The Church Unleashed

Fourth in a series on “The Kingdom of God.”
Delivered August 17, 2003 by Dr. Keith Wright.

Sermon Text:
Acts 1:3-11

Good morning. I am thrilled to be with you folks this afternoon and to have an opportunity to interact with you around God’s Word. I have noted this congregation and have observed it and admired it from afar for a number of years, and have always been so appreciative of this church’s emphasis on World Missions., Its commitment to evangelism, its desire to engage the community around you in effective and meaningful ways, and the ways that you have expanded out to provide innovative worship services for new generations of believers. So, I applaud you for that and it is thrilling to be here today to experience all that Central has to offer.

As I walked in the sanctuary first thing this morning, somebody said to me, “Oh, you must be the pinch hitter.” I thought to myself, you are still using that line after what, has it been seven or eight years that you have been without a pastor here? And I know that I am almost the last pinch hitter that you have before your newly called senior pastor comes. And I know you are thrilled about having John Schmidt join with you and to lead you into the next chapter of your life together as a congregation. But, the thing that has been so admirable about this congregation is the fact that you have started new ministries, and that you have grown in that you have engaged the community in new ways during this interim period. I believe that you have done so because you have implemented many of the principals that I am going to highlight this morning in our scripture passage.

The scripture passage that I am going to read from Acts, chapter one is really a scripture passage about interim ministry. But, it is not the type of interim ministry that we refer to in the Presbyterian Church. Basically, it’s the type of interim ministry that we are to be involved in as followers of Jesus Christ. You see here in chapter one, Jesus is speaking to his disciples just prior to ascending back to heaven to be with his Father and what Jesus is basically saying is that this is a new chapter, a new era in church history. It’s an era between my first coming and my second coming and I am going to give you all instructions on how you are to act and behave and organize yourselves during the in-between times; between the times, of my first and second coming. What Jesus is basically saying here is that, to these early disciples, is that they were interim ministers and that all of us who have followed in their shoes, are also interim ministers. So, we have the opportunity to look at this text and find encouragement and direction and instruction about how we are to live our lives during these in-between times until Christ comes again. And so I invite you to turn in your Bibles to Acts, chapter 1 and I am going to being looking at this passage at verse 3. Here the Word of God.

“After his suffering, Jesus showed himself to these men and women and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. So when they met together, they asked him, Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” And Jesus said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates that my Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And after he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking in to the sky?” This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Let’s pray together. Lord Jesus, we do thank you that you did not abandon your early followers nor do you abandon us, but that you give us words of hope and instruction, and you lead us in the ways that we are to go as followers of you. And now Lord as we reflect more deeply upon this passage, and as I share some insights that you have laid on my heart and mind, I pray Lord that all of us will be strengthened and encouraged in the ways that we live out our discipleship both as individual believers, but most importantly as the body of Christ. And we pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.

I have entitled my message this morning; “The Church Unleashed.” And the reason that I have entitled it this way is because all of us within the body of Christ lives in a sense of tension. All of us are tempted to do what those early disciples did, which was basically to look into heaven for another word for Christ, a new revelation, a fresh sense of His instruction. When Christ has already given us our instruction for living, and we need to come down off the mountain, and engage the world in the time in which God has placed us in, in order that we might make a difference in other peoples lives and build the kingdom of God. And so all of us need to wrestle through the tension of looking to God, but also responding to what He already revealed in embracing the world around us. We need to find ways to live our lives more effectively for Christ basically to become unleashed and to relate to the world around us.

