A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on March 18, 2012.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-17
Look out in the world today and you will see the signs of spring in full bloom. From the yellow branches of forsythia and the white blossoms of the Bradford pear, to the purple redbud, to the greening of the grass—the drab, dull, dead of winter is giving way to the vibrant, living colors of spring. For the last two days, I was in Alexandria, Virginia, and already, the cherry blossoms were providing splashes of pink against the blue March sky. Spring has sprung, and there is really nothing that we human beings can take credit for the transformation that is taking place in our part of the world. What a gift it is to see and experience this season of the year!
Just as each spring is a fresh expression of what God is doing anew in the world, I had the privilege hearing and learning about what God is doing anew in the His Church in the world. I attended the national gathering of “Fresh Expressions” held at First Baptist Church, Alexandria with over 300 other pastors and lay leaders from twenty-one different denominations. Fresh Expressions is a Christian movement that originated among the Anglicans in Great Britain, and according to their website, a “fresh expression” is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.
Throughout the conference, I was reminded of this morning’s Gospel lesson: “For God so loved the world.” God loves the world that is filled with people who do not deserve His love, filled with people who are not seeking Him, filled with people who are on a road that led to death instead of abundant life. John 3:16 says that for God so loved that world—our world— that He gave His one and only Son, so whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. This verse is such an often-used passage among Christians that, for me, it is no longer fresh. Sure, I absolutely agree with its truth, but sometimes I lose sight of its power and challenge. Don’t get me wrong, I am so grateful to God’s saving power working in my life when I became a Christian, but that was a while ago. What application does this verse have for my life and for the church today?
Through the sharing of stories and present-day experiences of the speakers and attendees at the Fresh Expressions conference, I became powerfully aware of how this beloved passage is still relevant and challenging for me and the church today. I was reminded of the writer to the Hebrews who started his letter by saying, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.” Throughout history, God’s saving word was spoken through the prophets, but in these last days, God spoke through a fresh expression, that of his Living Word in the person of his Son Jesus Christ. Now, this was not a criticism of the prophets of old, for they were faithful expressions of God’s word, and God used them in powerful ways to transform His people. But God is always doing a new thing, and according to the writer of Hebrews, at God’s appointed time, God sent Jesus to be God’s fresh expression to His people. Ever since then, God’s Holy Spirit continues to birth new expressions of his love for the world in fresh and creative ways through the body of Christ, the Church. This is not a criticism of the way we’ve done church in the past, for those ways were faithful expressions of God’s word and God work for that day and age. This is just an acknowledgement that in this new day and age, God’s Spirit can both affirm what we are doing as a traditional church as well as encourage us to explore newer expressions of church that look and feel very different than what many of us are used to. God is using these fresh expressions to reach segments of the population that traditional churches will never reach, no matter how well those congregations “do” church.
How do I know this? I know because I heard story after story of how God is working in the world today through the fresh and missionary work of God’s people in their own neighborhoods. I went to a breakout session and heard the story of a ten-year-old church in Leesburg, Virginia that just started three new chapters of the church: two house churches in Waterford and Manassas, and one church in an active adult retirement community in Ashburn. The pastor confessed that his church wasn’t targeting the elderly for ministry; in fact, the church was interested in attracting young families with children. But through a series of God-moments, this pastor mentored and supported a layperson in his seventies to lead a Bible study in an active adult retirement center of two thousand residents. After earning the trust of the director of that retirement center, this layman now conducts Sunday morning worship services at the center’s auditorium free of charge. Now, lest you think that the mother church is huge, it only has around 200 attendees on Sunday morning worship, but it now has an opportunity to reach and minister to a population ten times its present size, most of which will never attend the mother church.
At another breakout session, I heard the story of Rhema Christian Ministry in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a small congregation that rented a house in another part of town to begin a ministry called Fresh Start, a non-profit community outreach that provides childcare for children while their parents take classes in life skills to foster positive changes in their lives. Along the way, the gospel is presented in action as they seek to rebuild lives and communities. Before they launched Fresh Start, this congregation took two years connecting with their community, getting to know and love their neighbors, asking them about their needs and challenges. They physically moved their Bible studies outside their church building and into the neighborhood, meeting at a Panera Bread restaurant. They listened to those who were not Christian to learn what their perceptions were of Christians and the Church, and what they heard was hard to stomach: Christians were hypocritical, they were sheltered and out of touch with reality, they looked at non-Christians as targets rather than people, they were judgmental, wanting to change and fix non-Christians while they themselves were not fixed. But instead of getting defensive, these church members examined themselves closely to see if there was any truth to those perceptions, and they realized that they needed to make some changes in their attitudes and assumptions. As they came to know their neighbors, they began to see them as people, and they came to realize that they were not all that different from them. As a result, love and compassion began to take root in their hearts. Out of their listening sessions, they found out that people in their community needed affordable childcare and job training. So this church rented a two-story home to provide childcare on the first floor of the house and job training for parents on the second story. This congregation is living into God’s future story by showing God’s love and care to people who would never darken the doors of their church.
