The following post was written as a sermon that I delivered this morning at our Presbyterian church in Corvallis. The congregation didn’t come after me with pitchforks, so I guess my theology didn’t cross the line into heresy. Talking about life and death and cancer likely stunned them into submission.
Now that I’ve done a sermon, I think I’m ready for a political campaign speech, although I haven’t quite figured out the melanoma angle yet. Too bad John McCain isn’t in the race this time. It’s not yet obvious whether Obama or Romney has anything interesting for us melanoma bloggers to write about. I’ll let you know if they do.
“Unexpected hope, and the vocation of the church”
Good morning, and believe it or not, this is who you get to preach your sermon today. It’s amazing, isn’t it, what happens around here at Calvin Church during the summer. Pastor Marc has graciously—some might say recklessly—deputized several of us to give messages over the next few weeks, so you’re about to hear mine.
The message I’ve prepared is my attempt at answering the question: If you had but one opportunity in your life to preach a sermon—just one—what would you choose to say? It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I’ll do my best to stay on topic—which is, unexpected hope and the vocation of the church—but to provide context we’ll need to stand back and look at the big picture of what God is doing in all of creation throughout all of history. Not to worry, I’ll just zip through that and get everyone out of here right on time today. If I’ve learned anything about sermons from having listened to hundreds of them in my life, it’s that you can’t make up in quantity what you lack in quality.
By God’s grace, I hope that some of what I have to say this morning will resonate as deeply within you as this topic has within me. I appreciate the opportunity to say a few things that have been on my heart and on my mind for some time. I feel that I have been compelled to speak to y’all about this by the Holy Spirit. So, just to make sure I’m on the beam here, let’s begin with prayer:
Holy God, author of the universe, and lover of my soul and the soul of every person in this sanctuary: We pray that your truth will be revealed in all that I say this morning. Sanctify my thoughts and my words, and use me as your instrument to bring encouragement to this body. Your abundant love for Calvin Church is made evident in how you’ve protected and sustained this as a place of faithful witness for decades, and in how you’ve acted in and through the lives of the people who call this place home. We thank you for communicating Who You Are through your humble servants, in song and music, in prayer, in sermons, through service together and through fellowship. What a privilege it is to worship together and to experience being in relationship with you, and with one another. May every word I speak this morning serve this purpose of glorifying your name and illuminating your purposes in the world.
So I’m going start my message by stating a proposition that brings meaning to my life and, from what I’ve observed, meaning to the lives of many believers I know. And that’s simply that we—meaning you and I—are personally and actively engaged in God’s plan of redemption—the new order, or, to put it slightly differently, the breaking in of God’s kingdom into all of creation. We are, as the church, in this recreating of creation together, as I hope to make clear this morning.
In its simplest terms, this process of redemption involves the taking of the gospel into all the world and participating in its healing. All of creation was made and declared by God to be good, as we’re told in Genesis. It and we are tainted by sin, of course, but not condemned to destruction. It’s our privilege as believers to join with the living Christ through the power of his Holy Spirit to be his agents of transformation. Jesus came to reconstitute the people of God around himself, and to inaugurate his kingdom. He has done this uniquely through his resurrection. And we get to participate now in this kingdom individually, but especially we get to participate collectively as the church. Our stewardship exists here and now.
The work of salvation is about the present and not simply about the future. Salvation is not just about going to heaven when we die. It’s not just about getting closer to God in our devotional lives. It is about these things, of course, but it’s also about much more. God’s kingdom project bids us to participate in his new world of justice, healing and hope. What God does through us is as important as what he does in us and for us. His kingdom will bring about the redemption of all of creation—now, here, in this world, AND on into the world to come when heaven and earth become one. We thus live as people of hope—hope of what will be ours as God’s people some day.
Christianity is not just a religion that gives some people a ticket to heaven and then allows them to pass judgment on everyone and everything else. Rather, it is a call to a relationship; and one that changes all our other relationships. Jesus calls us into a new relationship with God, which has the effect of bringing us into a new relationship with our neighbors, especially with those who are most vulnerable and even with our enemies. This is a deep, radical commitment to which He calls us, but also a thrilling one and, I contend, the only way we should ever want to live. Why would we settle for anything less than what God wants for us.
