May 5, 2019

Matthew 16:13-20

I was listening to a comedian recently, and he was saying that when he travels, people usually like talking about themselves. Often people include in their conversation what they do for a living.  What he dreads, though, is when they turn the tables on him and say, “So, what do you do?”

When he says, “Well, I’m a comic.  I do stand-up comedy,” without fail, 100% of the time, people will say, “Then, tell me a joke.”

This comedian made an excellent point.  He said it’s like people want instant verification that he’s not lying about his profession.

He said this is unfair.

For example, if you were sitting next to a person who claimed to be a physician, you wouldn’t say, “Hey, I’ve got this rash right here on my back. Will you look at it and tell me what it is?”

If you were sitting next to an author, you wouldn’t hand that person a pad and paper and say, “Will you write me a short story?”

I can feel the comedian’s pain.

I usually dread people asking me what I do for a living.

When I tell them that I am a pastor they don’t say, “Well preach me a sermon.  I need some help going to sleep, anyway.”

I dread that question for lots of other reasons, but one of them is that some people get an instant need to confess why they don’t attend church.   It’s like they suddenly have this burden of guilt and they want me to act as a priest and absolve them of all the times or years they have not attended church.

I have heard people say things like, “My husband and I have been married for 40 years.  When we got married, he was Methodist, and I was Catholic. We never could decide on a church, and so we never joined one.  But we believe in God and His works.”

Or “I used to go to church.  I’ve been to several different churches, and each time I ended up getting wounded, so I decided never to go back.”

I want to say, “Yeah, I know what you mean.  I’ve been several to grocery stores.  Once the butcher made me angry because he sold me some spoiled meat.  In another store, I asked the manager if he could order a special kind of cheese and he said they were not a novelty store.   Once, the bagboy put the bread at the bottom of the bag and when I got home it was flat as a pancake, so I’m just not going back to any more groceries stores.”

Or how about this one: “Ah, we belong down at Mt. Nebo Baptist.”

Then I might say, “Well, who’s the pastor down there?”

Sometimes the couple will look at each other like deer staring in the headlights.  “Oh, ah, well last time we were there it was Brother Richard, ah, now what was his last name?”

Do you get the point? For a lot of people, the church does not figure prominently in their lives – for a lot of people.

Does that mean that God is not an essential part of their lives?

Not necessarily. There are many reasons people do not attend a church that has nothing to do with whether they believe in God or whether they have a relationship with God.   It could be health or work related or many other issues.

I do know there are a lot of people who believe in God but don’t believe in the Church.  However, if you are a Christian, you are a part of the body of Christ, and the body of Christ IS the church.  You are the church.

Now, many people have lost faith in some organized churches.  That’s unfortunate.

While I joked a bit about people not going back to church because they were wounded, I do believe this is a serious issue.  There is a saying that the church shoots its wounded.  It’s a harsh saying, but sometimes it happens.  The very people who should come to our aid sometimes abandon us when we divorce, get in trouble with the law, when our name appears in the paper because of a lawsuit, custody battle, or drug addiction, or when we become depressed, or question our faith,  or we when we are victims of a sexual assault or when it becomes known that we are struggling with issues of sexual identity.    When the very people who preach about grace fail to offer love and grace, where do you go?  If we are already in the church and we do not find love and grace but find condemnation and rejection, the natural thing for most people to do is to leave.  And many have.

So is the church necessary for our faith experience?

Let’s begin by affirming that God is not limited in the number of ways, ideas, situations, and opportunities for getting people to know about His love and continue in His love?

If we shared our testimonies of how God first got our attention and changed our lives, what we would hear would be a wide range of ways that God did that.  Perhaps he did it through an event, organization, tragedy, challenge, answered prayer, trusted friend, crisis, a blessing, an experience, an encouraging word, a dream, a song, a small group, a youth group, Sunday school, a mission trip, or a sermon.

Whatever happened where you encountered God may have occurred before you ever found your way to a church where believers began to disciple you into the faith.

Other times, unbelievers find answers to their questions within the context of the church and feel the Spirit of God through the fellowship of other believers.

Once becoming believers, the church helps us by discipling us and shaping us into the image of Christ.

Whether faith comes first through the church or faith first develops us outside the church, Jesus taught He is the cornerstone of the Church.  He has held Christians together for two thousand years with the Church by his Holy Spirit.

To my friend’s point about being wounded by the church – in case you haven’t noticed, the church is made up of people.  Wherever there are people, there will be sin.

The church at Corinth was a very sinful church.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were written with warnings and instruction to correct their behavior.

