“A Church for a Time Like This”
A Sermon preached at the Installation of the Reverend George Brecht
as Pastor of Eddington Presbyterian Church, Bensalem, Pennsylvania
October 2, 2005 by the Reverend Richard Stoll Armstrong
It is a joy and a great privilege to participate in your installation, Skip, and I want to extend my hearty congratulations to you and to the members of Eddington Presbyterian Church for making your common law relationship legitimate. I shall be following your progress with keen interest and high expectations.
These are challenging times for those of us who belong to the church of Jesus Christ. Some have discarded the church to the recycle bin of irrelevance. But there are others who are looking to the church for answers to their deep fears and apprehensions about the world and its future. In time of war, or in the wake of a devastating natural disaster, or following a tragedy like 9/11, church pews are fuller than usual. When times are good, attendance sags. We mainline Protestants have nothing to boast about in that respect.
What kind of church is needed for a time like this? A church that cares about the people out there, as well as the people in here. Many congregations view themselves as that kind of church, though their mission statement, if they have one, may not reflect that dual perspective. Your brief statement declares that “Eddington Presbyterian Church provides a welcoming place for all who want to grow in their relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ” —a worthy description indeed. But, if you will permit me to say so, it would be even more impressive if it had a missional thrust. It really isn’t a mission statement.
Compare it, for example with this statement of another church where I preached recently: It reads in part: “Our mission is to share in carrying on God’s work of reconciliation in (our community) and in the changing world, to serve the needs of all members and families of this congregation, the community, institutions, and nations. . . “ That’s a noble purpose in a world in which there is so much hatred, hostility, and fear.
A church with such a vision obviously cares about the people out there, as well as the people in here. I’m going to assume you do, too, even though your mission statement doesn’t say so. My question for you is, How will you reach the people out there, so that they can become people in here and join you in reaching other people out there? In a society which has become increasingly disenchanted with the institutional church and in which adherents of other faiths are vigorously making their own truth claims, you will need to make a case for the church, as well as for Christ, as you reach out to your unchurched neighbors.
In making that case there are three questions you will need to answer, three “Why” questions: Why the church? Why belong to a church? Why go to church? First, Why the Church? The simplest and most direct answer to that question is, “Because Jesus intended there to be a church.” He called the disciples and trained them to be the nucleus of a new fellowship of faith, a community of believers who would be his witnesses. It was to the church that he promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was for the church that he instituted the sacraments. It was to the church he entrusted the gospel of salvation. And it is through the church that he intends to reach the world. Local congregations are particular expressions of The Church, and as such their purpose is two-fold: to develop and nurture their own members in the Christian faith and life. That’s the church’s maintenance task.
Your statement implies you take that responsibility seriously. But the church also has a mission task, which is to bring the good news in word and deed to people outside the church. “‘You are my witnesses,’ says the Lord.” (Isaiah 43:10). The same commission God laid upon Israel was laid upon the Church by Jesus, who told his followers to go into all the world and make disciples. “You shall be my witnesses,” he said, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:08).
A mission statement should reflect both of those emphases. Mission and maintenance must always be kept in balance. In carrying out its mission a church has the task of bringing to the unbelieving world about us, if I may paraphrase our New Testament lesson from Ephesians, “the news of the boundless riches of Christ,” and to make people aware of God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety” might be made known. The church bears witness to the word of God, which is timeless and universal in its truth, yet completely relevant and contemporary in its application. The church exists to interpret the gospel to every age, for the word of God is never out of date.
The church also mediates the love of God. The church is one community where every individual can be valued and treated as a person, not just a consumer to be sold, a voter to be persuaded, a worker to be used, a brain to be harnessed, a statistic to be counted, but a unique human being. Jesus looked upon people as persons whose lives need wholeness, and meaning, and purpose. The true church is this kind of community, because it has this kind of Lord.
That’s why the church! But why belong to a church? That‘s the second question we who hope to reach the world have to answer. The Gallup Studies of Religion in America report that 95% of Americans say they believe in God. Fine! But you and I know that believing is not belonging!
“Why belong to a church?” demands a much more personal than theoretical answer. Notice I said a church not the church. If you’re a Christian, you automatically belong to THE Church. Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ is part of the body of Christ, which is The Church. But can’t a person belong to THE Church without belonging to A church?
Many people obviously think they can. But true disciples of Jesus Christ would never ask that question. At least they wouldn’t ask it for themselves, because true disciples know they need a church. They know it’s not easy to live as Christ wants his disciples to live, and they would never be so conceited as to say that they didn’t need any help!
Sure, we all know people who are honest and truthful and morally upright, but who don’t belong to any church. Some of them may live better lives than many church members. But those outside the church would be even better persons in a church. For one thing, they would become much more knowledgeable about spiritual things, more faithful stewards, and more effective witnesses.
