The Story We Tell

Preaching the Six Great Ends of the Church – Primary Text: John 3:1-21

For the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring how our denomination has chosen to describe what means to be the Body of Christ. The church is that body, made up of  individual members, as well as congregations and whole denominations, spanning the globe.

The church as a whole and here in this congregation is to be a community where faith, hope and love abide and are on display, where Christ is central to our existence and to our relationships with God and with one another. And the church is to be a community of witness, with Christ at the center of our words and work that point to God’s grace and love

As the Body of Christ, the church is also to pursue what our tradition has identified as the Six Great Ends of the Church. These Ends or Purposes reflect our Reformed theology, and they challenge us to consider what has been, what is, and what ought to be highest priority in the life of the congregation.

So as our exploration continues, we shift from  exploring who we are meant to be and to the work we are meant to be doing. We’ll start today with the first of the six: The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind

As one ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, this should be a no-brainer proclamation is right there in my title.  I am to proclaim the Word as often as I am in the pulpit.  But just like it isn’t my job to do all the praying, I’m not the only one called to proclamation. We’ve talked about our call to bear witness to God’s faithfulness and the saving work of Christ

In fact, last week, as we shared communion, the last part of the liturgy was the reminder that every time we drink the cup and eat the bread WE proclaim Christ’s saving death until he comes again.

The call to proclamation is nothing new  – Even while exiled in Babylon, God called the people of Israel to testify.

Isaiah 44:8 Reads:

Do not fear, or be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
You are my witnesses!
Is there any god besides me?
There is no other rock; I know not one.

And again in Chapter 48

Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
I am the Lord your God,
who teaches you for your own good,
who leads you in the way you should go.
O that you had paid attention to my commandments!

Then your prosperity would have been like a river,
and your success like the waves of the sea;
your offspring would have been like the sand,
and your descendants like its grains;
their name would never be cut off or destroyed from before me.

Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea,
declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it forth to the end of the earth;
say, “The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!”

In the book of Acts and each of the gospels, we read some version of Jesus’ followers being commissioned to go and make disciples to go and tell what they have seen or experienced. To go and tell their story. To go and proclaim the gospel.  They are sent to proclaim the gospel.

As are we.

So what is the gospel we are called to proclaim?

Would you do something for me?
Would you take a pen or pencil and find a spot on your bulletin to write down a few words, maybe a verse from scripture as an answer to this question.   What is the gospel?

Now – Don’t panic. This is not a pop quiz. I am not going to give out grades. But I am going to pause to give you a moment to think and make some notes.

—-

You can take a look at what your neighbor wrote… it’s ok.
And if you came up with a different answer, that’s ok too!

Now before we move on, I want to take a little poll

Raise your hand if you are a lifelong Presbyterian
If you spent time in a different mainline church- Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, UCC…
If you come from a more evangelical background- say Baptist, Pentecostal…
Anyone spent time in the Catholic tradition?

I see that some of us are hybrids – a little time in several traditions

I ask because how we describe the gospel will be influenced by the tradition in which we came to understand our relationship with God.  Your answer also depends on geography, the culture of your church, your neighborhood. The language we use to describe the gospel is contextual – dependent upon the context in which we first articulated our faith and the contexts that have shaped us since

That is why our answers will vary. And here is why that’s ok: Our Presbyterian heritage acknowledges that context matters and encourages us to find the common elements on which most traditions have come to agree, through study of scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit.

We can say this – the cornerstone of the gospel is this confession: Jesus is Lord.

Unquantifiable amounts of ink have been spilled to explain in great detail what that means, but the essential truth being expressed is that Jesus is God with us, the Creator & Ruler of all, made flesh.

Building on that cornerstone, we confess that Jesus died and rose again.

Jesus, Lord of all, died. And in his death the old world order died.  The order in which illness and fear have power… The order in which death had final say… that order was destroyed. By faith, we say that our death occurred with His

But Jesus, Lord of all, is also risen. And in his rising, God’s Kingdom comes near.  The promise of new creation is revealed. By faith, having died in Christ, we are already alive within the new creation. The promised eternal life is here and now, and will go on… Our earthly, physical deaths are merely a passage from this earthly life into the next phase of our lives in Christ.

By faith, in the coming, living, dying and rising of Jesus the Christ, we are forgiven, loved and freed… to live in the Kingdom of God, to love God and neighbor, and to forgive… even those who hate, malign or despise us

How is it that we can experience this Kingdom vision & life?

Only through the mediation of the divine into our humanity through the work of Christ and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit

Or as we read in John’s gospel,
For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him.

This is meant to be good news – after all that is what the word gospel means…

In whatever context we proclaim the truth that God became like us and walked among us,  that he was killed and then resurrected, all so that we might believe that God is Lord and know what it means to be saved, the story we tell is good news.

When we proclaim this message, it must be good news to all who would hear.

For many people, the difference between hearing the story of Jesus as good news and and bad news has to do with what we mean by salvation and how we extend the offer to others.

The question, “Have you been saved” or “have you accepted Jesus as your Savior” comes from a particular modern understanding of the individual relationship with God that is often associated with being “Born Again.” That understanding flows out of the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus.

