A Matter of Life and Death

The following message is based on John 11:17-45, and deals with the identity of Jesus.  It was delievered at the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester, PA on March 8, 2012

This morning, we begin our second message in the study of contrasts in the gospel of John.  Our first was from John 1 and the presentation of light and darkness.  Jesus is the light of the world, and came to our morally and spiritually dark world to shed His light in our lives.  Today’s contrast is found in John 11, that of life and death.  Death is a subject that is very practical; something that we encounter regularly in the news, but also something that we think about on a personal level.

Consider the following interesting and odd facts concerning death:

  • More people are killed by donkeys annually than are killed in plane crashes.
  • More people are killed each year by coconuts than sharks. Approximately 150 people are killed each year by coconuts.
  • You are more likely to be killed by a champagne cork than by a poisonous spider.
  • Fleas have the distinction of killing more people than all the wars man has ever fought. The “Black Death” plague killed 1/4 of Europe’s population in the 14th century, caused by germs transmitted from rodents to humans by fleas.
  • The animal responsible for the most human deaths worldwide is the mosquito.
  • A hundred years ago, the average life expectancy in the United States was forty-seven.
  • Today, only one in two billion people will live to be 116 or older.
  • On average, 100 people choke to death on ballpoint pens every year.
  • Robert Hershey, of Hershey Chocolate fame, died when he fell into a vat of chocolate and drowned.
  • Dr. Alice Chase, who wrote “Nutrition for Health” and numerous books on the science of proper eating, died of malnutrition.
  • Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, was present at the assassinations of three presidents: his father’s, President Garfield’s, and President McKinley’s. After the last shooting, he refused ever to attend a state affair again.

These are just some interesting and odd things associated with human mortality. We all recognize that death is inevitable, but we might not think of our own preparedness.  Out of sight and out of mind, we might think.  Or we feel like Woody Allen who said: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

My point in sharing this with you is that we serve a God who overcame death.  He made a wonderful statement in our passage this morning when He stated so long ago: “I am the resurrection and the life….”  He made that statement on the occasion of Lazarus’ passing and resurrection.  So I invite you with me to gaze on what would be, arguably the greatest that Jesus ever performed, to prove His power over death.

When does this miracle take place?  Probably within two months of Jesus going to the cross.  It comes right after a difficult confrontation with the Jews.  Jesus’ life had been at risk.  Going to Bethany was not a wise move from an outward perspective.  The Jews had just tried to stone Jesus in Jerusalem, now He was coming within close proximity.  John Calvin states: “This might indeed be said to be the latest and concluding action of his life, for the time of his death was already at hand.  We need not wonder, therefore, if he illustrated his own glory, in an extraordinary manner, in that work, the remembrance of which he wished to be deeply impressed on their minds, that it might seal, in some respects, all that had gone before.”[1]

This miracle can be divided into three things: Verses 1-16, Jesus’ dialogue with His disciples; verses 17-37, Jesus’ dialogue with the family; and verses 38-45 Jesus’ dialogue with Lazarus. 11: 4 Jesus says: that the purpose of this miracle is to bring glory to God.  The biggest way for it to do so was if Jesus was to delay His arrival.  So we read in verse six how Jesus purposefully delays his trip to Bethany, even though Lazarus was gravely ill.  The point is that Jesus moved as God directed, not as people wished.

That brings us to the subject of prayer. Often times we want to answer our prayers according to our own time table.  Just like Burger King, we want it “our way,” and we want it now.  But here, no one could argue the love that Jesus had towards the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus.  And yet, He stayed two extra days instead of beating it to Bethany to save Lazarus.  He did this on purpose.  Notice His words in verse four: “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” And then in verse14: “Lazarus is dead, 15 and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.”  Could it be that when we think God is “delaying,” in answering our prayers that He is waiting for a better time that He might be glorified and that our belief in Him might be fostered?

Verses 17-37 give us Jesus’ dialogue with Lazarus’ sisters.  Notice the emphasis of Lazarus’ passing in verse 21.  Martha states: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”  And Mary’s words in verse 32: “Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” And finally in verse 39, as if to add emphasis: “37 But some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, [a]have kept this man also from dying?” 38 So Jesus, again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus *said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, *said to Him, “Lord, by this time [b]there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” The significance of this is almost in repeated fashion, the women in our story emphasize that Lazarus is gone.  Long gone.  There’s nothing that can bring him back.

What is interesting is the grief of everyone that surrounds Jesus, compared to what He said earlier, that this sickness is not unto death.  Now Lazarus has truly passed.  Yet, Jesus tells the others to roll the stone away.  Martha interrupts the efforts by saying: “Lord, by this time [j]there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus *said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

But it is almost as if they are unaware of Jesus’ power and glory.  This would include power over death.  To have an appreciation for what Jesus is about to do, we must understand what is taking place.  Those of you who have some idea of the physicality that takes place as a result of death, know that even after a few hours, certain things take place.  After 24 hours, consider the following:

  • A greenish-blue color continues to spread throughout the body.
  • There is a strong odor.
  • The face of the person is essentially no longer recognizable.
  • And after 3 days, the gases in the body tissues form large blisters on the skin and the whole body begins to bloat and swell.

For each of us, death looms in the future.  Death first entered this world, not as a result of biological cycle, but as a result of disobedience to our Creator.  God told Adam and Eve that they would surely die, if they disobeyed Him by eating of the fruit.  Ezekiel 18:4 tells us “The soul that sins will die.”  To alleviate such a penalty, Jesus stepped into humanity and died; not as a result of His sin, but of ours.  All people die because all sin. We are told in Hebrews 9:27 that it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment…. 

And it is the emotion produced as a result of death, which was/is a result of sin, which made Jesus deeply troubled.  In verse 35, we are told that “Jesus wept.”  Jesus is not becoming emotional over simply the loss of Lazarus, for He is aware of what is just about to take place.  Scholars have advised that He is observing the human effect of sin and its inevitable consequence, death.

But as dismal as this situation may sound, it was for this reason that Jesus Christ came to earth as God incarnate over 2,000 years ago.  Jesus said in John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy; I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.  Christ instituted this life by virtue of his resurrection from the dead.  Christ died and rose again to abolish death for those who place their trust in Him.  Note Christ’s words in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life….”  The Christian possesses the sweet knowledge and anticipation of life after death, because Jesus arose from the dead, having displayed his victory over it through His resurrection.

This special life that comes after death is given through repentance and faith.  Repentance is the act of turning from one’s sin and seeking God’s forgiveness.  The other is faith- which is an embracing of God and trusting Jesus as God’s sinless sacrifice for sin.  So in order to experience the life that Jesus speaks of, one must turn from their mistakes, seek His forgiveness and follow Jesus Christ.  Again, Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.

THe NIV Study Bible states: “Jesus not only is life but conveys life to the believer so that death will never triumph over him.”[2]  This is why we gather on Sunday morning- to celebrate His resurrection!  So that gives me tremendous hope as I encounter so much death in the world.  There’s so much of it around us.  Whether it is tornadoes in the south, an unfortunate diagnosis, deteriorating health, the loss of family or friends, or the occurrence of tragedy.

In closing, notice verse 41: “So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes, and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. 42 I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the [k]people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.” 43 When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.” 44 The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus *said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  What words of hope in a world where death is so common!  Only Jesus holds command over death!


[1] John Calvin, Harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John 1-11, Volume XVII, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 424.

[2] NIV Study Bible p.1618.

“Directionally Challenged” by Rev. David W. McKinley

The following message was based on John 8:21-30 and was delivered on March 18, 2012 at the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester, PA

INTRODUCTION
Have you heard of the terms: “directionally challenged?” It is someone who has difficulty determining right from left; someone who often confuses directions, and prefers visual aids; someone who has great difficulty reading maps and/or driving while listening to directions. One of the observations made of women, usually by men, is that they are directionally challenged. And one of the observations made of men, usually by women, is that we never stop to ask for directions. Sounds like a match made in heaven!

Directionally challenged are terms that have entered our vocabulary only a few years ago. Maybe we can identify with the couple in the following story written by blogger “Penny”: “Anything in front of me is up and anything to the rear of me is down. I’m good with that. It’s East, West, North, or South that gets me confused. Knowing I’m directionally handicapped is only the half of it. My husband is no better. Maybe worse. And we both blame each other for bad directions.

He told me to pick him up at the Toyota dealership down the road — literally down the road (or up depending on my starting point). It’s a straight shot after a single right turn out of our neighborhood. I waited what I thought was ample time for him to get the paperwork for the car repair completed. Actually, I stalled a little too long — but did I mention my aversion to waiting?

