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Glenelg is a small suburb of Adelaide, South Australia, but a popular tourist destination.  With its beautiful beaches and piers — or jetties as the Australians like to call them[1] — I suspect Glenelg is a common host to weddings.  News Limited from Australia reports that in November of 2010, one couple who had chosen a Glenelg pier for their wedding had a significant disruption while taking photographs after their wedding.  At about 6 pm, a 55-year old woman spending time with a friend but unrelated to the wedding fell off the jetty and into the water nearby.  The best man jumped into the water in his wedding suit and pulled the unconscious woman from shallow water and onto the beach.  The bride, then, began CPR, saving the woman’s life according to the lifeguard staff who arrived before the woman was sent to the hospital by ambulance.  The fall into the water was substantial, causing both serious spinal and head injuries.  The last newspaper-update shortly after the incident reported the woman in critical condition.[2]

I imagine the story has given the married couple and their guests quite a story to share over the past seven years.  I hope the woman, also, has healed in order to share similar stories.

 

Jesus’ plans were often disrupted.  In our New Testament passage today, our text begins, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”  The news Jesus heard was the execution of his cousin, John the Baptist.  The passage immediately preceding our passage today writes of the execution of John the Baptist.  When King Herod’s daughter danced before the king’s guests, he offered his daughter anything that she wanted.  After consulting with her mother, Herodias who was angry at John the Baptist, the daughter requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Fearing embarrassment before his guests, the king ordered the request be fulfilled, and John the Baptist was beheaded in prison.  The sentence immediately before today’s passage states, “His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.”[3]

I suspect there is little question that Jesus left in a boat for a deserted place by himself in order to mourn the loss of his cousin.  Remember, John the Baptist pointed to Jesus in his ministry and baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.  Today’s passage continues, “But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.”  As in many other cases when Jesus would leave to be alone, the crowds would follow.  Jesus “had compassion for them and cured their sick.”  The disciples approached him saying, “Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”  It was a very reasonable expectation.  Jesus’ response, though, was “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”  In a miraculous demonstration, Jesus multiplied five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand men, plus the women and children.  I imagine this might have amounted to fifteen thousand people or more.[4]

In the midst of mourning the execution of his cousin; one who was significant even in his own ministry, Jesus had compassion for the crowds who were following him, and Jesus cured their sick.  When evening came, and the disciples invited him to send the crowd away so that they might get a meal, he said, “They need not go away,”[5] and he fed them.  In the midst of mourning, upon being disrupted by the crowds as he attempted to spend time in a deserted place alone, Jesus healed.  He continued his call to bring healing and reconciliation to the world that day.

 

If we recall the Apostle Paul’s story, we’ll also remember his plans were disrupted.  Paul describes himself in Philippians, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”  Paul, though, counts this status as loss because of Christ.  [6]

Paul (or Saul) first appears in scripture as Stephen is sharing the gospel message with the high priests of Israel.  The members of the council were angered and dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him.  The people who stoned Stephen laid their coats at the feet of Saul.[7]  As Stephen was being buried, “Saul was ravaging the church, entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”[8]  Saul later went to the high priest and asked for letters to take to the synagogues in Damascus, so that, if they found members of this new sect, they would allow Saul to bring them back to Jerusalem.  As he was traveling to Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him, and he heard a voice “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Saul was made blind for three days during which he had nothing to eat or drink.  Ananias, a follower of Jesus, was sent to meet Saul, and he very reluctantly went — likely in fear of his own life and freedom.  He was sent that Saul might “regain [his] sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  “…Immediately, something like scales fell from [Saul’s] eyes, and his sight was restored…. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”[9]

Saul (or Paul) had gone to Damascus to arrest the followers of Jesus and very quickly found himself a follower of the sect proclaiming something he would have declared as blasphemy just a few days before.  Paul’s life is entirely up-ended, and he would become an apostle who would take the gospel message to both Jews and Gentiles.

