The Great Ends of the Church: Love Conquers All

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster): a distant relative of the legendary Phoenix? Image by Pierre Dalous. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster): a distant relative of the legendary Phoenix? Image by Pierre Dalous. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons,

Before I say anything else, I think it would be appropriate on this particular Easter morning to express thanks for the brave work of the men and women of the Boonville Volunteer Fire Department in their handling of the fire that destroyed part of downtown Main Street this week.

I don’t know if you heard, but there was a class of kindergarten students that was looking at a picture of a fire truck with its crew and trusty Dalmatian close at hand.  One student asked the teacher why fire trucks always traveled with Dalmatians.  The teacher didn’t know, so the kids began to speculate.  One said, “Maybe they help control the crowds.”  And another one said, “Maybe it’s just for good luck.”  But in the end they all agreed that the best answer came from the third kid who said, “They must use the dogs to find the fire hydrants.”

Like Dalmatians on fire trucks, there is so much in this world that we simply accept as present without asking why it’s there.  Take the church, for instance.  A lot of people go to church their whole lives without ever really asking why.  What is the purpose of the church?  Why is it here?  Is it just to keep the pipe organ and stained-glass window companies in business?  Is it just to give our pastor a place to bring all his corny jokes that no one else will laugh at?  Is it a civic organization where people can gather as a community to reflect on their beliefs and values?

According to our ancestors in the Presbyterian tradition, the church does have a particular purpose.  Actually, it’s a six-fold purpose.  It was most clearly delineated and written down a little over a hundred years ago by the United Presbyterian Church in North America, one of the predecessor denominations to our current national church: the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The statement written by our forebears is called The Great Ends of the Church and it reads as follows:

The great ends of the church are:

  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
  • The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
  • The maintenance of divine worship
  • The preservation of the truth
  • The promotion of social righteousness
  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world

Now, I don’t expect you to remember all of these points at once.  But starting today, we’re going to spend some time with the great ends of the church over the next several weeks (not including next week, when I’ll be away from the pulpit).  One by one, we’re going to look at these related ends and ask ourselves why we are here.  My ultimate hope is that our discussion of the great ends of the church might lead us to explore questions about what it is that God might be calling our particular congregation to be and do in this community and the world at large.

Today, we’re going to look at the first great end of the church: The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.

Now, that’s a mouthful of theologically loaded terms that don’t always conjure up the most positive mental images of the church.  When the average person hears church-folks talking about “proclaiming the gospel” and “salvation”, the first thing they tend to think of is proselytism (the active recruitment of converts to one’s religion).  In other words, they think of people going door to door with Bibles in hand, winning converts for Christ and saving souls for heaven.  At best, people see this kind of activity as misguided and self-seeking.  After all, aren’t these people just trying to grow the ranks of the church and fill the offering plate?  Most folks (understandably) would much rather be left alone from this kind of “gospel”.

So what else might we mean when we say that the first great end of the church is the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind?  Well, we’ll have to take a closer look at the words “gospel” and “salvation” in order to get a clearer picture about that.  The word “gospel” simply means “good news” and the word “salvation” comes from the Latin word “salve” which means “to heal or make well”.  So we’re really talking about some piece of good news that has the capacity to bring wellness to the entire earth community.  When I let that definition roll around in my head, I imagine a TV news bulletin interrupting regularly scheduled programming in order to inform the public about some momentous discovery, like a cure for cancer, for instance.

For Christians, we see the life of Jesus as representing just such an occasion of good news.  We see in him a way to heal the darkness, chaos, and brokenness of this world.  We hear it in his teachings.  We see it in his actions.  Most of all, we believe this good news to be embodied in the stories we tell about Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Whether or not we take these stories literally, we see them as expressions of truth: the truth that the pure Love living in Jesus could not be silenced or held back by the hateful, violent, and power-hungry forces of this world.  No, this Love that he revealed to us is more powerful than all the crosses, all the bombs, and all the schemes of all the nations of the world.  Death itself is not strong enough to keep this Love down.  This Love is so powerful that we would even call it divine.  We would go so far as to say that the Love revealed in Jesus pulses in the nucleus of every atom, in the core of every star, and in the heart of every person.  No matter what you try to say or do to it, the divine Love of Jesus lives.