When I arrived, I couldn’t locate my husband. Knowing how he loves to chat, I figured he had either made friends or they had bound and gagged him with duct tape. I looked and looked, then feared for my comfort level. He’d give me the look. His glare has been known to make a Brit cry. I asked at the service counter, and they had no record of him.

About ten minutes later, he pulled in. He had gotten lost. I don’t even know how that was possible.”

Our Lord dealt with those who were directionally challenged. In our passage for this morning, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were oftentimes antagonistic towards Jesus’ ministry. Jesus maintained His unique origin and unique destiny. But they would hear none of it. They were convinced that Jesus was a fraud. But Christ sets out to answer the valuable questions: Who is Jesus? Where did He come from? What was His mission? How do the answers to these questions affect me? This morning, let’s see who was spiritually, directionally challenged.

I. JESUS WAS WILLING TO LAY DOWN HIS LIFE TO GIVE US A NEW DIRECTION.

Jesus begins our passage by making a statement about his death, burial, resurrection and ascension. Verse 21 states: “Then He said again to them, “I go away, and you will seek Me, and will die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come.”

When Jesus spoke of going away and the Pharisees being unable to find him, they thought that He was speaking of ending His life. Suicide for Jews was a grave sin, and in violation of the sixth commandment: “Thou shalt not murder.” The Puritans believed it was a great sin calling it “self murder.” Certainly there are some who commit suicide that don’t know what they are doing. Others see it as an escape mechanism. But Jesus was not speaking of committing suicide. Rather, He was referencing His death on the cross, His burial, resurrection and ascension. He voluntarily laid down His life for us. He said in John 10:18, He said: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. This charge I have received from My Father.”

In the series of statements which Jesus makes, He is introducing a formula called the “I am,” statements. There are many in the Gospel of John, always linked back to God’s revelation to Moses in the burning bush of Exodus 3. In the Old Testament, God revealed Himself as the Great “I am.” This means the all-sufficient one. We read in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

Consider the following statements by Jesus: “I am the bread of life (6:35)”; “I am the light of the world (8:12)”; “I am the door (10:9)”; “I am the Good Shepherd (10:11)”; “I am the way, the truth and the life (14:6)”; D.A. Carson states: “For Jesus to apply such words to Himself is tantamount to a claim to deity …”

What’s more is that the Jews were waiting for the Messiah. An empty place setting exists at the table when Jews celebrate the Passover. This was reserved for Elijah the prophet, who would usher in the Messiah. Interesting how John the Baptist was thought to be Elijah come back; right before the Messiah would come. Isaiah 43:10 hints at this idea of God’s servant soon to come, fulfilled in Jesus. “You are My witnesses,” declares the LORD, “And My servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe Me and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, and there will be none after Me.”

I wonder how many times that we fall prey to the idea that Jesus is just another human, just our good example, and fail to recognize His claim to be God. Peter, an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, puts Him on a completely different level, though He was one of us. Matthew 16:16 reads: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Martha said to Jesus in last week’s passage of John 11: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

The real question is, who is Jesus? In this passage, Jesus gives us many pieces of information of who He is. Notice some of these are the following: “I am from above” and “I am not of this world” in 8:23. Above would be Heaven, the place of the Father, the holy realm. Below would be the earth, the devil, the sinful realm. David Ellis states: “Both realms, meet on earth, the scene, indeed, of their conflict. (These directions) are used in an ethical sense to distinguish the realms of good and evil.” It was on earth that the sin of our first parents would destroy our relationship with God the Father. So Jesus, as the second Adam, came to remedy the situation. That is why the season of Lent is so important- to focus on the ministry and passion of our Lord Jesus, and our great need for Him.

Jesus also links Himself with the Father, the “sending one.” Jesus said: “He who sent Me is true….” Verse 26: “I have many things to speak and to judge concerning you, but He who sent Me is true; and the things which I heard from Him, these I speak to the world.” 27 They did not realize that He had been speaking to them about the Father.” To make Himself connected to the Father is also a claim toward deity.

“You will die in your sin.” Jesus clearly states the two destinies of humanity. Not all will be saved; some cannot go where Jesus is going. The only way of salvation is to believe. Where you and I will spend eternity is largely dependent upon who you say Jesus is. This designation has to do with the cross, as well. He says in 8:28: “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.’” Being “lifted up,” is a reference to the cross.

Yet we live in a world where this is often taken for granted. A Denver woman told her pastor of a recent experience that she felt was a sign of the times. She’d walked into a jewelry store looking for a necklace. “I’d like a gold cross,” she said. The man behind the counter looked over the stock in the display case and said, “Do you want a plain one, or one with a little man on it?” Jesus said in John 12:31: ‘Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.’

It is the cross that identifies who Jesus is. Donald Carson states: “One of the functions of the cross is to reveal who Jesus is. That is when the Jews will know the truth. By this John is not saying that all of Jesus’ opponents will be converted in the wake of the cross. But if they do come to know who Jesus is, they will know it most surely because of the cross.” Remember that after Jesus was crucified, the Roman soldier said in Matthew 27:54: “ When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” By the cross, Jesus is set part from the world and yet for the world.

The cross sets Jesus apart from all others. In just a moment, you are going to sing such words. Heaven came down and glory filled my soul, when at the cross the Saviour made me whole; My sins were washed away and my night was turned to day; Heaven came down and glory filled my soul!

CONCLUSION
This whole thing about direction reminds me of how God can take our lives, lacking direction, lacking a compass, and completely change it for the better. Consider the one we know as St. Patrick. He was born in the late 4th century. In his early years, he was quite rebellious- being sold into slavery and became an under-shepherd in Ireland. After he escaped, he went to seminary, and then was commissioned as a pastor.

But God called him to return to Ireland. Pastor Mark Driscoll states: “In faith, the forty-something year-old Patrick sold all of his possessions, including the land he had inherited from his father, to fund his missionary journey to Ireland. He worked as an itinerant preacher and paid large sums of money to various tribal chiefs to ensure he could travel safely through their lands and preach the gospel. His strategy was completely unique, and he functioned like a missionary trying to relate to the Irish people and communicate the gospel in their culture by using such things as three-leaf clovers to explain the gospel.

Upon entering a pagan clan, Patrick would seek to first convert the tribal leaders and other people of influence. He would then pray for the sick, cast demons out of the possessed, preach the Bible, and use both musical and visual arts to compel people to put their faith in Jesus. If enough converts were present he would build a simple church that did not resemble ornate Roman architecture, baptize the converts, and hand over the church to a convert he had trained to be the pastor so that he could move on to repeat the process with another clan. Patrick gave his life to the people who had enslaved him until he died at 77 years of age. He had seen untold thousands of people convert as between 30-40 of the 150 tribes had become substantially Christian. He had trained 1000 pastors, planted 700 churches, and was the first noted person in history to take a strong public stand against slavery. Patrick is just one example of how God changes our direction for His glory! He puts our feet in the right path and adjusts our course for the better.

The Process of Spiritual Growth

The following message is based on 1 Peter 2:1-10, on the subject of the importance of Bible study and prayer. It was delievered at the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester, PA on January 22, 2012.

Someone remarked at the last Church Council meeting that the daffodils on our grounds were beginning to pop up. What causes that? What determines that leaves should bud? Why do we have to trim our hedges from time to time? Each is an example of the mysterious process of growth. From a scientific standpoint, we know that photosynthesis is involved, sunlight and water being necessary for plants to grow. But God is the one who brings these things about. The same can be said for spiritual growth. How does this happen?

Today’s topic is based on the second point of our mission statement. We long to become fully mature disciples of Christ by glorifying God individually and together as a church; and by growing spiritually through Bible study and prayer. This latter point is based upon Peter’s words in his first letter, chapter two, verse one: “Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” By Peter’s words, we are reminded that we are dependent upon God for spiritual nourishment and growth. He has provided the sustenance in His word, the Bible. As a result, He has provides the growth through His Holy Spirit.

THE BIBLE TRANSFORMS US.
What do we say about the Bible as a church? In our core values, we say that we are committed to honoring the written Word of God, the ultimate authority in our individual lives and in the life of Central Schwenkfelder Church. In our mission, we are called to love God. Jesus responded with a Bible study, of sorts, when asked what the greatest commandment was (Matthew 22:37-38). Part of loving God is loving His special revelation given to us in Holy Scriptures. And in our vision, we understand that Scripture and prayer are the means by which we develop spiritually.

At present, there are many opportunities to study the Scripture to facilitate your spiritual growth. There a host of small groups and Sunday School classes which are designed to do this. One in particular is the Bible for Life curriculum being studied downstairs in the Blue Lounge. I encourage you to check it out.

