Reaching Further

In this third part of our conversation about who God made us to be as a church, we talked about the fact that connecting and growing, while necessary, are not sufficient in and of themselves.  Thank you for taking part in this conversation with us and reflecting on God’s design for your own community.  Don’t miss next week as we put everything together and celebrate the thing that gives it all substance: The resurrection.

 

Reaching Further

Have you ever had a secret that was simply too good to keep to yourself?  It was news that you just weren’t going to be able not to share; you were just going to have to deal with the consequences later?  Or perhaps make this more personal: Have you ever gotten a bit of good news that you couldn’t possibly have not shared with the world?  In our social media-crazed world, some days it seems like most folks think everything is worth sharing.  “I got a promotion!”  “I ran a marathon!”  “My kid is on the honor roll!”  “My dog really like its new bed!”  “I woke up this morning!”  “I’m asleep now (my fingers are set on auto-post)!”  What starts to happen is that as everything gets shared, it can begin to seem like really, nothing is worth sharing.  I submit to you, though, that some things really are worth sharing.  What’s more, some places are designed to help us do that.  And I’m not talking about Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

This morning brings us to the third part of our conversation about who God made us to be as a church.  We started this conversation a couple of weeks ago as the culmination of several months’ worth of conversation and prayer among the deacons centered on the question of who God made us to be.  The whole idea here is that not only does God design individual members of local churches specifically for the role He has in mind for them to fill in His body, but He does the same thing with whole churches.  As parts of the body of Christ, we are responsible with His help to discern not only where we belong in the body as individuals, but together where our church fits in the larger body of Christ.  Think about it: Within a five-mile radius of this building there are at least a dozen churches I can think of.  We can think about that fact in one of two ways: Either there are too many and some of them need to close up shop and combine with each other, or, God has a unique plan for each one of these pieces and parts of His body such that when all of us works together along the lines of our unique, God-given purpose, the whole community will be impacted, will be transformed, like He wants for it to be.  I don’t know about you, but that second approach makes a lot more sense to me.  It sounds a lot more honoring of God to me.  What that means, though, is that unless we know who we are and are indeed growing in who we are, we won’t be able to play the roll we were designed by our heavenly Father to play in the advancement of His kingdom in the greater Oakboro community.

With all of this in mind, each of the past couple of weeks we have talked about a different aspect of our God-given identity as a community of faith.  We started with the fact that First Baptist is a place where people can connect.  We looked together at how we as people were made for connections and that the two most important connections (with God and with people) happen in the church better than they do anywhere else.  Then, we looked a bit closer and saw that this really is who God designed us to be.  We really are a place where people can find a home no matter who they are or where they come from.  Even when someone comes without the intention of connecting, we reach out and almost leave them wishing they could anyway.  From there, we looked last week at the fact that First Baptist is a place where people can grow.  We are absolutely committed to receiving people as they are, but we are equally committed to not leaving them there if we can help it.  Now, if someone wants to come for a while and just remain incognito, they can.  They’ll miss out on the full experience of life in this community—the fullest expression of which comes when someone goes beyond the worship gathering and gets connected to one of our groups and immerses themselves in the Gathering Place—but they can do it.  But it won’t be for a lack of reaching out on our part.

Similar to what I said when it came to talking about growing last week, though, connecting and growing are themselves not enough.  Think about why.  The purpose of healthy growth in anything is not for itself.  If you were to grow your bank account really large just so you could blow it all on yourself, you might achieve the growth, but it will probably kill your soul along with most of your relationships in the process.  That’s not healthy growth.  If a tree somehow gained control of itself and began directing all of its energies toward growing taller and broader and stronger, but did not direct anything toward the making of seeds to produce new trees, it might become majestic in its own right, but when it finally died and was cut down, there would be no more trees to come after it.  That’s not healthy growth.  No, the healthiest growth is always for the purpose of reproducing.  And reproducing means reaching out.  Well, not only is First Baptist a place to connect and grow; it is a place from which people reach out with the Gospel to the world around them.

Not only is this a key part of who God made us to be, but it is entirely consistent with what God has been doing with us since the beginning.  Have you picked up on the pattern of the last couple of weeks yet?  Who we are as a church is rooted in who God is and how He has always been interacting with His people.  Look at the evidence: When God had finished creating the world and set Adam and Eve on their way in the Garden of Eden, do you remember the command that He gave them?  Among a few other things, they were to be fruitful and multiply.  God could have made the two of them, lavished His love on them, and left things there.  But He didn’t.  He wanted His love to reach out beyond these two to more.  He wanted them to fill the earth so that His love could reach beyond them to others like them, equally made in His image.

