Sermon: Being the True Church of Christ.

“For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
[St. John 3:17]

Last Friday night I was not here for Evensong because I had the great joy of performing a wedding for the Chapel’s financial advisor, Davin Lungren and his fiancé, Alyssia Jones.  Now, I know I am an oddity among the clergy, but I actually enjoy doing weddings.  To me, seeing the consecration and sanctification of the love between two people is so beautiful, I can put up with the few other issues that creep up in some weddings.

And maybe this is because I have a very catholic view of marriage.  I firmly believe that, through marriage, a man and a woman becomes one flesh.  And, since I also believe that the divine image of God is in both men and women, when these two become one I also believe that this image of God becomes complete or whole through this sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

But that aside, what struck me most about this wedding is the sheer number of people who came up to me to tell me how beautiful the service was.  They were struck by the beauty of the words and the solemnity given to the event.  But what I truly believe they really were sensing when they complimented me was not me at all, but rather the presence of God. And they were hungry for this presence.

Some asked me what the Anglican Church was all about.  Some just wanted to tell me how much they liked it.  Still others wanted to confess that they haven’t been to church in a very long time, and some even explained why.

It is clear to me that many of these people are hungry for God in their lives, but many of them feel lost and incapable of finding the right church.  And why is this?  I submit it is because we, the Church, have lost OUR way.  We have forgotten our lesson for today:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world: but that the world through him might be saved.

We all know the first part of this quote.  People have it on their bumper stickers.  Some men even paint “John 3:16” on their chests at football games as a form of proselytizing.  And, because it is everywhere, including in the Comfortable Words recited at communion time, we have become desensitized to its power and meaning.

With few exceptions, people want to love God.  But many people at the wedding expressed in so many words why they did not attend.  In part, it is the lack of reverence; but in part, it is because they see religion as judgmental.  And in all cases, it is because there was no church that spoke to them.  And I understand their dilemma.

No church is exempt from our failure to reach people.  The many liberal churches have lost their way because many of them really do not believe.  They do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  They do not believe that faith in Him is all that is needed for salvation.  And they see the belief in Christ as being the only way to God as a condemnation of the world.  Yet, our Gospel lesson for today tells us differently:

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world: but that the world through him might be saved.

Lest we feel superior, I must also tell you that the conservative church does not necessarily convey this message well, either.

Church should be a place where sinners feel safe.  They should feel welcomed and at home when they enter a church. They should be able to sit side-by-side with the saints and worship God together as brothers.  The sinner should NOT feel condemned but rather saved.  And yet, I fear they do not when they enter many of the conservative churches.  They feel condemned.

Recently, we had two young men visit us for worship.  I can honestly say that they probably felt welcomed, even though they may never return.  If they do not return, my guess is that the reason will be because of other issues, including the lack of people of their own age group.  However, someone expressed a concern for them.  This person was hopeful the two young men would NOT return, not because they did not want them here, but rather because they may be subjected to condemnation by our congregation.  They may be condemned because some may presume that they are gay.

I am going to be blunt.  No one is excluded from our church – no one.  Everyone is welcome.  And if someone is living a life that others feel is sinful, they had better look at their OWN sins first.  We must remove the beam or mote from our own eyes before we remove the speck from another’s. Remember, a church without sinners is an EMPTY church!  And we must keep in mind what our Lord Jesus Christ has told us:

“Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

And:

Ye judge after the flesh: I judge no man.  And yet, if I judge, my judgment is true: for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me.”

If Christ was unwilling to judge those who judged Him when He was on earth, then how can we pass judgment on others?  And if we, as the Church of Christ, are to present a true image of God, aren’t we supposed to convey this same sense?  Shouldn’t people who walk through our doors feel instantly that they are NOT being evaluated for their “worthiness,” their “Christianity,” their “sinlessness,” or their political opinions? Shouldn’t all feel welcomed?

Now please do not misunderstand. I do not want us to be wishy-washy in our faith.  I do not want us NOT to have opinions.  But this does NOT mean that we have to be judgmental. None of us should be judging who is “more Christian” or “more devout.”  We can have our faith and our opinions and still be a welcoming sanctuary for all others. And we can do this by recognizing that two people can be devout Christians doing their best to express their Christianity in their daily lives and still come up with two very different solutions to a social or religious issue.

Bishop Mott spent time in Sweden studying theology.  He once told me about what happened in Sweden during the 1800s.  He said, before that time, most everyone belonged to the Church of Sweden – about 90% of the people in each village.  Then, in the 1800s, Sweden went through an evangelical Revival movement that excited believers.  It was powerful – and destructive.

What happened was that, in those villages that went through Revival, a dichotomy developed.  Those who did not go through this Spiritual Revival were condemned by those who did as being “less faithful.”  Feeling the condemnation, these parishioners left the church.  Some of those who did go through the revival also started feeling inadequate and left.  Finally, the children of those who remained in the church, noticing the condemnation of those who seemed less faithful, left as well.  Their parents’ attitudes turned the children against the faith.

This is what happened to the great Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman.  His father was a Swedish minister in an Evangelical church.  The self-righteous condemnation of others gave Mr. Bergman such a disdain for religion that he never went back to church.

So, what was the result of this Revival?  In those villages that went through it, only about 5% still attend church.  But, in those villages that NEVER went through Revival, 90% still attend!

Does this mean Revival is bad? No.  But condemnation and judgment IS. It will destroy a church, and it will destroy someone’s faith in God. We need to realize that only God knows our hearts.  And only God will decide if we are saved.

But we do know one thing: our faith will save us.  This means we must allow everyone the same opportunity to be saved.  They will not be saved if they do not know that God loves them.  But, once they know this, then they need to hear the Gospel, and, in our society, they will most likely NOT hear the Gospel outside of Church.

It therefore behooves us to make everyone feel loved, accepted, and welcomed.  This is as true for the long-time parishioners as it is for the newcomers.  It is true for the gay or the straight; the conservative or the liberal; the sinner or the saint.  If we are not willing to do this, then we are not really doing God’s work here on Earth.

“For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

This is great news.  This is joyful news.  And this is the reason we try to spread the word of God to everyone – so that they too may share in His saving grace. We share the Gospels so everyone may experience the love of God and come back into His family. And that is why, as a church, we MUST be a loving, accepting family!

Again, it is not up to us to decide who will be in heaven and who will not.  It is not up to us to say who is good and who is not.  It is not even up to us to say who is a good Christian and who is not.  It is only up to us to BE good Christians, ourselves.  We are to show all what it means to be a Christian and to believe in Christ.  We need to believe in Him and we need Him to lead us.  And if we do that, we WILL be good witnesses for Christ.  We will be a good and true Church of Christ’s.

Amen.

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