Faithful to His Message, Consistent in Serving
“The Spirit and Discontinuity”
Yesterday we considered those aspects of our life as the body of Christ which should never change: servanthood, humility, and obedience to the way of the cross.
Today, I wish to look at the other side of the coin, that which was expressed by the leaders of the Reformation in the motto, “Reformed and ever reforming,” and in Baptist life by the Gainsboro principle named for the Baptist Association in England that voiced it, namely, “there is always more light to break forth from scripture.”
Each of these declarations highlights fluidity in our life as the church because the Spirit of Christ is active and alive among us, inviting us into new forms of mission and life that are essential if the church is to effectively serve as the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
As a seminarian sitting in the class on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, our professor, Dr. Carl Hendry, said to us, “The surest sign of the presence of the Spirit is not peace. It is disruption. Because the Holy Spirit is constantly present reshaping us from what we are into what Christ wants us to be.
In my own life, that has been my personal experience. As a young man, I did not want to be a minister. I had a career path laid out for my life, that I assured God would allow me to serve Christ and help others. But God did not see it that way, and I found my plans and my life disrupted by the Spirit insisting until I could resist no more. And that’s the way it has continued to be. God has continued to pull, shove, and reshape my life in disruptive ways.
When Dr. Dan Weiss retired as General Secretary and a search was begun for his successor, several people began to approach me. My response to all, but especially to God was, “No. I am happy where I am. God is blessing my work here. I don’t want to be General Secretary.” But I soon found myself in a spiritual desert. My prayers felt as though they went no farther than my lips. I was miserable inside. So I relented to the point of inviting friends who knew me and Christ to join me in my monthly prayer retreat. Over the next several months as one by one they came to pray with me, I asked them to bring a scripture that God had placed on their hearts as they came to pray with me. Without fail the scripture that was brought forth was the call of Moses. Still I would not relent.
I left for Rwanda as part of an ABCNJ partnership with Baptists there. One night I did not sleep at all, but spent the night in prayers that were the groaning of my soul asking God not to place this call on my life. The next day as we did every day, we visited churches. As we were sitting in church that morning listening to a wonderful choir, whose language I did not understand, my interpreter leaned over unbidden and said, “Rev. Medley, they are singing the call of Moses.” So the Holy Spirit once again was tossing my plans aside, creating disruption in my plans, my hopes, my will. But to all of you who are young in the faith, I want to let you know that even with the disruption obedience has brought into my life God’s plans have always been better than now.
Around the world, it seems, God is disrupting the life of the church as God calls us to minister in new ways.
Consider the story of the potter’s wheel in Jeremiah 18:1-10. “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” says the Lord. “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”
Israel is clay in God’s hand, being reshaped by the Potter to better serve. The church, the body of Christ, is also clay in the Potter’s hand. The Potter seeks clay that is supple and readily yields to the Potter’s hand. So while the inner form of the life of the church is always the same, centered in Christ her Lord, gathered at proclamation and table, rehearing and reliving the life-giving narrative of God’s great reclamation project, the outward expressions shift and change.
We forget that Paul never formed a Sunday school class; Jesus never preached a revival. Those were new forms of life and mission the church experimented with and adopted during the 19th century. Sunday schools were originally designed for children in the Industrial Age who worked long hours 6 days a week in sweatshops and factories alongside their parents. The children of the working poor had no opportunity to learn. Protestant churches, believing in the importance of each and every child having personal access to scripture, began Sunday schools to educate these otherwise uneducated youth. Likewise, in the US, revivals began as a tool, a methodology to reach the large masses of people who had moved away from the cities and towns of the East into the forests and plains of the Midwest and Plains areas.
Baptist life has been particularly fluid filled with much experimentation in order to best disciple and serve in the name of Christ. Many early Baptist churches did not sing songs other than the Psalms. Many objected to any musical instrument in the church except the human voice. Others frowned upon bringing your Bible to church because if you had not memorized scripture, if it was not alive and working within your heart, and having to read it from paper was not true worship. But now, Baptists are noted for our singing, and one is expected to bring one’s Bible to church.
Mission, which we consider essential to Baptist life and the life of the church in general – as it was said by Emil Brunner, “the church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning,” – was objected to by many of our Baptist forebears as unnecessary and contrary to scripture. This is because, in their high Calvinist theology, they believed one’s eternal destiny was predestined by God from all eternity. No human decision could change that. So mission was unnecessary. God would save whom God would save apart from any instruments of the church such as missionaries and mission societies. William Carey’s task was not easy in transforming us into a people whose name is synonymous with mission.
