Sunday, October 18, 2015

Phil Kniss: The closest this world will get to God

What if the church did evangelism like a family?
Isaiah 42:1-7; 1 Peter 2:9; Acts 2:42-47

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Bearing God’s image is our vocation.
    That’s my sermon in six words:
        Bearing God’s image is our vocation.

But I have 20 minutes, so I will use them.
    But my goal for these 20 minutes is modest:
    I simply want to dispel some common misconceptions we have
        about evangelism, about the church,
        about the world, and about God.

It all starts with grasping the significance of those six words.
    “Bearing God’s image is our vocation.”

We didn’t read Genesis 1:27 this morning,
    but many of you are familiar with it—
    “So God created humankind in his image,
        in the image of God he created them;
        male and female he created them.”
    God then gave instructions about what to do with that image.
        God blessed them, and said, “Be fruitful and multiply,
            and fill the earth,
            and have dominion, that is rule over, the rest of creation,
            with the same tender love and care that I have given it.”
        And God sat back and said, “This is good. This is very good.”

Our misconceptions about humanity and God begin right there.
    This gift of being God’s image-bearers,
        was not a special spiritual endowment we humans got
            that the rest of creation didn’t,
        in order to enjoy a special status among creation.
    No, being God’s image-bearer is the divine calling of humanity.
        Being God’s image-bearer is the duty given to us,
            for the benefit of God, and of all creation.
    Seeing it that way makes all the difference in the world, literally.

    As Bishop N.T. Wright has said,
        Bearing the image of God is a call to be an angled mirror.
        We reflect God’s wise order into the world.
        And we reflect the praises of creation back to the creator.

    Remember 1 Peter 2:9?
        “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,
            God’s own people,
            in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him
            who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

    N.T. Wright says, an angled mirror represents what it means
        to be the royal priesthood:
        Looking after God’s world, representing God, is the royal bit;
            summing up creation’s praise is the priestly bit.

    When God’s people takes their eyes off that primary calling,
        things go awry.
    When God’s people start to get a big head
        over this matter of bearing God’s image,
        and assume we are endowed with a special power over others,
            or a special favored status over creation,
            instead of seeing it as our bless-ed vocation for God’s sake,
        then we start abusing our power and freedom.
    We make choices out of selfish ambition.
        And the world becomes broken, fragmented, adversarial,
            filled with violence.
        That story is depicted, vividly,
            beginning in chapter 3 of Genesis,
                and continuing on all the way through scripture,
                into the book of Revelation,
                and continuing to the present,
                as we see violence and oppression and abuses of power
                    unfold in our own community and country,
                    and around the world—even today, right now.

So God’s saving mission is not as Christians often assume.
    God’s primary intention, that we find in scripture,
        is not to save me, and rescue me from the world,
        so that I can enjoy personal fellowship forever with God.
    No, it’s to rescue the human condition
        so that our vocation, our calling,
        might once again be fulfilled,
            that we might, in fact, become God’s true image-bearers,
            and faithfully represent God to the world,
            and faithfully return the praises of creation to our Creator.

Let me paraphrase N.T. Wright, in describing the problem and solution:
    Human sin blocked God’s purpose for creation,
        but God did not go back on his creational purpose—
            to work in creation through his image-bearing humans—
        God hasn’t gone back on the plan;
            but rather, through God’s truest image-bearer,
                Jesus the Messiah,
            God rescued humans from sin and death
                in order to restore them to their original purpose,
                    to extend God’s sacred space into all creation,
                until the earth is filled with God’s knowledge and glory
                    as the waters cover the sea.
            When God is present in and with his whole creation,
                through God’s faithful image-bearers;
                the whole creation will be like a glorious expansion
                    of the tabernacle in the wilderness
                    or the temple in Jerusalem—
                        where the image and presence of God dwells.

    God wants to be with us.
    God wants to reveal Godself to us.
    And for good or ill, God chose us.
        We are God’s image-bearers of choice.
    It may sound presumptuous to say it, but it’s true—
        we are the closest this world will get to God.