How does this spiritual growth take place? It is a mystery, but also natural. How does a baby grow, having been fed by his mother? It is through his longing and drinking. One of the problems is that we don’t long for God’s word. We are distracted by other things. Or we’re just plain lazy. To battle his lazy tendencies, Robert Rogers grew up with the attitude: “No Bible, no breakfast; no Bible, no bed.” The reason for this dependence is that the Scripture is a living book; it produces life through the power of the Holy Spirit. Hebrews 4:12 states: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” There is no other book like it.

What transforms us? Transforming are the people, places and things which act upon us, influencing us, empowering us, motivating us, redirecting our behaviors. God works on the heart, through the head, and He uses His written word to do so, in tandem with the Holy Spirit. As a result, we are: “…transformed by the renewing of our mind” as Romans 12:1 says. Recently, I watched Rocky II with my sons. I forgot the valuable lessons of hard work, hope and love that spread throughout that motion picture, not to mention all the scenery from Philadelphia! In it, Rocky was dependent upon Mickey, his trainer; Paulie, his brother-in-law and most of all, his loving wife Adrian. At a poignant time in the movie, when her life was at risk, it was not until she woke from her coma and said: “There’s just one thing: “Win!” That statement brought life to Rocky Balboa and propelled him to beat the champion, Apollo Creed.

Why is it so critical that we study the Bible as Christians? This is because believers in Jesus have always been a people by the book. It is only through exposing ourselves to the truth of God, that we can be sanctified, set apart for God’s service. Jesus prayed for us in John 17:17: “Sanctify them according to the truth; Thy word is truth.” It is important to remember that although God used humans in the process, the Scripture itself is not a human book. Its ultimate author is God. Speaking in reference to the prophetical literature of the Old Testament, 2 Peter 1:20 states: “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Scripture is not a collection of man’s opinions. If that were the case, it is outdated. But the word of God is eternal; there are everlasting truths in its pages. J. Gresham Machen, one of the founders of nearby Westminster Seminary said: “Let it not be said that dependence upon a book is a dead or an artificial thing. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was founded upon the authority of the Bible, yet it set the world aflame. Dependence upon a word of man would be slavish, but dependence upon God’s word is life. Dark and gloomy would be the world, if we were left to our own devices, and had no blessed Word of God.” The Bible is a book of life. The moment that you deny its authenticity or discredit its truth, you relinquish its ability to develop you spiritually. If you do not receive the Bible as the means of your spiritual growth, then what do you? What can compare to it? The Bible transforms us. Next …

PRAYER FORMS US.
Prayer must be a priority for us. It was said that George Washington would make it his habit of retiring to his quarters each night at a specific time, regardless if there was company in the room, to keep his appointment with God. Jesus’ practice was to get alone with God and pray, often upon the Mount of Olives. Mark 1:35 says: “In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there.” The prophet Daniel knelt in prayer three times a day to petition God on behalf of His people. Daniel 9 is one of those prayers recorded for us.

When you think about it, prayer and Scripture study is a two way communication with God. He speaks to us in Scripture; we speak to Him in prayer. Or, it can be compared to breathing: inhaling God’s truth, exhaling our response/concerns. But why do we not get it until something bad happens? How do you regard the Bible? How do you use it? What is your practice of prayer? I’m reminded that however busy I become, all roads lead back to these two simple, yet powerful things. I need that time with God if I am going to succeed as a pastor. I must have that time with the lord if I am going to get all the things done that I am suppressed. Prayer centers me; keeps my priorities in line and calms my spirit so that I can be all that God wants me to be. There is an old hymn that states: Oh, what peace we often forfeit; oh, what needless pain we bear all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” Dr. Tim used to say: “Prayer is the machine room of the church.” We accomplish very little as individuals Christians or as a congregation, without prayer.

We must come to God with an attitude of expectation; to know that He is a God who answers prayer. If we don’t believe that, then why waste the time with believing God in the first place? There is the story told by Craig Groeschel: “A pastor once asked his church to pray that God would shut down a neighborhood bar. The whole church gathered for an evening prayer meeting, pleading with God to rid the neighborhood of the evils of this bar. A few weeks later, lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground.

Having heard about the church’s prayer crusade, the bar owner promptly sued the church. When the court date finally arrived, the bar owner passionately argued that God stuck his bar with lightning because of the church members’ prayers. The pastor backtracked, brushing off the accusations. He admitted the church prayed, but he also affirmed that no one in his congregation really expected anything to happen.

The judge leaned back in his chair, a mix of amusement and perplexity on his face. Finally he spoke: “I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Right in front of me is a bar owner who believes in the power of prayer and a pastor who doesn’t.” Sometimes we are like the pastor. We say that we pray, we pray, but there is not expectation of God doing something as a result. Yet, God makes the promise through the prophet Jeremiah in 33:3 of the book that bears his name: “Call to Me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know.”

We want to be a different church, for ourselves and others. Today, we have welcomed Betty, Marge and Bill into our fold. They have now become one of us. I trust that we have their confidence as a church that desires: “…to become fully mature disciples of Christ by glorifying God individually and together as a church; and by growing spiritually through Bible study and prayer.” We are not a church that spins its wheels. Rather, we want to go places and do great things for God, our Savior.

“Our Vision: To Glorify God”

The following message is based on 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 and was delivered at the Central Schwenkfeder Church in Worcester, PA on Sunday, January 8, 2012

Planning ahead; charting a course; expressing a direction. These are all healthy actions for individuals as well as any organization. Maybe that is why we make New Year’s resolutions? It is our way of trying to go in a different direction, given a new year. For some of us, it is not a drastic change; for others, it is a move in the opposite direction. Regardless, planning ahead, charting a course and expressing a direction are good ideas.

It was the behavior of the Wise Men at the time of the birth of Jesus, as well. Today is Epiphany Sunday, which officially occurs on the 12th day after Christmas, and celebrates the visit of the three kings or wise men to the Christ Child, signifying the extension of salvation to the Gentiles. They sought to glorify Jesus by their actions. Notice what they asked in Matthew 2:2: “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” The magi planned ahead and sought the star, and worshipped Christ. The leadership of this church, in an effort toward planning and seeking to worship Jesus, has sought to write a Vision statement. A vision statement could be defined as how we see ourselves in the future; what has God called us to be?

At this, you might be wondering why a vision is necessary. It is born out of a desire for this church to be used of God and to do great things in our community and world. We cannot just exist. Existing gets us nowhere. Most of congregations in America today are in a state of maintenance or decline. I’m not interested in being such, nor are your church leaders. So we decided to seek God about the identity He wants for Central Schwenkfelder Church.

This does not start with us, but with God. That is why I chose Ezra chapter one as our Scripture Lesson for today. At a time of “maintenance or decline,” God’s people were in exile in the land of Babylonia. A new king had come to the throne due to Persia’s conquering of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. God wanted His people to accomplish something great and necessary: the rebuilding of His temple. So He stirred up the king to make a proclamation that all of the Israelites should return to Jerusalem to build the temple. Then in verse five, it says that God stirred up the people to go and rebuild the house of the Lord.

Nothing would have happened if God did not first, stir up the spirits of both His people and unbelieving King Cyrus, to accomplish His goal of rebuilding the temple. To a lesser degree, God has stirred up our church to consider what He wants us to be. What does Christ want to accomplish through our church in 2012 and beyond? That’s a big question. Out of His stirring, God led us to establish our Core Values, history description, Mission and Vision statements. Our Mission is to “Love God, to Serve Others and to Grow Disciples.” Our vision is to become fully mature disciples of Christ by:

• Glorifying God individually and together as a church
• Growing spiritually through Bible study and prayer
• Supporting one another within our church family
• Serving others as an expression of our faith
• Witnessing in our neighborhoods and throughout the world.

This morning, I would like to develop the notion of Glorifying God individually and together as a church. Paul makes a statement in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “…whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” In the larger context, Paul is discussing the strange practice of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Of course, as a rule, Christians in the first century were to abstain from such things. In Corinth, there were many idols and altars throughout the city. The temple to Apollo had a very efficient butcher shop in the back. Eating meat which had sacrificed to a pagan deity meant that you offered devotion to that deity. Such actions were strictly prohibited.

Then there is the occasion when Christians would be invited over to their friends’ homes for a meal. From this, Paul develops the idea of being sensitive to the consciences of others. If an unbeliever invites you to dinner, you are to accept their hospitality and eat what’s put in front of you. For instance, I remember Dave Derstine telling the story of ministering in post war Holland, where the conditions were so horrible that the people were eating the tulip bulbs for food. He and his partner visited a local farmhouse where the woman of the home offered them fried eggs. Dave and his friend did not want to reject the woman’s hospitality, so they said yes. He told me that the eggs were far from done and had dirt in them from a dirty skillet. But out of love, they choked them down anyway. He chose grace and love in this instance.