In order to illustrate this point, I found this cartoon strip and I would just like to read this cartoon strip to illustrate the dilemma that I think all of us find ourselves in. In this cartoon strip, you can’t see it, but there are basically two camels talking to one another. There is a mother camel and there is her three-year-old child. And like any three-year-old child this young camel begins asking her mom a lot of questions and so she begins by saying, “Mom, why have I got these huge two-toed feet?” And the mom replies, “When we go across the desert, your toes will help you stay on top of the soft sand.” “Okay, but why have I got these great long eyelashes” as she bats her eyelashes at her mom. And the mom replies, “They will keep the sand out of your eyes on trips through the desert.” And then she asks again, “Thanks, but what about this big hump on my back?” And the mom, starting to show a little exasperation at this point says, “You know, they help us to store water during our long treks across the desert.” “Okay” the child says. “So we have these huge feet to keep us from sinking in the desert, long eyelashes to keep the sand out of our eyes and humps to store water. But I have just one more question.” “Yes, what is it” says the mother. And the artist pans out in the last frame and you see the child turning to her mom and saying, “Well what in the world are we doing in the San Diego Zoo?”

And you see that these two camels that we have been relating to are all penned up, they are all cooped up. They are in the zoo. They are on display and they are not able to live out their purpose. The purpose for which God created them. And they are not employing the many useful tools that God has given them as well. Well, we as believers have been given many gifts by our Lord. We have been given salvation so that we can enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ and so that we can know that our eternal destiny is secure. God gives us the fruits of the Spirit in order to conform us into the image of Christ. And, as we grow and we mature as believers, that we become more and more Christ- like. But also the Holy Spirit gives gifts to each one of us for us to employ in the building up of the kingdom of God. We are to employ the gifts that God gives us, the many gifts, to build up his local church, but most importantly to make a difference and an impact for Christ in the world in which we live. But the thing is that often times we can become enclosed and caged in, in our church lives and we can neglect the world around us. So, we need to find and discover ways that we can break free from the wonderful fellowship and teaching and worship that we have on a regular basis at church and to engage the world around us and the people that God brings across our path.

Well, I think that there is some guidance from this passage on how we do that; how we deal with this dilemma and this tension that we all find ourselves in. Jesus begins by telling his disciples to do two things and these things are completely contradictory to one another. First of all, he tells the disciples to wait, but he also tells them to go. Now why would Jesus tell the disciples to do two completely opposites things? Well, I think that Jesus understood where the disciples were in their emotional state. They had lived with him and traveled with him for a number of years. They had seen him crucified on the cross and they had seen him die and I know that their worlds were turned upside-down at that point. They must have been just reeling from that experience and suddenly three days later Jesus rose again from the dead and was there having conversations with them and teaching them again about the kingdom of God and challenging them about the life that they were to lead. And then all of a sudden they found themselves again on the mountaintop, the Mt. of Ascension and here Jesus was getting ready to depart and lead them once again and I am sure they were asking lots of questions about where will my life be taking me. What is my purpose for being here on this earth? What is going to become of my family and my future? What is this all about? They were still confused at that time. And I think Jesus knew that if they went down off the mountain and engaged in ministry right away, that they would have been driven by the many emotions that they were experiencing at the time, and because they would have been driven by fear and confusion and a sense of wanting to put everything into order, they would have done things upon their own power. And because they would have ministered on their own power, they would not have been made the type of impact on the world that Jesus really wanted them to make. There would have been no way that they could have fulfilled the great commission by doing it on their own power. But by waiting, they had an opportunity to hang together in community, to express their fears to one another, to love on one another, to pray together, to chart a course for the future. So when God poured out his Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, they were ready and they were unified and they could move out in the ministry that God had already prepared for them to do.

And that is exactly what happened. Pentecost rolled around, the Holy Spirit came and this early rag-tagged bunch of disciples were able to literally change the world of their time because they were empowered and energized and living out their calling in Christ’s Spirit. They went when the call to go came and by doing so they led thousands of people into a relationship with Christ that very first day of the church, and they did so day after day in those early days until the entire known world of the time was brought into a relationship with Jesus Christ. And so we too need to follow this example. We need to find times to wait upon the Lord and allow God to minister to our spirit. We need time collectively as the body of Christ to wait together in prayer and to receive our marching orders from God, but when his Holy Spirit comes, we need to be able to move out in an instant in order to embrace the ministry that he has prepared for us to do.

