This is my final sermon a pastor of First Baptist Church Meaford.
The time has come for my last message to the church. I wanted to share something that would be helpful for the church as you look to the future and at the same time remain faithful to the passage we are looking at in Romans. Thankfully, Paul as he concludes his letter to the church at Rome, says the same things that I would like to say to you. As I think about this church and where I have tried to bring you and where I pray that you will go, there is a clear vision. Popular descriptions of what people want for their church usually revolve around more people and more money. If only the pews were filled and the offering plates were filled. These of course are good things. We want these things to happen but they are not the ultimate goal of the church. They are rather byproducts of what the church is supposed to be. What is the church supposed to be? The church is supposed to be healthy. To focus on the outward signs is like taking an extremely sick person, dressing them up in the finest clothes and giving them the fastest car and suggesting they have an enviable life. Without health, nothing else matters. The same is true of the church. In Romans 15, Paul offers a vision of what a healthy church should look like. This is more than a sermon, this is my prayer for you.
Spirit of Unity
In Romans 15, Paul continues on from the previous chapter. Once again, Paul brings up the subject of unity. It is important to remember that this is not artificial uniformity but a spiritual unity based on the things that really matter. Instead of trying to force people to act just like us, this unity comes from putting the needs of others before ourselves. There have been many large and wealthy churches that have lacked unity. These churches have been fooling themselves. It is much better to be a smaller and poorer church and be united in our love for God and love for people. Some of the most deadly diseases to ravage the human body are not the attacks from the outside such as viruses and bacteria but rather the conflicts within, whether cancers or autoimmune disorders. These diseases are terrifying because they are about the body attacking itself. This happens all too often within the church. Although we are a friendly and loving church, we can never get to the point where we are so confident that we allow these conflicts to creep in. If this church is to be healthy, it must always strive for a spirit of unity.
This church is in a time of transition and that means that there is much uncertainty about the future. What will the church look like in a year, five years or ten years? We are not ignorant of our challenges, both of this local congregation and the Christian church in western society. The times of just opening the doors of the church and having it filled with people are long gone. People seem less interested and God and less willing to commit. We can look at just the facts and begin to feel a sense of despair. However, every generation has had its challenges even if the specific challenges have changed. It certainly was no easier in the first century than it is in the twentieth-century. So how have we survived as church? Christianity is not a faith of despair, it is a faith of hope. This is central to who we are as Christians. Paul in this passage, describes God as the God of hope. That is who he is and what he does, he brings hope. Paul’s prayer is that the church would overflow with hope. Not just to have a glimmer of hope in the face of an otherwise hopeless situation, but to overflow with hope. What is hope? Hope is the conviction that our future is not limited by the circumstances of the present. How does that work out? Think about the cross of Jesus. People watched Jesus die a painful and humiliating death. Logically, that should have ended the movement. At the time, the disciples did not fully understand what was happening but they at least had faith God could do something. And on the third day, Jesus was resurrected. There was nothing on Good Friday to suggest that Easter Sunday was coming. Nothing but the fact that God is the God of hope. For you, for your family, for your church, you may feel some discouragement about the present. God is the God of hope and he wants you to overflow with hope at the possibilities of what might be in the future.
Paul has a great desire that the church be complete in knowledge. That does not mean that we know everything. It means that we know what we need to know. How deep does this knowledge go? Paul’s expectation is that we be able to instruct one another. The vision of the church is not that there be one pastor who is trained and the rest of the people listening to what they have to say. The ideal is that everyone in the church is growing in knowledge and is instructing one another. But does that not sound rather dry? After all, church is not school and not everyone enjoys studying. Besides, we want a relationship with God and not just all that “booking learning.” I understand that but how can we have a relationship with someone if we know nothing about him. We need to know who God is and what he has done for us. If God’s greatest act of love is the giving of Jesus, we need to know as much as possible about him. If we enter into a relationship with God through a specific way, then we need to know how we do that. The knowledge we seek is not just a collection of theological concepts for the sake of studying, but knowledge of God and his will for us. Living in a world that is continually offering alternatives to God and to the Bible, we desperately need this knowledge in order to know what is true and what is false.
One of the activities that Paul stresses is that of preaching the Gospel. This is something that many Christians find intimidating and many non-Christians find offensive. It would seem that we are agreed that it is a bad idea. Except for the fact that it is essential to the life of the church. I think the concerns of both groups are based on a misconception. What both groups don’t want is a forcing of one’s beliefs on another person, as if we could convert a person by being pushy and aggressive enough. That was not Paul’s style and it should not be ours. What we know of Paul’s interaction with non-Christians is that he had conversations with them, he listened to their beliefs, he treated them with respect and looked for places of agreement. That does not sound very offensive. It is not the job of the church to go around and convert unwilling people. It is the church’s job to proclaim the truth. People are free to accept or reject that message and we must respect their decision. But we cannot keep the truth of Jesus to ourselves.
The final thing we see as a description of the activity of a healthy church is that of generosity. This is something we see in a number of Paul’s letters. Paul was involved in a project in which he was raising funds to bring back to the poor Jews of Jerusalem. My interpretation is that this money was going to the Jewish Christians. You might think that is less impressive because they were fellow believers. We need to understand the context. The truth is that Paul experienced much more trouble from Jewish Christians than he did from traditional Jews. The Jewish Christians did not understand what he was doing with the Gentiles and they often sent teachers in to undo the work of Paul. They did agreed with Paul’s practice and theology and they caused Paul great grief. And yet Paul did not respond with revenge but with generosity. The principle that we see is that the purpose of the church is not to use our resources to make our fellowship as comfortable as possible. Our purpose is to wisely use the resources given to us by God to help those in need, to the best of our ability. The challenge is that there are so many needs and the situation can be overwhelming. But that is no excuse not to try. The point is that we do what we are able to do to try and make a difference in the world.
If a doctor wanted to find out if a person was healthy, how would they do it? They would perform certain tests, such as checking the heart and lungs and blood. The expectation would be that you would have to pass all the tests to be considered healthy. The same is true about a church. Interestingly, the size of the congregation or the size of the budget are no more part of the determination any more than the style of the clothing for the doctor’s patient. What is a healthy church? A healthy church is one that is united in faith and purpose. A healthy church is one that has a sense of hope, not because of our own abilities, but because God is the God of hope. A healthy church is one that is growing in knowledge, one whose relationship with God is based on what we know to be true. A healthy church is not one that keeps its beliefs to itself but one that respectfully shares the truth with others. Finally, a healthy church is one that looks beyond its one needs to the needs of others. Based on these tests, I believe you are a healthy church. However, like physical health, church health is something to be maintained and not something to be enjoyed just based on an earlier diagnosis. Keep examining yourselves, and seek to remain a healthy church.