This reaching effort on God’s part is even more explicit in His interactions with Abram in Genesis 12.  Listen to this from Genesis 12:1: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’”  That was the command.  Here was the promise: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Now, just for starters, imagine you were Abram and received that kind of a promise from God.  Wow!  Talk about feeling like you were on top of the world.  But more to the point, did you catch the purpose of this blessing?  God would bless Abram so that he would be a blessing.  He would bless him with the intention of blessing all the families of the earth through him.

One of the criticisms sometimes brought against the Scriptures is that it was somehow unfair of God to choose Israel and not the rest of the world.  When you properly understand the nature and reason for His choosing, starting with Abram here, it becomes clear that in choosing one, God was choosing all.  God was reaching out with His love and purpose into Abram’s life with the intention that Abram and his family would become conduits of that love so that it could reach into the lives of the rest of the world.  And indeed, through Jesus, that is exactly what happened.

This isn’t the only place we see this kind of language, though.  In multiple places in the Law of Moses, the Israelites were commanded to behave toward outsiders and foreigners with grace and care and concern—something unheard of in that day.  The reason for this command was consistently couched in the fact that they used to be wandering through life without God as a people and He had fixed that.  They should therefore have compassion on those who were as they had once been in hopes that they would become as they themselves had.

This kind of thought gradually seeped into the bones of the people and was passed down from one generation to the next.  Boaz reached out with compassion and love to a foreigner named Ruth.  Their great-grandson was named David. You’ve perhaps heard some of his story.  David’s son, Solomon, became king himself and spearheaded the construction of the grandest temple the world had or has ever seen.  When the construction was complete and he was praying a dedication prayer over the space for worship, he included this in his prayer from 1 Kings 8:41: “Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.”

You see, the Temple of Solomon was not intended to be merely a place where Israel could worship God, but a beacon, a light on a hill, if you will, that would serve to draw those who were not part of the people of God to move in His direction.  Indeed, when word got out about the splendor of this temple—and by all accounts and descriptions it was splendid beyond words—people would come.  They would come and behold the glory of God and be drawn to connect with Him.  God had reached into Israel’s life to bless them with incredible resources.  They were now using those resources to extend His reach into the lives of those who did not know Him.

This missionary emphasis is clear throughout the New Testament, but I think there are two stories which capture it best.  The second is found in Acts chapters 6-10.  The early church had grown to the point that it was beginning to institutionalize.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing for churches to do at all.  It can actually be a very good thing.  But doing it does bring an increased risk for navel gazing.  And when people start looking inward instead of outward, they begin to focus on…and argue about…places that aren’t fully to their liking.  In this case, Luke writes in Acts 6:1: “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.”  If that doesn’t sound like a church fight, I don’t know what does.  How this was resolved isn’t so important right now.  What is important is the fact that as the church began to focus on issues like this, although it was still growing rapidly (and indeed, this issue was solved successfully), it had stopped reaching.  The group was growing comfortable in their new digs and were beginning to put down roots.  No longer was Jerusalem merely the home operating base as Jesus had told them to make it.  It was becoming more simply, home.

Do you know what happened?  God blessed them and said, multiply and take over this city.  Convert every last priest and scribe.  Go after the Sadducees while you’re at it.  See if you can grab hold of Herod himself the next time he’s in town.  Together we will build a huge organization to change Jerusalem!  No, you’ve got to read your Bibles!  What actually happens makes for great storytelling, but it would have been awful to live through.  God allowed a major player in the church to be martyred, Saul to unleash the fury of Hell on the church, and the intensity of the persecution drove almost everybody in the church out of town.  Do you know what happened then?  Forced from their comfortable slumber in Jerusalem, God’s people began to reach out again, God Himself began reaching through them, and the church exploded out from Jerusalem to encompass the rest of the world in the blink of an historical eye.  The point here?  God is so committed to reaching through His people into the lives of those who aren’t to bring them into the blessing of the Gospel as they themselves reach out that if they won’t go on their own, He’ll drive them out by blowing up their comfort zones if He has to.

