John 17: 6-21
Let me ask you a question. To whom does this church belong? Anybody? Yes. This is God’s church. As the weeks count down to my departure, this is what I want you to remember. To whom does the church belong? It belongs to Jesus Christ.
To be sure, you and I belong to the church. We are members of the church. And just in case you missed it – I really don’t like using the word member. Because the word member can imply ownership – it can imply – as the credit card commercial used to say – that membership has its privileges.
Truth is, we are not owners. Christ is the owner – and we are disciples – and that’s the word I prefer to use – disciples instead of members – we are disciples who belong to Jesus Christ. THEREFORE – we are at best caretakers of this place – this building – or better yet – this organism that we call the church.
And I’ve gotta say that I feel a certain amount of pride in this place. Pride in all of you who give of yourselves – you give your time to this place – you give your talent and your financial resources to the work of ministry that is making a difference in so many people’s lives in and through this place.
This is an amazing place because of all the amazing people who are and who have been a part of this place. And I have to say this. This church is not about me. It has never been about me. But sometimes – okay a lot of times – I can’t help looking at this place – thinking about his place – and – you know – just feeling good about what God has done through all of us in this place. But ultimately – we all need to remember – I know that I need to remember – that this church that we love so much – ultimately – this church – belongs to Jesus Christ.
Now here’s the thing. Even though we are not the owners –still – the church – this church – has been entrusted to us. And that’s a big responsibility if ever there was one.
The first disciples in the early days of the church completely understood this. Even before the day of Pentecost – the day we call the birthday of the church – which we will be celebrating next weekend by the way – those first disciples of Jesus Christ understood that the church did not belong to them.
Our first reading from the book of Acts tells us that the disciples are waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. And as they wait, they feel it necessary, after the death of Judas – to name a successor to Judas. A man by the name of Matthias is selected to take his place among the twelve. Again, they understood that Jesus had entrusted the church to them – and that if the work and the mission and the ministry of the church had to continue – that it was up to them to make sure that it happened.
Pastor Bill Hinson tells the story of a husband and wife team who made a significant impact on the world of science, Pierre and Marie Curie. They were the French scientists who discovered radium. They worked closely together in their laboratory until the day Pierre absent-mindedly walked in front of a wagon and was run over and killed. Marie was devastat¬ed. Pierre had only recently been appointed to a prestigious chair in the Academy of Science.
A few days after Pierre’s death, Marie was invited to take that chair in his place. She accepted with gratitude. A great scientist in her own right, she entered the hall that day to an overflow crowd. They all wondered, “What will she say? Will she eulogize her husband?”
When she mounted the platform she began reading these words, “. . . when I consider the vast progress which science has made . . .” The crowd realized that she had picked up exactly where Pierre had left off when he had been interrupted while reading a paper he had been presenting to them before his untimely death.
Then Hinson makes this observation, “As Christians, we should bear with pride the fact that we pick up where Jesus left off, because we are His body in the world.”
That’s the understanding that the first Christians had. They knew that Jesus had called them – to carry on the work that Jesus had started. They knew it was up to them to carry on the work of the church.
And in the middle of all this – they remember that Jesus prayed for them. They remember that on the night just before his betrayal and arrest, Jesus prayed for them. A portion of that prayer is in our Gospel reading from John’s Gospel. And we need to remember this. Just as Jesus is praying for his disciples – he is praying for you and me as well. Listen.
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.…As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world….I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.”
Did you catch that last sentence? We are those who believe through the word and witness of those first disciples. Jesus sent those first disciples out into the world – and he sends us out into the world too! To share the good news. To make disciples. And what’s more – the owner of this place is praying for us. The owner of this place is praying for you!
So Jesus is praying for us – and what he prayed for is that we might be one. Do not miss that point! We are a body – the body of Christ. We are a family. That’s why we come together – to be together – to worship together – to pull together – to support each other.
You see – there is a difference – a big difference – between just being a part of a crowd – and being a part of a congregation.
A man by the name of Charles Jefferson once described the difference between an audience and a church. I like what he has to say. Listen.
“An audience is a crowd. A church is a family.
An audience is a gathering. A church is a fellowship.
An audience is a collection. A church is an organism.
An audience is a heap of stones. A church is a temple.”
And he concludes, “Preachers are ordained not to attract an audience, but to build a church.” And I have to add to what Mr. Jefferson says here, and that is to say, that it is not just the job of the preacher to build a church. This is not a task just for the preacher – but a calling for every one of us here today. We have all been in this together. And it has been a great run – a wonderful partnership. And we’ve still got a few weeks left. And I am confident that after I have stepped aside – well – I just know that your partnership with each other will continue. Yes? You will partner with each other – AND when the next pastor is called – you will continue to partner with whomever the Lord sees fit to call here.
Because – the owner of this church is Jesus Christ – but still, it is our job to build it.
I am often asked by guests at weddings and funerals, “How long has this church been here?” And my answer – this year – is 164 years.
“No. How long has the building been here?”
“Oh! We moved into this sanctuary 17 years ago.”
And almost without exception, the response has been, “Well, it’s just beautiful!”
And it is, isn’t it! A number of you remember when we watched this building go up. Arch by arch. Brick by brick. But when I talk today about building the church – I’m not talking about brick and mortar and wooden arches. I’m talking about the people who visit us for the first or second or more times – people who for the most part are here primarily because you invited them. You invited them to “come and see” – or they have come here because of this place’s reputation. People looking for a church home. People looking to be connected with God’s people in the body of Christ. AND – you made them feel welcome. DO NOT stop doing that! That’s how the Lord uses you and me to help build his church.
I got to thinking this week that today is the 27th anniversary of my first Sunday here with you. And I had a goal to teach this congregation to be friendly, not just among themselves, but to visitors. After two weeks, I realized I didn’t have to teach them that, because they already knew how to do that. By the way, how many of you were already here before I got here? Let me see a show of hands. Yeah, not that many. That means that all of the rest of you have come here sometime in the last 27 years, and you decided to stay because you realized what a wonderful church family this place is.
So when I talk about building a church – I’m not talking about brick and mortar and wooden arches. I’m talking about changed lives. People looking for a relationship with Jesus Christ, or looking to grow deeper in their relationship with Jesus Christ. People who have been changed and are changing. I’m talking about a church that’s alive.
So – how have you been changed? How have you been changed by what you hear – what you see – what you experience in this place? I want to know – because that’s always been a goal of mine – it’s a goal I have for each one of you – that we be changed – that we be transformed – that we grow in faith – in our love for God and for each other. That we become more and more like Christ in our thoughts – in our words – and in our actions. This is my hope – and this is my prayer – for you.
And to that end, I also want to ask you, are you praying for this church – this congregation? For its leaders? For its pastor? Would you pray for our Call Team whose job it is to interview potential pastoral candidates on your behalf? And then – and most especially – pray for that person – that man or that woman – that God is calling to be the next pastor at this church. Pray for that pastor whoever he or she may be.
Remember – this church is not my church. This church belongs to Jesus Christ. And just as Jesus prayed for those first disciples – he also prays for us. Therefore – we need to pray too. Will you promise to do that? Will you promise to pray for Zion and its mission? In fact, I invite you to join with me in doing that right now. Let us pray.
“Father God, we come to you in the name of Jesus, the head and the owner of this church. Lord, we love this church – this place – and the people gathered together here today to worship you. May we continue to reach out – and invite – and pray for those who have not yet walked through our doors – but who we know you are sending this way. Continue to work in and through us through the power of your Holy Spirit. We turn to you for strength and for courage to do what needs to be done every step of the way. In the name of Jesus we pray. And all God’s people said…. Amen.