Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH, Sunday, July 19, 2009. If you would like to listen to an audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we continue our series of sermons on fellowship. You recall that we define fellowship as living life together in intimate relationships in the context of small groups so that Christ can use us to help each other grow to his full stature, which we define as Christian maturity. Last week we looked at the worthiness of the Gospel and the fact that it is the ultimate prize worthy of our best efforts and highest pursuits. Using Herod as a negative example, we saw how easily we can get sidetracked in our pursuit of gaining the prize and fall away. We looked at why it is so important for us to be part of an intimate fellowship so that Christ can use our relationships to help keep us growing to his full stature. Today I want to look at how our real and intimate relationships within the context of small groups can help us be good evangels and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to a world that so desperately needs to hear it.
Paul captures the hopelessness of the human condition quite nicely, doesn’t he? He reminds us in today’s epistle lesson that we were at one time without Christ and therefore we had no hope. Earlier in this chapter, Paul reminds us further that we are dead in our sins and objects of God’s wrath. And when we consider all this in light of our experience as we attempt to live faithful lives, it becomes quite depressing because we realize that Paul is absolutely correct. We don’t have any hope without Christ.
Where is God’s Grace?
But then Paul begins to lay out the Good News for us. Yes, we are without hope when left to our own devices. But God has done something about the problem of sin that has caused us to be separated from him and from each other. He has taken on our flesh, died for us, borne the just penalty for our sins so that through the cross we have our only hope and chance to live with him forever. While we await our final redemption at Christ’s Second Coming, we have access to the Father through the Holy Spirit. All this is a free gift, a sheer act of grace on God’s part, because none of us deserve anything but death.
Paul concludes today’s passage by making this astounding claim: Through Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are no longer strangers and alienated from God. We are no longer without hope. Instead, we are members of God’s household, a household built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. In other words, out of his great mercy, God has formed his people into the Church to be his holy, called-out people and serve as Christ’s Body. In a few short sentences, Paul has taken us from hopelessness to a life-giving and saving hope in Jesus Christ our Lord. If that is not Good News, if that does not make us want to drop to our knees in praise and thanksgiving, I don’t know what ever can.
We see this Good News echoed in today’s Gospel lesson as well. Over the last several weeks, Mark has reported in his Gospel that Jesus has created quite a stir among the people. He has cast out demons and healed the sick. In doing so, he has also attracted great crowds who eagerly seek him out so that he might heal them or their loved ones. We instinctively relate to these stories because we too have eagerly sought out Jesus, haven’t we?
And it makes sense that this would have happened when Jesus walked this earth as a human. After all, we would expect that when God took on our flesh and lived amongst us, this would have caused quite a stir because people would have sensed that something was very different about this man. We would expect folks to either be strangely compelled by Jesus or vehemently opposed to him. Indeed, all four Gospel writers paint this picture of Jesus. We never hear of anyone being neutral about our Lord. Folks either loved him or hated him, but they were never left unaffected by him. They, like us, were attracted by his goodness or put off by it because they, like us, didn’t want to be reminded about their badness.
And so when Mark reports in today’s Gospel lesson that Jesus and his disciples were harried by the crowd and that folks from all over were flocking to see him and be with him, we are not surprised. We find ourselves saying, “This all sounds true. If Jesus is who he says he was, God made flesh, then we would certainly expect him to attract and amaze huge crowds. After all, he’s God, isn’t he?”
So then, if the Good News is really good (and we believe it to be), and Jesus really was, and is, God (and we believe him to be), capable of touching and transforming lives today, then why aren’t people flocking to him today like those crowds did when he walked the earth? Why isn’t Jesus’ Body, the Church growing exponentially here in this country? There are several reasons, I think, but I want to focus on the one reason that is directly related to fellowship. I suspect a big reason why we do not see people flocking to Jesus today is because they have a hard time seeing his Presence in his Body, the Church. All too often we Christians attempt to live out our faith alone, without the help and grace of having real and intimate friendships with other Christians, and we fail to live out our faith in compelling ways, in part, because we are trying to do so alone. This is especially true for American Christians because we are still thoroughly rugged individualists who tend to look at Christian fellowship with suspicion rather than as a means of grace. Consequently, when others see us living out life, they often do not see evidence of the transforming love and power of Jesus Christ in our personal lives. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Where is the Application?
We have talked before about how our own discipleship can benefit from being in a small group. But how many of you have thought about small group fellowship as being an effective tool for evangelism? Indeed, when we think of small groups, most of us think immediately of Bible study. But the fruit of our fellowship can also serve as a powerful testimony to others about the transforming power of Jesus Christ and that is what I want to spend the reminder of our time on this morning.