If one was to hear that it was in fact, sacrificed to idols, then abstinence is the best policy. To eat something when the connotation was made clear that it was sacrificed to Apollo or Athena, would be to refuse for conscience sake- the conscience of others. Then Paul makes a motto type of statement in verse 31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Paul Marsh states: “The controlling motive is twofold; a desire for the glory of God, and the blessing of men.” In other words, our chief motivation in life should be to praise and exalt God and aide in the spiritual welfare of others. Sensitivity and graciousness would be two key adjectives that should denote believers.

As the Westminster Shorter Catechism, published in 1646, asks the question: “What is man’s chief end?” It’s answer: “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Starr Meade puts it this way: “What happens when you use something for a purpose other than its real purpose? For example, what if you wanted wither teeth, so you tried to brighten them up with white shoe polish? What would happen if you put marshmallows in your toaster? Things work best when we use them for the purpose they were intended. God had a purpose in mind for human beings when He created them. God intended for people to know and enjoy Him. Rocks and trees and kittens cannot enjoy God- only people can!”

How is this done? Paul answers that question in part in verse 23: “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” To seek the good of your neighbor is part of what it means to glorify God. And we are determined to glorify God individually and together as a church. There is a personal side to our faith; but also a cooperate side. As a church, this means taking the Bible seriously. For instance, over the last year, the Board of Deacons has enacted a program that would require new members to take a class that would last nine months. The fall would be a course designed to teach them the basics of our faith found in the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. The spring session would teach expectations of membership and our rich heritage as Schwenkfelders.

As individuals, we glorify God when we make the spiritual welfare of others a priority in our lives. Notice verse 31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” In our culture, we want to classify one’s religion as innately personal, and not something to be talked about. But if the earlier disciples did not say anything of the resurrected Lord, we would have no church and no Christianity today. But words are necessary to glorify God and encourage the spiritual welfare of others.

All of us make many choices in any given day. Some are a matter of right and wrong; others are inconsequential. Still some questions need to be asked to answer, is what I’m about to do going to glorify God and help others? Consider the following from the Life Application Bible, page 1929:

o Does it help my witness for Christ?
o Am I motivated by a desire to help others know Christ?
o Does it help me do my best?
o Is it against a specific command in Scripture and would thus cause me to sin?
o Is it the best and most beneficial course of action?
o Ami I thinking only of myself, or do I truly care about the other person?
o Am I acting lovingly or selfishly?
o Does it glorify God?
o Will it cause someone else to sin?

Every one of us has a choice to make as we begin a new year. Is this the time when we choose to live for God? The magi are famous for what they did in response to seeing the Christ Child. Matthew 2:11 tells us: “After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they [e]fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” The gift that we can give Him is our lives. Our Mission is to “Love God, to Serve Others and to Grow Disciples.” Our vision is to become fully mature disciples of Christ by:

• Glorifying God individually and together as a church
• Growing spiritually through Bible study and prayer
• Supporting one another within our church family
• Serving others as an expression of our faith
• Witnessing in our neighborhoods and throughout the world.

All’s Well That Ends Well

The following message is based on Ruth 4:1-17 and was delivered at the Central Schwenkfelder Church of Worcester, PA on December 4, 2011

You have heard the statement: “All’s well that ends well.” It can mean that the end justifies the means. Unfortunately, some use this quip as a justification for unethical behavior. It may also mean that a given situation, if the end result is good, then what it took to get there was worth it. Another meaning could be: “A risky enterprise is justified so long as it turns out well in the end. But for today’s purposes, it speaks of God’s ability to turn a horrible situation better. The final chapter of the book of Ruth can affirm that statement.

How, might this figure of speech describe the book of Ruth? Although Naomi and Ruth lost their men to death, God was not through with them. This is a story of God’s provision; an account of answered prayer; a story of Christ. Notice our thought for meditation from Ruth 4:14: “Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer.” Consider the following lessons as we think about “All’s Well that Ends Well.”

I. LIFE OFTENTIMES LEADS US DOWN A DIFFICULT ROAD.
You may remember from our study of chapter one that Naomi and Ruth lost their husbands in the land of Moab. They were left without men to care for them. In that day, it was equal to taking a vow of poverty. So in an act of faith, Naomi determines to return to Bethlehem, the village of her late husband, where she might find a kinsmen redeemer, someone to take the responsibility of caring and providing for her.

Ruth loves Naomi; to such the extent that Ruth vows to follow her mother-in-law to Bethlehem with the words found in 1:16: “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. 17 “Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” Such words speak of Ruth’s devotion to Naomi, and ultimately her devotion to God.

In chapter two, we read of Naomi and Ruth’s trek to Bethlehem and how the two women reside there. In an act of desperation for food, Ruth goes out to glean in the fields, according to the provision for the poor, according to Leviticus 19. In doing so, she meets Boaz, a distant relative of Naomi’s. Boaz is a righteous man who notices Ruth’s work ethic and hears of her devotion to Naomi, which he also interprets as proof of devotion to the God of Israel.

In chapter three, Ruth comes home to Naomi and tells her of her meeting Boaz. Naomi identifies him as a kinsmen redeemer, one who under Israelite law is obligated to care for needy family members. Ruth later approaches Boaz and essentially asks him to fulfill this obligation by taking her as his wife. This is seen as an act of love towards Naomi, as well as to Boaz. Boaz says, there is one relative who qualifies better for this role, so he promises to investigate the possibility with him. That is where our story takes us, in Ruth 4.

Of special note is the hand of God, orchestrating all of this for His glory and the betterment of Ruth and Naomi. Whenever you read Old Testament narratives, you must be keenly aware that God is the main character, moving and working behind the scenes. His will is perfect and His grace is sufficient for those in the story. That reminds me of the lesson that…

II. THE LORD KNOWS OUR NEEDS AND ORCHESTRATES OUR LIVES.
In Ruth 4:8, the kinsman-redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it yourself.” And he removed his sandal. 9 Then Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelech, Kilion and Mahlon. 10 I have also acquired Ruth the Moabitess, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from the town records. Today you are witnesses!”

In essence, the man that most qualifies as the kinsmen redeemer gives up his right. He is not named in our passage. He is given the equivalent: “so and so.” You know that when one is named, “so and so,” their name is really not significant. At first, he wanted to buy the land made available to him. But once Boaz stated that the responsibility of caring for two women came with the land, the man wanted no part of it. One commentator stated that the absence of a name was the author’s way of avoiding memorializing a selfish person. That is who he was, one who was not willing to buy Naomi’s land right, nor care for these two women.

So the ceremonial actions are done and Boaz states his intentions of acquiring the land and taking Ruth as his wife. This is really the beginning of the happy ending. For we see a series of lessons that we should take to heart as God’s people. First of all, All’s well that ends well, when God is upon His throne. God is sovereign and He rules over every event, every circumstance. He orchestrates our lives. He calls the end from the beginning, as Isaiah 46:10 says: “Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure….”

And what’s amazing is that such a powerful creator God, has our best interests in mind. Psalm 121: “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Although Naomi and Ruth encountered tragedy, the Lord used it to orchestrate a greater blessing and provide for Naomi and Ruth. God was the giver of good things, if Naomi and Ruth would be patient enough to see it. God is always at work for our best interests, if Christ is our Lord. James 1:2: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

And as if we needed to be reminded that God does not give us bad things, but only good things, or those things that will ultimately turn out for the good, James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” So in order to handle all adversity, the first step is to ask God: “What do you want to teach me through this circumstance?” Someone once said: “In His providence, God knows how much joy and sorrow, how much pleasure and pain, how much prosperity and poverty is proper for His child. He knows the correct balance of sunshine and storm, the precise mixture of darkness and light it takes to perfect a son.”

Secondly, All’s well that ends well, when we pray. Naomi and Ruth prayed throughout this ordeal and the Lord heard every one of their prayers. They trusted Him, regardless of the outcome. Their faith is a testimony to us. James 1:5 states: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6 But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” All’s well that ends well when we trust Him in prayer.

III. THE LORD IS THE MASTER PROVIDER.
Notice the words of the women supporting Ruth and Naomi in verse 14: “Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” I wonder how much we center on that which we think makes us happy, without noticing what God has done for us instead, to help us realize our many blessings.

One commentator notes: “The fourth chapter brings out the divine purpose behind Ruth’s original decision to follow Naomi and Naomi’s God. Naomi’s bitterness turns to joy, and her grandson is to become the grandfather of King David. In these events the Lord’s hidden providence is revealed.” Boaz and Ruth would bear Obed, who would father Jesse, who would father David, in whose line God promised His Messiah. Obed’s name means “servant.” Obediah means “servant of the Lord.” Jesus, the very Son of God, came “not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.”

