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.


Dr. Loren Wilkinson at his farm on Galiano Island
Dr. Loren Wilkinson at his farm on Galiano Island

When I was in seminary at Regent College, there was a professor there named Loren Wilkinson.  Loren was famous for regularly inviting students to join him and his wife Mary Ruth at their farm on Galiano Island, just off the coast of British Columbia’s lower mainland.  This trip to the Wilkinson farm became one of the central hallmarks of the Regent College experience for many students, myself included.

Now, this trip was no mere vacation, mind you.  No, when you went to Galiano Island, you went there expecting to work.  Loren got you up early and gave you a task to complete somewhere on the farm.  There was always something to be done, and with groups of students visiting almost every weekend, there were usually enough hands to get it all done.  Many students, like me, came from urban or suburban backgrounds, so we had never experienced life on a working farm before.  Loren made sure that we got our hands dirty and broke a sweat during the day.

And then, at night, the real treat came: dinner.  After work, the other thing you were expected to do at Galiano Island was eat.  And, oh my goodness, did we eat!  Homemade delicacies of every imaginable variety were set out before us in abundance.  Nobody left that table hungry.  And it wasn’t just the quantity of food that was abundant, it was the quality as well.  Everything was organic, homemade, and delicious.

Loren and Mary Ruth lived very simple lives on the island, but the main thing we learned during our stay with them is that simple need not mean austere.  Visitors never got the sense that these people were sacrificing or going without the creature comforts of life.  They live in abundance.

I thought about my trip to Galiano Island and the abundance I discovered there when I read this week’s scripture passage from the book of Isaiah:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price…

…Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.

Later on in the passage, the prophet compares the word of God to the life-giving qualities of rain:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Finally, at the end, the prophet leaves the people with a promise of even more abundance, which is yet to come:

For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

The power of these images is undeniable.  The earth itself is veritably bursting at the seams with life and blessing.  More than just “the way it is”, to this Jewish prophet, the abundance of creation is a divine revelation: it tells us something about God: the Ground of all Being, the core nature of reality itself.  We humans live, move, and have our being in a vast ocean of abundant blessing and amazing grace.

Why then don’t we see it?  Why don’t we believe it?  Why don’t we live our lives as if this was the most central truth of our existence?

It can be hard to embrace the abundance of creation when we are surrounded by a cacophony of voices and circumstances testifying to the contrary.  Every time we change the channel, it seems like there’s one more voice reminding us how close we are to the brink of Armageddon.  Politicians and advertising executives make their livings off of our fear that there is not enough to go around.  Popular media would have us believe that poverty and starvation are problems too big to be solved.  We tell ourselves there’s simply nothing we can do.  However, according to the World Hunger Education Service, the earth produces enough food to provide every man, woman, and child with 2,720 kilocalories per day… that’s over 1,000 times the amount of calories needed for a healthy diet.  Regardless of this fact, people all over the world (mostly in Asia and Africa) are dying of starvation while Americans are dying of an obesity epidemic.

Is the problem really that there’s not enough to go around?  Or is it that too much has been hoarded into one place?  Could it be that powerful, fear-mongering politicians and executives are holding the rest of us hostage with delusions of scarcity?

What makes it worse is that the powerful people who propagate these lies have come to believe in them so strongly that they are making decisions for the rest of us.  They lob their ideological grenades at one another on TV, meanwhile the children of God line up outside soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  Senators and CEOs drive around in bullet-proof limousines while the people of this country stand in unemployment lines.  Friends, I daresay this is a sin against heaven itself.  Something is radically wrong with our collective worldview if we truly believe the lie that there is simply not enough to go around.

This morning’s scripture reading calls us to change this worldview.  First, the prophet gets our attention:

Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.

And then warns us:

let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts

The details of this passage are worth paying attention to: the problem, according to the prophet, is not the bounty of creation but the small-mindedness of its inhabitants.  Presumably, they want to live and live well.  What is needed then?  We must forsake our wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts.  The problem is not with the world itself, but with our way of thinking and living in it.  Average people are envious of those who have more than they need, so they run roughshod over the rights and needs of the poor in an attempt to emulate the powerful.

The prophet gives us the remedy:

Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live…

let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts

In other words: it’s high time to change our stinkin’ thinkin’.

It’s time for us to stop shouting at the sky about how big our problems are and start shouting at our problems about how big the sky is.

Instead of looking out for number one in our small-minded, self-centered little worlds, we need to cultivate an attitude of gratitude and sharing.  The abundance of creation is a free gift to all.  We lose it when we try to keep it all for ourselves.  It’s time for us, as people of faith, “to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  I borrowed that phrase from our neighbors in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.  In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The simplest answer is that it’s time for us to learn how to share.  I’m not just talking about opening our wallets on occasion; I’m talking about opening our minds on all occasions.  We have to expand our definition of the word family.  We need to nurture global family values, but that’s a tall order, so why don’t we start with local family values?  When we hear about that sickness, that layoff, or that foreclosure for our neighbors, let’s not harden our hearts or turn our backs saying, “It’s not my problem.”  Because it is our problem.  When we live in community with one another, not just proximity to one another, options, possibilities, and resources begin to open up.  All of a sudden, we don’t feel so desperate or alone anymore.  Together we find hope, strength, and courage to overcome adversity and make it through the darkest night.  In short: we begin to manifest the freely given abundance of creation that is our collective birthright.  We start small and work our way up.  As they say, “Think globally, act locally.”

Coming up in a few weeks, on Easter Sunday, our congregation will be participating in a single, unified manifestation of abundance for people all over the world.  It’s called One Great Hour of Sharing.  This ecumenical effort was begun over sixty years ago to pool the efforts of multiple denominations in the fight against global poverty and hunger.  Our forebears realized they could do more together than any of them could do apart.  To date, we have raised as much as $20 million annually to assist with disaster relief and development projects around the world.

Throughout the season of Lent, you will notice inserts in your bulletins that outline a different project each week that is supported by One Great Hour of Sharing.  Take these inserts home with you, pray for the project highlighted that week, and please consider pooling your resources with ours on Easter Sunday so that we might collectively manifest the abundance of creation for the good of the whole.

These are our global family values.  This is our faith-based alternative to the politics of fear and the economy of scarcity.  It has nothing to do with the powers that be in Washington or on Wall Street.  The kingdom of heaven-on-earth doesn’t belong to the powerful; it belongs to the little ones of this world, it belongs to the local communities of average Janes and Joes who reach out to care for one another in the midst of good times and bad.

In a few minutes, we will gather as a church around the Communion Table to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  In this feast of the abundance of heaven and earth, all people are invited to come, eat, and drink without money and without price.

I pray that the message of this feast will not return empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent: bringing forth life and growth, manifesting the abundance of creation for the common good.  May the meaning of this mystery take root in the soil of your soul, and as you go out from this place today, fed and filled with Word and Sacrament, may you go out in joy and be led back in peace, may the mountains and hills burst into song before you and the trees of the field clap their hands.

May you know the abundance of creation as you share it with everyone you meet.  May you be blessed and be a blessing in the knowledge that I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.