The church is redeemed sinners striving to be shaped in the image of God, reflecting the love and grace of Jesus.  While we should expect high standards from the church, it should not surprise us when the church does not reflect the image of Christ.

Our history hasn’t been good.  The Church still struggles to reflect the love and grace of Jesus because it’s made up of sinners.

For over a thousand years, the only people who had access to the Bible were the priests, and they took advantage of the ignorance of the people and created theological beliefs that were not biblical.

They required people to bring indulgencies, which were “offerings” people had to pay for the priest to absolve them of their sins.

It took a reformation in the church led by a man named Martin Luther to not only say that this practice was not biblical but also to show how morally corrupt the church was in many other ways.   When the people were finally able to read the Bible for themselves, this became one of the catalysts for change called the Reformation.

Today, we have easy access to the Bible.  In the South, there is a church every few miles, but the sentiment by many, even those who have believed in God is that the church is not necessary for their lives.

Many have lived long so long without the church, that the church plays no meaningful role in their lives. Therefore, it’s difficult for them to see its value or why they should give any time or resources to the church.

They see themselves as good people, people who have a measure of faith, who believe in a God who loves them and will grant them the grace of heaven when they die.  So they ask, “Why is the church necessary?”

What answer would you give them?

Well, we can say this. Just going to a church doesn’t make one a Christian any more than going to a ball game makes one an athlete.   We should never equate church attendance with being a Christian.

However, if we are people of the Book, which Christians profess to be, we must take the mandates of the Bible seriously.

The writer of the book of Hebrews wrote these words:

22-25 So let’s do it—full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.

These words in Hebrews are clear.  “Don’t avoid worshiping together as some do.”  Even in the early church, some people had fallen away from their participation in worshiping the Lord with others.  Avoiding gathering with other Christians for worship present four problems.

1.) The first issue is one of viability.  If we have willfully ceased worshipping with others because we don’t think we need to surround ourselves with people of faith or we think they don’t need our presence, is our faith viable?

Let me ask it this way. Is it a viable option for us to live out the mandates of the scriptures on our own, away from the body of believers? Can a lump of hot coal burn bright for very long on its own?  Doesn’t it burn hot longer when it’s feeding off and sharing its energy with the other coals?

Encouragement works that way.  This text from the Book of Hebrews text says that we need encouraging love.  This journey is not easy.  I need you, and you need me.

Jesus gave Christians a mandate to be his disciples.  Like his disciples, he told us to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

These are the most important and most difficult commandments to follow.  If it were a viable option for us to live out these commandments on our own, without being in fellowship with others, why didn’t Jesus tell us?

Even Jesus, throughout his ministry, lived and depended on the ministry of his disciples.  Jesus lived out his ministry within a group.  The one individual that gives us our most explicit representation of God, thrived within a community of faith.

2) The second issue is one of accountability.   

The church is more than just about attending a service so we can worship God.  It’s about reaching out to each other.  It’s about caring for each other.

Last year a Doritos bag was found on the Sound Side Nature Trail on Harkers Island along with other storm debris during a trail cleanup. The bag design looked “odd” to the people that found it. It wasn’t until they turned it over and noticed the date in the lower corner — 1979!

That Doritos bag was 40 years old. Someone ate those chips and threw away the bag, perhaps in the ocean, and that’s where it’s been for almost 40 years!

What someone did 40 years ago is just now polluting the beach.

Our actions affect our world, our family, our jobs, our personal lives, and our relationship with God, not just today, but for generations and that include our commitment to Christ through our church.

While the church has many flaws, think about how the church has changed the world for the better.  Sure, the church has some trash floating around because of the mistakes we’ve made.  Think about where this world would be without the church.  If the gospel were not preached faithfully, if the billions, likely trillions of dollars were not poured into our communities to help the poor and needy causes, where would this country be?  Where would the world be were it not for the missionaries we send and the hunger relief and humanitarian aid churches send all over the world?

Would we be here today if people generations ago had not been committed to this church and others like in our community?

The church has served to remind all of us, that we are ultimately accountable to God for all that we think, say, and do.  When we remove ourselves from the church, we are much less likely to be as conscious about the trash that is floating around in our lives.

When we surround ourselves with others who know us and care about us, we enter into a covenant with each other to be accountable.

Galatians 6:1-2 says, “Brothers if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

3)  The third issue is one of sustainability.  If we are not in communion with a fellowship of believers, how are we going to sustain the mandate that Jesus has given to us to make disciples, not just locally, but also in every part of the world?

