The First Great End of the Church: The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind

Isaiah 55:10-13, Romans 10:1-15

Change is coming to the church. That is nothing new; change has truly been one of the few constants in the life of the church of Jesus Christ. Presbyterians are part of a larger group of Christian churches in the Reformed tradition.  The motto of Reformed Christians is "Ecclesia semper reformanda est," Latin for, "The church reformed, always reforming." Built into our name and identity is the recognition that change is necessary, inevitable and desirable. God is alive. Christ is alive. The Holy Spirit is alive and we are alive. And we are always in a dynamic relationship with the Living, Triune God. Change is nothing new and certainly nothing surprising to Presbyterians who have even been paying a tiny bit of attention. And yet, today, some of the changes we face are threatening and ominous.

I was born in 1964, the last year of the Baby Boom. That year the number of Presbyterians in the United States peaked.  Every year since then, the number of Presbyterians has declined in the United States. That's a 49 year losing streak. There are fewer Presbyterians—even though the national population has increased by more than 50%.

The local picture is also threatening. Just looking around the sanctuary on a typical Sunday it's obvious that attendance is down in the last few years. More than half of our pledge income for this year is from households over 70 years of age. Last month your Session passed a budget that had a deficit of more than $25,000. At this moment we are without a Director of Christian education and have been since Sunday school started in September.  We have been able to offer a strong and dynamic Sunday school program this year, but the burden is falling too heavily on too few volunteers. Last Sunday we baptized a little one, adopting him into the body of Christ, and we promised to nurture him and teach the faith to him. Carl Sandburg said "A baby is God's opinion that life should go on."  I think we can say the same thing about the church: a baptism is God's opinion that the Church should go on. But the way we will go on is very uncertain at this time. When I was first in ministry there were a lot of programs oriented toward church growth and congregational vitality. You could read the book and go to the seminar and start a program in your congregation that was guaranteed—some of them were anyway—to put more people in the pews. I don't see programs like this anymore—I stopped reading the books and articles about them years ago, not because they don't work, but because these ideas or programs or schemes simply weren't replicable. The thinking about congregational health has changed in recent years. Now it is believed that healthy, vital, growing, thriving congregations are those who understand their unique gifts and strengths and are able to use them to preach the gospel in their particular communities. These congregations examine themselves honestly and claim their identity in Christ and strive to live out that identity and proclaim that identity where they are. 

I have been thinking about this congregation's identity and future a lot.  Whenever I'm on the Nordic track my mind turns to who we are and who we need to be. Now that we're in the season of Lent, a season for critical self-assessment for individual Christians as weapproach the events of Holy Week, I think we as a church should engage in a time of critical self-assessment as we seek to offer ministry from the Heart of Oshkosh, with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.

As Presbyterians engaging in this kind of reflection we are very fortunate to have The Great Ends of the Church. This is a statement that was composed in 1910 that has guided us and reminds us of who we are, whose we are, whom we serve and why we exist. In the last 103 years the Book of Order has been revised at least 5 times there have been three major mergers among Presbyterians in the United States and The Great Ends of the Church have survived each of these revolutions. As we read them at Bible Exploration Tuesday, they struck some of us as "lofty" words, but also words which inspire us, and words to which we aspire. We will use The Great Ends of the Church to shape our worship during Lent and also to guide our Lenten studies on Wednesday
evenings. They were passed out on little cards at the Ash Wednesday worship service and they are available on blue cards this morning. I hope that each of us will reflect on them, see how they apply to us as individuals and as a community during Lent.

The First Great End of the Church is "The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind." Well.  That's intimidating, so I'm going to break it down and try to make it less scary and more inspirational. First of all, we need to remember that the "Gospel" in its most basic sense means "good news." So we have good news to share with the world. Given the choice I am confident we would all rather share good news than bad news. And the good news we are to proclaim does not start with us. It starts with God, in fact, it is itself a gift from God. And God did not only give us words to say, but God gave us the word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Now I need to say a word about the word "Word." In Presbyterian statements of faith, whenever you see "Word" capitalized it means "Jesus." So the gospel we are called to proclaim is not our own and it is not only words, but the Word of Jesus Christ, God's son.

The prophet Isaiah gives us a helpful way to think about God's word.  God sends out the message and it returns to God. God sends out a message and people hear it, perceive it, understand it in their own way and then share it or as this morning's Great End has it, "proclaims" it.  And through that process this word completes a cycle and returns to God. It starts with God, and returns to God, but we, human being, are essential for it to return to God.