So from its beginnings, the church has been required to be fluid and malleable clay in the hands of the Potter who shapes and reshapes us into the vessel required for task of mission. And we know from nature and the study of ecology, that when the natural habitat changes, those life forms that are incapable of adapting die.
So, around the world, the context in which we live, serve and do mission is shifting dramatically.
Consider the huge changes in our societies that are being driven by technology and human migration. The first has made it possible for us to be present everywhere and to be truly a global community. As a result, people are exposed to widely different perspectives on everything, including faith. One of the hallmarks of contemporary culture that flows forth from this exposure is a skepticism about truth claims. It is quite common in the United States today to hear people speak of “my truth” or “your truth” and less so of “the truth.”
Claims of religious truth are especially suspect and are often characterized as intolerance because matters of religion are not subject to the proofs that our cultures expect or consider valid, molded and formed by science as we are and its principles of verifiability. In the US while we are one of the most religious countries in the world, religion is becoming more and more a “do it yourself enterprise” where one picks this from that faith, and this from another because all are equal. This has certainly impacted the life of the church in the US.
That tendency has been reinforced by the large patterns of human migration that are reshaping the populations of the nations of the world. War, famine, and economic need have all fanned huge migrations so that in many parts of the world, once dominant forms of faith that existed in a religiously homogenous context now live as one of many different practicing faith communities. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others now live in and among what was called Christendom. Now in the US, one is not exposed to just various forms of the Christian church but to other communities of faith as a living option for one’s life. That, too, is vastly changing the context in which we are called to witness, live and serve as the body of Christ.
These new influences together with the corrosive influence of materialism I mentioned last night are challenging the way we have been church in the United States. The fastest growing demographic in religion in the US is the growth of those who do not identify with any form of religion. We refer to them as the “nones” because the surveys of religious affiliations will have a long list of possibilities followed by “none of the above.” It is this last category which is the fastest growing part of the US population.
So our context is changing drastically and churches that live based on old assumptions such as, “America is a Christian nation,” or “if we build it, they will come,” or “if we simply work harder at what we have always done, as we have always done it, we will grow.” will fail.
Let me give you an example of the change we are facing through the lens of a recent plane conversation I had.
The first occurred on a late night flight from the West Coast to Atlanta. The flight did not leave until midnight and I was exhausted from an extensive round of preaching and teaching in our churches. As I took my aisle seat all I could think of was I needed to sleep and I think that even before the plane had lifted off I was asleep. But not for long! Next to me in the center seat was a young man of 20 some years who woke me as he leaned across me to order his first gin and tonic. Then he woke me a second time as he ordered his second, and then his third. By the time he had awakened me while ordering his fourth gin and tonic, he had become quite emotional and he began to apologize profusely for having awakened me so many times, concluding with, “Could I buy you a drink?” I assured him I was ok and he didn’t need to buy me a drink.
Then he launched into the story of his life and it was a tragic story indeed. He began by telling me that he was on his way home to North Carolina from Salt Lake City, Utah, where he had been arrested for drug possession. He was now out on bail returning home until he had to stand trial. He went on to say how deeply ashamed he was that he could not read. He explained that he had a learning disability that prevented him from learning to read, and he talked with subdued voice of how his experience from the first grade onward was one of shame as he failed to learn to read and then tried to find ways of hiding the fact he could not. “You can’t imagine how horrible it was every day I was in school with people thinking I was stupid, teasing me and making fun of me.” “So, today,” he said, “I still live with my mother and father; I don’t have a job. In fact both my brother and I live off our mom and dad. We are nothing but a couple of screw-ups.”
And his story of shame and self-hate continued for a while longer. Suddenly, he asks me, “And what do you do?” I said to him, “I’ll tell you if you promise not to freak out.” “Oh, it can’t be that bad,” he said. “I’m a Baptist preacher,” I responded. Throwing his hand over his eyes he sighed, “It is that bad.” Then he said something that cut me to the quick, “Then I guess you have just been sitting there judging me all this time.” So many like him believe that religious people like me are always quick to judge and slow to accept. “No, son,” I replied. “I haven’t been judging you; my heart has been breaking for you.”