We see the importance of small group fellowship in today’s Gospel lesson, don’t we? Jesus tells his disciples to go away with him to a deserted place for a while to get rest and refreshed. This command comes at the conclusion of their missionary work and in the midst of large crowds eagerly seeking out Christ. What is our Lord’s solution? Retreat. Rest. Intimate fellowship. Precisely the stuff of which small groups are made.
For you see, when we gather together in small groups on a regular basis, we have the same opportunity as Jesus’ disciples did. Like our Lord and his apostles, each week when we gather together in small groups, we are taking time from our busy schedules to come and re-collect ourselves in the Lord’s presence. We find our longings for intimate and deep friendships satisfied and nurtured by our Lord himself and each other when we can get real with one another and share our joys and sorrows. We find refreshment and renewal when we study God’s Word or do ministry work and/or help each other in our various struggles that each of us encounters in this life. Christ uses all of this to help us grow to become more like him, which again we define as Christian maturity.
For example, our small group is taking the summer off and I can definitely feel the negative impact on my own spiritual life. I miss gathering together each week with our small group so that we can center down together on God. I miss being held accountable by their very presence each week. Yes, I see most of them at church each Sunday but the dynamic is not the same as when we gather together for small group fellowship. Our group meets at least once a month to socialize but that too is not the same. Consequently my daily devotions have suffered and I think my sermon writing has suffered as well (this is the point where you all disagree loudly so that my fragile ego might be stroked and my cheap and shameless ploy in seeking affirmation may be satisfied). You see, the group pays me handsomely each week to keep my sermons under 30 minutes and I frankly miss the income this summer. My faith journey is not the same when we do not meet in the summer and I am the lesser for it. For one thing, I am typically not as eager to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and all that he is doing here at St. Andrew’s as a result.
There is a second way in which small group fellowship can be used as a tool for evangelism. It is sometimes more difficult for outsiders to see the Presence of Christ in even the most devout and faithful individuals, but it becomes easier to see Christ’s presence in the gathering of real and intimate Christians. It is not that Christ is not present in each of us individually, it is just harder to see in individuals because we cannot see what is going on in each other’s minds and hearts.
But when Christians gather together in Christ’s name and dare to trust him and each other enough so that he can work in and through them collectively, suddenly his Presence is easier to see than when we are looking at individual lives. Folks can see how much we love one another. They see that Christians struggle with the messiness of life just like everyone else does. But outsiders can see that when Christians live life together in small groups, they have the Power of Christ working amongst them to help them cope with all that life throws their way. In other words, outsiders get a chance to see Christ living out his promise to his church to be with them and help them become like him. This can be a compelling tool for evangelism because we can show outsiders that there is Good News and that the Lord does indeed transform lives. We have the opportunity in small groups to show the world what the Good News looks like in real life. And how do outsiders know about all this? We tell them in our daily conversations.
Does that mean we can never make mistakes? Hardly. In fact, it is precisely because we Christians are willing to confess our sins and admit our utter inability to get it right on our own that Christ can use us to witness to his broken and hurting world. For example, we have a neighbor who has been buffeted by series of bad news about her family. It is just awful to hear all this person is having to face and endure. It is even more awful when I see that she is trying to deal with all her problems alone. That is simply heartbreaking. So yesterday at a neighborhood meeting, my wife, after listening to our neighbor’s problems, decided to invite her to join our small group in the fall. My beloved bride did this because she has experienced the power of Christ when we live life together. She is confident that just as the group has helped her and the rest of the group members, so Christ can use our group to help this person. Clearly it will take some time to develop a trusting and real relationship, and everyone will have to make adjustments. But this is using small group fellowship as a tool for evangelism at its finest because it is based on our actual experience with the Lord and each other. It is what our Lord is calling each of us to do as his Church here at St. Andrew’s.
What about you? Do you believe there is any good news in the Good News? Do you know your Lord well enough so that you are eager to share him with others but don’t know how or where to start? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, then look to your small group (or join one if you currently are not a member). It is precisely in our real and intimate relationships with each other lived out in small groups that allows our Lord Jesus Christ to shine through his people.
If enough of us start getting real with each other and living life together in small groups, I have no doubt that eventually we will have folks flocking to St. Andrew’s to see what all the excitement is about, just the way they did when Jesus walked this earth. They will say, “See how those Christians love each other! That’s what my heart desires too. Will you share your secret with me?” And when you invite them into your small groups and consequently into your lives, then you will be telling them you love them enough to share your most precious gifts with them—your Lord and yourselves. Together he will use you to help you to become just like him so that others can see and discover for themselves what it is like to be loved by the Source and Author of all life. That’s good news folks, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.