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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

How Do You Describe a Church?

John 1:43-51
How Do You Describe a Church?
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
January 15, 2006

How do you describe a church?

Today we're reading about the calling of the disciples in the Gospel According to John. And let me stress the “According to” part of that name. All the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – tell “the gospel” -- the good news of Jesus Christ. But just as you might hear a story and catch one part of the details, and I might hear a story and catch another part of the details, gospel-writer John catches the details we read today. And John's details are a little different than the other gospels-according-to.

Jesus' cousin is John the Baptist – not John the Gospel-writer. Different John. Last Sunday, we read about how John (the Baptist) baptized Jesus in the River Jordan, and the skies ripped open and the dove descended, and the voice of God said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” We pick up this week reading how John the Baptist is still down by the river, baptizing and preaching to his followers, when Jesus goes innocently walking by. John points Jesus out to the crowds, somewhat abruptly, hollering, “Here is the Lamb of God!” So much for Jesus' quiet afternoon stroll. Two of John's followers break away and start following Jesus, and he says to them, innocently or abruptly – it's hard to tell -- “What do you want?” And they say, “Where do you live?” And Jesus says to them, “Come and see.” When Philip, another disciple of Jesus runs into Nathaniel, and Nathaniel says, “Jesus of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip says, just as Jesus did, “Come and see.”

I point this out because “Come and see,” is a very different way of calling people to Jesus than we're used to hearing from the Bible. In the gospel according to Matthew and according to Mark (which we'll read next Sunday), Jesus is walking along the shore – that much they agree with John on – but according to them, Jesus just marches up to the fishermen and says, “Follow me.” “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And boom – end of story – they drop their nets and leave their father in the boat with a whole net full of fish to clean.

Now, there's no way to know if one gospel writer got the facts straighter than another. And there's also no sense in arguing over whether one method of calling disciples is better than another -- “Follow me,” or “Come and see.” But putting these two methods of calling disciples side by side is instructive for people like you and me who are trying in our own day to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. How do you tell people about your church? DO you tell people about your church? What's the right way to go about spreading the good news without offending somebody? Or, should your faith be offensive? Today's scripture tells us how Jesus and the first disciples spread their faith; how do you spread yours?


How do you describe a church? How do you make people want to get involved?

Times have changed. Garrison Keillor tells about how people used to “just know,” first, if they were church people, and then, “just know” what kind of church people they were. He says it was the same way their families knew if they were “Ford people” or “Chevrolet people.” You were “Lutheran,” or you were “Presbyterian,” as if God had hard-coded it into your DNA. You “just knew.”

But these days, everybody's different. You say, “I'm a Presbyterian,” and people say, “So?” Name recognition doesn't get the mileage it used to. So instead of describing the make and model of the church, you have to describe the accessories. Do you have stackable chairs, or do you have pews? Do your pews have padded seats and cup holders? (Yes, we do. On both counts.) Do you have hymnbooks, or do you project the words on a screen? Do you have an organist, or a rock band, or recorded music, or an orchestra? Do you have a Youth Leader with body piercings? (Yes, we do. Cheryl has two piercings. One in each ear.) Does your minister wear a robe and stand behind the pulpit, or does he (or she) wear flip-flops and wander around while preaching? And wear a little headset mic, like Janet Jackson? (I do have one thing in common with Janet – my wardrobe is always a malfunction.) We laugh at the church “accessories” that make a difference to people when they're “shopping” for a church, but when the only major difference between our cars, our homes, our lifestyles, is how well we accessorize, it won't be long (and it hasn't been long) before churches act that way, too.

I'm glad that we were a “community” church long before being a “community” church was cool. Lake Hills Presbyterian Church has always been ahead of its time. If you look at church signs, or at church advertising (and I do -- occupational hazard), you'll see that nearly 99% of churches describe themselves as a “community,” or a “family,” or, “home”. Which is great, unless you're going to church to try to get out of your community, or away from your family, or away from home. No one ever advertises by saying, “Come to our church – it's just like work.”

