This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, 18 April 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 5: 27 – 32, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 20: 19 – 31.
There are certain things that I think you need to know about my approach to the ministry. First, I am not too crazy about the Book of Revelations. I supposed it is because I don’t particularly like the implications that some people give to it. More than one person has come forward claiming to know the secret code behind the writing. And, in at least one instance, people in Waco, Texas died because they believed in one of those men.
Now, we hear that a series of novels dealing with the last days of the earth are among the best sellers. But there is a conflict between the Jesus Christ portrayed in those novels and the Jesus Christ that I know. The Christ that I know comes into the Upper Room in today’s Gospel reading bringing peace and joy to His disciples. If Jesus Christ is the vengeful representative of God on earth, as this series of novels would have Him to be, then he cannot bring peace to his disciples who fear for their lives. And if he is the vengeful representative, then his call for mercy and repentance is all for naught.
No, I am not too crazy about the Book of Revelations. But John’s words are prophetic. For not only is Christ the end, He is also the beginning. And even if His death is the end then His resurrection is truly the beginning. And while others may see the Book of Revelation as the end, it should also be seen as a book of hope and promise. In the same way, there are other words that many will see as the end but can be words of hope and promise. For you have already received or you will soon receive a letter from Dennis Winkleblack.
This letter is a call for a Church Conference on May 23rd, following services that Sunday. It is not a meeting of gloom and doom, unless you want it to be. But it is a meeting that will go a long way to deciding what the future of this church will be. I would also add that whatever decisions are made about the future of the church will be made by those present at that meeting. If someone asks if they can submit an absentee ballot or have you vote for them, tell them that they must be present; those present define the quorum. Also, though this meeting will in many ways define the future, the future will not be decided until Annual Conference in 2005. There will probably be another meeting with the "new" District Superintendent. Whatever the future will be, it will begin with the meeting on the 23rd. But it cannot and should not be a meeting of fear. For if it is a meeting of fear, then it is the end.
That is why the disciples were hiding in the upper room. They feared that because they were Jesus’ disciples they would soon be arrested and executed. Because their hopes and dreams had been in Jesus while He was on earth, they could not see a future. And now that he was gone, executed by the authorities for having had the audacity to say out loud what many had perhaps long said internally, they feared for their own lives.
The fact of the matter was that, with the single exception of John, each disciple would be executed or killed in a violent and vicious manner. But their deaths would not come those first days after the Resurrection but rather after they had gone out into other lands, taking the message of the Gospel with them. Their accomplishments would not come because of their own innate abilities but rather because of their faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
And it would be that faith, that belief in things unseen, that would propel the Gospel message even further, long after the original group of disciples and followers died. As Thomas, forever known after that day in the Gospels as "Doubting Thomas", was told, many would believe in Christ not because of what they had seen but rather because of what they believed.
There are many models for helping churches grow or revive. But many of these models, and I know you have heard me say this before, focus on the church helping people be comfortable with the Gospel.
I do not believe that the Gospel message is meant to make one feel good but rather the Gospel message is meant to take Christ into this world. Peter stood before the crowd and reminded them that they were given the task of taking the Gospel into the world. (1) That is the same task that we are faced with today. If Christ is not taken into the world, then the problems and troubles that plague the world cannot be fought. If Christ is not taken into the world, if He remains hidden in a room, safely locked away where only a few, select individuals can find Him, then His death and resurrection are meaningless.
The problem is that many people feel that the church owes them something; that their being a member is all they have to do. They want the church to do everything and be ready when they call; they are not comfortable with a Gospel message that calls upon them to be the messenger. They are quite happy with a church that does not venture outside the room; they are quite happy with the safety it provides. But a church that does not go outside its walls will soon die and though it has not happened yet, I fear that churches who use the model presently encouraged will soon begin to die.
Some years ago I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Rose Sims. She was the pastor of a small church in Florida that had been given up for dead when she was assigned to it. Now, it happens that Rose got her doctorate from the University of Missouri and her doctoral advisor was one of my advisors when I was working on my Masters degree. She has been recognized as an expert in bringing back to life churches that have been written off. Brought in to preach the funeral of dying churches, she has found a way to bring such churches back to life.
Some of the thoughts that she has about such a mission focus on the nature of the preacher and what the preacher must do; points that I have tried to meet.
But I think that the two most important steps in reviving a dying church are to first have the people involved with the church do the work and, second, make sure that it was the Gospel that was the central point to the church.
Regarding the first point, there are certain things that only the pastor or the preacher can do but if the people are not willing to work towards the ultimate success of the church, nothing the preacher can do will stop its death.
Regarding the second point, if the Gospel is not present in the message of the church, then the church really has no soul or chance to live. It does not matter how the Gospel is presented, but without the Gospel and what the Gospel means, the church will die.
In asking Dennis to call the meeting on the 23rd I had to pray long and hard that I was doing the right thing. The financial report that Jerry gave us three weeks ago was only one of several reasons for taking this step. You already know that I was upset about the comments of some members who call this "their church" but yet have done nothing to activate their membership. In addition, there have been a number of comments made to me that suggest that people outside the church community do not see this place as a church. One person a few weeks ago even told me that they were not aware that the church was open anymore. I said that they weren’t very observant.