All’s well that ends well because Christ has come. This is the season of Advent, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Luke 24:25 is a testimony of how the Old Testament scriptures speak of God and His goodness. Jesus said to the two disciples He met after His resurrection, on the Road to Emmaus: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! 26 “Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” 27 And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”

Shakespeare wrote in 1601: “wrote All’s Well That Ends Well in 1601. The character Helena says in a moment of desperation:

But with the word the time will bring on summer,
When briers shall have leaves as well as thorns,
And be as sweet as sharp. We must away;
Our wagon is prepared, and time revives us:
All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown;
Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.

Although the trickery of Helena and her peers is not something that we can approve of; the statement “All’s well that ends well” can apply to life as we live in submission to God’s sovereignty.

Maybe God has other things in store. Like when Mike Foscolos returned to his destroyed San Bernadino, California home after recent fires, he discovered a reminder of God’s love for him despite the tragic circumstances. Foscolos was evacuated Saturday, October 25th when fires burned dangerously close to his home. He returned that evening to find a pile of smoldering black ash where his home had been. As he surveyed the scene with his flashlight, Foscoloso saw a piece of paper fluttering through the air. He stepped on the paper with his foot to hold it down, and realized it was a singed page from his Bible.

Foscolos said, “It was the first Bible I received as a new Christian and I had saved it in the garage.” The surviving page contained a message of hope from Jeremiah 29:11-13. The passage reads, “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord,’ plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all of your heart.”

Foscolos plans to have the page framed to keep in his rebuilt home as a testimony. Foscolos said, “To me, it means God is in control and His promises are true. It’s a reminder that God has a purpose for everything. We may not know why something happens but it’s not our place to ask Him.”

“A Testimony of Faithfulness”

The following message is based on Isaiah 46:1-10. It was delievered on the Day of Remembrance, September 25, 2011 at the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester, PA.

Today is a special day in the life of the Schwenkfelder Church. It is known as the Day of Remembrance. This holiday is usually celebrated the Sunday closest to September 24, marking the occasion of the migrations from what was then, part of Germany, to America. Today marks the 277th Gedachnistag or “Day of Remembrance.”

To have an appreciation for this day, one must go to Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig and his followers. Theirs is a tale of adversity, but also God’s faithfulness. There came a time during the Protestant Reformation that if you were not a Catholic or a Lutheran, you were subject to persecution. After living a portion of his life in voluntary exile, Schwenckfeld died in 1561. Being a nonconformist, Schwenckfeld’s latter years were difficult, as well as for his followers. For instance, Schwenkfelders were imprisoned, forced to serve in wars in which they had no interest, and banned from getting marriage licenses. So they set out for America, in search of religious freedom and a new start. These accounts are written of in Dr. Allen Viehmeyer’s The Tumultuous Years: Schwenkfelder Chronicles 1580-1750. It is a story of tragedy in one sense. But it is also a story of God’s faithfulness.

That is what I’d like to present to you today. What does it mean: God is faithful? Our passage is set in the context of God’s judgment against Babylon, for their idolatry. Within Isaiah’s prophecy, chapter 45 speaks of how the Lord would raise up Cyrus, King of Persia to conquer the Babylonians and allow the Israelites to return to their homeland. Cyrus’ reign would be an example of God’s faithfulness. The way in which God states this through the prophet is a heartwarming lesson of His character. Let’s look at Isaiah 46 today and receive a “Testimony of Faithfulness.” We first learn that we are not predisposed to faithfulness. Rather…

HUMAN NATURE TEACHES THAT WE ARE PRONE TO IDOLATRY.
Here we have a picture of the Babylonians carrying their false gods as if they were on journey, being evicted from their homeland. Are the gods of Bel and Nebo able to deliver them? Not in the least! They are just another form of slavery. Notice verse one: “Bel has bowed down, Nebo stoops over; their images are consigned to the beasts and the cattle. The things [a]that you carry are burdensome, a load for the weary beast. They stooped over, they have bowed down together; they could not rescue the burden, But [b]have themselves gone into captivity.”

The late E.J. Young, Old Testament professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, states: “Bel and Nebo, as father and son, were the two most prominent deities in the Babylonian pantheon. Nebo was the god of writing and divine interpretation and seems to have been an object of devotion on the part of the intellectual world.” They represent the religious world of Babylonia. When they fall the religion itself is destroyed.”

An idol can be understood as anything which takes God’s rightful place in our lives. To get an accurate picture of how God detests anything replacing Him, He gives us the first and second commandment, which is: “You shall have no other gods before Me;” and, “You shall not make for yourself any graven image….” The reason for these two commandments is God’s unrestricted desire for our loyalty. Since He is the greatest good, our Creator and Redeemer, His instructions are for our good. Exodus 20:5 states: “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God; visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” The statement reminds us that time is of little consequence to God; faithfulness is His top priority, and His dearest requirement of us. For the Babylonians, their gods did not just fail to rescue them, they enslaved them! In contrast, Israel’s God faithful saw after their every need. Secondly, we discover that…

GOD IS FAITHFUL, EVEN WHEN WE ARE FAITHLESS.
Verse three is a description of His faithfulness. “Listen to Me, O house of Jacob, And all the remnant of the house of Israel, You who have been borne by Me from [a]birth and have been carried from the womb; 4 Even to your old age I [b]will be the same, And even to your [c]graying years I will bear you! I have [d]done it, and I will carry you; And I will bear you and I will deliver you. To whom would you liken Me and make Me equal and compare Me, that we would be alike?”

This is a pledge of faithfulness and provision. God is the One who carries us. He is the One who made us. God’s faithfulness is emphasized in the Psalms. Psalm 100:5 says: “For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” Psalm 117:2: “For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD.” Through these statements, we can affirm the statement that is repeated throughout this section of Isaiah: “I am the Lord; there is no other.”

Can the Schwenkfelders attest to this? Their circumstances were dire. They were nonconformists. When the Schwenkfelders could not find consensus with the Lutherans, their options were to stay and be persecuted, or to leave and find a new home in Penn’s woods. They opted to make the trek to America. This period of history may be summarized as follows: “The Schwenkfelders endured years of oppression. Enslaved on ships, jailed, fined and put in stocks, they were not allowed freedom of worship sporadically for 150 years. Persecution sometimes came from Lutherans or Catholics, and often from government officials. The Schwenkfelders were subject to changes in the political climate, which were frequent and severe.”

By 1700, most of the Schwenkfelders resided in or near Harpersdorf, Silesia. Dr. Peter Erb writes that at this time, there were less than 1,500 persons left in Lower Silesia who adhered to the tradition. This persecution necessitated a nomadic approach to life. After Zinzendorf, the founder of the movement known as the Brethren, allowed the Schwenkfelders to stay on his land, the Jesuits sought to apprehend the Schwenkfelders. So they decided to leave. Afterwards came six migrations of Schwenkfelders to Pennsylvania, the largest in 1734. A rock marks the spot at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, a symbol of God’s faithfulness. You can visit it today. Or you can discover much about the Schwenkfelder story at the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center in Pennsburg. They just celebrated their tenth anniversary yesterday.

How has God been faithful to you? Do you see His hand in your life? Do you have family? Friends? A job? A church that loves you and teaches the gospel? What about the love of Christ? His sacrifice on the cross so that you could be reconciled to God? The forgiveness of sin? These are all signs of God’s faithfulness.
And are we faithful to God and His Son Jesus Christ? Remember the words of 2 Timothy 2:12 states: “If we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we [a]deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”Do we count His instructions as the most treasured possession in our lives? Let us be faithful because of who He is, not what He can do for us. And God knows your needs.

CONCLUSION
And what is the lesson here for us individuals? We are Christians first and Schwenkfelders second. We are to worship God and God alone. Honor Christ! Do not let our political agendas define us. Conform ourselves to the mind of Christ- given to us in His Holy Word. What is right is not always convenient or popular; what is convenient or popular is not always right. And what is the lesson for the Schwenkfelder Church? Since God has been faithful, we must be faithful. Worship God and God alone. Honor Christ! Our main objective is to follow the Lord. God will not bless us if we do not follow Him.

If things are not quite as they should be, don’t be bitter, be faithful! Could it be that God has so designed your adversity that you would come before Him and ask for His blessing? Or is your flesh getting in the way of your faith? Nancy Spiegelberg and Dorothy Purdy wrote: “Lord, I crawled across the barrenness to You with my empty cup; uncertain in asking any small drop of refreshment. If only I had known You better I’d have come running with a bucket.”