 

Today’s Epistle lesson demonstrates Paul’s deep pain for his people as he states, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”[10]  Paul, here, still cares deeply for his fellow Hebrews.  Paul’s pain is so deep that he would wish that he was even cut off from Jesus if only they would accept the gospel message.  In a sense, he would desire to give up all that he has gained in Christ if the Israelites would only know Christ as he does.

He acknowledges that the Israelites have special status.  “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever.”[11]  The Israelites (as he) were the recipients of the law, the recipients of the teachings and the story.  It was their ancestors who were the patriarchs; Jesus is a descendant of these same patriarchs — a descendent of David.  They were given the worship and the promises by God.  I imagine Paul longing that they might see God’s story unfolding before them as he does — that they might understand the fullness of Christ — who is God!

 

 

In his deep sorrow, Paul seems to also be indicating that this new sect — the followers of Jesus — have a unique and essential revelation.  The message is both new but also rooted in Israel.  This exclusivity is a concept that is uncomfortable to us, but T. F. Torrance, former professor of Christian Dogmatics at the University of Edinburgh and Moderator of the Church of Scotland General Assembly, tries to address why a loving God would choose a particular group of people, the Israelites.  He references Jeremiah’s image of the potter working his clay.  The potter moves the clay under pressure “until it is suitable for [the potter’s purpose].  But when the clay proves to be lumpy and recalcitrant [the potter] breaks it down and remolds it in accordance with his [or her] design, and [the potter] does that again and again until the potter has formed and fashioned a vessel to his or her liking which will serve [the potter’s] purposes well.”  God was working to form all humankind as God took Israel and molded Israel in a “unique way in order to provide the actual means, a whole set of spiritual tools, appropriate forms of understanding, worship, and expression, through which apprehension of God could be made accessible to human beings and knowledge of God could take root in the soil of humanity.”[12]  God chose Israel, so that God could create a culture, a language, a pattern of worship and life through which God could be made known.  Ultimately, God was working to create this environment so that the Messiah could be understand by a community when God sent Jesus — both human and divine — into the world.  Using the potter’s analogy again, he was trying to create a vessel — Israel — in which Jesus could be understood.  Israel was molded again and again, broken at times, to be created into this vessel.  As a result, the “covenant bond between God and Israel was steadily tightened and knotted into existence of Israel as a people.”  Israel was molded to be different — even odd — in comparison to the peoples around it and throughout the earth, but this was for a special and divine purpose.[13]  All of this was so that all of humankind might know and understand Jesus.

Paul knows the Israelites have features of the vessel within them and has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart that they cannot fully understand what that vessel has held.  The Messiah has arrived in Jesus Christ!  God is actively working to reconcile the world to Godself in sending Jesus, the perfect mediator, who can mediate with God as he is God and can mediate with humans as he is human.  Who could be a better negotiator and explainer to humanity of who God is but one who is God but is also human — God incarnate in Jesus the Messiah!

Paul has been transformed, disrupted, up-ended, and he longs that his community would be also.

 

I worry sometimes that the Christian church in the West is not disrupted often enough.  When the church is not pushed to reach out to the community around it, it often becomes inwardly focused.  We begin to argue about things that may not be high on God’s priority list.  This is often when leaders in the church begin arguing about the color of the carpet, the placement of furniture, and similar things.

From 1990 to 2005, Thom Rainer led the Rainer Group, which consulted churches and denominations.  Over this period, they consulted with over 500 churches and other organizations.[14]  In his book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Rainer provides insights including features of churches that die as well as ways to keep churches alive (and, hopefully, make them vibrant).  Most common among the features suggestive of church death are congregations that see their glory days in the past; they’re often trying to hang on to what previously existed instead of embracing the present and looking to the future for their best days.[15]  Time, the culture, and the neighborhood march on but these congregations remain clutching days that have passed them by.

Another feature of such deceased churches is that the budget moved inward.  Rainer comments, “for where the money of the church goes, so goes its heart.”[16]  These churches began to focus more and more on their own membership and lost sight of the needs of their neighborhood.