So here we are: little Calvin Church—a frontier outpost in God’s cosmic creation. A speck on the map, so to speak. We may not look like much, and there are certainly times when it’s easy to conclude by worldly standards that we ain’t much when we look around at each other on a typical Sunday morning. OK, so let’s admit that we ain’t much, but you know what? Each of us and all of us—to lesser or greater degrees—are engaged in this process of building God’s kingdom. Did you know that? Do you believe me when I say it or do you think I’m preaching some sort of nutty new doctrine?
As my sermon title suggests, we, the Jesus people—and that’s me and you, folks—are bringing unexpected hope to the world. We are doing what the church in the book of Acts is called to do. Admittedly, we’re doing this on a small scale here at Calvin, but there’s no shame in being a mustard seed—or an acorn, if you will. That’s how God likes to work; in fact, you could argue that it’s the only way he works. Every oak of righteousness growing in God’s great world began as a tiny acorn.
So what am I talking about here? How exactly are we engaged in this project? You might not believe that we’re living out the kingdom of God right now, but THAT, I contend, is exactly what we’re doing and I want to show you how we’re doing it and why it matters.
Let me be specific about some of the things that happen around here at Calvin, and then step back to see how they fit into God’s big picture of redemption—because I believe they do. We live in a future hope. As is written in 1 Corinthians 15: “In the Lord, our labor is not in vain.” It’s not wasted. The work we do in God’s kingdom today is not qualitatively different from what we will be doing for and with God in all eternity.
This list I’m about to recite is not exhaustive nor is it in any particular order. These specific projects are simply those that most immediately came to mind when I was writing this. So if I fail to mention a favorite ministry of yours, forgive me. My intent is simply to show how broad and deep our kingdom work at Calvin really is. This is a fairly long list and I don’t want you to tune out, so bear with me as I mention some of the work God is doing here.
1. I need to start with youth ministry and specifically the Mission Experience, which Dave and Ellen spoke about a few minutes ago. I can think of no better example of what God’s justice looks like than having a group of 25 young people—Hispanic, Asian, white, African-American—guys and girls—loving each other and loving a whole range of people in Corvallis through a full week of work and play together. That, my friends, is a glimpse of heaven right there.
2. Men’s ministry: the sustained service of a small group of men lead by Tom Taylor to widows and assorted older folks here at Calvin. This project has been going for years and the blessing is that the love flows both ways: both from the care-givers as well as to the care-givers. Showing respect and special regard for the elderly is a value rooted deeply in Scripture. It’s part of who we are.
3. Pioneer Club: which takes the gospel to children who are already part of the church but also quite intentionally out into the community. This is kingdom work at its most basic: showing and teaching children about the love of God. There is no more accurate predictor of Christian conversion among Americans than the clear and winsome presentation of the gospel at a young age. Rachel Eby, Elisa Fairbanks and others are the power behind this wonderful ministry.
4. Activities for the developmentally disabled were pioneered in Corvallis decades ago by Dean and Betty Olleman (beloved long-time members of Calvin) and sustained the last couple of years by Laura Rung and a host of volunteers through the vacation church workshop.
5. This church has distinguished itself by adopting our neighbor, Linus Pauling Middle School, where Dave Steenhoek does Young Life ministry on a part-time basis, and where we’ve participated in the school supply give-away, serving lunch, etc.
6. Calvin Community Garden: where we provide free garden space to neighbors, and welcome them into relationship with us. Several of the people I’ve met in the garden this year—including a fellow I met at the block party last night—have expressed their gratitude that Calvin Church makes this space available. Many of these folks are low income, at least a couple are single moms with kids, a few are internationals, and one woman I chatted with is nearly blind. What they share is a devotion to growing good things in ground that for decades was unproductive and unloved, but that has now been brought back into productive use by the agrarian arts—including cow manure from Platt Dairy. Thank you, Doug Eldon, for directing this project. Our Corvallis neighbors for whom we’ve been praying are here—it’s likely that some of them are out in their garden plots as I speak. If you see them when you leave today, please walk over and greet them. I’ve never met a gardener who didn’t like to talk about what they’re growing.
7. I have to mention Acorn Outreach, of course. Acorn’s mission is to reach out to the stranger, the sojourner, and the culturally marginalized—specifically in the Hispanic community—through English and computer classes, and through advocacy services. Ellen is our director, sole employee and tireless translator. Oh, yeah, and she’s also a great wife.
