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.