Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Never Believe in an ISM

There is that great line from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Ferris is in the shower and drops off this little bit of wisdom. "Never believe in an ISM." It is simple and yet profound. Think communISM, socialISM, capitalISM, humanISM. . . Never believe in an ISM.

The Church is not an ISM -- though some try to make her into one. Some try to make the Church a movement for moralism as if the whole purpose of Jesus Christ was to lead us to behave better. Indeed the whole history of the Church has been a pendulum swing from one ism to another -- from rationalism that is mind over matter to pietism which is feeling over mind and a few dozen other isms thrown in for good measure.

Some have made evangelism the main purpose for the life and being of the Church. As good as it is, it is still an ism. The Church of Jesus Christ does NOT exist to make disciples. There I have said it and am waiting to be tarred and feathered. Until the buckets of tar are heated up let me unpack what I mean by this.

God makes disciples. We do not. The Church of Jesus Christ does not exist to make disciples because we cannot do this. We certainly can and should witness to Jesus Christ, speak the Gospel in words and deeds, show forth the reason for our joy and give defense of the hope that is in us. But even this is NOT the main or chief reason for the Church's life and existence.

The Church of Jesus Christ exists to worship the Triune God, a worship made possible only in Christ Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our mission activities are the means by which God expands the number of those who worship Him. The Word and the Sacraments are the means of grace through which we and the whole world are called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified to be God's own and to live under Him in His kingdom -- a life of worship that has its source and summit in the worship He makes possible.

Some have made the chief and indeed the only purpose of the Church to bring others to know Jesus Christ -- yet this is something we cannot do. This is not just semantics here. This is not a word game. Evangelism is not the domain of committees or programs within the Church. Evangelism is the work of the Spirit -- first and always. It is the grace of God that we are invited to participate in this work by making known the good news of Him who has called us from darkness into His marvelous light. It is the grace of God that God works not through magic but through ordinary means (if evangelism were a sacrament we would be the earthly element but the grace would still come through the Word). It is a marvelously inefficient way for God to work but it is the way He has chosen. Yet even so, evangelism is the raison'd'tre for the Church.

God has called His Church into being to live in communion with Him -- a communion made possible only because He bore the burden of our distance from Him. He lived the obedient life we were to live and died the sacrificial death that paid the price for sin and rose to bestow the only life stronger than death. The Church is the means of grace through He bestows His gifts so that we might be His people, that we might worship Him in Spirit and truth, and serve Him in willing obedience.

I get nervous evertime people (usually preachers) start heaping guilt upon us about all those bound for hell unless we get off our cans and do something. I get uneasy by those well-meaning mission statements which boldly proclaim it is our mission to make disciples of all nations. This only confuses what God does and what we do (or cannot do).

The Church exists to know Jesus Christ where He has chosen to be known -- through His Word and Sacraments. The Church exists to draw us into the life of Christ so that we might be His own and live in communion with the Father through Him. The Church is the domain of the Spirit for we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him. We are utterly dependent upon the Spirit to teach our fearful hearts faith and to keep trust in Christ alive in us.

It is not that I am not concerned about our witness -- I am greatly concerned with those who do not yet know the goodness of the Lord as He has revealed it in His Son. But we do a marked disservice to the Gospel and the Church of Jesus Christ when we take upon ourselves what is His to do.

Remember when Scripture says, "As oft as you eat of this bread and drink of this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes?" In other words, the most profound witness we make to the world is heeding the call of the Spirit to be gathered in His name, in His house, around His Word and Supper. Everything else flows from this... not the other way around.

If evangelism is our chief cause and purpose as the Church, then rightfully anything and everything which gets in the way of this purpose we must be willing to sacrifice for the sake of making disciples of all nations. That means everything. Is it God's will and desire that we "become all things to all men" by becoming nothing specific at all? St. Paul's words must be seen in the context of his rebuke of false spirits, false sacraments, false gospels, and false teachers who make everyone feel better and pack the pews but are empty of the hope and redemption which is Jesus Christ.

By the way, Matthew 28:18-20 is not the seat of doctrine for the Church. God does not establish His Church by the Great Commission. The Church is established in Jesus Christ and by Him to be the place where His Word and Sacraments make Him known. "Where two or three are gathered in My name [that is where His name is -- around Word and Sacrament], there I am in the midst of them..." Indeed Matthew 28 confronts us with the truth that we do not make any disciples. Go... make disciples... HOW? By baptizing them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all things I have commanded you... In other words, by preaching/teaching the Word of Christ and administering the sacraments of Christ.

The Church must resist the great temptation to make herself an ism -- she is the Body of Christ, the domain of the Spirit working through Word and Sacrament, to call and gather and enlighten people to know the Lord through His Son and to be sanctified in Christ by the power of His Spirit.

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