Sunday, October 11, 2009

Pentecost 19B Romans Series

Romans 10: 5-17

What will the church of the future look like?

Will churches resemble what we have now? Will churches have pews and pastors, committees and councils, hymns and hierarchies?

Will leaders be trained in seminaries? Will there be a clergy/lay divide? Will we have buildings?

Probably “yes” to all these things. Some churches will hold on the current ways of being and doing church. Why fix what isn't broken? After all, it's worked for hundreds of years. If God didn't want the church to run this way why would God have established it like this? Right?

But also a big “NO.” I think God is doing something among mainline churches, those United, Presbyterian, United, and Anglican, churches that have some roots in the Reformation.

It's hard to say exactly what God is doing. But something is happening. There must be something that God is telling us as God has given us a front row seat to watch the decline of the institutional church. There must be a reason God put us here, at this place, in this time. There must be a reason God has allowed the body of Christ to atrophy, allowed us witness it's muscles and bones become weaker and weaker.

We're being asked to do more with less. More work with fewer volunteers. We see synod and national church programs get hacked to bits through lack of funds, yet still we're supposed to renew the church as resources are dwindling.

We watch our seminaries struggle financially, and say, “only if they taught more evangelism courses, or produced better preachers, or stuck to the basics, we'd produce leaders who would guide our churches back to where they once were.”

We watch helplessly as a world changes from church-going to church-indifferent; from where churches stood close to the centre of cultural power to being pushed to the periphery; from institutional respect to institutional obscurity.

And bad news stories only further hurt our institutional stability. A Roman Catholic Bishop is arrested for selling child porn. A family-values preacher cheats on his wife. A church leader gets caught with her hand in the financial cookie-jar.

It's almost as if, no matter how hard we try, we're emptying water buckets on the Lusitania.

So what is God telling us?

Today's Romans reading might be a clue.

First, some backstory. This is one of the sections where the changes of Paul's anti-semitism finds its legs.

Paul is complaining about his some of his fellow Jews in this passage. He's angry that they don't recognize Jesus as the Messiah. He spends a lot of time on this in Romans, probably because there was a sizable Jewish population in Rome and he wants to make sure that his Roman Christian friends have the right tools when evangelizing – or proclaiming Jesus as Messiah – to those Jewish non-Christians.

And then, and also today, our Jewish friends take real offense at what Paul was trying to do. And maybe rightly so. They knew the bible as well as he did. They prayed the same prayers and worshipped the same way Paul did. They yearned for the Messiah's arrival just as Paul did.

They didn't appreciate Paul's message. They thought Paul was delusional and arrogant. They thought he abandoned the historic faith. They thought he betrayed the message of the bible, and because of this, he betrayed his people.

They counter Paul's message about Jesus by asking, “If Jesus is the Messiah, then why didn't he do what the Messiah was supposed to do? Why didn't Jesus return Jerusalem to Israel? Why didn't Jesus defeat the enemies of Judaism? Why didn't Jesus usher in the era of peace and justice? Why doesn't the world look more redeemed?”

The classic answer to these questions is, and maybe you've heard this too: Jesus DID redeem the world. Just not in the ways people were expecting. God may have promised that the Messiah would bring peace on earth, put an end to world hunger, and restore Israel to the golden age of King David. But what God decided instead was to save people from their sins.

Again, that's the classic preacher's response to Jewish objections. But that doesn't satisfy me any more than it satisfies our Jewish friends. That's like saying, “God promised to do one thing and told us to prepare and pray for it, but instead, God did something else, and is angry that we don't recognize it.”

It's like telling your kids that you'll give them their favorite ice cream if they cleaned their room, but then you put hotdogs in front of them after their done, then punish them and call them silly when they ask where the ice cream is.

And I don't think Paul is unaware of these objections. He'd spent his whole life studying the scriptures. He went to synagogue every week to pray for the Messiah's coming. He hadn't learned since he was a little boy what the Messiah was supposed to do.

So, it's not as if he's uninformed of these concerns. He's just a little unsympathetic. Because he knows in his skin who Jesus is for him. And he can't figure out why anyone – especially his fellow Jews – wouldn't see in Jesus what he saw in Jesus.

His encounter with the Risen Christ so thoroughly transformed him that he wanted others to experience what he did.

His exploration of the scriptures so convinced him that Jesus was who Christians proclaimed him to be that he staked his life, his labour, and his life-eternal on that message.

We can argue with Paul about how he thinks Jewish people relate to God, but I wonder if we can learn from him as well. I wonder if he can shed some light on our future.

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” Paul says.....”For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Then he goes on...

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?.....So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”

Paul is saying that our job is simply to proclaim that Jesus was raised from the dead. But also, he says that we are to be “sent.” We are NOT to stand still. We are to be constantly on the move. Changing. Growing. Being sent means leaving some things behind. It means giving something up.

So, I wonder if God is asking us what we're going to give up in order to accomplish God's mission. Change means leaving somethings behind. Growth means fitting into new clothes.

God is changing us. God is changing the church and God is changing the world. And change is hard. We like things to be stable, we like to feel secure, we don't like it when life gets out of control.

But God isn't interested in stability or security. God never stands still. God is always moving, blowing fresh life into dry bones. Too often, we church-folks, enter the future walking backwards, our eyes fixed on what has been rather than looking forward to what God is doing.

Our job is not to complain about what we have lost, but to see what we're gaining. The Christian task is not to wipe our eyes at the setting sun, but to celebrate at the horizon of a new day.

We believe in a God who raised Jesus from the dead, a God who is making all things new, a God who hasn't given up on the church or the world, but calls us to proclaim that Jesus is alive and to live a resurrection life.

And a resurrection life has feet. It's always moving, it's always changing. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead also raises us from a comfortable church life and hurls us into the terrifying freedom that belongs to the children of God.

Resurrection life is hard. It makes demands. But it also brings life. It IS life. For everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.

We won't know what the church of the future will look like until we get there. We don't know what the Spirit is doing. But paul does offer us the same challenge that he gave the church in Rome. That's why Paul challenged the Roman Christians to share Jesus story with others. That's why he asks us the same questions he asked the Romans church:

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?.....So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”

That is our call. This is our joy.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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