For most of us, the idea of proclaiming the gospel means preaching, what the pastor does for 12 to 17 minutes every Sunday, in the middle of the sanctuary, in the middle of the hour or so we spend in worship. Or maybe we picture an evangelical crusade, the kind that were popular fifty years ago,  when a travelling team of evangelists came to a town and held a series of assemblies inviting people to give their lives to Christ. Or maybe you think of "proclaiming the gospel" as giving one's own testimony, in an effort to get people to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

Those are all valid ways to imagine proclaiming the gospel, but they are much too limited, and none of them really speaks to how the church as a community proclaims the gospel. How do we as a congregation proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ?

First, we must listen, that's the point that Paul makes to the Romans. It starts with hearing the gospel. And then, and this is crucial, we have to understand it in our own terms. We have to apply what we have heard to ourselves and find a way to put it into words that we ourselves understand. The best way I can explain this is to describe a lesson I learned when I started playing soccer. Soccer is all about footwork and kicking, and kicking accurately. I was good at kicking, I practiced kicking on my own a lot before I ever played on a soccer team. I was a good kicker, but I was a lousy soccer player, because I did not know how to trap. Trapping is the term for bringing the ball under control. It's really, really hard to kick a moving ball where you want to without trapping it. And skilled soccer players can use every part of their bodies—except their arms—to control the ball before they pass it to a teammate or shoot it toward the goal. Trapping a soccer ball is like what Christians need to do with the gospel. Put your experience of the Risen Christ into your own words. If someone asks you, "What do you feel when you go to that church on the corner of Church and Division?" Be ready to speak about your experience. How do you experience the presence of God in this place with these people? And how does what you do here, with us, shape and guide your life in Christ when you're not here? "Proclaiming the gospel" is a concept that makes most Presbyterians nervous, because it sounds like we are expected to make articulate, public statements about deeply personal matters. And yes, we have that option. But we can also think of proclaiming the gospel as a more pedestrian and routine thing. St. Francis said, "Preach Christ always.  If necessary, use words." As I wrote those words Friday at the coffee shop, a man at the next table jumped up and ran to the door, because a person in a wheelchair was getting ready to leave. As far as I know these people were strangers to each other. As far as I know neither was a Christian. But Christ was proclaimed in this encounter.  Or at least I heard Christ proclaimed.  And the only words I heard were "Thank you" and "you bet." As the man returned to his table I said "That was really kind!" And he answered, "whatever." Jesus was modest like that too.

Before I close I need to unpack the last part of this Great End "the salvation of humankind." We do not use that phrase much, and it sounds like the kind of Christianity that most of us are embarrassed by. It smacks of the spectacle we see of people standing on street corners and confronting strangers about the peril and reality of a literal Hell of fire. For many of us this concept has been trivialized to the point that we laugh at it. The fact that this concept of the afterlife has fallen out of favor was the topic of the first paper I wrote in seminary back in 1987. I called the paper "Hell No."

The idea that salvation is escaping Hell and, presumably, residing in Heaven for eternity with God is only one way to imagine salvation. And remember the phrase is "the salvation of humankind," not "my personal salvation." We can –and should –imagine the salvation of humankind more globally. Think of it was living a full life on earth. Think about accepting completely and living in the profound reality of the grace of Jesus Christ that forgives us, and sets us free.  Now think about that as being a universal reality, not just an individual claiming this good news, but everyone here, or everyone on earth living in the profound love of Christ that enables us to love ourselves and love and accept other people. Salvation in the here and now is a very different concept from salvation on the other side of death. Salvation of humankind can mean that this Great End of the Church calls us to work to liberate oppressed people, work for justice and an end to systems to dehumanize the children of God.

During Black History month we can look back with pride at the role that Protestant churches played in lead the movement to witness against slavery.  Virtually every abolitionist was guided by the gospel of Jesus Christ. We can look to our own era too. Most of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement were church people. This church hosted the community Martin Lutheran King celebration last month. And when I welcomed the community to this event, I stressed that we were celebrating and remembering The Revered Doctor Martin Lutheran King. And the most inspiring speaker at that event was The Reverend Joe Ellwanger, a Lutheran pastor who worked side-by side with the Reverend Doctor King. These men led their communities to proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind. They suffered for the gospel. They proclaimed the gospel by recognizing injustice, by helping others to see injustice, by standing together, by working together, by insisting on treating all people, all children of God with dignity, by witnessing to unity against a culture that tried to separate people of different races.

Oppression in our country 50 years later is very different, but still real.  Today we need to hear different voices, as we also listen to the voice of the Word of God, Jesus the Christ, whom alone we seek to worship and serve, whose Good News we proclaim for the salvation  humankmind. Amen.