One of the limitations of English, especially more formal, written English, is that we don’t differentiate you singular, from YOU plural (y’all).  And it can actually get in the way of some important insights into the teachings of Jesus, especially if the translation doesn’t help us

Our present understanding of Christianity is naturally shaped by our current culture, which is highly individualistic and self-oriented. Thus, it is natural for us to read a singular you into scriptures by default.

It just happens. And no, I will not pretend to be immune to the phenomenon.

In many languages the pronoun changes, to indicate whether the speaker or writer intends you to be many or one, including in the Greek that John wrote in.

We see that Jesus addresses Nicodemus individually, but he uses the plural to say that “you ALL must be born from above.”  The implication is that we need to read a community into the act of salvation. Not only Nicodemus, but all the leaders must be born from above. Nicodemus and his family, Nicodemus and all the Jews, Nicodemus and all the Gentiles….  God sent Jesus so that all might be saved

The imagery of water and wind that Jesus uses would also have called to mind the community.

The people of Israel, the Jews of Jesus’ time, recognized water and wind as two elements God used to demonstrate power and presence among his people. As John is wont to do, he chooses words with multiple layers here. The word for wind – pneumos – is also the word for spirit, both have power to transform and both blow where they will.

When God acts in the Hebrew scriptures, whether in wind/, water or otherwise, it is rarely for the good of an individual person. Even when it appears so in the short run,  in the long run, it is a family, tribe or nation being saved or redeemed.

Covenants with Noah, Abram, Moses and Jacob, all were for future generations

The great fish saved Jonah, but for the ultimate salvation of the Ninevites

Joseph was plucked from the pit, pulled out of the prison and brought to power, saving Egypt and the Israelites from starvation. In the same way, Jesus’ saving work must be understood as God’s desire to be reconciled with all of creation, all people.

It is important also to ask what salvation meant to those in the early church, who would have written and read and kept these texts safe. In Greek, the word for salvation has a breadth of meaning similar to the Hebrew  – Shalom -which isn’t really surprising  in light of the whole of Jesus’ teaching

Salvation speaks to wholeness and healing, restoration. When God’s shalom ultimately covers the Earth, there will be healing and restoration of every sort, all of which is part of God’s plan of salvation

When the people cry out “Lord save us”,  they seek, WE seek deliverance…
deliverance from enemies and from illness
deliverance from oppressive systems and people
deliverance from darkness and delivery into light so that we might see the kingdom of God.

Salvation brings forgiveness, pouring grace over sins and reconciling the sinner with God, re-placing Christ at the center of worship as Lord.

Yes, we proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Jesus is also the Deliverer and Liberator  and longs to save so much more than our souls

The wideness of God’s grace and mercy, the longevity of God’s faithfulness and patience, the reality of God’s love for generations of rebellious and stiff-necked people…

All of that is good news for people who experience competition and pressure to perform, capricious bosses and unpredictable relatives, rejection, loneliness and shame.

Salvation is good news for those who need liberation from addiction, deliverance from broken and abusive relationships, healing from the ravages of disease, wholeness after being pulled apart by grief, redemption of their time spent behind bars instead of in school

Because this work has begun and is ongoing, perhaps the salvation story we tell is actually about how we are being saved, rather than a decision at the start of  of a relationship.   How we are being transformed, rescued, healed, forgiven, reconciled in a 1000 different ways throughout our lifetimes in and with Christ

Ultimately, the good news we proclaim offers the same faith, hope and love that the church is meant to experience as a body. We are to bear witness to that good news, in our words and in our work as a community in this time and place.

So how are we doing?

When we show and tell the story of Jesus, of his love for all people does it sound like Good News?

When we talk of salvation, does it carry the promise of hope and healing, or the threat of unmet expectations?
Does it feel like liberation or oppression?
Does it bring a fulfillment of the law or the burden of legalism?
Do we bring the light of Christ to drive out darkness and the love of Christ to drive out fear?

Nicodemus’ story starts in the dark.  We don’t know why – perhaps to avoid interruptions, perhaps so he could come without others knowing, secrets and evil deed happen in the dark in John’s gospel.  But he must have listened closely to what Jesus said that night and in the coming years

Near the end of John’s gospel, when Jesus had been killed, Nicodemus came openly, in the daylight, carrying the needed spices and ointments for burial.

I wonder if the ones who saw him repeated the story of how his heart was changed, of how the Spirit of God must have filled him to make him honor the rabbi that way, risking his status as a leader and perhaps even  his life.

I wonder, in the light of Easter Sunday, what Nicodemus did…

I wonder if he followed the stories of Peter and the others on Pentecost, stories of Paul’s travels and his preaching…

I wonder if he told his own story, of his encounter in the dark,  of his encounter with the Light of the World. Perhaps his family got to hear that good news… Maybe his friends and neighbors…  I hope so.

I wonder…

How does your own story intersect with the good news?
How is Jesus saving you?

By faith, there are stories being written today and
By faith, many more will be written in days to come because of the gospel your lives proclaim and the story you are able to tell.

Let us pray,

God we long to be faithful stewards of the stories we’ve been given, stories in your word, stories in our community, and the stories of our lives.  May we proclaim the your coming as good news, may we experience salvation, shalom in you.
In the name of Jesus your son and our Savior,
Amen

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