Sunday, October 5, 2014

Proclaiming the Gospel; Acts 6:8-7:53

The first Great End of the Church is the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind. This was Jesus’ final command statement prior to His ascension. Every gospel records Jesus giving a command to spread the good news to everyone. Spreading the gospel is part of the reason for the church’s existence. As Catherine Gonzalez says, “The cause of the church is God’s desired future…It is not our past that creates the church, but God’s future.” Gonzalez is the author of Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind, part of the series of books on the Great Ends of the Church. I’ll quote frequently from this book today and commend it to you for further study. We know from Scripture that God’s desired future is for all to know who God is. God has chosen and called us to make that happen. A proclamation is a public statement. Gonzalez says, “The church exists to make something public.” Though we each have a personal faith, the gospel itself is to be public. The gospel is fact for all people, not just for us. Proclamation of course carries a risk. But there has always been risk in proclaiming the gospel. We don’t carry as much risk as many before us or even today those who live in other parts of the world, and yet we have often failed in our mandate to proclaim the gospel. We see Stephen risking his life for the gospel in our Acts passage this morning. Fear of death did not stop him from telling the truth. Our own Book of Order states that “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” (F-1.0301) There is a difference between advertising the church and proclaiming the gospel. Inviting people to church is important, but it is not proclamation. Telling people how the church can benefit them is important, but this is not the proclamation of the gospel. Even sharing what our own relationship with God is like is not proclamation, although any of the above can be precursors to proclamation. Proclamation of the gospel is telling who God is and what God has done for the world. Proclamation is vital. So what we are to proclaim? We are to tell the sacred story. This is what Stephen does in his sermon. We talk about God as Creator who made a covenant with us, which we broke, so God made a way to restore the covenant and sent Jesus. We tell about how Jesus lived, what He did, and who He was. We let people know that in Jesus there is a new creation where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, dividing walls are torn down, eternal life is given. Stephen tells the story beginning with Abraham, moving through the patriarchs, and then to Moses. He includes the Exodus, the golden calf, the tabernacle, and Joshua. He mentions David and Solomon’s temple. He quotes specific scripture verses. He declares Jesus as Messiah. He points out the people’s failure to keep the law. How well do you know God’s story? You cannot proclaim something you don’t know. Reading and knowing God’s story for ourselves is important. This is the story we recount in the prayer of Great Thanksgiving that we will pray before Communion, so listen for it next week. We ourselves need to be reminded often of God’s story. It gives us cause for celebration and praise. And we need to know it so we can share it with others. We live in an increasingly secular and pluralistic society. You might be amazed at how many people know little to nothing of God’s story. We cannot take it for granted that people have a general idea of what we are talking about. The proclamation of God’s story includes Law as well as gospel. Gonzalez explains it this way: READ paragraphs marked on pgs. 22-23. It has been said that the church exists for the benefits of its nonmembers. Gonzalez says it this way, “We proclaim for those who are not yet part of the community of faith. The church nurtures those who are already part of its life (which by the way is the second of those Great Ends—the shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God). [The church] proclaims to those who are not [part of its life].” I’m sure you’ve hear the phrase, “I’m just saying,” but that’s what proclamation is. It’s just saying—putting the truth out there and letting the Holy Spirit and people do with that truth whatever they desire. The Spirit is the one who applies the Truth to the hearts of people. We don’t have to worry about converting people. That is not our job. That is the Spirit’s job. But we must be faithful in proclamation. The Book of Order also gives us ways in which we are to proclaim the gospel. In F-1.0302d, it says, The Church is sent to be Christ’s faithful evangelist: making disciples of all nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; sharing with others a deep life of worship, prayer, fellowship, service, and participating in God’s mission to care for the needs of the sick, poor, and lonely, to free people from sin, suffering, and oppression, and to establish Christ’s just, loving, and peaceable rule in the world. You may have heard the quotation attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” At some point, words are necessary. Proclamation is words. Again, our Book of Order states that our life together ought to be a witness to the gospel, but we also have to as the apostle Peter writes, “Be ready always to give an answer to anyone concerning the hope that is in you.” We need to be able to proclaim, and again let people know that this is not just good news for us, but good news for them and the whole world. The gospel does not change, but how we proclaim it changes somewhat according to our cultural context. We are to speak within and to the surrounding culture without being overcome or watered-down by that culture. Gonzalez warns that when “the gospel is made compatible with what the wider culture already believes, then nothing new is being proclaimed.” The church ends up being merely another social club or therapeutic group. Our proclamation must still keep the good news “good” and “news”. The first believers simply proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord.” It is a true statement that Jesus is Lord, Lord of all, the only Lord, whether or not one believes that He is. Gonzalez reminds us that we are only capable of creating idols, not gods and that “If we worship the true god, it is not because we have elevated God to this position, but because we have encountered the One who has [the rightful] claim to our lives…If Christians assume that the God we worship is not the only God, or that the God we worship did not create all people, then we have compromised the faith we proclaim at its very heart. We also would have no reason to proclaim anything.” It may indeed seem an arrogant statement that there is only one true God, but it doesn’t make the statement any less true. Yes, absolute truth claims can lead to persecution, but it is a risk we must be willing to undertake. It does not mean, however, that we persecute others. This is contrary to the way of Jesus, although it has happened and continues to happen. As the Scriptures say, the truth must always be spoken in and with love. Speaking truth in love requires humility, not arrogance, on the part of the proclaimer. Proclaiming is not simply reporting what we’ve read, but what we know to be true because we have experienced its reality in our lives. Again from Gonzalez: “Ultimately the witness of the church is that we are those whom God has redeemed through the work of Christ, and therefore, our lives have been transformed. We are inviting [others] to participate in such transformation. [Still,] the focus is not who we are or even who we have become. It is who God is, what God has done, and is doing.” To present the gospel as simply an optional lifestyle is not proclamation. The gospel must be proclaimed as good news for the world at large. If you don’t believe the gospel, if you don’t believe that this is truly good news and God’s intended desire for the world, then most certainly, do not proclaim it. But if you know that this is true, then don’t withhold it. To do so is to direct disobedience to Jesus’s last commandment. Yes, it is risky; it cost Stephen his life. But others have risked themselves so that we could know the truth too. The only way the Church grows is through the multiplication of disciples. It is not only the pastor’s job to make disciples, but it is the commission Jesus gave to each of us. Disciple-making begins when we live and proclaim the gospel. So as you go, make disciples—live and tell the good news.

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