In other words: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

That’s it.  That’s the message of resurrection.  That’s the story of Easter.  That’s the gospel: the good news that brings wholeness and well-being to all.

The first great end of the church, the first reason why we exist at all, is to make this good news known to as many creatures as possible.  The Love we see in Jesus should be apparent in our words and deeds as well.  Our lives, as Christians, should make it easier for others to believe that Love does indeed conquer all (even death).  Every service, every prayer, every hymn, every sermon, every building, every service project, every committee meeting, every rummage sale, and every dollar raised or spent should be directed toward making this one truth more clear and visible to the world:

Love conquers all.

God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Can we say that our church currently embodies this truth in everything we do?  If not, how do you think we can do it better?  What concrete steps can we take toward that end?

How about your individual life?  Do people ever look at you and say, “Wow, that person’s life makes me want to believe that Love really does conquer all”?  If not, then what concrete steps can you take to make the reality of Love more apparent in your life?  Maybe it’s even something as simple as learning the name of your server in the diner where you eat lunch today?

There are bigger ways we can do this as well.  This Easter morning, our congregation is collecting the One Great Hour of Sharing offering, which will go to support national and international organizations that provide, disaster assistance, hunger relief, and self-development resources to people all over the world.  Grants funded by One Great Hour of Sharing go to support initiatives like the Water for Life project in the African country of Niger.  Since 2006, Water for Life has dug six large wells for drinking water, 85 small gardening wells, and ten water-retention pools.  “As a result,” according to the website of the Presbyterian Hunger Project, “19,892 people in 3,292 households, as well as 28,000 livestock animals, have benefited from improved access to potable water for drinking and food production.  Additionally, over 853 acres of land have been cultivated with food crops and over 4,942 acres have been reforested.”

This is Love in action, embodied at a distance for people we’ll never meet.

On a more local level, I’d like to draw your attention to the post-fire recovery effort currently underway at the Boonville United Methodist Church.  From the very beginning of this crisis, before the buildings had even stopped smoldering, the Methodist Church opened its doors as a command and resource center for victims.  Donations of food, clothing, and supplies have poured in from all over our community.

Rev. Rob Dean tells me the one thing they need most right now is people who can come down to help sort and distribute donations.  Starting Tuesday, I’ll be spending most of next week over there as well, lending a hand and assisting Rev. Dean with any pastoral care needs for the families.  You’re invited to come along as well.  We could really use the help.

I spent yesterday afternoon over there.  When we sat down to dinner last night, we had more food than we knew what to do with.  In that upper room together were displaced families, dedicated volunteers, exhausted firefighters, and two bewildered pastors who still had services to lead and sermons to write for Easter Sunday.  Looking around the room last night, I discovered this sermon.  I realized that I was witnessing resurrection in action, right before my eyes.  In the midst of these people: suffering, hugging, laughing, and eating together.  Within them and among them, new life was rising up from the ashes and taking flight like the Phoenix of Greek legend.

Friends, this is not just charity, nor is it simply a worthy cause.  This is the good news that brings wholeness and well-bring.  This is the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.  This is the first great end of the church.  It is why we are here.

Recovery from Boonville Fire


Dear Friends,

All of us are still reeling from the news of this week’s tragic fire that destroyed historic buildings, caused the death of several pets, and left 29 people homeless in our beloved village.

Churches and community agencies have all been quick to respond to this disaster, but special praise goes to our friends and neighbors at the Boonville Methodist Church and the quick-minded leadership of their new minister, Rev. Robert Dean.  Since the early hours of the fire, Rev. Dean made the church available as a command and resource center for survivors.  Donations of clothes, supplies, and gift cards have been generously pouring in from the community.

Taking a much-needed rest after almost two days of working around the clock, Rev. Dean and his family attended our Good Friday service.  Immediately after that service ended, my first words to him were, “What do you need from us?”  His first word back to me was, “Manpower.”

The most pressing need at the moment is for able hands to sort out donated clothes for distribution.  Families are continuing to come by the church daily for aid.  Volunteers have been assisting as they are able.  If any of you have time in the coming days and weeks, please lend a hand to the recovery effort at Boonville Methodist Church.  The building opens most days at 9:30am and closes at 5pm.