And as if all of this wasn’t enough, the first and most important missionary call in the New Testament comes on the lips of Jesus just before returning to the Father’s right hand.  You perhaps know it as the Great Commission.  It goes like this in Matthew 28:18-20: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

You’ve heard sermons on this passage before.  I’ve preached sermons on this passage before.  I don’t want to spend a lot of time here this morning repeating things you already know.  What I do want to draw your attention to, though, are two things.  One you’ve perhaps heard before, one you may not have encountered.  It was fresh for me when I heard it not too long ago.  The first thing is this: The controlling verb in this series of commands is “go.”  Everything here is predicated on the assumption that we are going; that we are reaching out into the world around us with the message of Jesus.  This going, this reaching, though, shouldn’t be contrived or forced.  It shouldn’t necessarily be a church program unto itself.  Rather, the implication of the verb tense here is that these things are happening as we are going.  In other words, reaching out is the natural state of affairs for followers of Jesus to find themselves in.  And as we are doing this, wherever we happen to be, we are to be making disciples.

The other thing here is this.  In English grammar, every sentence has to have two things: A subject and a predicate.  The subject describes the thing that’s doing some action.  The predicate describes the happening of this action.  When the first word of a sentence is an imperative—a command—like we find here, the subject is an implied you.  In other words, Jesus isn’t just saying, “Go therefore and make disciples.”  He’s saying you go and do it.  But, that word “you,” is tricky in English.  The singular and plural forms are identical.  We have to rely on the context to let us know which is intended.  In languages like Greek, though, you don’t have to guess.  The plural form of a word is spelled differently from the singular form.  And, if the subject of the sentence is a basic pronoun, that’s often packaged into the word as well.  In other words, how a particular verb is spelled in Greek lets you know what its subject is and whether it is singular or plural.  But, none of that comes out very well in English meaning we sometimes miss nuances in the English text unless it is written in such a way as to be pretty hard to read.

Where am I going with this?  That word “go” there, it’s implied subject is a plural “you.”  In other words, Jesus wasn’t saying, “Matthew, you go.  And John, you too.  Peter, you better get with it.   Bartholomew, I expect you’ll be moving.  Nathanial, I’m counting on you,” and so on and so forth.  He was saying, “You guys all go together.”  You’ve perhaps been led to believe all your life that the Great Commission is a solo venture.  And, if you’re not doing your part, you’re not being faithful.  Listen, you should be going, but the Great Commission was never intended to be a solo venture affair.  It was to be the activity of the whole community of Jesus followers.  Every single one of them was to be going and reaching such that all of them together were reaching out with Jesus Himself reaching through them in their pursuit of becoming ever more fully who He created and called them to be as they advanced the Gospel together.  A “me” following Jesus cannot exist well or long apart from the “we” of the church reaching out together.  It just won’t work.  It was never designed to work that way.  If we are not reaching out as a whole people, then we’re not doing what God designed us to do; we’re not being who God designed us to be.  I submit to you this morning, that First Baptist is a place designed specifically by God for the task of reaching out into our community and beyond with the Gospel in participation with and obedience to His pattern and command.  First Baptist is a place that reaches out with the Gospel.

Still, that’s pretty abstract.  Let’s get more concrete together.  The fact is, there are several important ways we are reaching out as a community.  The Men’s Brotherhood and the Women’s Missionary Union are both active in a whole variety of projects.  The WMU ladies are active in doing things like sewing dresses for young girls to send to international missionaries in support of their efforts on the ground.  They are making pillow cases for the Butterfly House, a great local ministry that cares for children in abuse situations.  The pillows those kids receive—sometimes the only one they’ve ever had—become incredibly important comfort items for them.  They are also going above and beyond any regular giving they are already doing to financially support local missionaries.  The Brotherhood have recently hosted a Poor Man’s Supper to raise money for West Stanly Christian Ministries.  I got to be in the room when the idea was pitched to do that.  It was amazing seeing the guys light up at the thought of resourcing another great local ministry this way.  When Jim Cameron made the call to let them know we were planning to do that, the director was blown away and said no church has ever done something like that for them before.  It was a simple act, but we have ourselves a new ministry partner, one with whom I predict we will see some particularly sweet fruit come to bear in the years ahead.  The men are also hosting a dental and medical bus from the State Convention this summer during the 4th of July festivities.  While it will be open to anyone, the real focus will be on the carnival workers who otherwise get very little in the way of personal healthcare.  Carnival workers are some of the most overlooked people in our culture.  They are definitely among the least, last, and lost for whom Jesus told us to care.  If you wanted to keep going we could talk about our kids or our youth or our Relay for Life team engaging the community in a whole variety of ways.  Doing this kind of stuff is who we are.  First Baptist is a place that reaches out with the Gospel.