Throughout these stories, there were common, underlying refrains that tied them together. Some of these refrains include: before we earn the right to speak the gospel to the unchurched, we must first be willing to listen to their stories, their beliefs, their hopes and dreams. Before we ask them to enter into our church world, we must first be willing to enter into their world, just like Jesus did for us. Pastor Eugene Peterson describes it this way: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (The Message, John 1:8). Before we ask the unchurched to change their sinful ways, the church must first be willing to change our judgmental attitudes towards them. The unchurched must first experience our acceptance before they will accept the truth that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Church growth is not enlisting more people to serve our congregation; rather, it is equipping and sending people out to serve the community. Jesus said to his disciples in Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” These are the marks of a church taking on the mission of Jesus, and showing God’s love for the world.
In his letter to the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul was writing about the transformation that took place in the lives of the followers of Christ. Paul reminded those Christians there that at one time, they were dead in their transgressions and sin, enslaved to their human desires, and trapped following the ways of the world. But now, they were spiritually alive, not through their own works that they can boast about or take credit for, but by the grace of God: it is by grace you have been saved.
When we think of “being saved,” we often think of a personal conversion to Christ. While of course, our primary conversion is to Christ, someone once said that the Christian salvation in the fullest sense consists of three conversions: the conversion to Christ, the conversion to Christ’s church, and the conversion to Christ’s cause. Unfortunately, in our society, we’ve reduced our conversion to Christ to a mere intellectual belief which gets us a ticket to heaven. But Jesus is not just a ticket master; He is the master of our lives and the head of the church.
Therefore, a conversion to Christ’s church is also necessary. But we’ve also reduced church to merely a weekly or bi-weekly event. We often think if we just “go to church” once or twice a week, then we’ve performed our Christian duty. But Christ doesn’t call us to “do” church; He tells us that we are the Church, connected to one another as members of one body. We’ve seen Christians who are converted to Christ, but are still living lonely, isolated lives. As they look around the pews during worship, they only see strangers that they will never know. Many of you have had rich experiences of Christian community; that is a conversion to Christ’s people. For those of you involved in a discipleship group, I think it’s safe to say that you’re beginning or re-beginning to experience this fullness of salvation within a loving and caring community. As Jim Davis says after his experience in a huddle group, he now has four men with whom he can share about anything, four men whom he can call at any time when he’s in need.
Finally, there is the conversion to Christ’s cause. Jo Saxtan, one of the presenters at the conference, shared that she was part of a dying church in England. But after seventeen years of Christian community through discipleship groups and Christian service through countless mission groups, over seven hundred people came to Christ last year. But that church no longer measures their success by counting the number of people or members who join the church; that church measures their success by counting the number of people who were going out to serve their community in the name of Christ! Now, that is a church who has converted to Christ’s cause. When we receive the gospel, we are converted three times. Failure to convert to either the church or to mission is a failure to grasp the whole gospel.
Now before you say, that sure sounds like work and not grace, let me remind you of Dallas Willard’s wise words: “It is crucial to realise that grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. Earning is an attitude, effort is action. Without effort, we would be nowhere.” Yes, Paul says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith– and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.” But then, in the very next verse, Paul writes: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We don’t do good works to earn God’s grace and approval. We do good works as a result of receiving the free gift of God’s grace and love.
As a people who have experienced the grace of God, we have the privilege to pay that forward by walking in the way of grace. Just as the signs of spring are in the air, I can also see the signs of spring here at Farmville Baptist. How encouraging it was for me to hear that we had sixteen members participating in Missions Night Out last Thursday at FACES! How encouraging to see our Jail Ministry group leading worship at Piedmont regional jail on the first Sunday of every month! How encouraging to know that Doris Weaver’s prayer group meets every other month at Holly Manor. How encouraging to hear that Crystal Cupp and Sandy East lead a prayer group every morning at Cumberland Elementary School! How encouraging that principal Craig Reed from the Prince Edward County High School was here sharing his vision and challenges and inviting us to partner with the school. These pave the way of grace of not just doing church . . . but being the church, being the presence of Christ out in the world that God has created and loves, showing the way of God’s grace among people who will never darken our doors.
Where do you see Christ at work in your neighborhood, in your world? How are you, and others, be able to join in what God is doing? As we continue the Lenten way, may God give us eyes to see, ears to hear, hands to bless, and feet to walk the way of grace. Amen.