Upon hearing that Eddie Stevenson is speaking next week, a person called me and wanted to know if an Indian Pow-wow is being held. And would there be vendors? She did not seem too happy when I pointed out that Eddie would be presenting the message as part of the regular church service. And by the way, I would add that if you did not hear his message last year, you should make every effort to hear his message this year. Last year, when he spoke of the traditions of his ancestors, he gave one of the best talks on the Book of Revelation that I have ever heard. Make sure that you invite your friends, neighbors, and people you haven’t even spoken to yet to come next week.
A person whom I have never seen in church on Sunday parked in our parking lot the other Sunday so that he could walk up to the Deli to get the paper. I invited him to attend services that morning but he declined. He said that he supported the church by attending the Corn and Hamburger Roast. This person, along with some others whom I have been in contact with over the past two years, see the church in a social sense, not in a Gospel sense. Others have quit contributing to the church because we have stopped the culture events. Again, they see the church in a social sense, not in a Gospel sense. It is perfectly all right to have social events but without the Gospel they are not part of the church.
This is not to say that a church, any church, cannot have social events. Historically, it has been the church where the social events of the community took place. But when the social events of the church overshadow the events of the church, then it is time to refocus the vision of the church
John wrote the Book of Revelation for seven churches in Turkey. He was writing about what their individual futures were. In a world where Roman tyranny destroyed any opposition (and the church was certainly the opposition), churches which did not focus on the Gospel message and the faith it took were doomed to die. For some of the churches, the temptation must have been very great to be a part of the secular community around them, insuring that they would survive.
The same is true today. The church is part of the community but it cannot allow the community to dictate its survival. For to do so would be to forget its faith, but if faith is protected at all costs, then the church cannot be a part of the community. Faith must be presented to the community, not hidden within the walls of the church.
The disciples were hiding, fearful for their lives, wondering what would happen next. Then Jesus walks into the room. He says, "Peace be with you." He brings back to them a sense of order, a sense of what their lives were about. In showing the disciples and us His wounds He is showing us the marks of forgiveness. We are forgiven, peace is restored to our troubled soul and we are free.
The word forgiveness in Greek can be translated as "to free" or "to let go." The Gospel story becomes a story of freedom. To those whose sins were obvious and who had been cast out of the community because of their shame, Jesus said, "Your sins are forgiven. Be restored." To others like the Pharisees, who put on a good show to hide their sins, Jesus said, "You must repent." It was to say that you must stop hiding your shame, bring it out so that it can be forgiven and so that you can be free.
After finding the disciples, forgiving them, and restoring peace to their souls, Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit and the ministry of grace. He said, "if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained." Jesus entrusted to the disciples, and to us, His own ministry of forgiveness.
Each of us has our own ministry; together our own individual ministries define the ministry of the church. But a ministry that doesn’t start with forgiveness will not be a very good one. If you cannot forgive those who hurt you, then the only alternative is to retain those sins. To retain is to hold, and to hold onto hurt is to lock us into the identity of victim. You cannot simply forget the hurt, deny it, or store it up for later use. It will eat you up; it eventually will destroy you.
When the hurts are great, it gets hard to forgive. We begin to wonder if we can ever give up the hurt that is eating away at our soul. But then we are reminded that Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit before He called us to forgive. The work of the Holy Spirit binds us into the work of Jesus Christ.
We do not have to produce forgiveness; it is impossible for us to do so. But we are called to produce, to show what happened on the cross. We are called to open the locks, open the doors and walk out into the world as one who is unafraid. (Adapted from "Living the Word", Christian Century, April 6, 2004)
We start by first forgiving those who have hurt us. We can continue by reaching out to those who have been hurt and inviting them back in to this place of forgiveness and healing. Then it is possible to go out into the world.
I hope that in the coming weeks, you will take the opportunity to reach out to those in the community, both members and non-members, inviting them to be a part of this community. There are some, I am sure, who will wonder what is going to happen to "our" church. And you can tell them, ""Our" church will die unless you are a part of it".
Some who live far away may only be able to help with financial donations. That is fine, though perhaps it brings to question why they are not members where they live. But those who live close by should be encouraged to do more than simply make a financial donation. All that does is "buy" them something, much like the indulgences of Martin Luther’s time bought people a ticket into heaven. Those who live close by should be encouraged to come back and be a part of this church. You can point out to them that we have been warning them for almost two years now that their inaction has consequences. The consequences are not as dramatic as the death of the church but there are consequences.
So it begins. Like the disciples before us, we start the week after Easter hearing some bad news, fearing that whatever future might be before us is not a good one. But then we are reminded that Jesus did not die but was resurrected; we are reminded that Jesus came to us and gives us peace; we are reminded that we, like the disciples before us, have been given the Holy Spirit and empowered to take the Gospel into the world. So it does not end today, it begins.