Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
Fourth Sunday After The Epiphany, January 29, 2023
Fourth in a Pastoral Series on Practicing Baptist Principles Dennis W. Foust, PhD, Senior Minister
At the outset of this sermon, let me begin with an embarrassing admission. Through the years, it has been my privilege to participate in some significant moments and decisions, as a leader, as Baptist life has changed, ecumenical life has expanded, and interfaith life has emerged.
I have collected a lot of information. Some of this is in my memory and heart and shows up as discernment and insight as I continue to lead. Some of this information, though, is in my office.
This past week, I discovered three folders in my files marked ‘CLASSIFIED.’
Since ‘CLASSIFIED’ folders are taboo in the news lately, it seemed apropos for me to be forthcoming with you in this embarrassing admission.
What I found in these files marked, ‘CLASSIFIED,’ could realign world powers.
Institutional structures of injustice would tumble if these practices were enacted.
Local Churches would experience spiritual renewal if they truly lived out these directions.
These CLASSIFIED files tell us how to live free to follow the Spirit of God Together.
The first CLASSIFIED file focuses on how we are FREE TO FOLLOW THE SPIRIT OF GOD – TOGETHER. This document informs and instructs us.
In the 27 books of Christian Scripture, the New Testament offers 96 different images of the Church. Rather than just one picture of what it means to be the Church, the called out people of God, we have been given a gallery. And all these images have one common idea: The Church is God’s answer to the human need for spiritual redemption and transformation in community. We are free to follow the Spirit of God – TOGETHER. We pursue this life in Christ – TOGETHER.
“Pursue a life worthy of being called the People of God.
Embody The Way of Jesus by living with humility, gentleness, and patience.
Bear with one another in love.
Do everything within your power to maintain the unity of God’s Spirit through your connections in God’s peace.
Refuse to compete, manipulate, isolate, or exploit by investing in your unity in Christ.
Follow the Spirit of God – TOGETHER!
For there are not many bodies of Christ’s Church – There is one!
There are not scores of Spirits – There is one Spirit.
You do not have many Lords – You all have one Lord.
You do not follow different faiths – there is one faith.
There are not many baptisms – there is one baptism.
Your baptism reminds you how you responded to God’s call of hope by Soul Freedom, Making Up Your Own Mind, realizing you are Able to Respond to and be responsible to the one and only Living God who is above all and through all and in all.”
After I read these CLASSIFIED directions, I was reminded of some words of Clarence Jordan:
“If there are NO dividing walls of partition in God’s house, how can there be in his Church?
Any church or any person who erects barriers of external differences is guilty of the worst kind of heresy and should no longer consider himself or herself a member of God’s family.”
Any person who dominates others or points out sin in another person while refusing to extract the beam of sin in their own life is not pursuing a life worthy of the name Jesus.
I then reached for the second CLASSIFIED folder which included these instructions:
“In Jesus Christ, God has given gifts of grace to each of us. These gifts were presented in such a way that some followers of Jesus would be apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor teachers to equip God’s people for works of Ministry in Daily Life. The purpose of this equipping is to build up the body of Christ, until all of us come to a unity of active faith by understanding The Way of Jesus. We mature when we measure ourselves by the full stature of Jesus Christ. Our spiritual maturity is revealed as we express God’s vision for the Church and the world.
This happens as we freely respond to the Spirit of God – TOGETHER.”
As I reflected on the contents of this second file, I remembered what I felt in my bones when my friend Larry McSwain told his story of marching with Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was the spring of 1968, three weeks before Dr. King was assassinated. As they marched through the streets of Louisville, Kentucky that cool night, they called for open housing policies in the city. As they walked arm in arm singing ‘We Shall Overcome Someday,’ racist opponents stood along the streets, some claiming the name of Jesus, shouting slurs and obscenities.
Beloved, that is a picture of you serving as Ministers in Daily Life in today’s world.
As you serve in God’s mission, people often resist your ministry. There are others who devalue your ministry or never comprehend why you do what you do the way you do.
Yet, you persevere! You may identify with this quotation: ‘We the willing are serving the unknowing while doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much for so long with so little there is plenty of evidence to reveal we are faithful in doing almost anything with nothing. We die every day to be reborn tomorrow.’ We persevere, pursuing spiritual growth seeking increased maturity in the character of Jesus. We never measure ourselves against pretentious egos in the news, performing artists or self-appointed superstars for Jesus claiming to be spiritual examples. We don’t measure our spiritual maturity by comparing ourselves to the maturity of Uncle Harvey or Grandma. We don’t measure ourselves against any other congregation or tradition. We measure our spiritual maturity by how we measure up to the life of Jesus in our discerning wisdom, compassion, sensitivity, servant heart, redemptive vision, capacity to forgive and our involvement in God’s mission.
One person observed, “When I look at the Church in today’s world, I see a dying Church.”
A spiritually insightful person replied, “Yes, the Church has been dying for two-thousand years. Yet, it never fully dies. God brings it back over and over again to reveal the resurrection life.”
That brings me to the third folder marked ‘CLASSIFIED,’ presenting these words:
“We must grow up in Christ. We must no longer be like immature spoiled brats chasing after the last popular idea or deceitful schemes camouflaged as the Way of Jesus. We must speak God’s Truth to others in love, growing up in Christ, so the whole body of Christ does its work as God intended with each part promoting the mature growth of the whole body.”
These directions were echoed in the recent thoughts of Richard Rohr who said:
“The only way evil can succeed is to disguise itself as good. And one of the best disguises for evil is bad religion. Just pretend to love God, go to church every Sunday, recite creeds, and say all the right things. Someone can be racist, be against the poor, hate immigrants, and worship materialism, but still go to church on Sunday and be “justified” in the eyes of bad religion.”
Beloved, as we practice the Baptist principle of Church Freedom, we are free to follow the Spirit of God – TOGETHER.
HOWEVER, WE MUST CHOOSE TO DO SO.
We do not have a Pope, a Bishop, or a Presbytery to tell us what we should be or do.
Your commitment matters.
Your investments of time and participation matter.
Your Ministries in Daily Life matter.
You are involved in much more than bad religion.
You are growing up in Christ.
Beloved, your mutual commitments determine the public witness of St. John’s.
And our public witness is not secretive or classified.
The other day, a fellow asked me, “Where is ‘YOUR CHURCH?’”
I smiled and said, “Well, I don’t have a church. I serve a church.”
“Oh, okay,” he nodded, saying, “where is the church you serve located?”
I had been working on this sermon, so again, I smiled and said,
“St. John’s is scattered all around metro Charlotte.
We gather at 300 Hawthorne Lane to renew our efforts of following the Spirit of God – TOGETHER.”
Amen and AMEN!