    That’s the idea behind the words of the prophet
        that we heard this morning, from Isaiah 42,
        “I, the Lord, have given you as a covenant to the people,
            a light to the nations,
            to open the eyes that are blind,
                to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
                from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

    Israel was chosen from among the rest of the nations,
        not to be God’s favorite people,
        but, as N.T. Wright said,
            to be God’s strange means of rescuing the human race
            and getting the creational project back on track.
        God chose Israel, and chooses us,
            knowing full well that we also suffer from the sin of Adam,
        The people who bear the solution—God’s image—
            are themselves part of the problem.

        That is God’s mysterious way . . .
            and gives us no reason at all for arrogance or pride.

Getting this reality firmly implanted in our minds and hearts—
    that we who suffer the effects of sin and alienation ourselves,
        are chosen by God to become,
            by the transforming work of the Spirit,
        unobstructed mirrors of God to the world—
    will only then make us capable of properly understanding,
        and engaging with integrity,
        the ministry of sharing the good news, of being evangels.
_____________________

And this brings us to the question of this sermon series,
    how does seeing the church “as family,”
        make a difference in how we go about the practice
            of sharing good news?
    I suggest it makes all the difference.

And engaging in evangelism, as a family,
    makes it all the more important
        for us to begin with those six words,
        “Bearing God’s image is our vocation.”
    You might say, it’s the calling of our family,
        our family mission.

In some circles of the church,
    evangelism is associated with argument
        (and I don’t mean argument in a bad way).
    I just mean that some start with the assumption
        that the one all-important thing
            is to logically convince a person
            to make an individual “decision for Christ.”
        So the task is primarily
            to get them to a logical decision point,
            to present a more compelling argument
                than anyone else has to offer,
            so they can speak a certain formula of belief.
        And of course, the exchange of ideas has its place.
            Articulating belief certainly has its place.

    But as God’s called-out people,
        whose main vocation is to bear the image of God,
            and reflect it to the world,
        our job as witnesses to the Gospel
            cannot be seen as primarily winning logical arguments
                about what to believe about what is true.
        Our job is to believe and live the truth we know so completely,
            to reflect it so compellingly,
            that anything in this world built on untruth
                is unmasked and turned upside down.

If we want to give an account of the gospel of salvation,
    we don’t first make an argument,
    we point to changed lives in a living community of Christ.

Now, it would be nice to claim that we in the church
    have this perfect model of the community of Christ
        all ready to put on display.
    But we know if we said that, we’d be lying to ourselves.

    The wonder and mystery, is that God chooses us anyway,
        now, as we are,
        to be God’s image-bearers,
        and the Spirit works through our brokenness
            to reveal God’s glory.

    As I’ve said before, the church exists to become
        demonstration plots of God’s grace.
    We exist to demonstrate God’s saving and reconciling grace,
        through our life together in the world.

    As such, the most important evangelical practice we can engage in,
        is hospitality.
        We must open ourselves wide to the world.
    A hospitable church welcomes the other,
        without any pretense,
        without a need to make an impression, or make a statement.

    In the ordinary life of our church communities,
        in our homes, at our tables,
            neighbors and strangers and even enemies,
            are welcome to get a good look at the message of our lives.
    If we structure our church life in such a way
        that we seem disconnected to our neighbors and neighborhood,
        if our families, if our extended church family, our oikos,
            does not regularly enjoy the company of neighbors,
            then we’re neglecting a core spiritual practice.
        It’s in our households—as individual families, and as a church—
            where neighbors can sit around laughing,
            talking, asking each other good questions.
    The household, the oikos, is where we live out our faith every day,
        it’s where we handle conflict,
        it’s where we talk about the world around us,
        it’s where we bring up children.
    When we invite someone into our oikos, whether home or church,
        it’s a way of saying, “Here, take a look.
            We’re not perfect, but we don’t mind the risk
                of allowing you into our lives.”
        You’ve heard me say before,
            that allowing our lives to be witnessed,
                is, in itself, a profound act of evangelism.
            But granting that kind of access to each other
                is counter-cultural.

