31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
June 23, 2019
Romans 12: 1-2, 9-18
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
When you think about the word church, what comes to mind?
Our English word for church comes from the Greek word “ekklesia”, which literally means “called out” or “called from”. An ekklesia is a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into a public place. Fits with Jesus’ words from the gospel of Mark, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15).
In their book, The Permanent Revolution, Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim write that the church, the ekklesia, is an apostolic movement, a ministry based on the twelve disciples who became the first apostles, messengers who were sent to the world with the good news of Christ’s love. In that same vein, Darrell Guder writes that the church is a “witnessing [community] whose purpose [is] to continue the witness that brought [it] into existence”. (Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger, pg 38)
The church is a community of apostles, a community of messengers, who are called to go out into all the world and proclaim the good news. And as Eleazar Fernandez writes in his commentary on this passage from Romans, the church is also a gathering of people that is called to live differently, to live in accordance with Christ’s love, to live in a way that promotes life-giving relationships. “[E]arly Christian communities were actively self-aware of their identity and calling as ‘alternative societies’…defined by the life and teachings of the crucified One.” (Feasting on the Word, Eleazar S. Fernandez, pg 16)
The church is called to be an alternative community, embodying genuine love, extending hospitality to strangers, holding fast to what is good, contributing to the needs of the saints, and serving the Lord always. (Romans 12:9-15) And the church is a community that is called to go out and share this alternative way of life with the world.
Unfortunately, “many churches have become so comfortable with the world that they have lost their identity as an alternative community” and lost their identity as an apostles, messengers called to continue the witness that brought the church into existence in the first place. (Feasting on the Word, Eleazar S. Fernandez, pg 16)
This loss of identity is exactly the reason churches are dying, according to Thom Rainer. One of his signs that your church may be closing soon is that members define discipleship, not as going forth to witness to God’s love with words and actions, but as “others taking care of my needs”. Another sign of a soon to be closing church is that:
The budget is severely inwardly focused. Most of the funds are expended to keep the lights on and/or to meet the preferences of the members. There are few dollars for ministry and missions. And any dollars for missions rarely include the involvement of the members in actually sharing the gospel themselves.
Rapidly growing churches, on the other hand, have not lost their identity and mission. Like early Christian communities, they embrace their identity as an alternative community and embrace the church’s mission to go out and witness to Christ’s love.
Rapidly growing churches, like ‘The Gathering’, a United Methodist congregation in St. Louis, reach out to welcome others into a life-giving relationship with the God of love we know through Jesus Christ. And rapidly growing churches spend a “disproportionate amount of time and energy on discipleship”, on nurturing people to become “deeply committed follower[s] of Christ”, embodying his alternative community of love, honor, hospitality, and service. (Leading Ideas Talks, May 8th podcast, “Becoing a Rapidly Growing Church” featuring Matt Miofsky)
What is a deeply committed follower of Christ though? What does a deep disciple look like? I don’t think this is a conversation I have ever had with any church community or ordained minister either. Nor has anyone ever asked me these questions, but if they did, I would turn to these words from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.
A deeply committed follower of Jesus Christ has genuine love for others. They “hate what is evil, [and] hold fast to what is good; [they] love one another with mutual affection; [and] outdo one another in showing honor.” They “rejoice in hope, [are] patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. [They] contribute [financially] to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers…. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12: 9-13)
And because “this [passage] is not a greeting card but a call to costly discipleship”, a deeply committed follower of Christ also blesses those who persecute them, blesses and does not curse them. Deep disciples associate with the lowly and do not claim to be wiser than they are. They do not repay anyone evil for evil but so far as it depends on them, live in peace and harmony with all. (Feasting on the Word, Rochelle A. Stackhouse, pg 16) (Romans 12:14-18)
And this is how deeply committed Christians serve the Lord – by living in a way that embodies Christ’s love and letting their lives and their words witness to that love.
As a church called to welcome all in Christ’s love and nurture all in Christ’s love, how are we inviting people, nurturing people to be deeply committed followers of Jesus Christ?
How is this Christian community nurturing you to be deeply committed follower of Jesus Christ?
And what else can we do? What else can we do to nurture children, youth, and adults to have genuine love for all people? To extend hospitality to strangers? To faithfully give of our abundance? To serve the Lord and live peaceably and in harmony with all?
What else can we do to invite and nurture people to become deeply committed followers of Jesus Christ?
This isn’t a rhetorical question for me. I sincerely want you to call me or send me an email or note and share how this Christian community nurtures you to be a deeply committed follower of Jesus Christ and what else you think you and we can do to nurture others.
Ours is not a rapidly growing church; however neither are we dying. God has a plan for us, an amazing plan. God is calling us to reclaim our identity and mission as Christ’s church, Christ’s ekklesia:
a community of people deeply committed to following Jesus Christ;
a community of people deeply committed to living in peace, mutual affection, and joy;
a community of people deeply committed to serving God and our neighbor;
a community of people deeply committed to going out and sharing Christ’s way and unconditional love with all the world.