January 6, 2019 - The Heart and Soul of the Church: Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing.
2019 is going to be a good year. I know this because I did something totally crazy and unpredictable yesterday. After we finished taking down the Advent decorations here at church I went to McKinley’s for lunch. I have been eating lunch at McKinley’s for years, and I always order the same thing – a turkey sandwich on wheat with lettuce, regular chips, and an iced tea. I’ve ordered that meal so many times I think they start fixing it when they see me walking up the sidewalk. Well, yesterday I went totally crazy and ordered something different; I ordered a turkey and ham sandwich with no lettuce on Italian bread. And toasted. I think I put the McKinley’s staff into a state of shock. Okay, I’ll admit that it wasn’t radically different, but for me it was, which tells me that 2019 is going to be an exciting year since I stepped out of my comfort zone and placed a different order!
In recent years I have not preached a New Year’s message, although I suppose this is sort of one. Last week I began a new series of messages titled The Heart and Soul of the Church, in which we will study passages from the book of Acts. The passages we study tell us of the priorities of the early church, priorities which should then be ours as well, so in that sense, a series of messages about priorities becomes a good message for the beginning of the new year.
One of my favorite activities over the years is water skiing. I love to water ski. My mom’s oldest sibling, my aunt Katie, and her husband had a summer cottage on a lake in eastern Ohio. Down the hill from their home was a really great double-decker dock, with a diving board and, much to my delight, several boats. We spent many summer weekends skiing up and down Austin Lake, and I loved it. In the 80s, when I lived in Anderson County, I continued to pursue my love of water skiing with some friends, as we skied up and down the Kentucky River. At one point, my friends and I tried to use a knee board, without success. If you have ever water skied with one of those contraptions, you will know it is very difficult to get started on one without continually falling. We finally had an idea – one person would get on the board while I would float in the water, holding the board steady. I would continue to hold onto the board as the boat began to pull the board and the slack went out of the tow rope. As the boat gradually picked up speed, and it was obvious the person on the board could maintain their balance, I would then let go of the board while the boat and the person on the board went on down the river. It seemed like a really great idea, until I realized I was left to float in the middle of the river while waiting on them to return, wondering if they actually would return. If you have ever spent time on the Kentucky River you will know that it appears to be very still, as though there is no current. Until we moved out to our farm when I was 5 or 6, our backyard went to the bank of the Ohio River. The Ohio River has a very strong, dangerous current, and we were always told to stay away from the river. Floating in the Kentucky River, I believed I was not moving, but I found that to be very deceiving. As I floated in the river, thinking I was not moving, I eventually looked to the shore and realized that, although it seemed there was no current in that part of the river, I had moved quite a distance.
The moral of that story is there is not only drift in a river, but there is driftin many other places as well, such as a church. This morning, the passage we will study tells us about the reality and the danger of drift. The concept of driftis one that applies to businesses, individuals, and, yes, to churches. Driftis what happens when we begin to move away from our core principles. Drift is something that takes place imperceptibly and is generally not noticed until something has gone wrong or there is a realization that an individual or entity has driftedfar from their most foundational of principles and purposes. I want to emphasize that I am not saying that is what has happened to our church; I am, instead, offering this message as a reminder – and we need reminders on occasion – that we must always remain vigilant against the dangers of drift.
This morning’s message is titled Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing(not the most original of titles, I’ll admit). This message is about taking care not to drift from our mission as a church. Our text for the morning comes from the 6thchapter of the book of Acts, a very familiar passage about the calling of the first deacons. The passage comes from an issue the early church was having in their ministry of feeding people. There were some who felt they were being overlooked, so the apostles got together and decided there needed to be another position of leadership to take care of managing the ministry of serving food, so they selected a group of seven individuals who would become the first deacons. This passage marked a very significant development in the organization of the church. This was a moment when the church was growing rapidly; adding ministries, such as the feeding of people in need; and the church faced a corresponding need for organization and thoughtful planning.
I have used this passage a number of times over the years, often when new leaders are installed or when an ordination takes place. Instead of focusing on the usual part of this passage, which is the selection of the first deacons, I want to focus upon the reason why those deacons were selected. In verse 2, the apostles say that it would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God. This is an interesting verse. Were the apostles simply uninterested in helping with an important ministry? Did they believe they were too important to work at a task such as feeding others? No, there were certainly no such reasons for their decision not to do so. The apostles believed they should not be helping with the feeding ministry of the church because they had a task to which they were called, and they knew the importance of keeping to that task, because their work played a very significant role in the growth and expansion of the church. If they lost their focus – if they failed to keep the main thing the main thing– it could have endangered the rapid growth and spread of the church because it would cause the church to driftfrom its primary purpose, which was to reach people for Jesus.
It is very easy in churches to lose sight of our primary calling, which is to testify to the love of God as shown in Jesus. The early church did not have a plethora of programs and ministries; they were, instead, focused upon spreading the Good News of Jesus. There is nothing wrong, however, with the many ministries that churches practice. Those are good and needed ministries, and they obviously make a difference in the lives of many, many people. It is very important, however, to never forget the reason whywe practice those ministries, and that is because of Jesus. Serving Jesus and living like Jesus is the core of who we are, and that calling cannot get lost in all of the other activities and things that we do. Everything we do as a church should be designed to help us to better serve that purpose and calling.
Follow along with me as I read the text, Acts 6:1-6 –
1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.