Thinking About His Work

The following sermon was based on Matthew 22:34-40 and 28:18-20.  It was written in order to present Central Church’s  mission and our vision.  This message was delievered at the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester, PA on Labor Day, September 4, 2011

Everyone anticipates Labor Day weekend with great joy.  Who does enjoy a little time off.  Labor Day weekend is something we all look forward to; kind of the last weekend of the summer and a designated time for recreation.  I recently returned from my vacation.  We had a great time in Missouri with family and friends.  Rest from our labors does something for us.  Vacations are important.  They balance our lives and refresh us.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Labor Day was started as a reminder that we need rest, but we also need work. The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. Within two years, Labor Day became a popular idea in order to celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday.” Afterwards, local municipalities passed ordinances for the day.  Through the years the nation gave increasing emphasis to Labor Day. The first state for the holiday to become law was Oregon in 1887 and by June of 1894, it was a nationally recognized holiday.[1]

Labor Day reminds us that we need rest, and we need work.  As a church, we must identify our work and our direction- what God has called us to do.  Behind well-intentioned work is a mission and a vision.  I appreciate what our moderator Carl Sensenig has penned, which will appear in October’s newsletter.  He said: “A couple of years ago Church Council set out to search for answers to some important questions.  You could have called it Central’s strategic planning process but we called it, “discerning God’s direction for Central.”  And, rather than asking ourselves “what do we want for our church,” we asked, “what does God want for God’s church?”  Out of this process, the church leadership developed a mission statement which is simple and to the point.

OUR MISSION: To love God, to serve others and to grow disciples.

What does it mean to love God? Jesus said in Matthew 22 that it means to love Him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. This represented the totality of a person.  That means everything we do is in some way, an expression of worship and love towards God. Colossians 3:17 says: “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”  We are a God-centered church.  But being God-centered means that we are also concerned about others.  What does it mean to serve others?  We are to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Who is our neighbor?  When Jesus was asked that question in Luke 10, He responded with the story of the Good Samaritan.  The one in need is our neighbor, regardless of their skin color, creed or position in life. In essence, everyone is our neighbor. Paul wrote in Galatians 6:10: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”  Someone once said that we live in a “dog-eat-dog” world.  In contrast, we are a community of faith that is concerned for the spiritual health of our neighbors and the world.  May people look at us as a church and notice that there’s something different about us.

And the way in which to best serve others is by facilitating their spiritual growth.  That is why the last point of our mission is… to grow disciples.  What does it mean to grow disciples? In Matthew 28, the main instruction to the early disciples, as Jesus was about to ascend into heaven, was to go into all the world and make disciples.  Because we feel that life lived apart from Christ is a life lived in vain, we aim to do all we can to introduce, grow and mature people in their faith and dependence upon Jesus.  That means that our Sunday School classes, our small groups, our youth ministry, our counseling is geared to making and growing disciples.  We are a church with a mission.  We are to be outward in our focus.  Our new Community Center is a part of that effort.  What an exciting time in the life of our congregation! We want to invite people in and be a part of what we are doing.  That’s a little bit about our mission as a church.  But this morning, I want to share with you…

OUR VISION: To become fully mature disciples of Christ.

Our vision is that which we strive to be, what we are becoming, how we see ourselves in the future.  Our vision is what God has called us to be;and what we want to be.  A vision is simple.  It is a clear, challenging picture concerning what we must be, as a church.  What is Central’s vision?  Your Church Council has adopted the following vision, centered on one goal with five means. They fit “hand-in-glove with our mission.  We want to become fully mature disciples of Christ by doing the following…

  • Glorifying God individually and together as a church
  • Growing spiritually through Bible study and prayer
  • Supporting one another within our church family
  • Serving others as an expression of our faith
  • Witnessing in our neighborhoods and throughout the world

Notice that the first two have to do with loving God: glorifying God individually and together as a church and Growing spiritually through Bible study and prayer. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, probably the noblest expression of the Christian faith to come out of the English Reformation, written in 1646, asks: “What is the chief end of man?” Its answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  We do this by knowing His will and obeying His will.  We long to get more Scripture in us; not just knowing it but owning it! This fall, let me challenge you to get involved in a systematic study of a portion of the Bible, if not a section of the Bible.  Enroll in our “Bible for Life” class, taught by Pastor Bill and Pete Colvin.  Get involved in a Sunday School class.  Come to Christianity 101 or the Bethel Bible series. These are all designed to teach you the Scripture.

Notice the next two: Supporting one another within our church family and serving others as an expression of our faith.  I can say that we do an admirable job of this.  Recently, you found out that my daughter Grace broke her arm as she fell off her skateboard.  Since that accident, you have poured out your love towards us.  Grace is the most popular person in my home.  She has received gifts and cards galore!   Now I’m thinking about having my arm broke!  She’s been blessed by you; we’ve been blessed by you.  Thank you!

But it blesses me so much to hear of and see you act like this towards one another.  Whether it is the passing of an aged parent, or the friend who is struggling with cancer.  I am overwhelmed when I see Christians take one a sense of ministry and pastoral care for one another.  Then there is our involvement in growing disciples.  That makes the last point of our vision so important: Witnessing in our neighborhoods and throughout the world.  That means that we should be interested in introducing others to Jesus Christ.  It is good to be reminded that my primary calling is to be an ambassador for Jesus. I am an ambassador to everyone around me: to my family, my neighbors, my coworkers and my world.  I must always do as 1 Peter 3:15 states: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”  Will people be drawn more to God because they’ve been with me?  We are to be His witnesses in Lansdale, in Pulaski, VA, or in Athens, Greece.

CONCLUSION

Labor Day reminds us that we need rest, and we need work.  As a church, we must identify our work and our direction- what God has called us to do.  Behind well-intentioned work is a clear mission and a vision.  What is God’s direction for His church at Central?  Our mission?  To love God; to serve others; and to grow disciples.  Our vision?  We want to become fully mature disciples of Christ by…

  • Glorifying God individually and together as a church
  • Growing spiritually through Bible study and prayer
  • Supporting one another within our church family
  • Serving others as an expression of our faith
  • Witnessing in our neighborhoods and throughout the world

Why I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins

The following message was presented at the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester, PA on Sunday, July 17, 2011

Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich announced that he would pardon Michael Austin who “served 27 years for a crime he did not commit.”Austin had been convicted of killing a convenience store security guard in a 1974 robbery.

Records from Austin’s employer revealed that he was at work when the robbery took place. There was no other evidence placing Austin at the scene of the crime that day. Two years ago, a judge overturned his conviction saying the defense attorney was incompetent, that the prosecution had committed errors and the original judge had issued faulty instructions to jurors.

The governor said he talked with Austin and apologized, although he admitted words were very difficult to come by. By issuing a “full and complete” pardon, Ehrlich says Austin will be able to seek compensation from the state. The governor did not have a figure in mind, but asked, “What’s a year worth? What’s a month worth? What’s 27 years worth?”

Austin’s lawyer said the pardoned man felt good about the situation. He said, “He was personally touched that the governor had spent so much time looking at the matter and that the governor personally called him.”

It is good to see wrongs righted. Mr. Austin was wrongly convicted of this crime, and is now free. In this case, he was innocent of the crime, but the pardon Jesus offers is for people who are guilty of sin, yet we are pardoned just the same.[1]

This morning, we turn to one of the Bible’s central themes.  We have mentioned it in the Apostles’ Creed this morning; it is tied to both of the sacraments we practice as Christians, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  It is a must to mention every time we witness, or we have left out the greatest blessing to human kind.  The item that I’m referring to is “the forgiveness of sins.”  Being forgiven is something very practical, because, after all, sin is very practical.  In a congregation this size it might be challenging to find one thing that is common to all ages and positions in life.  But sin is a topic that is relevant to every age, every temptation, to every stage in life. 

For a fuller explanation of this blessing, we must turn to a passage in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah.  What is this new covenant?  What does it consist of?  There are two very important lessons I’d like to share with you this morning.  The first is that…

GOD HAS ALWAYS BEEN FAITHFUL AND FORGIVING.

Jeremiah prophesied during the last days of the kingdom of Judah.  The book of Lamentations, a sequel to Jeremiah’s prophecy, was written to express the pain of the fall of Jerusalemin 586 B.C.  During the prophet’s ministry, there was a constant spiritual struggle in the land.  Many were torn between worshipping idols and worshipping the Lord.  Reforms were instituted in Josiah’s reign 40 years prior, but these lasted only a short while.[2]  The Israelites wore down the patience of God, so He promised to judge them for their sin by sending them into exile.  Judgment is a main theme throughout the book of Jeremiah, as God was calling His people to repentance. 