8. Another expression of God’s kingdom is the unity among believers, which is demonstrated through our strong and enduring relationship with Iglesia Emanuel, which includes a bond of love and respect between our respective pastors. Some of us worship occasionally in Spanish at Emanuel, and Pastor Josue Gomez has preached in English in this pulpit. 10 or so of the Emanuel youth are here with us today and even more spent the week working with our youth during the mission experience.
Many of us—both youth and adults—have spent time in Jackson and Tylertown, Mississippi, with our African-American brothers and sisters. John Perkins—a living prophet of American Christianity—has also preached from this pulpit, and spent time in table fellowship with us. This expression of racial unity is truly heaven-sent.
9. Well known is our long-time ministry outreach in Latvia, where Paula Hewitt has lived and worked, and where we’ve sent many mission teams over the years.
10. The school fees program in Uganda, organized and sustained by Judy Kraft and more recently by Kim Oxsen.
11. Pastor Marc’s teaching of young and untrained pastors in eastern Europe, Uganda and Liberia. This is another expression of the taking of God’s gospel into all the world.
12. Outreach to college students through Intervarsity and Cru, embodied through Michael and Dawn DeGarmo, and Melissa Crabtree.
13. Options Pregnancy Care Centers, which for more than 20 years has come alongside women in distress, providing protection for the unborn, and practical support and love for women who are pregnant. Kim Oxsen and Linda Keller are both presently involved with this front-line, life-affirming work.
14. Peacemaking ministry: Judy Kraft, Donna Roth, Rob Gardner and others.
15. Participation in and with Love Inc., which in itself is an outgrowth of cooperation among churches in Corvallis—a double miracle.
OK, so that’s my laundry list. Most of us tend to view these various activities in isolation, as good works, as Christian ministries, or perhaps simply as line items in the church mission budget. We might, if we happen to think of them in spiritual terms, see them as signs of God’s grace. We commend them, we support them financially and many of us actually jump in and participate in them. But we mostly tend to view them as adjuncts to what the church is really about.. They are secondary to getting people saved so they can go to heaven when they die. We don’t tend to think of them as part of what I have already called the building of God’s kingdom.
But I believe that Scripture makes clear that this sort of stewardship is not something to be postponed for the ultimate future—out there somewhere “in heaven.” Rather, it begins here and now. God’s new world of justice and joy was launched when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning, and his followers by the power of his spirit have ever since been called to bring signs and symbols of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. I don’t know about you, but I want to be a part of what God is doing in the world—a party to which he’s invited us all. Watching the Olympics is a nice diversion but, I’m sorry, it’s not the same as helping to build the kingdom. That’s the gold metal I’m chasing.
Some of you knew as soon as I opened my mouth this morning that I wasn’t going to get through this message without playing the cancer card—and you were right. So here goes. Forgive me.
When I was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma a few years ago, I discovered and then experienced both bodily and spiritually a flood of God’s love through his Holy Spirit that I had never… known… before. This ongoing moving of the spirit makes my life a joy to live, even as my cancer refuses to go away.
I mean this sincerely: my life has never been more filled with joy than it is right now, even as I occasionally go through some rough patches with melanoma. That’s a miracle of God, and I know I’m not the only one to have felt it. Anyone who has ever had cancer experiences it differently, but in my case it has not been the disaster I once assumed it would be.
My diagnosis of incurable cancer has forced me to not only consider my death but to actually prepare for it. Based on my prognosis, I felt compelled to pack my bags, so to speak. And so I did. I spent time in the Word, in prayer, and in the general study of death and what comes after death—from an orthodox Christian perspective. In doing so, I discovered something I’d never before understood: the great, unexpected hope of heaven: the assurance of my physical, bodily resurrection, and—I must add—my place in God’s redeemed and recreated New Heaven and New Earth, that we see depicted in Revelation 21.
As the truth and the richness of this hope sunk deep into my soul, I felt that I had been born again—again. I am no longer afraid of death, nor do I believe that death is the worst thing that could possibly befall me. I now live comfortably in the knowledge that my mortal life will end some day. Until I faced a potentially fatal disease, nothing in my Christian life had prepared me for what clearly must befall us all: a departure from this world that we know and love, filled with people and places that we know and love. This, for me, has been the great gift of cancer: a reconciliation with God’s ultimate plan for my life.
What transformed my thinking is the assurance we have all received from God that the end (as we conceive it) is not really the end. When Paul writes in Romans 8 of the redemption of our bodies, he describes the new type of bodily existence that we are promised. And when he writes in Philippians 3 of being “citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t mean that we will retire to heaven when we have finished our work here. What he does say is that Jesus will come from heaven in order to transform our present humble bodies into glorious bodies like his own, and that he will do this by the power through which he makes all things subject to himself.
