July 25: Part Of a Team (3/7)

July 25: Part Of a Team (3/7)

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  • sermon #1: “Blessed By God to Be a Blessing” (July 11)
  • sermon #2: “The Wrecking Ball Jesus” (July 18)
  • sermon #4: “A Life Worthy” (Aug 1)
  • sermon #5: “Speaking the Truth and Living Faith-Fully” (Aug 8)
  • sermon #6: “Thank You, God!” (Thanksgiving in August) (Aug 15)
  • sermon #7: The Armor of God” (Aug 22)

Scripture: Ephesians 3:14-21

foot race taking place on a track

In the photograph to the left, who is each person racing against? (answer: each of the other racers.) In this case, each “team” on the track is a team of one and the winner will be an individual.

racers waiting to receive the baton during a relay race

Here’s a photo of a relay race. Typically, four different runners on the same team each run one leg of the race.  As soon as the runner-in-waiting (who’s standing still) receives this baton, they jump into action and run their portion of the course. Obviously, this group of people comprises a team even though they run separately. The first team to cross the finish line is the winner.

two football teams at the line of scrimmage

Here’s a picture of a football game. For any given play, each team sends out eleven players onto the field. The offense gets eleven and the defense gets eleven. Of those twenty-two players on the field, how many jump into action and work their position when the ball is snapped and the play begins? (answer: all 22.) So, for football to work, all the players have to perform their respective roles simultaneously. When each person does their individual part well, the team as a whole moves forward. In a relay race, the team members don’t run simultaneously, but each team member has to do their part in order to finish the race. And obviously, to win the race, each person definitely has to do their individual part.

In some sports, the team on the field is a team of one. In other sports, the team on the field is made up of many people. In some of those team sports, team members perform their role individually—like in a relay race. And in other team sports, team members do their part simultaneously—such as football, basketball, soccer, etc.

Of these three types of “teams” – a team of one, a team in which each member does their part separately, and a team in which they do their parts simultaneously—to which do you think the church is most closely comparable? If we thought of ourselves as a team, which one of these three do you think we’re most similar to?

Personally, I’d say, #2 or #3. The first one—the team of one—certainly doesn’t make sense in regard to being the church. However, I think it’s certainly possible to say that there are times we accomplish our work when we work simultaneously alongside each other, and when we do our individual part separately from the others. An example of working simultaneously might be working together on a particular mission project, or even what we do here each Sunday morning—greeting, ushers, teaching, assisting in worship, singing, etc. An example of doing our individual parts separately might be The Red Food Pantry. Some of you drop off food during a food drive. Some of you move that food to a holding place. Some of you keep the panty stocked. Some of you purchase more food when it’s needed. Being the church and doing the work of the church is definitely a something we do as a team. There are no teams of 1 when it comes to church life.

If this is true, then I’d like to know who the object of Paul’s prayer is in today’s reading. More often than not, where are you when you’re present for a reading of the Scriptures? Personally, I’m almost always at home. I’m sitting in my black chair in the family room doing my morning devotions. And a significant part of those devotions is reading the Scriptures. My guess is that this is probably the case with most of you here. That a majority of your Bible reading is done while alone. And if you’re the kind of person who prefers listening to the Scripture read from a CD or online, my guess is that you’re probably alone when you listen. My point is, these days, the majority of our Bible reading and Bible study is done individually and alone. This is the milieu out of which we most often approach the hearing and receiving of God’s Word.

Because of this, it’s normal to personalize Paul’s messages. When he addresses “you,” we hear him speaking to us personally. When I’m reading the Scriptures, he’s telling me, Drew Hart, that I am no longer a stranger and an alien, but a fellow citizen with God’s people.

So, in this setting of being a “team of 1,” I pick up my Bible and read Ephesians 3:16-19:

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit.  Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him.  Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong.  And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.  May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully.  Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.

emphasis added to indicate the number of places Paul addesses “you”

In those four verses I count 8 times Paul expresses his desire that “you” might be the recipient of what he’s asking of God. Again, I hear him talking to me, Drew Hart. He’s praying that God will empower me with strength through the Holy Spirit (who, of course, lives within me, right?) He expresses the hope that I, Drew Hart, might have the power to understand the depth and breadth of God’s love. That I would experience the love of Christ. Wouldn’t you agree with me that this is often how we hear these messages when we read God’s Word? It’s a word for me! And, of course, it’s a word for each of you.

I want to be the first to say that there’s nothing wrong with personalizing Scripture. I believe God’s Word is for each of us, personally. I believe God wants us to take his message of Good News personally. After all, Christ died for each person here.

Having said that, it’s also the case that Paul is often intentionally directing his message not to individual persons, but to the community of faith. One of the shortcomings of the English language is that the word “you” can be both singular and plural, and context doesn’t always clarify when it’s one or the other. I can ask “How are you doing?” and you don’t know if I’m talking to one person or a group of people. On the other hand, the Greek language has a plural “you” and a singular “you.” And in today’s reading from Ephesians chapter 3, every “you” is plural. The object of his prayer—who he desires to be the recipient of what he’s praying for—is the community of faith. Not individuals, but the collective people called “the church.”