It is in this backdrop that the new covenant is presented, contained within a section of comfort found in chapters 30-33.  Notice that the new covenant is in some ways a contrast of the old covenant.  Verse 32 states: “…not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.”  Here, God describes Himself as a loving spouse to His people.  He cares for and provides for those He calls His own.  In the Old Testament, He gave them victory over their enemies, as in the case of their deliverance from the hands of the Egyptians, the most powerful army and nation in the world at that time; or the Amelikites or the Philistines in the days of David.  Every enemy was defeated because God was with His people.  And after their rescue fromEgypt, God would give them the Old Covenant upon Mount Sinai; an agreement between two parties with binding obligations.  He safely guided them in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land.  God fed His people manna for food and water from a rock.  He redeemed them; and showed them how to live lives which glorified Him. 

Their greatest need was forgiveness of sins.  This was the case since the days of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Lot, and throughout their history.  But when the Old Covenant was enacted, forgiveness had its ceremonial restrictions at the time.  What more is that it was written in stone, but impossible to keep.  But the new covenant would be different from the old one in several ways.  Listen to verse 33: “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house ofIsraelafter those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, God would guide the church and the consciences of those who belong to it.  That is how we can match the law of God with the people of God- it is a guide for our conscience, informing us of a life that pleases God and His revealed will for our lives.  Jesus talked about the Holy Spirit being our teacher, guide and friend, which is possibly an illusion to Jeremiah 31:34 “And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

That last clause contains something very special.  Unlike the Old Covenant that contained repeated sacrifices done by numerous priests, under the new, one sacrifice would be made.  The New Testament quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 in Hebrews 10:12, describing the ministry of Jesus who perfectly kept God’s law.  It states: “But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. …by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.  The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:  “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”  Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”  This was stated to illustrate the ministry of Jesus Christ.   Hebrews tells us that Christ is different than priests in the Old Testament in that He offered Himself.  And all those who turn from their sin and put their trust in Him have the benefit of forgiveness.  And so…

FORGIVENESS OF SINS IS OUR GREATEST BLESSING, AND SOMETHING BASIC TO THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS.

Just a few things about the forgiveness of sins.  First of all, it is something basic to the gospel, because sin is basic to the human life.  When Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, a true fulfillment of the Passover, He said in Matthew 26:28: “…for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.”  And in reflection of His ministry, Jesus said in Luke 24:47: “…and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in (My) name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”  Paul wrote in Colossians 1:14 about Christ, “…in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”  Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, preached in Acts 2:38 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  That is why baptism is so significant in the lives of Christians.

What are the implications of the forgiveness of sins?  Of these we ought to be aware.  First, that we can have a new self.  We are a new creation.  2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us: ” Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”  When someone genuinely places their trust in Jesus Christ and asks forgiveness for their crimes against God, they are given a clean slate with God and a new self.  We can have clean hands and a pure heart, by God’s grace. Psalm 24:3 says: “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place?  He who has clean hands and a pure heart….” 

Secondly, forgiveness of sins cannot be reduced to a “do better next time,” sort of mentality.  Nor can we cleanse ourselves.  We need God’s cleansing!  Scientology teaches a method of self-cleansing, a mind game of which they’ve made millions of dollars.  Jesus says come to Me for cleansing and I’ll make you as new. 

Thirdly, forgiveness of sins in Jesus liberates us from our dirty past, of which we are not defined.  When we become a Christian, God’s calling defines our lives. Paul states in Philippians 3:13: “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead… .”

Fourthly, forgiveness of sins in Jesus reminds us that forgiving yourself is not most important, but communion with God is.  I love the words of 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  We must take responsibility for our actions.  Pop culture would have us blame our parents, our upbringing, others, even our culture for the evil that has come upon us. 

Fifthly, forgiveness of sins in Jesus means that we are free to live a new life.  That we can live however we want. Romans 6:1 “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”

Sixthly, forgiveness of sins in Jesus enables us to forgive others.  This is quite challenging, when we’re so predisposed to holding grudges and being unforgiving.  Colossians 3:12 states: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Lastly, forgiveness of sins means that we’ve been reconciled to God.  That is why it is our greatest need.  2 Corinthians 5: 18: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”  Like an axe which causes a tree to fall, so the death of Jesus blows over the idea that we can be good enough to go to heaven.  We cannot.  That is impossible.  Listen to the following quote, given to us by the 17th century John Owen.  He said: ““Poor souls are apt to think that all those whom they read or hear of to be gone to heaven, went there because they were so good and so holy…. Yet not one of them, not any one that is now in heaven (Jesus Christ alone excepted), did ever arrive there any other way but by forgiveness of sins.”


[1] —Associated Press, Wrongfully Convicted Man Pardoned. November 1, 2003. Submitted by Jim Sandell in Fresh Illustrations.

[2] 628 B.C. see 2 Kings 22:8. 

Some Thoughts on Grief, Loss and Adversity

One of my favorite psalms is Psalm 121.  It says: “I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from? 2 My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. 3 He will not let your foot slip– he who watches over you will not slumber; 4 indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. 5 The LORD watches over you– the LORD is your shade at your right hand; 6 the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. 7 The LORD will keep you from all harm– he will watch over your life; 8 the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”

As you read this your heart might be heavy.  Maybe you’ve experienced the loss of someone special.  Maybe your going through a time of challenge.  Possibly you feel like you’re in a hole that is hard to climb out of.  Regardless of your adversity, the present time is most likely a wonderful opportunity for God to show His merciful love and bountiful care.  Psalm 121 is a song of ascents; a hymn sung while Israelites went to the tabernacle/temple to worship. For those in Biblical times, the mountains represented trouble and obstacle. In a pedestrian society, the hills surrounding Jerusalem were difficult to navigate and they also were the home of thieves. You took your life into your own hands if you had to travel over the hills. The answer to such obstacles is God.

Regardless of your level of spiritual knowledge, be assured of this: God graciously gives His help to those who ask for it. He wants us to come to Him. The same God who made the universe is concerned about you! That’s why He sent His Son Jesus to this earth so long ago. Jesus said in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Coming to Him is an act of faith. When we refrain from doing so, we rob ourselves of peace and the learning experience that adversity can teach us. The old hymn goes: “Oh what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”

In the New Testament, God was about help.  Jesus said in John 14:26: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Jesus described Him as our “Helper,” and “the Spirit of truth.” God continues to be about help. And oh, don’t we need the Holy Spirit during these times!? I venture to say that we cannot endure the heartaches of life without the tangible help of God. 

Let the following bits of encouragement help you along your way:

Life is short, often surprising, and yet a gift. Being here is a privilege. The Bible says that we are given 70 or 80 years, if we’re blessed. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Anything could happen. A car accident; a disease, something else. We are not invincible and none of us are promised tomorrow. Unexpected tragedies happen. Tornadoes, hurricanes, a diagnosis. When faced with a question surrounding a known tragedy involving a barbaric act by Pontius Pilate upon defenseless people of Galilee. Jesus responded in Luke 13: “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them– do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

We live in a sinful world where bad things happen all around us. Ever since the day of the fall, when the first couple disobeyed God in the garden, things have not been right. And bad things happen. Time is a spiritual opportunity. That is why we need to turn from sin and turn to Jesus Christ. He died for us and provided atonement for our transgressions. Only a life found in Him can produce spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self control. And because we live in the information age, we hear more about events and we hear of more events than we sometimes should. The world is sinful. We need Jesus. Apart from Him we can do no good thing (John 15:5).

Tragedy teaches us that relationships are invaluable. Petty arguments and disagreements are not near as important as telling someone that you love them. Getting angry is not the answer to most if not all of the situations we encounter. Kids, remind your parents how special they are. Moms and Dads, tell your children that you love them. Hug your spouse. We’re only here for a short time. No better time than the present to express your love and what they mean to you. If relationships were not important, why is the church made of people? Why does the Bible list so many “one-another’s”? Love one another; serve one another, bear one another’s burdens, and forgive one another. Jobs may end; plans don’t materialize; disappointment will come. But we need each other. God and relationships matter. If they did not, why did Jesus tell us that the two greatest commandments were to love God and love neighbor?

At all times, we need God. Psalm 46:1 tells us that God is close, especially to those who call upon Him at a time of tragedy. It says: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The Holy Spirit was sent from God to help us, especially during times as these. The Lord has the ability to “prop” you up during your time of loss, much like Aaron propped up Moses during a needy time in Israel’s history (Read Exodus 17:8-16).  Although your path seems dark, God is able to carry you through in a miraculous way.