It's HARD to describe a church to someone. And that shouldn't surprise us, because not even the gospel writers could agree on how Jesus described, and called people into, his ministry. Churches are places where people try to do the impossible job of being the body of Christ. And so by their very nature, churches are going to be square pegs and round holes. Church is supposed to be comforting... yet challenging. Church is supposed to be calming... yet uplifting. Church is a place where people will take care of you... but also a place that sends you out to take care of others. Church should be peaceful and meditative... but have the sounds of children in the hallways. Church is supposed to make you feel good. And make you feel bad. About feeling good. When you're being bad. Church... is complicated. Which, again, shouldn't surprise us, because Jesus is complex. The one who says, “Follow me,” doesn't tell his disciples exactly where he's going. And when they ask him, “Where do you live? What's your house like?” His only response is, “Come and see.” (“It's a little hard to describe my house. You'll just have to... come and see.”)

Not long ago, I was in a seminar with a minister who was agonizing over how all the other churches around them had a catchy motto, or a memorable mission statement – and her church didn't. They couldn't quickly describe what the church was about. “We're just a small church,” she said, “with only about a hundred members. We don't have a Family Life Center. All we have is a bunch of dedicated members. And a school that we built. And a warehouse in back for Second Harvest food distribution. And mission trips. And a great choir. And a youth group that's much bigger than most churches our size. And a day care. And an Alcoholics Anonymous group. And a Boy Scout troop.” And all of us in the seminar are just sitting there with our mouths hanging open. Because she's worried that her church doesn't have a motto??? How about, I don't know, “We do what Jesus says to”??? (“...and we don't have a Family Life Center.”)

I think the best compliment members can give their church is that they can't describe it in words that fit on a bumper sticker. I think one of the best signs of a church's health is that you can't tell people everything about it, without leaving something out, without searching your brain for the right word. Nathaniel asked Philip, and Andrew asked Jesus, “What ARE you all about?” And the answer was simple, but not simplistic. It couldn't be summed up in a catch-phrase or a memorable mission statement. The answer was that, if you want to know what Jesus Christ is about... if you want to know what a healthy church is all about... you're just going to have to “come and see.”


If our churches are rightly complex, and our Savior is complex, it would follow, then, that our faith, our individual faith, would be hard to describe, too. Some of us feel guilty sometimes, because we haven't sat down and shared our faith with someone, that they might become disciples, too. And yet, we know how to speak the words of faith: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We might be nervous about sharing the words with strangers. Who wouldn't be? You don't walk up to a total stranger and say, “I'm a Chevrolet person, and here are fourteen reasons why.” It would be a very short conversation. And not because you didn't know fourteen good things about your car. And while the world is certainly sinful enough for evangelists like John the Baptist, shouting and telling people to repent for the end is near, saying, “Follow me... or else!” the world is also big enough, and faith in Jesus Christ is deep enough, for the quiet evangelists, like Philip, like even Jesus in this case, who share their faith by saying, simply, “Come and see.”

The Apostle Paul, whose letters come after the gospels in the Bible, but which chronologically were written long before – the Apostle Paul described the church as “the body of Christ.” Which sounds wonderful, if not also a little scary. Because the body of Christ – resurrected as it may be – is also a wounded body, and carries the scars of its own offense. But the body of Christ also has faith in more than itself. “Do you believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree, Nathaniel? You will see greater things than these,” Jesus said. Your faith may not be so great. Your church may not be so big. But both your faith and your church are greater than you know. Not because they're so great, themselves. But because they're based on God, based on God's great word, based on God's great love and hope and peace. And how do you describe love, and hope, and peace? You could expend a lot of words and a lot of breath, or if you're Presbyterian, a lot of paper. Or, you could just say, “Come and see.”

Sunday, January 08, 2006

What Difference Does Baptism Make?

Mark 1:4-11
The Baptism of the Lord
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
January 8, 2006

What difference does baptism make? Especially when the one being baptized is already without sin?


It’s the new year. 2006. And some of you have made resolutions. And some of you haven’t.

[time for sharing]

It’s fitting that we read about the Baptism of the Lord at the beginning of each calendar year. It’s the time a lot of us resolve to start out new. Baptism – as we practice it and understand it in the church – baptism is all about starting out new. Baptism is about repentance. It’s about washing away the sticky film of sin that doesn’t easily rub off our hands, or off our tongues. Baptism is about putting to death the dumb, stupid, disgusting, ignorant, offensive, dim-witted, mean stuff that we can’t stop doing – taking that stuff, and drowning it under water – and then about arising from the waters, new people, fresh, clean, born again. That’s baptism.

