We Gather Together
PH #246 "Come Thou Almighty King" 1, 4- All; 2- Males; 3- Females
Call to Worship: Psalm 100
God’s Greeting: Grace to us, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Prayer for the Service
Sing: "Come All You People, Come and Praise Your Maker"
PH #238:1,4,5 "We Come, O Christ To You"
We Are Reconciled
Call To Confession: Psalm 24: 1-3
Leader: Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?
Or who may stand in his holy place?
People: Those who have clean hands and pure hearts
Who do not lift up their souls to an idol
Or swear by what is false
Leader: They will receive blessing from the Lord,
And vindication from God their Savior.
Silent Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 103:8-12
Guide to new Life: Galatians 5:22-24
We Commit Ourselves: "Step by Step" ("Oh God You are My God")
We Hear the Word
Prayer for Understanding
Scripture: I Corinthians 1:1-9
Sermon: "So, You call Yourselves a Church?"
Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 54
Songs of Response: PH #462:1, 3, 4, 5 "Amazing Grace"
PH #517 "There’s No God as Great as You, O Lord"
We Depart to Serve the Lord
Benediction; Go in peace, and may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all.
Doxology: PH #632 "To God be the Glory"
SO, YOU CALL YOURSELVES A CHURCH
Sermon prepared by Rev. Joan De Vries, Mississauga, ON
Time magazine reported a serious squabble between two strong-willed women. They were each campaigning to be head of the Screen Actors Guild. One sent out a letter accusing the other of being a scab in a 1989 movie. The other had to send out a personal defense letter explaining why she didn’t support strike events the previous year. One refused to appear in a debate with the other. All of this went on to get votes, to curry power. Childish somehow, isn’t it? But then, just what we might expect from the Screen Actors Association, right? After all, it’s a secular union of people who want to be seen and heard. Let me tell you about another Association:
- Some members are very wealthy while others are quite poor. The rich revel in their plenty. They look down on the lower class. So the poor go hungry and don’t benefit economically from this Association at all.
- The personal lives of some are a mess. Focus on the Family could highlight the lax morality of this Organization. Some visit prostitutes. They see no problem with this. After all, they are free, adult human beings, aren’t they? Mind your own business!
- One man is even carrying on an affair with his stepmother. This seems to be acceptable since no one deals with the situation officially.
- There are gender problems in this Association – sharp disagreements about the roles of men and women. Who has what authority? Who can lead in this Association, particularly in its meetings? And to what degree?
- Powerful leaders promote themselves against each other. They gather followers around themselves like a political party. They stir up dissension. They slander the others. "This association is going nowhere if THAT person leads. Let’s follow so-and-so instead". You can imagine what their meetings were like. People fighting to outshine each other. A continuous game of "one-upmanship." Not for general edification, but for personal glorification. (2)
- Members of this Association carry such angry feelings against each other that they sue each other. Some drag others to court over various issues. Yet they come together for weekly gatherings. Perhaps you can imagine what their weekly meetings were like?
So what is this sorry Association?
A union, perhaps?
A university faculty club?
A business association?
How about the church of our glorious Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? How about the bride of Christ being prepared for her wedding day? How about the church as she is being made ready to be presented spotless and without blemish in the day of our Lord?
Yes, the church. That is some of what is known about the church in the city of Corinth. That doesn’t sound much like a church, you say? Well, what exactly makes a church? This particular group had been started by Paul on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1-22). In Acts we read that Paul stayed in Corinth for 18 months planting this congregation. After persecution from the Jews, he moved on again. Over the years he kept in touch with the believers in Corinth. He stayed interested in news about them. And it seems that he wrote this letter in response to some reports and personal communications he had received. All of the things that are listed about this Association, Paul knows. The dirt is out in the open; the skeletons are out of the closet.
