When you need medical treatment, you go to the doctor, or to a hospital. When you need an education, you go to school. When you need justice, you go find a lawyer, or go to court. When you need water, you go to the tap; or food, you go to the pantry. But where do you go when you need hope? Where do you go when you need salvation? Where do you go when you need life?
Is the church really important? Why does in the church matter? In my experience, the Church does matter, we need the church. Our world needs the church, because there are some things that only the church can provide for people. The best I can tell, the church is about the only place in the world where people can still find hope. And I know that by the power of Jesus Christ, the church has a monopoly when it comes to salvation and abundant life! Over the next four weeks, we are going to consider in depth why the church matters. It is my hope that as we explore this question today and in the coming weeks, we will be reminded of why the church is important in our lives, we will be given language to share the story of the church’s relevance in the world, and we will challenge one another to live more fully into our covenant as members of Christ’s church
As we ponder such questions in the coming weeks, I am going to take time at the beginning of each sermon to share my answer to the question of the day. I will do this because I think on some matters we express ourselves best when we speak from our own experience. This will give you an opportunity to get to know me better. But I also hope that as I share my story, it will help you think about your own story: how it is similar, or different, and why it is important to share your story with others.
So why does the church matter to me? To answer that question, I have to go back more than 35 years. I was born just a week after Easter Sunday and baptized a month later. Since my baptism to this day, I have missed relatively few Sundays at church—probably averaging no more than two to three a year except for my college years when I had trouble finding a church where I felt like I really connected. As many of you know, you don't spend so much time in a church without it making a difference in your life. And church has made a difference for me.
Church is where I was cared for when I was a baby. It was where I went to preschool. Church is where I learned about Christ, and where I first learned to sing. Through the church, I learned my identity in Christ and gained confidence in who I am, a person created and loved by God. In the church I professed my faith in Christ on the day I was confirmed. During my junior high and high school years, I believe, the church kept me out of trouble because I was busy with youth and choir and handbells. Through the church I am sent out on missions, and I have learned to be always mindful of the needs of others and to serve others before myself. And I also learned that I am never doing those things well enough! (Ha!)
In the church, I encounter God in Christ Jesus weekly in special ways through worship, study, prayer, and fellowship with the community of Christians. And from the church I am sent out with fellow Christians to serve Christ and serve others; sharing with the world the same love that we know and experience through Christ's Church. In the church, I learn what it is to be a Christian; to value what Christ values and to follow Christ's example in my own life.
More recently, I have found that the church matters to me because of what the church can be in the midst of a lost and broken world. The church CAN be a place where there is no hatred. The church CAN be a place where all people are loved as children of God, despite what the world may say about them. The church CAN be a place without conflict, without fighting, and partisanship. The church CAN be a sanctuary, a safe haven, a place where there is no need to defend yourself against attacks of any kind. The Church CAN be a place of forgiveness. The church CAN be a reflection of the Kingdom of God, a place of healing, justice, mercy, grace, joy, hope, and love. Now, admittedly, I am often disappointed when the Church does not live up to the standards established by Christ, but I hold out hope that we will one day be the Church we are called to be in every way possible. That’s why I’ve invested my life in this work of pastoring the Church, because to me, it’s something worth giving my life for.
We are here today because the church has meant something to each of us, or maybe because we are trying to learn more about why the church is important. And many of us can tell stories as I did about why the church matters to us. But as much as the church is about impacting and transforming the lives of individuals, it's also about impacting and transforming the world. And here's why:
Christ is not here anymore. That is, Christ is not physically present on this earth today as he was 2,000 years ago, which means that if people today are going to experience Christ, it has to happen in a different way. And Christ knew that. So after his resurrection, as we heard this morning, Christ went to the disciples and commissioned them, which is a really fancy way of saying that he told the disciples to go out and, in his name, do what he had been doing for the last during his ministry. He sent them out into the world as witnesses to do ministry as he had; to heal, to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins, and to share the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus and God's coming kingdom. Then he left them and ascended into heaven.
That was the beginning of the church, and it is also the key to why the church matters. What would have happened if Christ had ascended without commissioning the disciples; or if those first commissioned disciples had decided they were through with this Jesus-business and they were going back home to get their lives back to normal? That would have been the end. Christ would have lived, taught, healed, died and been resurrected, and within a few generations he would have been forgotten; the healing would have stopped, the resurrection promise would have been lost, the hope would have faded away. Christ's love and salvation never would have been known beyond those people who encountered him during his years on earth.
Fortunately for us, for billions of others, and for this whole world, it didn't happen that way. The disciples got busy and they kept Jesus' ministry going; they kept his message alive sharing the good news "to the ends of the earth." And the church today can do no less. If we in the church do not continue Christ's ministry, no one will. That is why the church matters! Christ made a difference in people's lives. He healed the sick. He helped the poor. He forgave sinners. He shared God's grace and love. And he died on the cross so that we might have eternal life with our loving God. We are talking about the difference between life and death, and it is the church's task to get that message out into the world! Christ can transform people's lives if only we will show people who Christ is and what he is about!
"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation." Paul says to the Colossians. "For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church." The church is the body of Christ. We are his mouth and his ears, his hands and his feet in this world! The church is the body of people who believe the good news and are chosen by God to bear witness to it. We are to bear witness to God's grace revealed in Jesus Christ! And that means much more than that we just go out and say some words to people about this person named Jesus. It means that the entire life of the church is alive with Christ's love and faithful to his gospel. Such that we can point to the church and say, "You want to know what the love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness of Christ means? Well, take a look at this! Look at what's happening here! Look at how lives are being changed here!"
The Church really does matter! Our world hurts today. You walk through schools and you hear kids bullying each other. You turn on the news and everything is negative: murders, economic hardships, arms races. You read in the papers about starving people in Africa and endless fighting in the Middle East. Relationships fall apart and work stresses us out. Everyday people lose their lives to cancer and AIDS and a host of other illnesses and diseases that we cannot yet prevent or cure. All around us is bleakness, despair, death. But through the church, God in Christ Jesus is able to offer something else to the world. Christ brings hope in the midst of all the hurt because Christ feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, heals the sick, and forgives the sinner. God in Christ Jesus offers justice, peace, and rich blessings. And above all Christ gives unconditional love and abundant life. Only in Christ can we find the strength to make it through all the difficulties of this life. Only in Christ can we find the joy of this life and the hope of the life to come. And the best way to encounter Christ today is through the witness of the church in the world! We are his light! We are his body ministering to this world in the same way Christ himself did so many years ago!
The Christian Church isn't simply about a particular way of being religious; there's lots of ways to be "religious" in the world today. The church isn't even about a particular system for how to be saved here or hereafter. The church isn't simply a different way of holiness. The Christian Church is about Jesus Christ! The church matters because the church makes it possible for people to have real encounters with Christ.
We are Christ's body, let us do Christ's work! Let's show people why the church matters!