Article of Faith #11 – “The Church”

Article of Faith #11 – The Church
Date: Sunday, August 15, 2004
Author: Rev. Jonathan K. Twitchell

During my experience as a student at Eastern Nazarene College, there were very few times when I was reminded that I was a non-Nazarene at a Nazarene college.  You might think that I often felt like a bit of an outsider, but in reality, when I was in attendance, ENC had about a 50% split of Nazarene and non-Nazarene students.  Most of the time it was easy to forget who had what denominational affiliation, since we had more in common to hold us together than we had differences to tear us apart.

However, there was one time each year when I was reminded that I was an outsider looking in.  During the spring, about 1000 Nazarene high school students would descend upon our little campus for an event called “Festival of Life.”  During Festival of Life, these Nazarene high school students would compete in all sorts of events, including talent events, athletic competitions, academic challenges, and arts & crafts.  The idea behind Festival is that God has given every student gifts and abilities, and this event gave an opportunity to use their talents for God’s glory. During their three day visit, they would eat in the cafeteria, enjoy a class, and catch up with their older friends who used to be in their youth group back home.   While people like me dreaded Festival of Life and came up with every reason to get out of town that week, some of my classmates actually looked forward to Festival of Life, so they could relive their high school days and visit with old friends.

Of course, my perspective on the event changed when I served as a youth pastor and had teenagers to bring to the event.  Festival provided an opportunity for every teenager to participate, experience a Christian college campus, and fellowship with other parts of the Body of Christ from all over the Northeast.  When I served as youth pastor in Brunswick, we took soccer players, ping-pong players, chess players, public speakers, and a puppet team. You can imagine the logistics of transporting 15 teenagers and chaperones to Quincy in 3 different vehicles, and then back and forth between the hotel and the various competition sites.  This was before I started to carry a cell phone, and someone suggested that we try to borrow cell phones from church members for the trip.  And so, as youth pastor, I got up on Sunday morning, wondering how people would react to my strange request, and put out a call for 3 cell phones to go to Quincy for the weekend.  I was afraid that none would come through, but knew that one way or another God would supply a means for us to safely transport those teens back and forth.

Well, before the day was over, cell phones had been promised to me, and arrangements were made for me to pick them up that week.  I was thrilled with the response, especially from one lady who had just recently begun coming to church.  When I met this lady later in the week to pick up the cell phone, she said something very profound.  She told me that her husband (who didn’t go to church) gave her a hard time about loaning me the cell phone.  He had said to her, “If he really needs a cell phone for this trip, don’t you think the church ought to take care of getting one for him?”  And she told me that she had said to him, “But I am the church, and this is how ‘the church’ is getting one for him.”

You see, even in her beginning days of attending church, she understood something so profound and significant that is sometimes so easy to forget.  The church is not an organization, it is an organism.  The church is not about budgets and boards and committees as much as it is about the people who make it up.  When the church becomes an organization, it ceases to be an organism, which means it ceases to be alive.  The Church is made up of many people, bound together in commonality under Christ, with common purpose and mission.

It is the doctrine of the church which we look at today, as we continue our study of the Nazarene Articles of Faith.  You can find this article (number 11) in the inside flap of your bulletin, along with several scriptures which I encourage you to look up during the course of the week.

We believe in the Church, the community that confesses Jesus Christ as Lord, the covenant people of God made new in Christ, the Body of Christ called together by the Holy Spirit through the Word.   

God calls the Church to express its life in the unity and fellowship of the Spirit; in worship through the preaching of the Word, observance of the sacraments, and ministry in His name; by obedience to Christ and mutual accountability.   

The mission of the Church in the world is to continue the redemptive work of Christ in the power of the Spirit through holy living, evangelism, discipleship, and service.   

The Church is a historical reality, which organizes itself in culturally conditioned forms; exists both as local congregations and as a universal body; sets apart persons called of God for specific ministries. God calls the Church to live under His rule in anticipation of the consummation at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

One of our biggest limitations when it comes to looking at the Church is that we see it through our human, finite eyes.  We tend to forget that we are part of a universal movement which has been led by God and in the business of transforming this world for the past 2000 years.  We tend to forget that each person is part of a congregation, each congregation part of a denomination or tradition, and that each tradition has a role to play within the Church Universal.  Instead, when we think “church” we think of a building, or a pastor, or a Sunday School teacher.  We rarely see the Church (capital C) as it truly is, spread out through all time and space.

Many of you who attended our Book Club in the spring of 2003 will remember this quote from The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.  The premise of the book is that Screwtape (a senior demon) is writing letters to his nephew Wormwood (an under demon assigned to tempting a particular human male).  These letters have somehow been discovered, and released to us in the form of a book.  Screwtape dispenses advice to Wormwood, helping him to lead this man away from their common “enemy”–God.  Here is what Screwtape has to say about the Church:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself.  Do not misunderstand me.  I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.  That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.  But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.  All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate.  When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print.  When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection  of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided.  You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours.    Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew.  It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew  really contains.  You may know one  of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side.  No matter.  Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool.  Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.     

I suppose that dear Uncle Screwtape has a point.  If we can be made to focus on the temporal, we miss the eternal.  If we look only at our own local congregation, we miss the fact that we are part of that great Body of Christ stretched throughout time and space.  If we see the Church through physical eyes, it may be a disappointment to us.

