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The Church Outside the Walls

A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.

June 15, 2014

Psalm 8:1-9; Matthew 28:16-20

May I remind you of a story I have told before? Chances are, a number of you weren’t around to hear it, so it will be new to you. And if you do remember my telling it… well, it’s still a really good story and I’m sure you won’t mind hearing it again.

A number of years ago, Mike Killam, the National Director for Development of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, was with a group of colleagues traveling in Europe. It was the middle of the night and they found themselves in an airport terminal waiting on their flight back to the States. As they sat around, some were chatting, others were dozing or reading; in other words, doing the kinds of things you do when there’s nothing else to do in an airport in the middle of the night.

Needless to say, the atmosphere changed when Muhammed Ali walked in with his entourage. A former lineman for the Auburn Tigers, Mike couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet The Greatest, as he is called. So he walked up and introduced himself. Ali asked what he was doing, and Mike told him he and his group had completed a mission trip in Europe and were returning home.

So Ali, a convert to Islam from Christianity, asked Mike a question. He wanted to know how, since the four New Testament gospels do not agree at every point, they could be trusted to tell the truth. Doesn’t the fact that they are so different take away from the level of faith that so many people put in the Bible?

Let me ask you: if someone, even Muhammad Ali, were to ask you that question, how would you respond? I would probably stammer and never get around to a sufficient answer. I can tell you how Mike did it though. He thought for a moment, and then he said, “Let me put it to you this way… When we get home, the first thing every one of us is going to do is tell our family and friends that while on this trip we met the great Muhammad Ali. The way I tell it may not be exactly the way some of the others will tell it, and the way they convey this encounter may differ from the way I do it. But it doesn’t change the fact that tonight every one of us will have met the great Muhammad Ali.”

Mike says that Ali, with a twinkle in his eye, looked at him and said, “Good answer.”

When it comes to telling about the reunion of the risen Christ with his disciples, Matthew has his own story to tell. It’s different from Mark’s and Luke’s, and really different from John’s. Mark doesn’t portray any kind of a reunion at all. His gospel ends quite unexpectedly and abruptly, with Jesus telling the women at the tomb to have the disciples meet him in Galilee. We know, from other accounts, that this is indeed what happens. But Mark chooses not to provide us with any details of that encounter. Luke alone tells the story of the two disciples going back home to the village of Emmaus. That story is followed by the sudden appearance of Jesus to the disciples, presumably in the upper room. Jesus then takes them to Bethany, which is nowhere near Galilee, and it is there he ascends to heaven. But that’s the way Luke chooses to tell it. John has his stories by the seaside where Jesus fixes breakfast for the fishermen and has a one-on-one conversation with Simon Peter. “Simon, do you love me more than these?”

You see, they’re all different in how they portray the Risen Christ, but the basic truth remains… that Jesus was alive and met with his disciples before he went home to be with his heavenly Father.

And by the way, the way I told the story of Mike Killam and Muhammad Ali is not exactly – verbatim – the same way I shared it in this pulpit a few years ago. You see? Time and space makes storytellers of us all. How we tell the story, the elements we use, may differ from telling to telling. But the truth remains the same.

According to Matthew’s version, the one we read earlier, this reunion between Jesus and his remaining eleven disciples is the only time they got together following his resurrection. You would think then, given this version of the story, that what transpires between Jesus and his followers is very important. If Jesus has only this one opportunity to get his final message across to his disciples, he needs to drive it home and drive it hard. So what is it? He tells them to go, go into all the world, not limit their journeys strictly to Galilee, their home country, but to spread out and go. And as they go they are to make more disciples. The last thing Jesus wants them to do is keep his story to themselves.

Go and make disciples…

Of all nations, no less. I would think that means regardless of ethnicity, language, attitudes, cultures, all the stuff with which you and I are born and keeps us divided as people… cut through all that and offer the good news that Jesus gives: that he is able to penetrate the human heart, no matter where that heart was given birth, and offer eternal life.

It’s a tall order, especially since they’re not so sure that the One talking to them is really Jesus. Matthew says their first instinct – understandably – was to fall at his nail-scarred feet and worship him. “But some doubted,” Matthew says, “some doubted.” I think I can understand that, can’t you? We can’t really blame them, not at all.

I wonder if one of the doubters was Thomas. He’s not singled out as the only doubter in the group. Not this time anyway. John, in the fourth gospel – and remember, they all tell their stories in different ways – John picks on Thomas pretty good, really makes him look bad. But in Matthew, Thomas doesn’t even get a mention. According to the first gospel, some doubted, and last time I looked, the word “some” is plural. Thomas is not alone.

Doubted what? That Jesus was who he seemed to be, who he said he was? Doubted that he had actually died on that cross? Doubted that he is now human but instead is a ghost? What is it they doubted?

