Sermon from the Opening Service, 2013 Joint Assembly

(as written)


Opening Worship Joint Assembly
Together for the love of the world
Ottawa, ON July 3, 2013

Acts 8:26-40
John 3:1-16a

For God so loved the world…..that we now gather together for the love of God and together for the love of the world.

Grace to you and peace in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! How wonderful it is to gather together for the love of the world.

Both texts we heard today describe one-on-one encounters that help people come to faith. Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch leads to a discussion about interpreting scripture and the baptism of the Ethiopian. Nicodemus’s encounter with Jesus helps to answer Nicodemus’s questions, ease his doubts and bring him more firmly to faith. In this encounter, Jesus says the following  — we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen. Let me say it again. We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.

I grew up singing the hymn “I love to tell the story” and it still can give me goosebumps. But if I’m honest I have to let you know that I have not been very good at telling the story. Don’t get me wrong – professionally I am very comfortable in that role.  I can preach and pray and counsel with a certain amount of ease. But in my personal life – it’s been a challenge. And my experience from talking to a lot of people across the church indicates that many of us share this challenge!

Part of the problem is that we lack both vision and training.  We worry that we don’t want to be like “them”, the  people who have badgered or embarrassed us with their witnessing.  We have not learned the language of faith sharing – we don’t know how to tell our own stories about how we experience God in our lives. And finally, we have not learned how to discern the moment when it is appropriate to share faith.

That’s why I love the reading from Acts.  Philip wasn’t out that day looking for a convert, God put the eunuch in his path.  The eunuch was ready to receive the word that day. We can learn a lot from that. Verse 35 reads, “Philip opened his mouth and told him the good news of Jesus.”  Next thing you know the man says, “Look, Philip, here’s some water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  No eight week membership class here.  No home visits from the Board of Elders … Just “Okay Philip, enough already!  You’ve convinced me.  Here’s the water; let’s get to baptizing!” And Philip complies fully and without condition.

I  recognize that we are living in challenging and changing times. In some parts of our churches we are seeing exciting growth and creativity in mission and outreach. But overall in both our churches we are facing reduced baptized membership, number of congregations and finances. The model that we have grown up with seems to be increasingly hard to sustain. We are closing more congregations than we are starting new ones. We are burying more members than we are baptising new ones. And yet we know that our mission and ministry is not over! God is still sending us into the world!

In every age God has sent and equipped God’s people to participate in God’s mission in the world. Perhaps one of the reasons that we are facing challenges in our churches these days is that we have become stuck in our ways of doing things. Stuck inside of our church buildings. We have lost that missionary spirit that sends us out into the world.

Now I know this is a generalization, and like all generalizations there are exceptions to the rule – and maybe you are all part of the exception! But in these six years as national bishop it has been impossible for me to avoid noticing that there are a whole lot of people in our churches, and indeed in all churches, who have forgotten that we are called into the discipleship business and have got it into their heads instead that we are called into the church business.

What I have experienced across our church is many people who have forgotten how to be disciples, but have learned how to be church people.  So going to church, supporting the budget of the congregation, serving on the occasional church committee or volunteering in the church in some capacity is what they think following Jesus is about.  It is very compartmentalized and often doesn’t have much to do with how they live the majority of their lives.

But the reality is we are called to be disciples, to follow the way of Jesus in all of our lives.  Jesus didn’t come because God so loved the church! He came because God so loved the world! Christianity isn’t an institution, but rather a movement whose missionary focus is always directed outward into the world.  As such, the things that we do within our communities of faith bear significance only insomuch as they serve and support that outward movement.

Jesus’ call to send us out into the world is part of our baptismal calling. At the end of the baptismal liturgy in the ELCIC we say to the newly baptized “We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share: join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.”

We need to strive as individuals, as communities, as churches, to share the good news of God’s love for the world in deed and in word. So here is a challenge for you these days we are together. As you make new friends and meet old ones, fight the temptation to talk about the weather, or the length of time it takes to get up the escalators, or any other kind of filler conversation. Instead, take the risk of sharing something about your faith. How have you experienced God’s love for the world? What is the faith story that you can share. Maybe by helping and supporting each other we can get to the point where We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.

Ultimately, that’s what Nicodemus was seeking when he set out that night long ago to visit with Jesus.  From all appearances, Nicodemus had it all together. He was a member of the religious establishment .  He was supposed to have all the answers … and yet, as we witness this encounter we find that Nicodemus was at a place where we all find ourselves from time to time … trying to sort out questions of ultimate meaning … trying to sort out how it is that we can find God in the midst of human existence. And in response, “he and we” get that amazing word of grace and love … that for God so loved the world, that he gave his only son … the Son that came into the world, not to condemn but to save. What a liberating, unexpected and joyous word of grace!

I suspect that Nicodemus left with more questions than he came with on that night so very long ago! But what he did leave knowing, was that God is a God of love and forgiveness whose intention for us and for the world is clear and good. “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

Our call and responsibility is to live as fully as we can in that joyous word of grace and hope and then to respond accordingly … to rise and go forth on the power of that word … to serve … to bless … to share the gift of God’s gracious love with a world that God loves to an extent that is beyond our ability to fully comprehend or even imagine. That is our assurance in life. That is our hope in eternity. It is also our strength and sustenance in ministry. Together for the love of the world. May we find it to be so!


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