2006 is a new year, a new dawn, a new chance for a fresh start. We can put 2005 to rest. For a lot of the world (places like New Orleans, among others), burying 2005 in a watery grave would be fitting. And welcome. As the new year rises up, it has to be better. We hope.

And so at the beginning of a new year, 2006, we test our resolve. We resolve to make changes. We resolve to make the world a better place by doing this or doing that. We resolve to lose ten pounds, to quit smoking, to try skydiving. (Probably not all at the same time.) We resolve to start over. We look ahead with hope that maybe, just maybe, we can follow through on our resolutions.

You who make resolutions – you’re optimists. You’re optimistic that you really can make yourself a better person. (You have faith.) You want to change. You want to grow. You want to end 2006 better than you ended 2005. All you optimists, go for it!

And then. And then there are people who don’t make resolutions, who won’t make resolutions, because they’re tired of breaking their resolutions. Sooner or later, February always rolls around. And you’ve actually gained ten pounds. You’re still smoking seven packs a day. And you’re never going skydiving. You who don’t make resolutions – I wouldn’t call you pessimists. You’re realists. You’ve made resolutions in the past and they didn’t work out. Why disappoint yourself yet another year, right? And – gosh darn it – you’ve made it this long the way you are, what’s one more year?

Baptism. Baptism is a purely optimistic resolution, AND a purely realistic resolution. But it’s not YOUR resolution. Oh, you may decide to be baptized. Jesus did. You may decide to you’re your child baptized. Lots of early church families did. The practice of baptism may be YOUR choice, but the effect of baptism is GOD’S resolving.

Think about today’s scripture. Jesus didn’t need to need to be baptized for his sins. He didn’t have any. He didn’t need to be baptized in repentance. He didn’t have anything to repent. Same as the babies we baptize. They may have spit up on a couple of good shirts, but that’s not their fault. As adults, when we choose baptism, we’re resolving to be better people. But if we think being baptized is going to make us one hundred percent perfect, we’d better take another look in the mirror. Baptism is us, choosing to say, “I know there is evil in the world, there is sin in humanity, and I – and even my children – are part of that.” We almost take it for granted, but simply acknowledging that evil, that sin, is a monumental statement of faith. It’s profoundly realistic. And then to say, “God, please turn me away from that,” is just as profoundly optimistic. We call on God to resolve the situation, to make resolution, of what we can’t.

When Jesus arose from the waters – and we’re assuming John was a dunker, not a sprinkler (he was a Baptist, you know) – when Jesus arose from the waters, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

We don’t expect that for our own baptisms. The preacher would have a heart attack. The situation is different, but the message is the same. Baptism is God saying, “This is my son, my daughter. I am, and I will be, a part of this life, forever.” Baptism is God’s resolution that nothing, not sin, not evil, not even all the dumb, stupid things we might do – not height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation – not even death – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. Resolved. Seconded. Adopted. Case closed.

Does that mean the people who haven’t been baptized are pessimistically condemned? Well, if God can love you, knowing everything about you, who are you – who are any of us – to question God’s love for anyone else?

If the church resolved anything in 2006 – and by that I mean not just you and me, but all the church – wouldn’t it be great if all the churches everywhere resolved to be better neighbors to all the people who don’t look like us, or practice faith like us, or live like us? What if the church resolved never again to sing the song, “Jesus Loves Me, But He Can’t Stand You”? Could we for one year be optimistic enough to have faith that God’s love is stronger than human sin?

So. What difference does baptism make? Baptism is a sign, a holy symbol, that we don’t have to wait for salvation and heaven. Scripture teaches us that baptism is a sign that salvation and heaven can tear through the skies and descend like a dove into this so very human world. Baptism is a symbol that God’s love doesn’t wait until we clean up our act, but that when we do resolve that our acts need cleaning up, God is well pleased. God is glad.

God is realistic enough to see that we need to be washed clean of our sin, and to put to death all our problems. And God is optimistic enough to love us. And to keep loving us. God will love us in the new year. And some year, some day, some place yet to come, we will love God as purely, and as completely. And with full assurance, as clear as a bird sings, we will hear God say, “You are my beloved. Welcome home.”