Faithful disciples are not solitary Christians. Christianity implies fellowship. To deny this is to deny the very intention of Christ. We need to pray with other Christians. We need to worship with other Christians. We need to praise God in music and song. We need to hear God’s word read and expounded. We need the sacraments. We need the spiritual disciplines that none of us can exercise as well alone. We need the give and take of ideas, the encouragement of our sisters and brothers in Christ, the challenge to grow and to give and to share and to serve. Where is all this possible except in a church?”
So one reason for belonging to a church is that we need all the help we can get to be a Christian. And another reason is simply what a church is and stands for. A church is a worshiping community —the one institution which exists to worship and serve the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the institution which has kept alive the very name by which we call ourselves: Christians! Christ’s teachings are preserved in and by faithful churches. I want to be part of one. I know that no local church is perfect. How could it be, with the likes of us in it? But the Lord of the church is perfect, and I believe in the church because of what he stands for.
Because of Jesus Christ the church is for me the one institution which gives meaning to history, for our Judeo-Christian faith views history and humanity in relation to God. The church is involved in, yet independent of, history. The church, to be sure, is impacted by but it is not dependent upon any society or culture or military power. No matter what happens in the days ahead, no matter what acts of terrorism are committed against us, the church of Jesus Christ will survive in some form or another, as the underground churches have survived in China. The gates of hell shall not prevail against it!
The local church, furthermore, is one institution where every person is taken seriously, where men, women, and children can be what they were created to be: unique human beings made in the image of God. In the church as in no other institution or organization we have the freedom to be ourselves, our best selves, for the church helps us to remember who we are and whose we are.
Some have charged that churches are nothing but monuments to a dead faith. Maybe some churches are. But without them our faith could not have been preserved and communicated and passed on from one generation to the next. Churches may be static and inflexible at times, but they can also be creative and dynamic and even revolutionary. They can transform civilizations, and they have! They can lift people to higher levels, and they do! They can outlive nations and empires, and they will!
I want to belong to this kind of institution. I want to support the kind of institution that is committed to great principles and noble causes, even when its individual members or leaders sometimes seem to be going in the opposite direction. Churches help us to behave better than we normally do, because they pull us toward the attainment of ideals which are generally higher than our own individual ideals. And by behaving better than we normally would, we become better persons than we were.
What a privilege to belong to a church, the one institution that has a biblical understanding of human nature, one which recognizes that for all our education, for all our scientific progress, for all our technological expertise, we human beings have never been able to bring about any lasting utopia on earth. Jesus said there will always be wars and rumors of wars, and we’ve certainly proved him right! The church is the only institution that acknowledges humanity’s sinfulness, confesses our need of divine forgiveness, and proclaims the way of salvation freely offered to all who will accept it through Jesus Christ.
How will our children develop the biblically informed faith they need to face the world in a time like this? Who can provide theologically sound answers to the kinds of questions they are asking? The schools can’t. The courts have seen to that. Our homes are apparently unable to, family life being what it is today. The church is the one institution which can and is doing that, because the church knows that all of the world’s problems, all of the world’s needs have theological implications. We need to belong to a church, if for no other reason than to help our children develop the kind of informed faith they need in a world like this.
These are all reasons for belonging to a church. But you and I know that belonging is not attending. Many people who belong hardly ever attend. When they say they’re Presbyterians, they mean that’s the church they stay away from regularly. So we have to answer the third question: Why go to church? This is a question of commitment. The answer is implied in what I have already said. For to me belonging to the church implies supporting the church, and supporting the church includes attending. We go to church because it’s our duty and privilege as church members. I’m not talking about people who are physically unable to attend. They are absent not because they want to be but because they have to be. God knows whether their hearts are in the church, even when they’re not present in the flesh.
Supporting the church also includes being involved in the church’s ministry, sharing in the work as well as the worship of the church, in its mission as well as its maintenance. We all took sacred vows to that effect, when we first joined a church. It is in fulfilling those vows that we begin to discover and live the abundant life that Jesus talked about, a life of joy, satisfaction, even fun and excitement, as you many of you Eddington folks have undoubtedly discovered. And those who haven’t soon will, when they hear Skip play his trumpet! For those who are truly seeking God, a church can give meaning and purpose to living. It can be a source of comfort, and strength, and wisdom, and power, and joy. It can lend new beauty to friendships, open new doors to service and devotion, unleash new gifts of the Spirit. A church can do all this
and more for those who give themselves to their church.
People need a church, and churches need people. Without members there can be no church, and without commitment there will be no mission. If you as a congregation really want to grow, you can and you will! I say “if,” because saying it and meaning it are two different things. If you really mean it, you’ll start reaching out to your neighbors and ministering to their needs. You can’t minister to people’s needs if you don’t know what their needs are, and you won’t know what their needs are until you go where the people are. I know Skip is committed to that, and I hope you are as well.
For those who come and for you who are already here, if I may paraphrase former president John F. Kennedy’s words, Ask not what your church can do for you. Ask what you can do for your church. Then you will discover, if you haven’t already, what your church can do for you.
God be with you, and with you, Skip, as together you strive to be a church for a time like this.