The fact is, the more we can reach out intentionally into our community to be a supportive, encouraging, loving, welcoming presence, the more Gospel fruit we are going to see.  Consider a couple more examples.  Some of you may remember the Fall Festival last year.  Normally this had been a small, but successful event during which our families had a great time celebrating the fun of the season.  This last year we made a couple of small changes—we moved the usual date and intentionally opened it up to the community.  If you were there I know you remember what happened.  We ran slam out of every bit of the supplies we had gathered in preparation because there were just so many people.  We raised a hand together reaching out to our community to say, “We’re here for you,” and the community collectively said, “We’ll take it.”  It was almost comical making rounds that night to talk to folks and seeing person after person walking around with their mouths open in shock at the sheer number of people milling around the parking lot and having a great time together.  That’s what it looks like when we operate in sync with who God made us to be.

Then there’s our growing partnership with the STEM school.  Folks, I know I’ve said it before, but I can’t even begin to tell you how key this partnership is in terms of continuing to establish ourselves as a vital piece of this community; as a truly indispensable organization.  We have people inside that school just about every day of the week doing things all kinds of things from opening a kindergartner’s milk box to tutoring middle school students in math.  We’ve got folks involved from leading reading groups to simply being available for whatever their needs might be.  We are ministering to the teachers and loving on the kids.  And I’ll tell you: They know the name of First Baptist Church up there.  What’s more, they love the name of First Baptist Church up there.  They know that if they need something they can call and we will jump to make it happen if we are at all capable of it.  Let me tell you: That’s some powerful stuff.  That is a kingdom investment, an intentional act of reaching out, that will pay huge dividends in the future.

Let me tell you a story to show you how.  Cliff Edwards tutors math up at the school for kids who need a little extra help.  Over the school year, he has built good relationships with his students.  One Taco Tuesday, he was over at the Mexican restaurant with Lynn and another couple, when one of his students walked in with his family.  The student immediately came over and talked to him for a minute.  They chatted for a second and then went on about their dinner.  As it turned out, the student and his family ate fairly quickly and were making their way out, when the student’s grandpa stopped by Cliff’s table and said, “You must be something special, because that little boy thinks the world of you.”  Now, maybe that doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  But let me put it to you this way: If you have kids or grandkids, when you see someone else going out of their way to love on your kid, you love that person.  You think the world of them because the way to any parent’s heart is to love her kids.  Cliff’s been loving on that family’s kid by helping him with his math.  That family loves Cliff.  Stay with me now: Let’s say that family doesn’t go to church anywhere (and the odds on that are about 50-50 as we talked about last week).  If God starts moving in their heart—perhaps through the excitement of their kid about his math tutor—pulling them in His direction, guess where they are likely to think about going first.

Listen: That’s what reaching out with the Gospel looks like.  To the outside observer, Cliff’s just some guy who helped a kid with his math homework.  But that’s not what really happened.  What really happened is that Cliff was empowered by his church to invest himself as a representative of that body into his community and as a result he’s planted a seed.  We’ve got other folks planting other seeds as well.  We’re out planting seeds because First Baptist is a place that reaches out with the Gospel.  And when you plant seeds like this, not all of them grow.  But the ones that do yield a harvest many times beyond the initial input.  Friends, this is what God does.  He plants, and He makes to grow.  And as we join Him in more and more intentional ways in the coming months and years, we will begin to see a harvest—an ongoing harvest—that will leave our heads spinning it will be so large.  And when the Lord returns in triumph one day—even as we have celebrated in part this Palm Sunday—we will be able to point to our overflowing Gospel storehouse and say with pride, “Look what we did with what you gave us, with who you made us.”  And He’ll smile and say, “I know.  I was right there with you the whole time making sure you could do it.  Well done.”  First Baptist is a place that reaches out with the Gospel.  This is who God made us to be, folks.  I’m excited to become fully this church with you.  Don’t miss next week as we put these three pieces together into a clear and compelling identity and celebrate with joy the thing that gives them shape and substance: The resurrection.  See you then.

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