        The cultural norm is to keep doors locked and double-bolted,
            to keep the curtains drawn,
            to locate the living room at the rear of the house,
            to drive into garages with automatic door-openers,
                and close them when we’re barely out of the car.
        It’s socially inappropriate in our culture
            to drop by someone’s house without an appointment.
            We need time to straighten up,
                to dust and vacuum,
                and give the impression of perfection.

    But if the church takes seriously and humbly,
        the fact that it’s an imperfect representation of God’s image,
        but that God nevertheless calls us to share it and reflect it,
            and allow God’s grace and power
            to turn it into something more,
        then we are becoming the church God wants and needs.

We need to learn how to live
    as real, down-to-earth, genuine families in Christ,
    and let that life be seen in the everyday and ordinary,
        let it be open to examination,
        let is be subject to the scrutiny of our neighbors,
            and of the world,
        let it be witnessed.
    We need to become, as the apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 2,
        “the aroma of Christ
            among those who are being saved
            and among those who are perishing.”
    When we carry that aroma, Paul says
        “We are not peddlers of God’s word like so many;
            but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity,
            as persons sent from God and standing in his presence.”
        That is, bearing God’s image.
_____________________

A church that embraces its human vocation as God’s image-bearer
    is a church that can be humble and powerful in its witness.
    Because it knows that God’s image is never reserved for us alone.
    Bearing God’s image is a core human vocation.
        We were all created for that purpose.
        And God’s image is already present in everyone we encounter.
            Is it obscured? Yes, of course.
            Is it sometimes hard to see? Yes.
            Do those bearing this image often to fail to realize it? Yes.

    So we still have evangelistic work to do.
        But accepting our vocation, by faith, changes our posture.
        We have a posture of humility and hospitality,
            of receptivity to God in the other.
    We don’t ever walk into a conversation, or interaction,
        or relationship with any other person, no matter who it is,
        thinking that we are introducing God into that situation.
            That we are bringing God to that person or people.
        If we want to have integrity or authenticity
            when we share the good message of God,
            we have to know that God got there before we did.

        As we walk toward that person,
            we walk toward the God in them.
        Ben Campbell Johnson
            writes about evangelism as spiritual guidance.
        He says we start with the assumption God is already active
            in the world, and in every person’s life.
            Our work is to notice it.
                To do a lot of observation,
                    and a lot of listening.
                And draw others’ attention to what we see.
                And ask the kind of questions
                    that might help others see it, too.
        That’s a lot different than talking with someone
            in order to find a place to break into the conversation
                with my story, with my agenda,
                or to provide answers to questions they weren’t asking.
_____________________

This kind of sharing good news, or evangelism,
    has always been the call of the church.
    Methods change.
    The ways of the past are past.
        We have to keep re-envisioning what it will look like today.
        We bear the same core gospel—God is with us in Jesus,
            to save, restore, reconcile.
        But we inhabit a unique time, a unique cultural context,
            and a particular neighborhood.
            There is no other context exactly like ours, in this oikos.
        We aren’t in the same context as the first believers in Acts 2,
            who ate together and worshiped at home, every day,
            who sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds,
            and practically lived at the Temple,
                awaiting the imminent return of Jesus.

        We are here today, in our place, in our era,
            with our dominant cultural assumptions at work.
            So let us be the household of Christ here and now.

And let’s sing a song of hope for the church in this age: HWB 403
    I want to read the words, before we sing it.

    The church of Christ in every age,
    beset by change but Spirit-led,
    must claim and test its heritage
    and keep on rising from the dead.

    Across the world, across the street,
    the victims of injustice cry
    for shelter and for bread to eat,
    and never live until they die.

    The let the servant church arise,
    a caring church that longs to be
    a partner in Christ's sacrifice,
    and clothed in Christ's humanity.

    For he alone, whose blood was shed,
    can cure the fever in our blood,
    and teach us how to share our bread
    and feed the starving multitude.

    We have no mission but to serve
    in full obedience to our Lord:
    to care for all, without reserve,
    and spread his liberating word.

—Phil Kniss, October 18, 2015

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