I understand that the church is not the only means through which God spreads His message of love and grace, but the church is God’s primary way that the Holy Spirit accomplishes his purposes on earth.

When I was in college, the Baptist Student Union (BSU) was important to me.  I found friends there.  I attended Bible studies there. We did mission work through the BSU.  I played intermural sports with the BSU. It served an important place in my life for the two years I attended Troy State University.

The BSU was very church friendly.  The BSU’s goal was to train us to work in the local church because the leadership understood that Jesus didn’t live, die, and rise from the dead to establish the BSU.

Jesus came to establish the church, to build on Peter’s confession to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

There are countless ways that people come to know Jesus, but once people come to know Jesus, the Church is the primary way we share Jesus throughout the world.

So whatever parachurch group you may be a part of in addition to the church, I strongly encourage you to ask: “How important is it to the mission and leadership of this organization to be involved in the local church?”

There are thousands of these ministries: Habitat for Humanity, Fellowship for Christian Athletes, The Navigators, the Billy Graham Association, Young Life, Gideons International, and foundations of all kinds.  None of these are a church.  All of these should be in full cooperation with the local church and help move people from their groups into the local church because, throughout one’s life, the church is going to be the body that will help sustain them in all phases of their faith journey.

4). The last issue is one of believability.

Let’s return to the story of the comedian.  Anyone that knows anything about standup comics knows that they are not joke tellers. What they do is they help us to see the humor in life.  They help us to laugh about things that happen to us and around us.  They show us the humor in things that we often overlook. Their comedy doesn’t usually begin with: “Hey did you hear the one about the goat that went into a bar and ordered a drink?”

However, it’s not a bad idea for any comedian to know a few jokes, especially when they know someone is going to ask them to tell one.  Otherwise, people are going to think – “Well, that person isn’t very funny.”

All Christians should know that belonging to a church doesn’t make us a follower of Jesus and it doesn’t earn us a trip to heaven either but we should all know the value of participating in a local church and be able to tell our friends what that means to us.

When there are lost miners are trapped beneath the service of the earth, have you ever heard of a community calling just one person for help?

What happens?  An entire network of people skilled in finding lost people beneath the surface of the earth are called.  They come from short distances and other countries. Quickly they form a network, and they work for the same purpose.

There is a world of people out there that are lost, who do not know Jesus.  Every day, you and I come in contact with them, and we have an opportunity to meet them and witness to them.

God decided a long time ago that he was going to call on the church to be the primary source He would call on to find the lost.   We are not the only source, but we are the primary source.

We pool our resources with other entities, both local and far away to get the job done.

However, the lost people will always associate Jesus with the church.  When they hear that we are believers, they naturally want to know something about our church.  So it’s confusing to an unbeliever to hear that we are a Christian, but we are not participating in our church.

It’s like saying, “I’m a football fan, but I never go to games or watch them on television.”  That doesn’t sound right.

In the beginning, the church had no buildings.  There was no brick and mortar.  The church was not something you attended.  The church was the people of Jesus, who worshipped Jesus, who broke bread together and remembered Jesus.  The church existed because people together.

Jesus was the cornerstone of the church, and He still is.

If the cornerstone of the church becomes anything else other than Jesus, we cannot call our gathering a church.

But if we build our foundation on anything other than Jesus, we cannot call ourselves Christian.

According to the New Testament, according to what Jesus did with his life, and what happened after his resurrection and ascension into heaven, Jesus cannot be separated from the church.

Some people have separated their lives from the church.  When that happens, Jesus weeps for that person and the body of Christ, because that means brokenness has occurred.

If that person is you, it could be that the church needs to reconcile herself to you.  We may be the one that needs to repent.  We may be the ones that have wounded you in ways that have prevented you from reconnecting with us.  If so, allow us to hear your pain so that we might recognize our sin.

You may have drifted from Jesus and the body of Christ.  If so, I ask you, is your faith viable? Is it sustainable? Can you be accountable?  Are you believable?

The church isn’t perfect, and never will be, but Jesus is.

So is going to church necessary for faith?

That’s the wrong question.

A better question is this, “Is faith necessary for the church to go–to go into the world and reach the lost?”

The answer to that question is “yes.”

Please, don’t place your faith in the church.  It’s made up of sinful people who will disappoint you.   If you haven’t been disappointed yet, stick around a while.  When it happens, remember I told you it would.

You must place your faith in Jesus.  Jesus is the reason the church is worth investing in.  Because Jesus saved a sinner like me and extended grace to a sinner like me, this gives me hope that through the church, that same grace and love might reach someone else.   When it does, then I know the church is still worth my time.

How about you?

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