September 11, 2011

1 Corinthians 12:4-11
Hebrews 10:19-25

This morning’s “Gems of Encouragement” theme comes from the Christian Education Committee, with special thanks to Mary Jane Hanson for the idea and for taking care of many of the details. The committee decided that a focus on the spiritual gift of “encouragement” would be a wonderful way to start another educational year, as well as a good way to build up supportive relationships between the people in our church community.

But when we first talked about doing this encouragement theme in September, I didn’t realize how many things would be coming together on this day. We are beginning a new year in the Church School, and we have a number of new teachers coming on board. We are ordaining three new elders who will join our session and serve in the leadership of our church. And we are announcing that we have hired a Pastoral Care Nurse for the congregation for the very first time.

And simultaneous with all of these joyful and exciting beginnings, we are aware of the fact that today is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. In so many ways, “encouragement” seems like the right thing for us to be doing today.

And so, setting aside the lectionary readings for today, I selected the passage from the book of Hebrews that Logan read for us this morning. I thought that the final verses (24-25) – originally written (or perhaps preached) to one of the earliest Christian churches – went perfectly with the focus that the CE Committee was suggesting. After all, the Committee has placed a glass jar at the front of the church and provided some lovely coloured stones. And they are asking you to do all that you can over the next three weeks to be encouraging to one another and to the people you encounter.

The text says: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Do you feel provoked?

That’s a pretty strong word, isn’t it? – provoked. The original Greek word in the text is paroxysmos which can be translated as “provoke” or “irritate” or perhaps “pester.” It sounds really annoying actually. The kind of thing that might keep a lot of people away from church… the idea that there are people here, or sermons preached here that don’t necessarily inspire or encourage, but they just keep pestering you to be good and generous and kind all the time.

The word “provoke” can definitely have a negative sense, but the Greek word used here also had a positive use, in the sense of disturbing the apathetic or fearful person into activity. Its purpose is to produce love and good works. And so the expression is strong, but necessary, for a community earlier characterized in the book of Hebrews as inattentive, neglectful, and drifting.

Now, please don’t take that to mean that I’m suggesting that the people of St. Andrew’s are inattentive, neglectful, or drifting. In fact, when people ask me about this church, I usually describe you as gifted, engaged, committed, and generous people. But I’m pretty sure that the earliest Christian churches to whom this text was written probably shared those characteristics as well.

Still, the preacher hints that “some” members of the community are neglecting or abandoning the assembly – the gathering for worship, and acts of mutual support. And it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that’s happening in our church too.

Although the reason for this desertion is not stated, later chapters will suggest possibilities: fear of persecution, heresy, feeling the group is not essential to personal faith, leadership tensions, and discouragement over the fact that Christ has not yet returned.

There is a little video getting passed around online recently about something called “Back to Church Sunday.” A friend posted it on my facebook page earlier this week, and I liked it enough that I re-posted it on the Presbyterian Church in Canada facebook page, sparking a significant online discussion about the video and its potential impact.

The video was produced by the National Council of Churches in the US to promote a cross-denominational initiative to invite people “back to church” on Sunday, September 18th.  The video begins: “Here’s a few reasons why people don’t go to church…” And then it gives some reasons, some questions, some concerns, followed by responses and reassurances from regular people who do go to church and can share about the experience.

With a little humour and a lot of humility and hospitality, it invites those who may have become alienated from the church to consider coming back, and giving it a try. The video concludes with these words:

“You see, it’s not about a religion. It’s about a relationship.
So please, come to my church…
where nobody’s perfect, where beginners are welcome,
where socks are optional, but grace is required…
where forgiveness is offered, where hope is alive…
and where it’s okay to NOT be okay… really.”

When I look back at this morning’s text, I notice that before the preacher starts admonishing the members of the Christian community to meet together, and to care for each other, and to provoke one another to love and good deeds… First, the preacher names the one big barrier that may be holding them back. She identifies the misunderstanding that may be stopping these would-be followers of Jesus from taking up the faith and living it out in their lives within the Christian community. And it has to do with fear.

I know, there’s some old language in the Bible and in the church’s prayers that suggests that “fear of God” is appropriate. It’s the idea that God is so far beyond our understanding, so perfect, and so powerful, that we have good reason to be afraid.

Some of the people in the “Back to Church Sunday” video said, “I can’t come to church until I get my life together,” or “If you knew me… and what I’ve done… you wouldn’t want me.” Their fear was holding them back, creating a barrier that kept them away from the church, and the Christian community, and from a relationship with God. And I’m quite sure that that kind of “fear of God” is not particularly helpful.

But the author of Hebrews encourages us, “my friends… we have confidence to enter the sanctuary [we have confidence to come into the presence of God] by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain…” In other words, we have no reason to fear. We have no reason to hold back or be uncertain. We can have confidence to approach God, knowing that in Jesus Christ, God has already reached out to us in love, and forgiven our sins, and prepared us for lives of love and good deeds.

We may be in awe of God’s goodness, and holiness, and power… but we have no reason to be afraid. We have no reason to fear because we belong to God. In fact, the preacher continues: “let us approach [God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water,” and I’m pretty sure that she’s talking about baptism. She’s reminding these Christians – some of whom are lagging in their commitment to the mission of the church, some of whom have drifted away – She’s reminding them about their baptism. And their baptism (like ours) is the basis for all they are being called to do and to be within the church and the world.

As we remember our baptism, we remember that we are members of the household of God. As we remember our baptism, we remember that we are washed clean of sin – forgiven, and renewed in God’s love. As we remember our baptism, we remember that we have died and been raised again with Christ. And as we remember our baptism, hopefully we remember that our baptism calls us to live a new life in Christ. It calls us – maybe even provokes us – to love and good deeds within the church and the world. And with the power and help of the Holy Spirit inside us, we have no reason to be afraid.

On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we may be especially aware of the fear that grips so many people in our world. We might remember those who are grieving the loss of loved ones who died on that terrible day. And we might think also of others throughout the world who are suffering from famine, disease, persecution, discrimination, or abuse.

As we remember and pray for both friends and strangers who are struggling today, let us take this opportunity to recommit ourselves to living out our baptisms. There are three members of our congregation who are coming forward today, responding to the call to live out their baptisms through the ministry of ruling eldership. But we all have gifts to use within the body of Christ, and we are called not only to meet together, but to provoke one another to love and good deeds, and to encourage one another each and every day. Amen.