It’s awful when the dirt about churches gets into the public press isn’t it? A Korean Catholic Church in Toronto had a brawl during Mass one summer. They needed to bring in security guards and police on a regular basis. To get in there for months afterwards, you had to show that you were a member. And just to be sure, someone was inside taking photographs of people as they went by. That doesn’t sound much like a church either, does it? What do you say to such a group? Perhaps we don’t have to go that far away. Perhaps we can look closer to home. If someone from this congregation reports about it to others what would they say? Are we so far removed from the Corinthian problems? Do WE sound like a church? Well, it depends how you tell it. If you wanted to just list the dirt, there would be much to tell about us too, wouldn’t there?
- Dirt about secret sins – ongoing, or hidden for many years.
- Dirt about majoring in the minors – where behaviors that ARE prohibited in Scripture tend to be ignored (greed, slander, envy) while things about which Scripture is silent are campaigned about.
- Where people pass judgments on each other about issues such as dress-code, or hairstyle, or tithing, or make-up, without allowances of grace. . . .
- Where there is fighting about what kind of instruments are appropriate for worshiping God.
- Or when the songs themselves make us angry, even though their lyrics glorify God.
Perhaps you can relate to the experience of Christian worship as the writer Annie Dillard describes it: (3)
"Week after week I was moved by . . . The terrible singing I so loved, the fatigued Bible readings, The lagging emptiness and dilution of the liturgy, The horrifying vacuity of the sermon, and by the fog of dreary senselessness pervading the whole, which existed alongside, and probably caused, the wonder of the fact that we came; we returned; we showed up; week after week we went through with it."
The church isn’t always what it’s supposed to be, is it?
Now, what IF YOU were asked to speak to this Corinthian group? What if you were asked to address them on Paul’s behalf? Perhaps you would be tempted to scold, "And you call yourself a CHURCH? Is that some kind of joke? Shame on you! Get your act together first; THEN we’ll decide whether you deserve the name ‘church’. . . . Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, indeed! Not of MY Lord Jesus Christ. No way! We’ve got higher standards than that around here!" Let’s look at what Paul says. . . .
Paul begins in a customary way: with a greeting (1-3). He greets them with his name and the name of his companion, and then he names them – "the church of God in Corinth." The "church", he says. Right up here at the beginning he calls them by that name. The "church" – the assembly, the gathering or community of the Lord. Those gathered together for the purpose and worship of God. "Assembly" is a word with strong Jewish undertones. And in the Old Testament, it’s the phrase used to mark out those who MAY worship YHWH from those who may NOT. Deut. 23: 2, 3 "No one of illegitimate birth shall enter the assembly of the LORD. . . . No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD". . . . In the Old Testament it’s a word that sets boundaries, that restricts, that prohibits. Those who were unclean were certainly barred from coming to the assembly. But here Paul applies that title to all of them gathered collectively: "The church (assembly) of God in Corinth. . . ."
And though WE might think them miserable sinners who can’t get their act together, Paul goes on to name them as among the "sanctified". "Called to be holy," he says. Again words picked up from the Old Testament. Words that bring to mind sacrifices and offerings – prepared for the worship of God. Prepared by special rites of dedication or cleansing. Things that are sanctified have been acted upon. Something has been done to them to change them from one state to another. Utensils prepared for worship do not and cannot sanctify themselves. It takes another to sanctify them. And in the case of the church, that "other," the sanctifying agent is none other than Jesus Christ. It’s because of what HE has done that WE can be sanctified. It’s through the sacrifice of Jesus that we can be cleansed and dedicated. Paul calls this group of sinners in Corinth "Sanctified in Christ Jesus."
Their position, their place before God, the label applied to them is "sanctified." Through the work of Jesus Christ they are called out, set apart for God’s use. So they are called to be holy. This can be translated several ways. Literally it says "called holy ones." They are called or named "holy ones" or "saints," even! This group of Corinthian believers receives the designation of saints. Why? What have they done to deserve this? Not because of their conduct, surely! No, not because of their conduct but because of Jesus Christ, because of the work of God himself. Because, as Acts 18 tells us, they had heard the Gospel, and they had believed and they were baptized. And that was enough for God to seal them to his work, to his calling, to be his people: sanctified, holy, clean and set apart for his service. And so Paul goes on to offer them grace and peace (v.3): "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Grace. . . .