But perhaps, the woman who sings out of tune is singing loudly simply in order that her deaf husband might hear the words of the song.  Maybe the man’s boots squeak so much because he is often in prayer with his feet bent under him as he kneels.  Perhaps the gentleman with the double-chin is a master of hospitality and is always cooking for others.  The lady with the odd clothes may have given her last dime to purchase new clothes for the children in the orphanage.  Perhaps these are the images that God sees when He looks down at the Body of Christ.

That image, at least, seems to be very much in line with Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians in the twelfth chapter of his first letter, beginning in verse 12:

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.  So it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.     

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.  If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?  If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If  they were all one part, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.  And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.  But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but  that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.     

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

May God add His blessing to His word.     

Let me repeat just two phrases that Paul uses in this portion of his letter: “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. (verse 18)” and from verse 24 “…God has combined the members of the body….”

Let me say this today, you are part of this local church because God has arranged you in that way.  Each one of you are a part of this body, and have a role to play in this body.  This local church is arranged within a larger body, and has a role to play within it.  That larger body (the Church of the Nazarene) has been arranged specifically where it is within all of Christianity for a particular reason, and the entire Body of Christ is to be about fulfilling Christ’s mission on this earth.

In other words, we don’t act in isolation.  Christianity is not a hermit sport.  Christianity exists only in relationship, only within the community, only in the Body of Christ.  Each one of you have been arranged by God to be in a particular place in the Body of Christ for a particular purpose.  Each one has been gifted with talents and abilities in order to glorify God.  We are not to look around at the next pew and compare our gifts to someone else’s gifts.  We should never feel that our gifts are insignificant compared to another’s.  On the other hand, we are never to look down at another’s gifts and think that we don’t need them.  In order for the Body to function, each member is needed, and each member must be doing their part.

While we were on vacation in Acadia National Park this week, we took a couple of the nicer days to stretch the limits of our bodies and explore the park in a more strenuous way.  One day we took our bicycles, and, after lunch at the Jordan Pond House, rode 14 miles over the hilly terrain of the carriage roads back to the Visitor Center and then along the paved roads to Bar Harbor.  The very next day (before we had fully recovered) we took the bus to the north side of Cadillac Mountain and hiked two-and-a-half miles up the North Ridge trail to the summit, and then hiked down the South Ridge Trail four-and-a-half-miles back to our campground.  Now, in order for this “finely-honed, ultra-athletic body” to accomplish all that, everything needs to be working together.  My lungs have to be processing oxygen.  My stomach has to digest food and water.  My heart has to circulate blood to pick up the oxygen and the nutrients to feed the muscles in my legs and arms.  My eyes have to watch for blazes or cairns to point out the trail, while also watching for loose rocks or slippery spaces, my feet have to step firmly on the trail, and my arms have to help keep my balance.  All of these parts have to be working together to accomplish the goal, or I will stumble and fall, or fail to complete the journey.

In the same way, each part of this local expression of the Body of Christ must be doing its part to the best of its ability in order for us to accomplish the goals which Christ has set out for us.  When one of us stops using the gifts God has given us, the whole body suffers.  We each need each other, as we come together to form a body with Christ as the head.

Let me assure you of this: each one of us has a role to play in the Kingdom of God.  Each one of us has been divinely equipped with special tools to help build that Kingdom.  Some of us are leaders, some are musicians, some work with children.  Some of us are builders and Mr.-fix-its.  Some of us minister through the public reading of Scripture, some are tenacious prayer warriors.  Some go on missions trips, others support missions financially.  Some make crafts, some make dinners.  The point is this…each one of us has a role to play.  Each one of us is a special part of the Body.  Just like the eye cannot say, “I’m going to stop seeing now, the nose can take over that job,” we cannot say “I’m not going to use my gift anymore, someone else can do it.”  Eyes are made for seeing…that is what they do.  You have been made with a special purpose in the Kingdom, and that is what you are to do.  Otherwise, we fail at our mission.

And, what is that mission, you say?  The Article of Faith says that: The mission of the Church in the world is to continue the redemptive work of Christ in the power of the Spirit through holy living, evangelism, discipleship, and service.   Simply put, we are to continue the redemptive work that Christ began.  We do this through the power of the Holy Spirit.  We do this by loving God and loving neighbor.  We do this by being witnesses to Cape Elizabeth, to Portland, to Maine, and to the Uttermost Parts of the Earth.

As a church, we’ve stated that mission this way: “We exist to live Spirit-empowered lives to God’s greater glory by living out the Great Commandment and fulfilling the Great Commission, trusting God to build His Church.”

The Church is not an organization, it is an organism, made up of people just like you, assembled together by God, with Christ at the head.  It is not a monument to go into, but a movement to go forward.  We don’t “go to church” we “are the church.”  Indeed, we are the Body of Christ in this world.  We are His hands to touch and heal hurting people.  We are His feet to swiftly carry His message.  We are His eyes to see people as God sees them.  We are to have His heart and His mind, orienting our lives toward Him.  We are the Body of Christ, assembled together by God.

As the Body, we come together to celebrate our unity of purpose and our diversity of gifts.  Each one of us is different from the person next to us, yet we are bound together by common purpose and brotherhood within the family of God.  As the Body of Christ, it is only appropriate that we gather around His table to feast together, celebrating our unity and diversity.  We gather to remember the gift that Christ gave us, and to gain nourishment from the spiritual food found at this table.  It is His Spirit which empowers and sustains us for each new day.  As we come to the table, we also recognize that other members of the Body gather around the same table, eating the same food.  We are part of a great movement of God’s interaction with human history.  We are part of the Body of Christ.

Congregational Benediction: (Prayer of St. Patrick)

I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear for me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me.

Christ be with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.