Today we begin a 4-week sermon series entitled, “Now and Forever: Viewing the Church Through the Lens of Charles Wesley.” The theme for each Sunday will be based on the days’ lectionary reading from either Acts of Revelation, and supported by the lyrics of a hymn by Charles Wesley. The hymn which will get special focus is “And Can It Be that I Should Gain?” one of Wesley’s most beloved but lesser-sung hymns. Today’s theme is the inclusive Body of Christ. The main point is that the church is at its best and most powerful to transform lives and communities when it includes those deemed “unfit.”
Scripture readings: Acts 11:1-8 and John 13:31-35
Hymn: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
Hymn: Jesus, United by Thy Grace
Video: “The Shift” (watch below)
Many if not most of us are familiar with the rhyme that the girl in this video was saying. Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.
When you hear that rhyme, who are the people? For my entire life, the people in question have always been people inside the steepled building. In the rhyme, the doors open to let me in and join the congregation within. That’s how I’ve always heard it.
But what if there’s another way of hearing that rhyme, one which directs our attention outwardly? Rather than the doors opening to let us see in, what if they instead open to let us go out? What if the people we’re intended to see are not those inside the building but those outside the building? Open the doors, leave the building, and see all the people…out there!
Let me ask us a question. As a local church, how well do we know the people in the surrounding neighborhoods? Do we know them at all? Do we even see them? I’ve been here almost two years, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that I don’t know anyone in the neighborhood.
The one exception is one woman who lives nearby, but the only reason I know her is because she came to us. I’ve observed various people walking or biking through our parking lot. I’ve spotted people stopping and getting food at the pantry out next to the garage. From time to time I’ve seen persons sitting on one of the benches out by the portico. One other thing I’ve noticed is that on Howard St., just a couple of houses back from 10th, there’s often a bunch of kids playing basketball in the street in front of one of the houses. Other than that, I can’t say I know or see the people who live all around us.
What would it take for us to get to know the people who live in the neighborhoods around our building? Obviously, there’s no way to get to know everybody in the neighborhood, but how about some of them? How about some of the families with children who go to Woodrow Wilson Elementary? How about the business owners and employees at the various places of business within 2-3 blocks of the church? What would it take for us to get to know them?
In answer to my own question, two words come to mind. It would take intentionality and tenacity. One thing is for sure, a guarantee if there ever was one, and that’s that we’ll never come to see and know the people around us by chance. It will only happen by design.
Here’s another question, one I’ve actually been thinking about lately. If every youth and adult within a half-mile of our church was asked to finish the sentence, “The church on the corner of Lapeer and 9th Street is the church that….,” what might they say? No doubt, some of them would probably say, “that’s the church that puts out free food in their parking lot.” How would they know to say that? Most likely because they’ve personally benefited from this particular ministry of ours. This ministry is definitely something to celebrate, and a big thank you to those of you who keep it stocked with food as well as those who’ve contributed to it. But what else, I wonder, would people who live in the general vicinity know about us, either by personal experience or observation?
I mentioned that this is a question I’ve been asking myself lately. I’m interested in knowing what kind of impact we’re having in the lives of the people who live around us; what difference we’re making in their lives. I know we’re making a difference in the lives of you who are here, but how about those who aren’t here? Because it’s my understanding that by God’s design, the church doesn’t exist for itself but for others. As part of a self-study, churches are sometimes asked to consider the question, If our church were to close tomorrow, would anyone notice? And if so, who? Other than ourselves, who would be negatively affected if our church closed shop tomorrow?
My guess is that there’s probably not a person here who’s actively against the idea of connecting with people outside of our church. In theory, we’re all for it. But there’s a hurdle that most of us, including myself, have a terribly difficult time getting over whenever we get close to it. And that’s the fact that we’re so used to being with people who look like us, think like us, act like us, smell like us, see the world through the same basic lens, and share our same basic values that there’s a part of us that just doesn’t want to upset the proverbial apple cart. We’re perfectly fine serving them or giving them things they need just as long as we can do that without having to enter into their world too deeply. We’re comfortable in our little worlds with people like us, aren’t we? What’s hard for us is going out and somehow getting to know people on their turf. That can be hard work. And it requires lots of determination and commitment. And intentionality. And courage.
In the very early stages of the church, most of the converts to Christ weren’t really converts as we understand it. The first “Christians” were Jews. They were religious people who worshipped Yahweh, who followed the Law of Moses, who went to synagogue and were familiar with the writings of the prophets. But as people took the gospel message to places beyond where mostly Jews lived, it touched the hearts of non-Jews, better known as Gentiles. And this created tension in the church, especially in the leadership of the early church. By law, Jews were not to associate with Gentiles any more than they had to. But certain things were definitely off-limits, such as going into their homes and eating with them.