Now my belief is that Central is right on the threshold of a time of waiting, although you have waited impatiently to a time to where you can really embrace the ministry that God has called for you to move out and do. And I hope that when God’s Spirit directs and leads and when you see evidence of God’s power in your midst, that you will follow God’s Spirit and that you will go and build the kingdom of God and be his witnesses here in Baltimore and in Maryland and in the Mid-Atlantic and even to the uttermost parts of the earth.

I think it is important that this waiting and this going just is not a one time thing. I think that what Jesus is trying to reveal here is that this is a pattern that we are to incorporate for our living as believers. In fact, if you read the entire book of Acts, you begin to see a pattern emerge and this pattern is what theologians call a theology of a church gathered and a theology of a church scattered. It is important for all of us within the life of the church to realize that we need to live out our faith in the realm of both types of churches; in the church gathered and in the church scattered. Well what do I mean by this?

The church gathered is what we typically think of when we think of the church. In fact, at the first service this morning, the man that gave the children’s message asked the kids what they think of when you think of church. They said, “A building and people and those are the types of things that we think of about church.” And it is important that we come together in the church gathered mode to worship and to learn Christian doctrine so that we can be thinking believers. It is important that we enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is important that we pray together. It’s important that we have a chance to figure out ways that we are going to move ahead in mission, in ministry together.

But, we never can be fully satisfied just being in the church gathered mode, because God also requires that we engage people in conversation about the claims of Jesus Christ, that God also requires that we go out into the world and that we work for peace, and that we work for justice. God also requires that we go into the world and that we make a difference in needs that God will bring across our path; that will bring only across our path and nobody else’s path. So we are continually in this pattern of gathering and scattering, gathering and scattering and that is supposed to be the rhythm and rhyme of our lives as believers, that we come together on the Lords day to be filled and equipped, and to worship God and to learn. But then we go out Monday through Saturday and we engage in ministry. We are literally interim ministers in these inbetween times, making a difference wherever we go for Jesus Christ and his sake.

But when we go out into the world, we do not do this alone. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he promised the Holy Spirit to be a counselor and a guide and one that would provide the power for these early believers and for us today to accomplish our ministry. You know in the Biblical languages, the word “spirit” literally means breath and if you think about it, if we are the body of Christ, then we want to be a healthy body. We want to be a body that is alive and is vital and is functioning in an amazing way. And doctors will tell you that our vitality as human beings, our level of fitness is determined by our vital capacity, by our ability to be in shape and so it is important that we learn and that we train ourselves to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit and to receive the Holy Spirit, but also to offer the Holy Spirit to people that we come across on a regular basis.

Let me give you a couple examples of this. When I first went into the pastoral ministry, I would begin visiting people at their bedside in the hospital. I noticed that after a few times that a number of people had a little toy next to their bed or so I thought it was a toy. And basically it was a clear device that had three cylinders with three different colored balls in these cylinders, and there was a little tube coming out. And basically ,over time, I learned that this was not a toy at all, but it was a way that nurses helped to rehabilitate people who were coming out of surgery. What they would need to do is to blow into that little tube and make those balls dance within the cylinders, and as they grew in the ability to do that, that showed that they were progressing and recuperating from their surgery. They were coming into a greater sense of health and wholeness by the ability to activate all those balls within those three chambers within that little device.

Also another illustration of this is when I was growing up, I played a sport that was very different than a sport that many of you play here on the east coast. When I moved to this area I discovered a completely new sport that I didn’t know exists, called lacrosse. Well, I grew up in California and we play a sport that maybe many of you maybe never heard of which is called water polo. It is basically lacrosse in the pool. And what we would do in order to train to be better water polo players is our coaches would have us swim laps under water So at the beginning of the season, we might be able to swim a lap or two under the water, but as the season progressed, we would have the ability to maybe swim, three, four or even five laps under water as we increased in our fitness ability. As we increased in our fitness and as our lung capacity increased, we were able to live up to the demands and rigors of the game when the competition began.