There is a family that has developed a peculiar way of responding to family mishaps. They decided to put grace into physical action. They collectively extend grace in a very visible way. If someone in the family makes a mistake, if, for example, the 6-year-old spills her milk, they extend grace to her – reaching out their hands and saying: "Grace, grace, grace." Each time motioning as if they are sprinkling it on from their fingertips. Grace, grace, grace!
Think of that picture now when you read about grace. At the beginning of Paul’s letter he extends grace, not his OWN grace, but God’s grace. So at the beginning of our services, God comes to us with grace – extending it to us, sprinkling it on us, as it were. From beginning to end, God’s word to us comes in grace. In verses 4-9, Paul goes on to say more complimentary things about this church, thanking God for them always. . . they have been made rich in him . . . they are not lacking any gift . . . .
Does this add up at all? How can Paul say these positive things about such a ‘sorry’ example of the body of Christ? Well, verses 8 & 9 provide the answer. There Paul says: "He [that is God] will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful." God is faithful . . . . It is because of God that Paul can be so hopeful. God’s character provides the guarantee for the Corinthian church. And for any other Christian church, for that matter. The church, after all, is not simply a human association.
And often we forget this, don’t we? We can get bogged down in the nitty-grittiness of everyday church life. We so easily assume that the success of a church depends on US – on how hard WE work, how much money WE give, how many programs WE can offer and of what quality. It’s easy to forget that there is much more to church than meets the eye. The church has a divine beginning, a divine enabler, a divine assistant, a divine guide. It’s a "God-Thing."
The church is called by God himself. The church begins with God; a call of God initiates church. Not personal choice, or an act of will on the part of humans. The church comes alive in response to God’s plan, God’s call. God initiates and he is faithful. The church is a collection of those who ARE sanctified through Jesus Christ. And its people, individually and collectively, are filled by the Holy Spirit. This is a message of hope. For the Corinthian church, for the Korean church, for the Amsterdam church, for the Canadian church, for any gathering of Christian believers any where. The church begins and ends with God. You see, there is more going on here than meets the eye.There are spiritual things being disclosed. There are souls being nurtured. There are lives being changed . . . from glory to glory. So does that make the church perfect? No, of course not. That part we know full well. That part we don’t seem to have trouble remembering. No, the church isn’t perfect! Any one of us has stories to prove that. But here’s a question: Which truth does our thinking about church reflect more: that the church isn’t perfect? OR that God is faithful? Which fact has more life for you? Which one consumes your conversations? That the church isn’t perfect? OR, that God is faithful? There is a challenge for us here, as well as hope.
We’re on a journey of change, of sanctification. As the saying goes: "Be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet." Be patient with the church, extend grace. God isn’t finished with us yet. Much of the rest of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church reflects that God isn’t nearly finished with them yet! There is much that they need instruction about. Correction, even. And exhortation.
And so with us. There is much that we need instruction about, correction, even. And exhortation. Much that we need to change individually, and collectively, to be a true reflection of Jesus Christ here on earth. But the first word to the church is Grace. Because God is faithful and he WILL keep us strong to the end, so that we will be blameless (BLAMELESS!) on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. And so that last word to the church is grace, too. I hope that you, too live a life of grace in the church. That you can extend grace to the church, this congregation and its people, despite our flaws, our shortcomings. Because in doing so, YOU can reflect God, too. Grace, grace, grace.
People of God, what is God’s word to the church?
Grace. Grace. Grace.
And all God’s people say AMEN.
As a response together let’s read Lords 21, Q&A 54 from the Heidelberg Catechism. 54 Q. What do you believe concerning the "holy catholic church?" I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, Out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, Gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.
1. Time, Nov. 18, 2001, p. 106.
2. Some of this is adapted from The NIV Application Commentary, by Craig Blomberg, Eerdmans, p.17ff.
3. From Teaching a Stone to Talk, as quoted in Philip Yancey’s Soul Survivor, p. 238.