Wednesday, September 16, 2009

To Whom Is He Speaking?

There are things I say to people I know well that I would not say to people I have never met -- this is not simply a matter of privacy or of trust. A relationship of some depth allows people to speak to one another in a different way -- often with fewer words that mean more. Sometimes it means we can speak bluntly in a way that would appear rude if used with folks we do not know. We do this all the time but seldom think much about it.

The same is true of Scripture. Jesus is not being two faced when He speaks one way to His intimate circle of apostles and another way to those outside the household of faith. Jesus is simply acknowledging that relationship and using it to speak boldly -- even bluntly -- with those who know Him by faith. In contrast, He speaks differently to those not yet a part of the company of believers -- in part so that they might become part of that family of faith.

When we look at the words of Scripture, it is not a bad thing to ask ourselves "to whom is God speaking?" Are these words addressed to believers or to those outside the Church? It is helpful for us to note, for example, that when Scripture tells us "Behold, I stand at the door and knock... if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him..." (Rev. 3:20) it is often used to describe how the Lord address the hearts of unbelievers, calling them to believe in Him and to open themselves up to Him. But in verse 14 we find out that these words are NOT written to unbelievers but to the CHURCH at Laodicea. That radically changes how we understand those words.

Sunday morning is not an evangelistic event -- evangelism may take place as people hear the Gospel (perhaps even for the first time) but Sunday morning is not an outreach gathering. It is a gathering of the Church. What the Pastor may preach to those who come together as the Church gathered in Jesus' name, He cannot say to those who do not yet belong to this gathering.

Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, once said that the Church must always speak its own queer language in worship but in the world the common language of everyman. He was speaking of the difference between what is said to those who are part of the community of faith -- even though they may be new -- and those not yet a part of that assembly of believers.

When, for example, we speak of repentance within the Church, we are not speaking of the kind of repentance that was the staple of revival preaching of old. This is not the preparation for the Gospel that man must do before he can accept Jesus Christ. We are speaking to those who are already marked for the kingdom in baptism and in this context repentance is nothing other than the return to this baptismal gift with all its blessings and the renewal of baptismal vows to live in covenant faith with the promises that came with its water. Never mind that such talk of the revival tent distorted and even prevented the right understanding of repentance.

On Sunday morning we take the word of those assembled that they are part of the community of faith. They have been baptized, they have confessed their faith, and this is enough for the preacher. We do not preach to convert (even though there may and probably always will be unconverted sitting in the pews with the people of God). We preach to restore, to renew, to rekindle, and to raise up the Christian to what God has called him to be, declared him to be, and made him to be by the working of the Spirit through the means of grace.

There is something wrong when we forget to whom we are speaking -- and preach to the people of God as if they were not and to the people who are not as if they were. Sunday morning is not an outreach event. It is the people of God gathered at His bidding to receive His gifts with faith and to respond with the praise that only His people can give Him. That this assembly includes those not currently members of the household of God does not shape what happens there.

I have often found myself in stores or other places, speaking to people who appear to be talking to me, only to find out they have one of those blue tooth things in the ear I did not see and the conversation was not with me but with the people on their cell phones. What was a confusing and unintelligible dialog was clear to those who had been invited and included in the conversation. The same is true when we read Scripture and when we gather as the Church on Sunday morning. Apart from faith what is said and what is done in worship is uncomfortable, confusing, and perhaps unintelligible to those outside the faith. That is not a problem to be fixed by changing what happens in worship. Better it is repaired by addressing the unbeliever with the Gospel so that the Spirit may work to bring them to faith and make clear what was not.

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