Reverend John Thomas the president of the United Church of Christ told of his 2002 experience in China in a sermon he gave in September 2004.
“I met many pastors and church leaders who had suffered terribly during the years of the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao and his fanatical following of students. Their churches had been shut down, and they had been sent to years of harsh living away from home and family for what was called re-education on the factory floor or in the rice paddies of rural villages. Some watched family members sent off to prison, and many endure chronic health problems today resulting from the brutal treatment they received in those awful years.”
“All had productive years of ministry stolen from them. Yet, none of the people I visited spoke of those times with bitterness or resentment. None of them held up their personal experience as cause for special commendation. It was simply the cost they had to bear in their time and place for being a disciple of Jesus. One old pastor put it well: "God used those years in the fields to help us learn how to be a church of the poor. Before that, we had been a church of the educated, of the intellectuals. Now we know how to be a church for the poor." His simple eloquence reminded me of Joseph, after his father’s death, meeting the brothers who had tried to kill him. "You meant it for evil," he told them, "but God meant it for good that an entire people might live."
In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus says, “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”(Luke 14:27 NIV) In the testimony given by Reverend Thomas, the pastor he was talking with remarked how their church used to be a church of the educated and the intellectuals, but God had used their time of strife as way to bring them back to their foundation.
What that pastor was telling Reverend Thomas was that basically their church had forgotten their roots. As Jesus would say, they had forgotten the cross they were to bear.
Jesus reminds us in verse 27 that as his followers we must be willing to live under the sentence of death and suffer humiliation. In fact through out this lesson He is reminding us that we must be willing to sacrifice everything to follow Him. In other words there can be no half time discipleship. Our discipleship in Jesus Christ is a twenty four hour seven days a week commitment.
Sometimes Christians, church, or a denomination can forget to whom they are in service to. Paul reminds Philemon that he is still a slave to Jesus even in Paul’s old age.
Jesus reminds us that we should be willing to sacrifice all that we have in this world to serve Him. This does not mean that we should take everything we have today and give it away in order to be good followers of Christ. So what does it mean for us to be willing to sacrifice all that we have, and why is it so important to our walk with Christ?
In Matthew 22:37 Jesus stated, `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ To put this into perspective with today’s lesson from Luke. According to Jesus, if we truly love God he should be first in our hearts. When we put others ahead of God, we are in essence committing idolatry. Moreover by putting others ahead of God, then we find ourselves less willing to do all we can for God.
For example, when we think about our spouses, children, or friends who among us would not do all they could to help that person out? Who among us would not be willing to place our selves in danger in order to rescue that person from certain harm?
We all would do everything possible to make sure that none of them came to harm. We do this because we love them, right?
So, then we who love the Lord should do all we can to serve Him in every way we possibly can. Although we do try our best, we sometimes fall short of where we should be, don’t we?
We fall short because we are human. We fall short because our lives tend to be focused on the here and now. We as humans also tend to focus more on what we can see, feel, and touch. Sometimes God seems very distant to us, so it is easier to put them first.
Sometimes, we are just afraid to let God take us into unfamiliar territory. We want to stay where it is safe, because we know that God will take us to where we are uncomfortable. He will take us to place that may require us to look within our own lives.
Think about that church in China for a moment, when the Communists took over in 1949. Initially they left the missionary churches alone. This was done for various reasons, for one the Communists were still consolidating power in China. For another the church did not seem to pose a threat them.
However as time went on, this all changed at the beginning of the 1970’s. The churches began to gain people, like the pastor said they used to be a church of the educated. It was a place where the members were allowed to express their own opinions and feelings. This was a threat to the Maoist regime, who demanded absolute loyalty to the state.
God used this opportunity to help this church to see where their loyalty lay. Did the church’s interest lay with the people or God? Did this church want be a shining beacon of the Gospel, or a puppet of the man made god of the State?
This church found itself on the verge of destruction. However, its faithful kept their focus on God. God protected this church allowing it live even through the worst days of the Cultural Revolution. They had gone from a church of half time disciples to a church that was fully engaged in discipleship.
You see the Chinese church had lost everything they thought they held as near and dear to their heart. However what they found is, there was one thing that could not do without that was God. Once they figured that out, and once they had given everything over to Him, they began to receive blessing after blessing.
You see this is the very message that Jesus has for us all is this. No matter what we may think we value the most in life. Whether it is the farm, your job, your spouse, children, or friends their value is nothing, when compared the everlasting love of Christ.
Last week in our gospel reading, Jesus said, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Luke14:13-14 NIV)
Jesus did this with us. He brought us to the banquet table. By giving his life for us, He gave us a debt we can never fully repay. In fact, even if the wealthiest person were to give up their entire fortune that would not begin to cover the cost God made for that person. This is how much God loves us.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17 NIV)
Such is our indebtedness to God, because of that, we should want to give of our selves to the extent we can try and pay Him back for all that He does for us. Although we know we can never truly repay for what He has done for us, this is what we should strive for.
As a pastor, I have had the opportunity to speak with and fellowship with many other pastors from the Iowa Annual Conference. I have spoken with pastors of large churches, such as those in Spencer and Des Moines. I have spoken with pastors of medium size churches, such as Ida Grove. I of course have also spoken with pastors of smaller, rural churches, such as Nemaha, Varina, Selma and Schaller.
Of all the churches, the common theme seems to be that the smaller, most rural churches are the ones who are reaching out the most. It is the smaller churches, like Nemaha and Varina who are trying to do all they can for Christ because you know whom it is you are serving.
When one sees a large church, the first thought that may come to mind is “Boy, they must really be doing something right because they have such a huge church”. But according to these other pastors, it is often the largest churches who have the most problems or who have the most difficulty reaching out and just following God’s will for them.
While there is absolutely nothing wrong with being in a large church and certainly not all large churches fit that description, as there are some very wonderful, Christ-Centered large churches, it just seems that the ones who are doing the most are the smaller churches.
I know that since my family came to this area, we have seen Christ revealed in so many ways within the Nemaha Church and we are now blessed to be at Varina as well, where the spirit of God also dwells.
My prayer for you all is that you will continue to reach out to others. I pray that you will continue to share the good news with others within your community. I know that sometimes, we all fail and fall short of what God expects of us. That is part of being human. But, as this church has demonstrated, it is when we get up that we receive the blessing because we are able to move forward and keep sharing, keep giving and keep reaching.
Sometimes it may seem that our work goes unnoticed, but it doesn’t. God notices, and that is most important because it was for His service from beginning. So continue on this week in Christian love and remember to strive to repay Christ for the wonderful blessings He has given to us. Amen.