Yet another feature is that churches often “begin with a great heart and a great effort toward the Great Commission,” but in time, the Great Commission becomes the Great Omission.[17]  You are likely well aware of the Great Commission taken from the Gospel of Matthew (and elsewhere in scripture).

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.[18]’”

Rainer continues to state, “Thriving churches have the Great Commission as the centerpiece of their vision, while dying churches have forgotten the clear command of Christ.”[19]

Logically, it makes sense even in worldly terms.  If a general movement loses its enthusiasm to share its message with others, it will begin to disappear as it fails to excite people outside its current membership.  I worry that the Western church has done this in significant ways.

 

Are we as a congregation and as individuals carrying great sorrow and unceasing anguish in our hearts for those outside this building who do not know the gospel of Jesus Christ?  Are we willing to have our lives disrupted, up-ended, and transformed for the sake of others outside these walls and for the sake of our Lord?

Are we willing to focus our primary efforts on those who are not members of this church, such that this church may be transformed to look different than it does today?  Will we invite strangers and acquaintances who look different than us and act differently than us into the empty seats in this sanctuary?  Will we allow our ministries to be transformed — even perhaps our worship style to be modified in ways — so that we reach the people outside these walls?  Are we willing to be committed to participate in the ministries and the worship services that engage, that serve, and that integrate these people?

We have tremendous good news to share.  God has sent his Son into this world so that we might know God intimately, so that we might be reconciled to God, and so that we might be reconciled to one another.  Elsewhere, Paul writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”[20]

Are each of us willing to take the personal risks so that we might go and make disciples of all nations, even as we remain in this city?  We are not likely all called to be evangelists, but we are all called to evangelism.  We’re not called to stand on the street corner or in Central Park and preach the Gospel to onlookers— actually, I don’t think this method is even really that effective.  We are called to share our faith, both in word and in action, with those we encounter.

Are we as broken as Paul is over his people not hearing the Gospel message?  Paul goes on to take the gospel message to Jews and Gentiles throughout the world around the Mediterranean Sea.  Are we ready to do the same throughout New York City and the Upper East Side?

 

In the name of the Father,

and of the Son,

and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

SIGNIFICANT SOURCES REFERENCED 

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.

Best Man Jumps Off Glenelg Jetty to Save Woman.  News Limited.  http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/best-man-jumps-off-glenelg-jetty-to-save-woman/news-story/fae61d147c28c703d343155f66133ef0.  {Accessed August 4, 2017}

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Rainer, Thom S. Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive. 2014.  {Electronic book version accessed}

Torrance, Thomas Forsyth. The Mediation of Christ. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998.

Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1: Chapters 1-8. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004.

Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 2: Chapters 9-16. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004.

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glenelg,_South_Australia. {accessed August 4, 2017}

[2] Best Man Jumps Off Glenelg Jetty to Save Woman.  News Limited.  http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/best-man-jumps-off-glenelg-jetty-to-save-woman/news-story/fae61d147c28c703d343155f66133ef0.  {accessed August 4, 2017}

[3] Matthew 14:1-13, NRSV.

[4] Matthew 14:13-21, NRSV.

[5] Matthew 14:16, NRSV.

[6] Philippians 3:4-7, NRSV.

[7] Acts 7:1-59, NRSV.

[8] Acts 8:1-3, NRSV.

[9] Acts 9:1-19, NRSV.

[10] Romans 9:2-3, NRSV.

[11] Romans 9:4-5, NRSV.

[12] Torrance, 7.

[13] Torrance, 8.

[14] http://thomrainer.com/about/ {Accessed August 5, 2017}

[15] Rainer, Chapter 3.

[16] Rainer, Chapter 5.

[17] Rainer, Chapter 6.

[18] Matthew 28:18-20, NRSV.

[19] Rainer, Chapter 6.

[20] 2 Corinthians 5:17-18, NRSV.