But God desires two things from us as He helps us. Those things are repentance and faith. Repentance simply means to turn; it implies turning from our way of living to God’s way of living. It also implies asking forgiveness for the things we have done. Next is faith. Faith does not mean believing that there is a god. Most people believe that there is a god. In contrast, Biblical faith means giving God your life; trusting Him, following Him. Remember Jesus words in Matthew 11: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me….’ The yoke was a piece of wood that kept the oxen in team and to their task. Jesus asked us to take His yoke and apply it to our lives. It implies submission and a willingness to follow Him, to trust Him, to obey Him.

Grief also comes in waves.  It is important that when a time of sorrow comes, to accomodate it.  There is no shame in shedding tears.  Someone once said that our ability to cry is God’s release valve in our lives.  It is important to let it out, so that relief, albeit temporary, may come.

May God grant you grace and help in your time of need.

What is the Church?

The following message is based on Matthew 16:13-20 and was preached at the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester, PA on July 10, 2011.

It was the late comedian George Burns, who said: “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.” I tend to disagree, but I’ll leave you to your opinion. Sermons are meant to inspire and educate. I hope to do a little of both in the following. I want to start with a question: What do we mean when we use the word “church?” Often, when we hear the word “church,” we think of a structure made of bricks and mortar, with a steeple and stained glass windows. But Jesus meant something different by the term. When Jesus used the word “church,” He was not referring to a building located at 2111 Valley Forge Road in Lansdale.

The term church shows up in different places throughout the New Testament, especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul. But Jesus used the term in our passage for today. Rather, He was speaking of the congregation of God’s people that had its foreshadowing in Israel of the Old Testament and the body of baptized believers in the New Testament. He described a people uniquely blessed. Today, we said in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the … Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints.” Why is this important? Why is it critical that we have a correct understanding of the church? What defines the church? What separates it from other organizations in the world? Today, I want to expound some important aspects concerning God’s people, as found in Jesus’ words in Matthew 16, the passage we know as Peter’s Confession at Caesarea Philippi. So first let us ask…

WHAT IS THE CHURCH?

Remember that the question was posed by Jesus: “Who do men say that I am?” The disciples replied various answers. Some say Elijah. Some say John the Baptist come back, others say a prophet.” Then He turns the question to them. He asks: “Who do you say that I am?” At this, Peter responds: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” According to Stephen Short, Peter was essentially saying: “You are the Messiah; God’s appointed Savior of His people, whose advent has been foretold in our sacred Scriptures (“Mark,” A New Testament Commentary, 188).” In other words, Peter said: “You are the fulfillment of God’s long awaited promise.” This was an important acknowledgement because every Jew lived with this anticipation of the arrival of God’s Messiah. And those that do not recognize Jesus still live with this anticipation. This is why there is a vacant seat at a Seder Meal.

Peter’s confession is called, by New Testament scholar Laurence Porter, “the watershed of the Gospel narrative (“Luke,” A New Testament Commentary, 224).” In other words, this is a defining moment in the life of the disciples, let alone the entire New Testament. Found also in Mark 8 and Luke 9, the Confession at Caesarea Philippi occurs right after incredible miracles (i.e. the feeding of the 4,000 and the 5,000, along with Jesus walking on water), and right before His teaching on discipleship and the Transfiguration. It functions as Jesus introduction to the necessity of His journey to Jerusalem, His suffering and death upon the cross. In other words, it is a shift in emphasis. It also teaches us the point of entry into the church; it teaches us that being a Christian is a life of revelation and reception, given by God, as well as ultimate loyalty and faithfulness offered by us.

Notice how Jesus responds in verse 17: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” The “rock” designated is likely Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus. And through this confession we have promised victory over every obstacle, including death, which is represented by the figure of speech, “the gates of hell.”

And so how are we to understand the term church and the necessary things surrounding it? A few things that we can keep in mind as we think about the church. First of all, we must keep our head clear. In other words we must keep it clear who is our head. Christ is the head of the church. Notice that Jesus used the personal possessive pronoun, “my.” He said, “Upon this rock, I will build My church.” It is important to note that the church does not belong to the pastor, nor does it belong to the congregation. We do not exist for ourselves. Rather the church belongs to and is accountable to its head, Jesus Christ. Consider Paul’s words in Colossians 1:18: “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything.” And the church is more than just an organization. It is not a club, by which its direction is determined by popular vote. Being a congregational church, we are autonomous, in that there is not an outside entity that determines our direction and course. That place is reserved for Jesus Christ.

Secondly, we are united in belief and behavior. In other words, we are one holy, catholic church. Catholic here is not a proper adjective, but a word meaning “universal,” or “recognized.” We share a common belief, summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, which has lasted over 2,000 years. This is especially important as we are living in a postmodern age where objective truth is often challenged. This is a subjective age, where there are those that think truth is what they make it out to be. And that your truth is not the same as my truth, because our circumstances are different. This usually plays itself out in one who believes and behaves selfishly. We’ve caught fire when we’ve taken exception to the behavior or the doctrine of those who have chosen to believe and live independently from the clear teaching of Scripture. God’s word, the Bible, must remain the church standard for all things doctrinally and ethically! Christians should be united. This was the thought of the founder of our movement, Caspar Schwenckfeld. Central’s former Senior Pastor, Dr. Jack Rothenberger wrote his Master’s thesis on Schwenckfeld and the Ecumenical Ideal. In it, he states that Schwenckfeld’s purpose was “To find ‘the Holy Spirit recognizably present with power,’ in the life of Christians. He was a great man of religion who engaged in theological discussion in order to seek unity among all Christians. He expressed the ecumenical ideal in terms of a unity of purpose in the way Christians should live.” We must be united in belief and behavior.

We are also diverse in race, language and national identity. We are also the communion of saints. It is impossible to experience this communion if we possess prejudice or bigotry based on a person’s ethnicity or background. Revelation 5:9 tells us that the blood of Christ “…purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Our fellowship must go beyond race and color. Interestingly enough, according to a 1993 survey among our membership, 163 people identified themselves as being related to original Schwenkfelders; 230 stated that they came from some other Protestant group. And our church is more diverse than you might think. We have some from Asia, others from Germany; still others from Scotland, and thankfully an Irish hillbilly! God intends His church to be a bit of a melting pot! Next, let us ask…

WHAT IS OUR ROLE IN THIS WORLD?

In many places we see Jesus described as being light: Take for instance John 8:12: “I am the Light of the world; He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” But then he turns around and calls us the light of the world in Matthew 5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” And the message of Christ that we bear, functions as light. Consider Acts 13:47: “For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'” So, we can deduce from these verses that we are His light to the world. In other words, our main role in this world is to point people to Christ. Notice the words of C.S. Lewis in his book, which has become a Christian classic, entitled, Mere Christianity. He states: “The Church exist for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, mission, sermons, even the Bible itself are simply a waste of time. God became man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful… whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.” There is a common notion that people don’t attend church, because, “I don’t get anything out of it.” The same people have missed the point that it is also about what you put into it. That it is a Christian’s obligation to attend worship and be involved in the activities in order to use your spiritual gifts, which God has given you to aid His people and expand His kingdom.

Church council has established the mission statement for our congregation. It is to: “love God, to serve others and to grow disciples.” I hope you will support this statement, as you serve Christ within the context of Central Schwenkfelder Church. Because our task is great; we are the minority. According to a new report in the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, the actual number of people worshiping each week is closer to 53 million, but just a little over 17 percent of the U.S. population. Why should attendance numbers matter? Because they show that a shrinking number of people are participating in that most basic Christian tradition- the weekly gathering together for worship, teaching, prayer, fellowship and Holy Communion.”

That is why missions is so important. We sent over 60 of our people to Polaski, VA this morning to assist those ravaged by tornadoes. I told them that they were not to go there just to do charity work, but that we have a message to bear. It was A.J. Gordon that said, “The church that does not participate in missions will soon become a mission field.” And one said: “The church that does not evangelize will soon fossilize. Rather, we function as the world’s lifesaver! Paul wrote in Romans 10:13: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Friends, we are the ones given the task to bring the good news to the world! 

We are the world’s only hope. And by saying the Apostles’ Creed on a Sunday morning, we recognize that we are not independent from Christians of years gone by. We are a part of a larger family, that has spanned 2,000 years and all over the world. Our faith is the same today as it was two millennia ago. The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 54 asks: “What do you believe concerning the Holy Catholic Church?” Notice its answer: “I believe that, from the beginning to the end of the world, and from among the whole human race, the Son of God, by His Spirit and his Word, gathers, protects and preserves for Himself, in the unity of the true faith, a congregation chosen for eternal life. Moreover, I believe that I am and forever will remain a living member of it.”