Monday, February 09, 2009

If You Choose to Accept It

(This is the last in a series titled, 'The Contagious Church'.)

Romans 1:8-17

In offices and board rooms around the world, people are reviewing their mission statements. A ‘mission statement’ is a brief explanation for why a company or other organization exists. Organizations use them to set direction and create a shared vision for what they’re trying to accomplish. You can bet that a lot of financial institutions are reviewing or revising their mission statements during this time of crisis.

It got me thinking about the mission statements of places I’ve worked before.

Union Rescue Mission: We embrace the urban poor with the compassion of Christ, giving hope and healing for a changed life, helping them to find their way home.

Fuller Theological Seminary: embracing the School of Theology, School of Psychology, and School of Intercultural Studies, is an evangelical, multidenominational, international, and multiethnic community dedicated to the equipping of men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his Church.

The Presbyterian Foundation: A vital part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Foundation cultivates, attracts, and manages financial resources of individuals and institutions to serve Christ's mission.

The church I grew up in had a simple statement: ‘To know Christ and to make him known.’

Today we finish our series on what it means to be a church that is alive and contagious. The sentence I’ve been saying over these past few weeks is in the form of a definition, but as I looked at it again this week it occurred to me that it functions in some ways as a mission statement.

A contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.

Each one of those qualities or practices helps to shape us into the people that God calls us to be, and each one helps us share that life in a generous and contagious way with other people. The sentence as a whole describes how and why the church exists. Today we end with a look at the last of the four expressions of the church: Mission, the part of our Christian life that draws us outward into service—it’s the way we become the hands and feet of the Body of Christ.

8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. 9God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God's will the way may be opened for me to come to you.
11I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— 12that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith. 13I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.
14I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.
16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."

There isn’t much for me to say about Rome as a city and an empire that you don’t already know. It was a the single most influential place on earth at the time, and the Apostle Paul’s desire was always to preach the gospel there.

Paul begins with an expression of his love for the Roman Christians—he tells them how thankful he is for their brave faith in the face of horrible persecution. But what he really wants is to be with them—to share his insight to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to use his gifts to bring more people into the faith.

The letter to the Romans is Paul’s most complete statement of Christian theology and world view. This is the advanced letter, meant for the experienced believers, and not really aimed at beginners. It’s a sign of Paul’s confidence in the maturity of the Roman community that he addresses so many issues in such depth.

The reason that it’s the first of Paul’s letters to appear in the New Testament is simply that it’s the biggest of them all. Paul’s letters, like the prophetic books in the Old Testament, are arranged in order of size, instead of content or when they were written.

Paul ends this passage by reminding his readers that the gospel’s power is realized when people believe it and live by it. It is ‘a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.’ But just before that Paul makes one of his classic bold statements: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.’

It’s important to look at that claim before we move on. When Paul talks about not being ashamed of the gospel, he isn’t talking about feeling guilty or disgraced by what it says. When Paul uses that word he’s saying that he hasn’t been disappointed by the gospel—that his confidence in its truth hasn’t been shaken or threatened.

What Paul is saying is that his faith has remained strong in the face of all kinds of challenges, and that he is pressing on with his mission of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with anyone who will listen.

What does that mean for us?

To be unashamed of the gospel is to accept the full meaning and implications of Jesus’ life and ministry—his sacrifice and his promises.

So back to the discussion about mission statements: How are they created?

One of the best guides to creating a mission statement teaches us to ask three important questions as we begin:

1. What are the opportunities or needs that we exist to address?
2. What are we doing to address these needs?
3. What principles or beliefs guide our work?

We’re going to come back to that in a moment.

One of my favorite old TV shows was ‘Mission Impossible.’ It was the grandfather of shows like ‘Alias’ or ‘24’, where there’s always some impossible task to be completed in a limited amount of time. The leader would get an envelope and a tape saying what needed to be done. The recording would always end with: ‘Your mission, if you choose to accept it’ followed by a description of the task.

What is our mission here? What are the full meaning and implications of Jesus’ life and ministry—his sacrifice and his promises? Hopefully we’re exploring parts of that every week in our worship and study and prayer and reflection. But at its core, Jesus Christ calls us to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the world. We feed and clothe and comfort people in need, without ever forgetting that our message and motivation is the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. We will not be ashamed of that message here in this church.

In my denominational tradition we talk about the Great Ends of the Church:

The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
The maintenance of divine worship;
The preservation of the truth;
The promotion of social righteousness; and,
The exhibition of the Kingdom of God to the world.

Do we accept that? That’s a pretty important question. It takes the challenge of having faith in our contemporary world—all of the tension between science and theology and national interest and just plain doubt. It takes all of that challenge and joins it together to the challenge of acting on our faith—of behaving and working and loving and spending differently, because of what we believe.

Do we accept that? In our passage Paul makes the bold claim that he’s not ashamed of the gospel. Can we honestly say the same thing?

Well, what do we do now? One of the great joys of sharing this message at this point in our church’s life is that I get to say that we’re moving in the right direction on a handful of mission fronts. Our children’s ministries and partnership with Young Life are helping young people meet Jesus in meaningful ways. The Cold Weather Shelter and Soup Kitchen are demonstrating our love tangibly for the community around us. Our support for the International Justice Mission and local evangelistic work are keeping us connected to the world beyond these doors. All of these represent the healthy blend of meeting physical needs and also the need to meet Jesus in faith. This church has made a bold commitment to serve others in Christ’s name, and we’re only getting started.

The call to each individual here, and to all of us as a community of faith, is to draw on the blessings we receive through fellowship, worship and discipleship, and to turn those outward for the benefit of family and friends and strangers alike. From the very beginning of God’s relationship with his human creation, and all the way to the present day, the covenant we share with God is this: The blessings we receive are given so that we will be a blessing to all people.

In that sense we are a church—a community—with a mission. Meeting physical and spiritual needs isn’t an option, it’s a command from God himself. It’s the mission we’ve been given and empowered to accomplish. It’s a mission that we take seriously here, and one that we plan to grow.

In this place we believe we have important responses to those three critical questions that lead to an effective mission statement:

1. What are the opportunities or needs that we exist to address? The world is filled with spiritual and physical needs that we have the means to address.

2. What are we doing to address these needs? We’re working to provide tangible help, while sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with love and creativity.

3. What principles or beliefs guide our work? We believe that the God who made us and redeemed us offers something unique to the world in the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to work together to continue to accomplish the Great Ends of the Church, to build this community on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and to share it through fellowship, worship, discipleship, and mission.

As we end this series of messages, let’s stand and say that sentence together:

A contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.

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