Now, I use these two illustrations just to say that as the body of Christ, that we will not become fit spiritually just by chance or just by osmosis. We need to work at it. And just as a nurse will rehabilitate a sick patient, or just as a coach will train an athlete to grow in their vital capacity, so too as a church we need to grow in our ability to be sensitive to God’s Spirit. We need to grow in our capacity to receive God’s Spirit, but we also need to grow in our capacity to pass God’s Spirit along to the people that we encounter. And so my encouragment to all of you is that you will be people that on a regular basis inhale the Spirit of God here in the church gathered, but that you will also exhale the Spirit of God as you function in the church scattered as well. So, Jesus sets up some patterns for us here. We are to wait and and we are to go. We are to gather and we are to scatter. We are to inhale to take in his Spirit and then we are to exhale to express his Spirit to those that we run across on a regular basis.

And that’s really what we are to be doing in these in-between times. Well, how can the church help us to do that better? How can this body of Christ help us all to do this better? One of the wonderful models or paradigms that was offered to me was contained in a book that was called, “Maximize your Ministry” by a man named Bob Slocum. And, in this book he talks about a mountain lodge that is high up on the slopes of Oregon’s Mount Hood. He said that there is basically four different groups of people that will drive up the mountainside to Timberline Lodge and utilize the facilities that are there. There is the first group which will basically drive up, pile out of their cars, snap some photos with them standing in front of the lodge with Mt. Hood there in the background and then climb back in the car and drive back down the hillside and they basically had a nice Sunday afternoon drive. But that was the extent of their experience on the mountainside.

He says that there is a second group of people and these are people that are looking to have their needs met, their needs fulfilled. And these are the folks that will go to Timberline Lodge and they will check into the four diamond facilities there. They will have an opportunity to be pampered in a first class room, to eat a gourmet meal in the dining hall and even to go to the spa and be wrapped and massaged and just be pampered in every way. But after several days of pampering on the mountainside, they too will go back down to the valley, and their lives will not necessarily be changed because of the experience.

Slocum says there is a third group of people that make the trek up to Timberline Lodge and these are the people that are the skiers. These are the ones that want to not just sit around the lodge all day in a fabulous outfit, but they want to get out on the mountain and do something that is recreational and physical and that involves them learning and enjoying the mountainside and so they enroll in ski school and they learn how to turn right and turn left. They learn how to get on a chair lift and not get dumped on the ground when they reach the top. They learn how to slow down and stop, and after a few lessons they have the ability again and again to go back to the mountain and enjoy all of the rich rewards of being a skier because they have been trained how to do it, and so they can just go out and do it from that point on.

And then Slocum suggests there is a fourth group of people that travel up to Timberline Lodge. These are the people that don’t want to hang around the lodge and they are not even content just going out back, but these are the folks that want to climb to the summit of Mt. Hood. And so they pack their backpacks with their provisions there at the lodge and then they launch out on the trail as a team and they summit to new heights and they come back to the lodge and they tell stories of what they encountered on the way, and they celebrate the wonderful adventure and accomplishment that they achieved by going to the top of the mountain.

