preacher inferred that the deceased was in heaven even now? I'm sure you never heard such a thing out of Harper Brady, but there are ministers those who think their pastoral office requires them to tell such lies, in order to grow the church!

The prophet or preacher who stands in the council of God will teach the people of God to hate their sin and to love the obedience of Jesus Christ their Lord. He or she will instruct the members of the church in the awesome greatness of God, who fills heaven and earth and sees everything, even the innermost secret places of our hearts and minds. The leader who fulfills Christ's vision for Christ's church will speak the word of the Lord faithfully, and let it do its work. Christ-centered, cross-focussed, law-and-gospel preaching is not as exciting as lights and sound systems and professional-quality praise bands. It's not as quick at gaining adherents as messages that promise instant prosperity and rapturous marriages and perfectly-behaved kids. It's not as "inspiring" as a five-year plan for three new campuses and a tenfold increase in church revenue. But it is effective in making disciples for Christ in His Church, for, declares the Lord, "Is not my word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?" That word of God kindles our cold hearts with love for Him and burns away in us all that is not holy and all that is not true. The word of His instruction breaks down our hard-heartedness and teaches us to hate our sin and turn to Him for forgiveness and peace.

"Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream," says the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah, "but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully." Jesus Christ has set forth His vision for His church in His Holy Word, and He commands this congregation and every other church that bears His name to search the Scriptures and find it written there for themselves. Why should we waste our time on dreams the Lord has not given and will not bless? "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," says our Lord. He has the right to determine our vision for our churches, and this He has done. He has the power to make sure His revealed will will come to fruition in His Church, and this He will do.

And so, Concord Presbyterian Church, go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything our Lord Jesus Christ has commanded us. And surely He is with you always, to the very end of the age.