The word on the street is that the Boonville Chamber of Commerce will be setting up a special bank account next week to receive monetary donations on behalf of fire victims.  The American Red Cross has also set up operations in the village for helping those in need.  Contributions to that organization are always welcome.

Rev. Dean and I have also recognized the need for crisis counseling to be made available to these residents.  Together, we are currently trying to organize a network of local clergy for on-site support and are seeking to enlist the more qualified assistance of professional crisis counselors from other community service agencies.

Moments like these are when we get to show the world what we are made of.  May the Light of Christ rise up in us this Easter and shine hope into the darkness of despair!  May it be so.  Amen.

Be blessed and be a blessing,

Rev. J. Barrett Lee

My (re)Ordination

My leap over Hadrian’s Wall is now complete!  I am a minister of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Click here to read the bulletin from the service.

Posted below is the sermon, which was written and delivered by my dear friend (and fellow Trekkie), the Reverend Naomi Kelly.  Naomi serves as pastor of Forest Presbyterian Church in Lyons Falls, NY.  This sermon is reprinted with her permission.

Her text is the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12.

I’m sure that you’ve watched many Star Trek episodes, and I’m sure you’re familiar with the Episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard becomes a little boy, there is some kind ionic cloud and passes over the shuttle craft and he, Guinan and Ensign Ro are genetically altered to the time just before puberty, they are pre-teens is you will. Captain Picard is very happy that he has hair, and when the antidote seems impossible and the he will be young and grow up again, and be given another chance to go through life, he begins to imagine what he can become, he was already a Star Ship Captain, maybe this time he will be an archaeologist, another one of his passions. But soon the ship is in danger and young or not he must act, he must do something to save his ship. It was very difficult for him not being able to command his ship the way he used to.  He  still has all his skills, only in a younger body. And he finds that when he changes his perspective and begins to see with the eyes of  a child he is able to do great things, he is able to use his childishness to save the ship. His perspective is changed as he figures out what he needs to do in order to succeed at his calling. When Jean Luc was able to humble himself, to become vulnerable,  to allow the child that he’d become to direct  his actions, he was able to do great things. Star Trek always has the ability to give us new and fresh perspectives on our culture by taking us outside ourselves just enough so that we can see where we fall short, where we need work, what we can do better.

Jesus does that too, (you see Star Trek always copies Jesus) Jesus gives us new perspectives on life, like His Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes give us one such twist. Seasons of the Spirit, a commentary on “Year A January 30, 2011 says:  “In these saying, Jesus turns human notions of happiness upside down. What kind of living brings God’s blessing? Jesus teaches that the blessed ones are those who are humble of heart, who are gentle, who show mercy, who hunger and thirst for God’s ways. Those who mourn will be comforted; those who make peace will be called God’s children. Those who are persecuted in the cause of justice will find themselves part of God’s transforming reality.”

The Beatitudes give us a beautiful vision of what the world can be like. It is a vision that allows us to see the world from a different perspective.  Like Paul says in the letter to the Philippians we need to be humble as Jesus was humble, to be more Christ like- that gentle merciful nature that is part of us, that we hide away, because we think it makes us vulnerable is what Jesus reminds us to show to the world. The kind of power that we’re used to, is not God’s idea of power.

These stories are revealing of the church in a way, they remind us that at one time the church took itself too seriously, that we began to want more power and influence in the world, and now all the mainline denominations are struggling, perhaps we lost the vision of Jesus’ teachings, perhaps the world doesn’t need what we have to offer anymore.  I don’t know about you, but I often think I know better than God, I have all the answers, this kind of attitude leaves us inflexible, and not humble at all.

It is time for new a perspective again, it is time to reform and always be reforming, it is time to read the words that we have had handed down to us with new eyes, in a new light, and see where we need to change our perspective. The Spirit of Christ enables us to do that, gives us the insight and vision to change. Just as the young Jean Luc was able to change his perspective and use the skills of a pre-teen to save his ship, we are able to open to new ways of being church to make a difference in our world. And we can say, Blessed are the weak because when we are weak then God is strong and can influence and change our lives and our behavior.  Blessed are the flexible for they will survive the changes that come along.

Blessed are the young at heart for they will able to transform the church to serve the world and each other.