And Slocum suggests that people view the church often times in the same four categories that people view Timberline Lodge. There are people that will come to a church because it is an architectural wonder piece. Well, any of us that have gone to a vacation in Europe, realize that after about two weeks of looking at cathedrals and churches that you could get burned out pretty quick, just trying to be inspired by the architecture of a church. Because a church is not the building. The church is not just the architecture. Architecture will never necessarily change anybody’s life in the long run. There are other people that will come to church and they will want their needs to be met. They will want to be pampered. They will want to feel comfortable. They will want everybody to focus on their needs and if their needs aren’t met, and if they are not being fed from the Word, if they are not finding the friendships that they want, if a decision is made that doesn’t go this way, or they say, I am out of here. I am going to go someplace else that will massage me a little bit more and really make me feel more comfortable and meet my needs a little better or feed me a little bit better. What Slocum is encouraging all of us as believers, if we want to be a church unleashed, if we want to get out of the pen, is for us to basically take the stance of the last two groups of people. That basically we come to church in order to be equipped in ministry skills so that we might employ our ministry skills for the building up of the kingdom of God. Now some of us will be called to employ our spiritual gifts and the skills that we learn here in this local church and we will do the things that this church needs to have the church function. But, I have seen numerous studies that have been done and they say that basically the average church in American only has enough jobs for about 20% of the people to do. So once you fill up all your worship leaders and all your greeters and all your ushers and all your Sunday School teachers and your preachers and Power Point operators, once you have all the jobs filled, there is still 80% of the people that are unemployed in the church. And so what we need to do, those that are not necessarily functioning here in the church is to look at ourselves as being engaged in ministry beyond the walls of the church and engaging ministry out there in the community. We are much more like the people that are summiting and we come back here on a regular basis to tell of our adventures, and tell of the ways that God is changing lives out there in the world.

I would like to make a shameless plug for my ministry for about two minutes here because a couple of years ago I had the opportunity to make a choice between pastoring a local church or leading a ministry in Washington, DC, called the National Center for Leadership, and the National Center for Leadership was started by the National Presbyterian Church congregation to basically address this whole dilemma that I am talking about this morning, basically saying how can we minister to people that are in the church scattered? How can we minister to the 80% of the people that are taking their faith with them into the market place on a regular basis? So they form this National Center for Leadership as a way of equipping and developing and encouraging leaders who are engaged in various endeavors around Washington DC. And so two years ago I had the opportunity to move to Washington and begin working with this ministry. We have a number of programs that we run. Our longest running program is called our National Fellows in Leadership Program where we have 15 select young adults that come and live with us for a year. They get a job on the hill, or at NIH, or for NGO in Washington and they work all day and then we come along side and we do leadership training and Biblical studies. We provide high level mentors to these people. We engage in community service projects and in the residential environment and these young people, these promising young people have an opportunity to pursue their calling in various vocational interests and not necessarily to have to not go into government or not go into medical research or not go into teaching or science in order to go into full time Christian service, but they are equipped to do full time Christian service in the places that God has called them and released them to go into. We also have a mentoring ministry. We also celebrate key leaders that have integrated their faith well with their leadership responsibilities and I have a stack of newsletters that I left out in the concourse there about this and our current website and I encourage you to check us out and to pray for us. If you are a 20 something that is going to come to Washington at some point for an internship in the future, to keep us in mind as a possibility as a place to live and study and to grow in your walk with Christ at that time.

But, let me just conclude my message this morning by saying that it is so important if we want to be believers that are unleashed, if we want to be a church citizen that is unleashed, that we constantly live by the example that Christ had here. That we say that basically our success as believers is not necessarily how many new members we bring into the church family in a year, but how many of those new members are new Christians, new people that have given their lives to Jesus Christ. That we don’t measure our success by our seating capacity, but that we measure our success by our sending capacity. That we don’t look just to how many programs that we have, but that we look to see that people’s lives are being touched and changed by Jesus Christ as a criteria for effective and vital ministry, and if we keep looking at the second set of criteria, instead of the first set of criteria, then God will continue to bless this church and help you to grow and help you transform and change lives in this community for Jesus’ sake. And that is my hope and my prayer and my encouragement for all of you this morning, to be the church unleashed. It’s an exciting adventure, one that you never know what’s going to happen, but God’s Spirit is going to go with you and God’s Spirit is going to bless you and enable that ministry to happen. God Bless you.