3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them
4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
I want to break this passage down into three areas of focus, three areas that tell us what the apostles were doing in relation to keeping their focus on the goal of the church. If you read through the book of Acts, you will find that the apostles were always practicing and preaching these three things –
1. They Called People From Something.
As the apostles preached and taught, they called people fromsomething, which is what we find throughout the Scriptures. Allow me to offer a few examples of this. Abraham is a great example of being called fromsomething. Abraham bursts onto the scene in the book of Genesis when he is called by God to leave his homeland and go to the land I will show you(Genesis 12:1). Abraham was, presumably, living a very secure life in Harran, which was his home. When he is called fromHarran, Abraham was leaving behind his security and everything that represented security. Who wants to leave behind security? No one. When God calls us, however, security is not something that we can count on, at least not in the normal ways in which we think of security. When God calls us, we might find it necessary to give up the security of where we live, the security of our career, and other matters upon which we base our security.
Moses is another great example of one who is called fromsomething. Moses was born to one of the Hebrew slaves (Exodus 2). When Moses reached the age of three months his mother placed him in a basket and put the basket in the Nile River. When the Pharaoh’s daughter went to the river to bathe, she found the basket and took Moses to raise as her own. Moses was raised in privilege and power. He was a prince of Egypt, raised in the house of Pharaoh, with the possibility that he might one day ascend to the highest levels of power. God, however, called Moses from his power and privilege in order to lead the Hebrew people out of captivity. Moses left behind his life of power and privilege and eventually embraced his role as a deliverer of God’s people.
David, as another example, was called from his youthfulness and his inexperience to the role of the one anointed as the next king of Israel (I Samuel 16:1-13). Samuel the prophet was instructed by God to go to the home of Jesse, David’s father, where he would anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be the next king. Jesse was so certain that David would not be a candidate that he did not bother to call him in from the fields. One by one, Jesse paraded his older sons before Samuel, and each of them were rejected as the one chosen to be king. Finally, Samuel asks are these all the sons you have? (I Samuel 16:11). Imagine everyone’s shock – including David – when God reveals that David is the one who has been chosen to be king. When I was young, I did not always take seriously my responsibility to serve. I often thought of serving as something that would come later, when I became an “adult.” And, to be honest, I wasn’t always taken seriously when I was young, and, unfortunately, that is an attitude we often have towards those who are young. God, however, called David from his youthfulness and his inexperience and into a position of powerful leadership.
When we come to the New Testament we find more examples, such as Peter, James, John, and Andrew. We know these four were fishermen, and Jesus called them from their work and their careers into a life of leadership and service (Matthew 4:18-22). I don’t know if Peter, James, John and Andrew left fishing behind forever. Perhaps they continued as fishermen to some extent, as they needed to make a living to support their families. We don’t know for sure if they found support to serve in ministry after being called by Jesus, but one thing is certain, and it is this – these four men no longer concentrated on their work and careers to the extent that they did previously. We live in a culture that pushes work and career very strongly, and while it is a blessing to receive a good education, to find a good job, and to make a good living to care for our families, there is more to life than work and career. God calls us froma preoccupation with work and career to a life of service, caring for others and using the resources we gain from our jobs to help those in need.
What might God be calling you from?
2. They Called People To Something.
We are not only called fromsomething; we are called tosomething, and that is to serve. The first deacons were called to be servants. The word deacon, in fact, means servant. The words deaconand diaconateare words that are taken directly from the Greek language into the English language. The first deacons were those who literally served, as they fed people who were hungry. We continue in that tradition with the many ministries in which we are involved. Members of our congregation serve at the Serenity Center, distributing food each Wednesday to hundreds of people. Members of our congregation serve at God’s Kitchen, providing lunch. Members of our congregation serve at the Diersen Center, leading worship and having a time of fellowship with the residents of that facility. Members of our church have served with members of other congregations and with Kentucky Refugee Ministries to help settle a family of refugees in our country. Members of our congregation serve as tutors with Arriba Ninos. Members of our congregation serve as Stephen Ministers. Members of our congregation serve as Sunday School teachers and Vacation Bible School leaders. Members of our church serve as drivers to help transport people to church and to vital appointments. Members of our church serve as visitors to those who are homebound and unable to attend church or to be out and about in the community. And in many other capacities, members of our congregation go about the important work of serving others.
We are called tosomething as an important reminder that there is more to life than living for ourselves. We are calledtosomething as an important reminder that there is more to life than using our financial resources simply for ourselves. We are called tosomething as an important reminder that there is more to life than using our time only for ourselves. We are called tosomething as an important reminder that others are very much in need of our help and our service.
What might God be calling you to?
3. They Called People For Something.
Simply put, we are called forlove. In our culture, we are used to the idea that we ought to love and serve others. Even businesses recognize this and encourage their employees to be involved in service projects, such as working at food banks or helping to build a Habitat house. This is not, however, the way societies have always been. The Roman Empire, under which the apostles lived, was not interested in love; they were interested in domination and power. Love became part of the culture because of the church. In our society there is a great emphasis on loving others, and this is the legacy of the Gospel. It is not simply happenstance that love has become a foundational principle in our country and in all of Western society. Love is foundational because of the Gospel and the church, and we can never drift from that calling.
Tony Campolo was, for many years, a professor at Eastern College in Philadelphia. He has on various occasions told the following story. It is a story I share as a reminder of how easy it is to drift from our primary purpose as a church. I do not share this story because I believe we have drifted, but as a reminder to always remain true to our calling.
On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little life-saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little life-saving station grew.
Some of the members of the life-saving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now, the life-saving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired life-boat crews to do this work. The life-saving motif still prevailed in this club’s decoration, and there was a symbolic life-boat in the room where the club initiations were held. About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boat loads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.
At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s life-saving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon life-saving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life-saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own life-saving station down the coast. They did.
As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another life-saving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.
We are called forsomething, and that is to share the good news of the love of God in Jesus. The love of God is good news, not bad news, and not a terrible judgment to be inflicted upon people. This is who we are called to be, and what we are called to do, and we must never allow ourselves to drift from this calling!