And why did they doubt? The women came back from the tomb saying it was empty, saying they had actually seen Jesus, saying that he had spoken to them and told the disciples to meet him in Galilee. Did they not believe the women? Was it just because they were women, and everybody knows – at least everybody in the male-dominated first century knows – that sometimes in grief women can become a bit hysterical and see and hear things that aren’t really there? Is that it?

Well, give the disciples credit for at least this much: they believe the women enough to do what they said Jesus had told them to do. And now they have gone to an appointed place in the Galilean hillside, and Jesus has shown up just like he said he would. Then why would they doubt?

You know what, it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter how or why they doubted. What matters is that they are just like everybody else, like you and me. They worshiped and they doubted. Show me a person who has no doubt about his or her faith, and I’ll show you a person who is less than honest about that faith.

We all have doubts… about Jesus, about God, about everything. Why, every time we gather here for worship, this place is just filled with doubt. Don’t look around at somebody else. Sink your probing fingers deeply into your own heart and you will find that to be true.

When we were in Baltimore, back in the mid-80’s – I preached a sermon on the story in Mark’s gospel where a desperate man brings his son to Jesus’ disciples, asking them to remove a demon from the boy. And they can’t do it. When Jesus comes on the scene and asks what is going on, the father explains what is happening. And then he says, “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

Are you familiar with Jesus’ response? It is not, on the surface of it, either very gracious or kind. In fact, he appears to become quite angry and indignant. “If you are able!” he says, quoting the father, actually throwing it back in his face. “If you are able! – All things can be done for the one who believes.”

Sensing Jesus’ anger, not to mention his confidence, the father cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

In that sermon I tried to make the case that we all have a great deal in common with that poor man. We are all a mixture of belief and unbelief, confidence and distrust, certainty and doubt. That is simply the nature of our faith, not to mention life itself.

Fred Basgier, a retired insurance executive from Pennsylvania, was chairman of the deacons at that time, and was one of the most humble and genuine people I have ever known. Every week, prior to the early worship service, Fred would come into my office and pray with me. For a long time after I preached that sermon he would finish his prayer by saying, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”

If nobody else did, Fred got the message. That story – far more than the sermon, I believe – had touched Fred’s heart and enabled him to see that his life was a mixture of faith and doubt.

It is no different here, my friends. This place – today, right now – is filled with the likes of both faith and doubt. And as long as it is human beings who come here to worship, that will always be true.

But doubt doesn’t build the church, does it? Doubt doesn’t get the job done. Doubt may cause us to come to church, but it isn’t much good when it comes to being the church. And when the church is at its best, it is not gathered within the four walls that make up the building in which it meets. The church is at its best, not on Sunday morning, but during the other days of the week when those of us who comprise the church find ourselves in other places.

Going back to the encounter between Mike Killam and Muhammad Ali… the assumption on Ali’s part, and of many others I would imagine, is that the Bible’s purpose is to convey the history of Christianity… who it happened to, what occurred, when it happened, and where it went down. But that’s not what the Bible is for. That is what the newspaper is for, but not the scriptures. Scriptures form a faith story, and in a faith story God continues to be involved in his created world, and you and I continue to be involved in that story with God.

We have been created, you and I, in partnership with our Creator-Redeemer God, to help bring our world into right relationship with God. That has to do with more than just getting to heaven. Far more. It speaks to how we take care of the earth God has created and given us, it determines how we relate to others, especially those who are different from us. It expresses itself in every facet of our being. We live – right now, you and I – in God’s faith story.

Even though our faith, at best, is mixed with doubt, we are to tell others what God is doing and encourage them, as well as ourselves, to be partners with God in seeing that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

How in the world do we do that? Well, at their reunion, when Jesus gives his disciples the authority that has been placed in his hands, he tells them to do what? To teach. “…teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you…”

We are all teachers, aren’t we? We teach by example. We teach by how we live. Consider that most of our time is not spent here in this place. Even the most actively involved of us spend no more than four or five hours a week here inside these walls.  Maybe that will give you the idea that this challenge given by Jesus to his disciples has more to do with what we do outside these walls than within them.

And understand this: no matter who we are, and as insignificant as we may think we are, we are all teachers. Someone is watching us, someone is learning from us. What are we teaching them? Are we teaching them that our world is worth protecting for the generations that follow us? Are we teaching them a spirit of tolerance and love, even and especially to those who are different from us? Are we being the presence of Christ to those we meet? Are we making disciples? Are we being the church outside these walls?

Take those questions with you, please. And when you leave this place, better yet, let the answers to these questions penetrate your hearts. In your going and doing, be the presence of Christ outside these walls. And remember: Jesus didn’t say, “If you build it, they will come.” He said, “Go… go… go.”

Lord, continue to show us how to be your church… wherever we are, whatever we do. Find us faithful in being your presence to others, in Jesus’ name. Amen.