“So, what do you think, Reverend?” he asked. “It’s not what I think; it’s what I know,” I said. What I know is that God loves you and wants to help you find your way.” We talked for quite a while longer about Jesus and life. As we were touching down, I gave him the name of a local Baptist church and said that this was a group of people who could help love him into a new life through Christ. “I wish I weren’t so drunk,” he said, “I would like to talk to you more.”
This young man represents the growing challenge for the life and mission of the church in US society: a young person whose life is severely dysfunctional and who is inoculated against the Christian faith because his first thought about the church is that we do not know how to love the imperfect, the flawed, the lost. Church is where you are expected to have it all together, to be socially acceptable, to be flawless. The flawed need not apply. This is an audience that is skeptical of our truth claims. But most of all they are suspicious of us for they have come to see the church as uncaring, judgmental, and hypocritical. As Anglican Bishop NT Wright states it in his book, SIMPLY CHRISTIAN, in their hearts and lives they hear an echo of a voice in their hunger for justice, the tug of spirituality, the need for community, and the presence of beauty. In each of these four things, humanity hears an echo of the voice of God calling them, wooing them. But it is only an echo.
The church is called to be a community that invites them to meet the author of that voice, the author of life, to meet the God who offers life, new life, on the basis of faith in Christ Jesus and his way. And to do that, the church cannot live as a gated community. We are called to an energetic and life-giving engagement with the world in testimony that the gospel offers a richer and more imaginative way to live where love, peace, and joy can be experienced. Where the One whose voice they hear as an echo is to be found to the delight of their hearts because it is the voice of Jesus speaking of God’s great love for them. It is the voice of Jesus inviting them into new life, abundant life. It is the voice of Jesus offering the power of resurrection life in the midst of death.
When Calvin drafted his catechism for instructing believers, he asked the question, “What is the chief end of man?” and he framed the answer this way. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
“Enjoy him forever!” That hardly fits the image of what people think we offer as the church, the enjoyment of God forever.
I don’t have a lot of clues about what ministry will look like 50 years from now, but I do know that it is shifting in character. What I do know is that the model for the twenty-first century church has to be more like the first century church and less like the twentieth century church. We must be more fluid, more willing to experiment with new forms that give life in worship, living, and service. We must be more fluid and more willing to experiment with new ways to witness to God’s great love for all and passion for the restoration of all creation that all might glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Like the first century church we must cultivate church as community, centered in Christ, nurtured in prayer and study of scripture, invited to a richer imagination of life in Christ through the word preached, and empowered by our sacred feast and the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus as God’s saving act for all of creation.
Like the first century church, we must move to the places where people gather and not remain locked inside the walls of our Christian prisons no matter how beautiful they are. Paul met Lydia at a riverside market. Peter stepped outside the house and found a gentile centurion looking for him. Priscilla and Aquila journeyed from city to city, market place to market place, synagogue to synagogue with Paul meeting people where they were. The church must go to where the hurt is, where injustice destroys and war and hate thrive.
Like the first century church we are called to risk new ways of engagement. One of our younger pastors regularly sits in his local coffee shop with his laptop open and written on the flip side for all to see is a sign that says: “free prayers.” At first people avoided him, but now people come up to him with requests for prayer, some asking him to pray right there.
In another instance, I was in a rural community out in the American West where ranches are large and people live at a distance from one another. Speaking to the pastor, I asked him how he did evangelism given the distances and isolation. “It was a big problem for us,” he said. “A problem I prayed and stewed over often. Then I realized I owned a barn I wasn’t using. I decided to open my barn to any man who had a car that they wanted to work on. They could even store the car here if the work was going to take some time.”
So every Saturday now the pastor gets together with men working on cars in his barn. Most of them have no relationship to the church, but this place has opened a door for them to ask questions about death, life, religion and God with an honesty that is refreshing. Each of these pastors is working in a new way to bring the gospel to their communities in a way that has disrupted the normal expectations of what pastoral ministry looks like.
We must be willing to risk, to gamble with new ways and methodologies like those your president, Raul Scialabba, mentioned last night about using the new media that are so prominent in people’s daily lives. This is not a time for the church to play it safe.
Dear friends, welcome the disruptive work of the Spirit, because it is a sign that you are still soft and yielding clay in the Potter’s hands. Remember, God’s plans are always better than our plans.