In this statement we learn that the risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian’s future body and the means by which it comes about.
We are, in other words, destined to live in redeemed creation with redeemed bodies, and not just in some amorphous, nebulous “heaven” out there someplace. When we recite the Lord’s Prayer and we say “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven” we make a clear theological statement that the work we do now for the Lord is labor that is not in vain. This is the astonishing destiny for all people who hear and accept the gospel message: Jesus is Lord, the powers of evil, corruption, and death itself, have been defeated, and God’s new world has begun.
The extraordinary mission of the church—our vocation, if you will—is to engage in this process of renewal. In doing so, we can anticipate the final renewal of all things, including our bodies.
Just as Jesus was and is equally at home on earth and heaven, so shall we be. That’s why we do his work now, and why it matters. This is our vocation—what we are to be about. If it was just ordinary work that needed to be done—the kind of stuff that guys do around the house for their wives, for example—we’d probably lack the incentive to stick with it. But consider the hope that is embedded in these acts of service to God—preparing for a world where we will spend eternity. History is going somewhere under the guidance of God and where it is headed is toward God’s new world of justice, healing and hope. This present world will not be destroyed, but instead it will be radically healed. This is great news--that we will all some day have a new bodily existence in a nwly remade world. Wow. Just think on that for a moment.
OK. Time to move on.
At this point some of you are no doubt having serious doubts about my sanity. But that’s OK, because I know others of you really get this and are as excited by it as I am. I’ve observed that what most Christians believe about life beyond death tends to be very conservative. It’s what most of us have been taught, and it’s definitely what I used to believe. If this is also where you’re coming from, I invite you to consider more deeply the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection and how the early church articulated its belief in what came after death. This study has transformed my life, as it’s not only quelled my fear of death but has also given greater purpose to however many days I have left in this present life. No matter how corruptible this body may be, I look with unexpected hope to coming to bodily life again after bodily death. And if that doesn't get you excited about the Christian life, then it's possible that nothing will. I can barely talk about it now without jumping out of my skin.
So I need to close the loop here on my argument of why the kingdom work we do now matters in the long run. In brief, what we do with our bodies in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. What we do in the present—by prayer, teaching, digging wells, campaigning for justice, caring for the needy, writing poems, painting fences at Acorn—will last into God’s future. The Anglican theologian N.T. Wright has written, and I quote: “These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.” Unquote.
This is the vocation of the church—it’s the central dynamic of the church. I believe it’s the central dynamic of this church. It’s how we show the world that we are followers of Jesus Christ, and that we care about other people and the circumstances in which they live. Quoting N.T. Wright again, “It’s no good falling back into the tired old split-level world where some people believe in evangelism in terms of saving souls for a timeless eternity and other people believe in mission that works for justice, peace and hope in the present world. That great divide has nothing to do with Jesus and the New Testament and everything to do with the silent enslavement of many Christians—both conservative and radical—to the Platonic ideology of the Enlightenment. Once we get the resurrection straight, we can and must get mission straight.”
We are indeed fortunate at Calvin Church to have been recruited as God’s agents of transformation. We may not do it perfectly, but we’re definitely in the game. We haven’t fully wrestled with the doctrinal basis of how and why we’re doing it, but that gives someone else something to talk about in sermons yet to be preached. One of the things I love most about this wholistic approach to the gospel, as John Perkins has called it, is that when people see the kingdom of God being lived out, they are at first surprised by it, and then they are attracted to it.
Let me finish by saying that when I die, I know what my destiny is. And it’s because of that assurance that I can live with joy, which in turn makes me want to share that truth and to participate in the building of God’s kingdom right here, right now. What an amazing gift God has given us: he has saved us, and now we are a part of his kingdom project. That is the astonishing truth of what God has accomplished through Christ, and it is the unexpected hope that he has given to each one of us. Praise be to God, who lives in us, and through us, and among us.
And all the people said: Amen!
Lord Jesus, may we heed these words of hope this day and every day. May our lives be defined by a hope rooted in your glorious resurrection. May our dissatisfaction with “life as it is” remind us that we are called by You to embody a vision of life as You would have it. And may we always look forward, knowing that by Your grace, You will indeed lead us home.