So, when Paul says, “I pray that he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit,” he’s asking God to empower congregations. If we want to personalize his message, then we have to hear him talking to us, the collective body of people called Port Huron First United Methodist Church. He’s praying that Christ will make his home within us as church. That the roots of this particular con gregation will grow down into God’s love, and that God will keep us as a church strong.

A number of years ago a United Methodist colleague told me that the Greek Orthodox Church has a saying which they firmly adhere to theologically. That saying is, “There is no salvation outside of the church.” Most modern Protestants think of salvation as an individual matter. Christ died for me. I invited Jesus Christ into my heart. He lives within me. I am saved. We tend to view the gift of salvation as something available to persons on an individual level, whether or not they’re a part of the Body of Christ. But there’s a school of theological thought which says that there’s no such thing as a Christian in isolation. Yes, to be a Christian means that I’ve made the personal choice to follow Jesus and let his atoning work on the cross be my means of being forgiven and reconciled to God. But being a Christian really isn’t something any of us do as a team of 1.

When you and I were baptized, into what, specifically, was each of us baptized? The Body of Christ! Here’s what the pastor says to the newly baptized person immediately following the administration of water:

Through baptism, you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving, we welcome you as a member of the family of Christ. The church is God’s new creation.

It’s what Paul said God predestined before the creation of the universe. Together, we are one body made up of many different individuals. And when each person within the Body does their part, the Body as a whole moves forward toward the goal of fulfilling its mission.

In any sporting event, the mission is never in doubt. The mission is to win the game. Aside from golf, the game is usually won by racking up the most points by the end of the game. If we were think of the church as a team, and the work we do as a team sport, what would constitute a win? And how would we know we’ve achieved a win? In most games, you know you’ve won when you’ve garnered the greater number of points. What’s a win for us?

I believe a win in the church is the ongoing fulfillment of our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. Or, as one church I served put it, developing new and maturing followers of Jesus Christ. That’s our mission. What does achieving that mission look like on a practical level? First of all, it looks like non-believers responding to the Good News and professing faith in Jesus Christ. And it’s the spiritual growth of our existing church members characterized by things like

  • increased participate in mission and service as well as classes and small groups;
  • increased giving; a willingness to share their faith with another person;
  • an increased ability to show grace and love to persons they wouldn’t have loved in the past;
  • stepping up and leading where they didn’t do so before;
  • spending more time reading and studying God’s Word;
  • leading a Bible study;
  • and yes, an increase in the size of the community of faith.

These are a few ways that spiritual growth can be measured, and when a church is aware of these types things taking place, I believe it’s possible to declare it a win.

But remember, what we do and accomplish is the work of a TEAM. We, the community of faith called Port Huron First United Methodist Church, cannot fulfill our mission of developing new and maturing followers of Jesus Christ without each one of us doing our own part. To be sure, we’re not racing against each other for the individual win. No, we’re working together, alongside each other, to move the team forward towards the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ. And moving the team can only happen when each of us is utilizing our God-given gifts and working our individual “position” in the “game.”

I know the church as an institution isn’t perfect. These days we regularly hear about new polls which indicate that an ever-increasing number of people distrust the institutional church. The church seems to have less influence on society than we once did, and a lot of Christians lament this fact. But you know what? Our mission isn’t earning peoples’ trust, nor is it directly influencing popular culture. Our mission is sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and giving people the space and opportunity to respond. I believe that one of the results of staying true to our mission will be that people’s trust in us will grow. If they see that we’re truly here for them and not for ourselves, we’ll earn their trust. And as faith in Christ increases and the spiritual “water table” of the city rises over time, the church’s influence on society will rise with it. But again, all this happens when we make it our first priority to live into and fulfill our mission of making new disciples of Jesus Christ AND strengthening the faith of the believers.

No, the church isn’t perfect, but it’s nevertheless the only entity in all the world through which God has chosen to fully reveal himself. As Paul puts is, “Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us!” (Ephesians 3:20). Yes, God works through individuals, but the power of God is manifest in US, you and me together—the church. He goes on: “Glory to [God] in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and always” (v. 21). Where is God’s glory, or presence, most fully seen? In the church!

We’re a team. Individually, each of us is a part of this team. A vital part of this team. May Paul’s prayer for our team—this church— be a reality: That through the Holy Spirit God will strengthen us to our very core of our collective soul; that Christ will be alive within the heart of our congregation and increase the faith of our community as a whole; that our community of Christ-followers will be given the ability to truly understand how deep and long and wide and high Christ’s love for the world really is; and that we—our congregation—will know and experience the love of Christ so that not only will we be filled with everything God has planned for us, but that what we have will overflow so much that it blesses countless people beyond these walls.

May all that be a reality for our church, and all churches in the community. Let’s pray.

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