What is church?
It is a very basic and complex question. It is also one we may not have not expected to be asked this morning. Yet, it is one worthy of our time and consideration. What do we mean when we say “church?”
To be sure, it is a question we have wrestled with for some time. The question one is being debated as we seek to engage a culture that is ever changing and ever questioning the truth of Christianity. How we answer this most basic and difficult of questions will help us as we seek to “make disciples of all nations” in the name of Jesus Christ.
So, how do I answer this question? The way I answer this question may help you to understand my heart for ministry and what it means to reach out, in God’s love, to our neighbors and community. I believe the church is the ongoing witness of Jesus Christ and called to share the truth of God’s love to all people. I believe the church is a community of believers where each of us have special gifts and talents to be used to serve Christ and others. I believe the church is called to be active in our communities with both our words and actions.
I want us to focus on this last thought. We are the church. This is true not just because we have gathered in this appointed time, but because of our faith in the Lord and our desire to be guided by the Lord’s presence. It is not a fact that defines us for a few hours on Sunday morning, but everyday and every moment. We carry the mission of the church, the message of Christ, with us everywhere we go, in everything that we do, and in everything that we are. People look at us to see how we take the message we hear and proclaim on Sundays and live it out in how we influence the world the rest of the week. It is important for us to take seriously the mission of the church in the world, because we are living it out every day.
We’re not alone in thinking about these things. Since the earliest days of the church we have thought about what it means for us to be the witnesses of Christ in our lives and world. How we live out this witness is at the heart of our passage, this morning, from Galatians 6:12-16. Paul takes up his pen to summarize points he has made throughout the letter. In doing so, he discusses an ongoing issue in Galatia and one that speaks to us this morning. Seeing how Paul answers this issue can help us in being the church in our communities.
At the time, two groups were trying to win over the hearts and minds of the Galatians. They were both concerned about what it truly meant to live in response to Christ’s love. One group, known as Judaizers, proclaimed that the ritual practices of the time must be maintained to receive salvation from God. The other group, led by Paul, said that was not the case. When Jesus, the Son of God, entered the world and offered himself on the cross that it provided the way to receive salvation and a renewed relationship with the Lord. The cross was and is the means of salvation. In looking at these two groups, Paul recognizes there was a motive as to why the Judaizers would attempt to tell others that salvation did not come through the cross, but by their own actions.
Paul says they were more interested in “looking good to others.” What does he mean by this? Think of it in terms of a politician who is trying to win an important election. The politician orders a poll to be taken of the voters to see what issues they consider important. Once the poll comes in and the results analyzed, the politician then changes their views in order to gain enough support to win the election.
That is essentially what Paul claims that the Judaizers were doing. He says they were so worried about what others thought that they were willing to change what it meant to follow Christ simply to please others. The others they were willing to please were those who were actively persecuting the church. To protect themselves, the Judaizers were willing to redefine the mission in order to gain more believers and be seen as acceptable to the masses. More than that, they were also bragging to others about how many new followers they had gained through their practices.
Unfortunately, this sounds all too familiar. We have the tendency of being just like that in the church today. In a day and age when the church faces more challenges to reach people and influence our communities, we face the temptation of reducing the mission of the church in order to gain more members. We’ll say things like, “Jesus didn’t mean what he said,” or “there are many ways to get to heaven,” or “you don’t have to be active in a community to grow in faith.” Even more, we’ll say if you do good deeds or are a good person then all will be forgiven, regardless if you have claimed Christ as both Lord and Savior or not. With these and so many other statements, we weaken what it means to be the church and the witness of God’s love. We do it so that we may be more acceptable to the larger community and world.
There has to be a better way to reaching out into our communities. There must be a way to maintain the mission of the church and be true to what it means to follow Christ. Paul shows us that way in going against the Judaizers. He says that in Christ alone will we find our purpose and mission.
In Christ alone is our salvation. Paul says he will boast in nothing but what the cross has done for him and the world. It is on the cross, not in the things that we do, that we find our salvation. For on the cross, Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for our sin and disobedience. Through the most inhumane form of punishment the world has ever devised, Jesus humbly provided the healing and restoration for our relationship between us and God. In Christ alone do we find peace, hope, forgiveness, and transformation.
When we claim that it is in Christ alone that we find salvation and hope we are making an important statement. That is that it is not about us and what we do, but about what Christ has done in us. Claiming Christ and his offering of grace on the cross transforms us into the people God created us to be. We become a new creation by participating and trusting in the life of Christ. The Judaizers claimed it is what you did that made you whole in God’s eye, but Paul reminds us that this is simply not the case. Salvation comes in believing and trusting in the Lord and claiming Jesus as both our Lord and Savior.
Claiming that in Christ alone do we receive salvation helps us to put our mission and ministry in perspective. We do not go out into our communities in order to receive salvation. Our works of caring for the poor, advocating justice, and bringing in new people are not good works in order to receive salvation. Instead, we go out into our communities, share the message of Christ, and influence others in response to what Christ has done in and through us.
Trusting in Christ alone, and not ourselves, helps us as we go out into our communities to share God’s love with others. Following Jesus’ example guides us as we seek to be the church and the witness of Christ’s presence in Latonia, throughout Northern Kentucky, and across the world. We do not go out into our community trusting in ourselves and claiming that we know the way forward. What we do is claim the message of the cross that is available to all and offer it to all. We do this everyday and every moment. We do so in how we live our lives, how we raise our families, and how we connect with the children, the families, and needs that are present in our community.
It’s not about us. The Judaizers forgot this most basic truth. They thought it was about them and their own desires. Let us not be the church that forgets what the mission of the church is really about. The mission of the church is to trust in Christ alone as we seek, together as one, to serve Christ in how we care for one another, love others, and in how we share the greatest hope, joy, and peace the world has ever known.
In a moment, we will gather around the table and share in communion. This meal is a meal of transformation and remembrance. As we partake in the bread and juice, we are reminded that in Christ alone do we find salvation. We are transformed into a new person when we trust in his name and grace. We are also reminded that in Christ alone do we find our mission and purpose to go out. Trusting in Christ alone helps us to be the church that isn’t just about Sunday mornings, but every day.
Only when we trust in Christ alone can we live this out. Only when we claim that message of Christ for our own can we go into our world and proclaim this love. So, let us do just that. Let us cling to the cross, the hope of Christ, and love offered to the world, and share grace, hope, and joy with our communities.