We read about the tension this created in today’s reading from Acts. The story begins, “The apostles [all Jews] throughout Judea [a nation of Jews] heard that even the Gentiles had welcomed God’s word. When Peter went up to Jerusalem [the Jewish capital], the circumcised believers [Jewish followers of Christ] criticized him. They accused him, ‘you went into the home of the uncircumcised [the Gentiles] and ate with them!’” (Acts 11:1-3). The first leaders of the church were angry with Peter for cavorting with gentiles!
We ourselves may not be working with regulations within our faith which bar us from connecting with and befriending those who are not of our “tribe,” but I think we’re still subject to the same fears which were behind those laws. It’s a fear of the other. The immigrant. And especially, the undocumented immigrant. The drug addict. The person with loud, crude humor. The homeless person. The person of color. The Democrat, the Republican. I think that’s the hurdle for most of us. It’s really, really hard getting to know people who aren’t like us. And if we’re going to be painfully honest with ourselves, let’s admit that it’s hard for us to see Jesus in people who aren’t like us.
So, what do we do? If the mission of the church is to GO and make disciples of Jesus Christ, how do we get to the place where we can take those first steps into new territories? Well, how about asking God to provide both the desire and the courage we need. If we can admit that the thought of going out and figuring out how to get to know new people on their turf makes us tremble, then maybe verse 2 of Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” might be our prayer.
Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit into every troubled breast. Give us the courage, God. Take away our fear of sharing the gospel.
The next line points to what it is we’re trying to accomplish, which is taking the good news of Jesus to everyone, that everyone might respond. Let us ALL in thee inherit; let us [ALL] find that second rest.
Verse 3 asks for the same thing. Come, Almighty to deliver, let us ALL thy life receive.
Parts of this hymn can be a prayer in which we’re expressing our desire for all people to come to know him—and that includes those in our neighborhood.
Now, how about the idea of connecting with those who are different than us? In Wesley’s hymn, “Jesus, United by Thy Grace,” which we’ll sing shortly, the opening line contains a very important word. “United.” Brought together as one. People from all walks of life united by the grace of Christ. All of us different than each other, but by grace made one.
Verse 2: Help us to help each other, Lord,
each other’s cross to bear;
let all their friendly aid afford,
and feel each other’s care.
Verse 5: To thee, inseparably joined,
let ALL our spirits cleave;
O may we ALL the loving mind
that was in thee receive.
If I may, who comprises the “all” in these verses? Is it just us, the people already here? Are we all that matters to God? Of course not! The gospel is not for us alone; it’s for everyone. And I hear in these texts an acknowledgement that we’re called to do what we can to get that message out to ALL people.
Jesus told his disciples that there was only one indicator that they were his followers. John 13:35 – “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” And I think “each other” meant more than just those who were currently a part of their circle. I think it included those who were currently outside of their circle, but who would eventually be a part of it. And how would they become a part of it if not by those currently within the circle breaking away from the circle and taking the message out.
I don’t have all the answers to how we might do this. But what I do bring to the table is a certain outside perspective of what is and what can be. And I’m encouraging us to consider these two things. First, that we choose to make those outside of our church, those who aren’t currently here, a priority. This would constitute a heart-change on our part. The first step toward any change in one’s life is to choose to adopt a new attitude, to choose to look at things from a different perspective than you’ve normally done. Changing one’s behaviors won’t happen without first addressing the motivations. I think the first thing we have to do is to agree that moving out beyond our four walls is a good and necessary thing to do.
And second, that we actually put our money where our months are by demonstrating this commitment through our budget and our programming. That we put some thought into figuring out how to connect with people outside of ourselves on their turf and do ministry there. That we order our church life around helping others come to faith and grow in their faith.
With that said, let me very quickly address the first concern that will be raised. Pastor, if we make others a priority, what about those of us who are here? I’d bet my next paycheck that that question has already crossed some of your minds. Well, here’s my response. I’m almost certain there’s never been a church which made ministry to those outside their church a high priority at the expense of those already there. A church will take care of itself. In fact, by human nature, that’s our default. I guarantee we’ll make sure we’re cared for. On the other hand, the world is full of churches who took care of themselves at the total expense of those not there.
Here’s a quick parallel. The day they announced in church that I’d had a heart attack, a church member dropped by the house because he wanted to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake he did. He told us that he’d had two heart attacks, and the second one was the result of a bad decision he made after the first one. After his first heart attack, he faithfully took his medications but didn’t change his lifestyle. He figured the med were enough. But they weren’t, and he suffered another heart attack. After that, he took his meds and he changed his lifestyle. Doing both was the only way of being healthy.
Focusing on ourselves and making sure we’re meeting our own needs just isn’t enough. To be a thriving, vital church, we absolutely must do both. Yes, it’s important to take care of ourselves, but in a certain way, it’s even more important that reach out and connect with those outside of ourselves. Then, and only then, will we truly be a church that is for all and of all.
We are a church, and we have a steeple. Now let’s open our doors and go out to see all the people. Let’s pray.