September 05, 2021
• Rev. Dr. Jevon Caldwell-Gross
Over these past three weeks, hearing Pastor Rob talk about being the role the church needs to play I thought of a series of movies that started 1996. I think they are on movie number 6 now and plan to two more. But if you seen one then you’ve seen them all. Tom Cruise plays the lead role and he’s part of a secret organization that dismantles plots to take over the world. Just about every movie starts off with him receiving an impossible mission.
The ask is always the same. He gets a message through some odd location with a record voice suggesting, “Your mission, Mr Ethan Hunt , should you choose/decide to accept it, then they list some impossible mission that seem totally undoable! ...And it ends like this. “As always, should any member of your team be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions. This message will self-destruct in five seconds Good luck.” It is the level of difficulty that makes these movies so good. Hence the name Mission Impossible.
I think the heart of the movie in many ways portrays the role of the church in the world. Think about this for the moment. Two thousand years ago Jesus had an earthy ministry for three years. Heals. Preaches. Teaches. Trains. Empowers. Sets the world on fire the does something that no one expected him to do. He leaves. But before he leaves gives everyone that follows him a mission.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Then reminds them at the beginning of Acts, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
To these seemingly ordinary and odd band of people, God gives them a seemingly impossible mission of going throughout the entire world and making a difference. Make a difference in people’s lives. Bring people into a community of faith. Bring people closer to God.
Hear this, there is no other organization that Christ gives this mission too. Of all the things that people say about the church and while much of it is true, it is the only entity whose sole mission is to be Christ representatives in the world. You are the calvary. The church is Christ’s answer to the needs of the world. Of the things Jesus could have sent into the world, Jesus sent his followers.
We see possibilities of this being lived out through Paul’s work in acts 17. By the time we reach this point, Paul is in on his second missionary journey, so he and his companions have developed a bit of a reputation. So much so that they are described as people who were turning the world upside down. With no choir. Without a huge budget. With no. As the text reminds us, some Jews, a number of Greeks, and prominent women together in one community was unheard of. This radical movement was brining people together than society tried to divide. The church had the potential to show the world what it could be. It provided another alternative to how one should live. It gave the community a different standard. Which begs the question for us. How can we turn our world right side up?
Recognize the Power in Partnerships
In order to truly make a different in the world we have to recognize the power in partnerships. (slide). Paul’s gets a lot of attention. He leads these missionary journeys. He goes into synagogues preaching and teaching. He plants churches. He’s attributed to writing and influencing most of New Testament. We read about Paus preaching and it’s easy to assume that Paul did all of this by himself. We revere the apostle Paul for all of the work that he did to share the word of God around this region. We cannot deny the impact, the influence, or the impact that Paul was able to make. But Paul could not do it by himself. He needed partnerships.
The opening versus was clear, “Paul and his companions.” At this point, he’s traveled with Barnabas. Silas. Timothy and hosts of other men and women that participated in these missionary journeys. In fact, later on we learn that when they needed lodging someone named Jason provided a place for them to stay. They could not compete this mission without partnerships. The power to make a difference in all of these cities was in their ability to recognize their partnerships. It was being aware of....
Here’s why this matters. Many people believe they don’t need to be a part of a church to believe in God. And to some extent that’s true. My belief in Jesus is not predicated on my church attendance. And for many people it’s ok just to spiritual. It’s ok just to be a good person. It’s ok to have their own personal journey of faith. It’s ok to just do it by themselves. However, we cannot fully live out our faith away from the community of faith. Because if we truly want to make a difference in the world, if we truly want to turn the world right side up, it’s impossible to do it by ourselves. You can’t turn a city or a community right side up yourself. By ourselves we are limited in reach. We are limited in influence. We are limited in knowledge. We are limited in ideas. If I truly want to make a difference in world and point people back to Jesus Christ, the is vital to be a part of a community of faith. Because a community of connected people will always have a greater impact than a Lone Ranger. The needs of the world are too big for one person.
Let me prove it. The first thing Jesus did when he started his earthly ministry was what?! He went by the Sea of Galilee and 12 partners help him out. Jesus Christ, the son of God, the savior of the world recognized the power of partnerships. What makes us believe that we can do faith or make a major impact on the world we live in by ourselves. Our power is in our partnerships.
Just in the last few months, as a church we’ve been able to help with minority business own our neighborhood business incubator. That’s the power in partnerships. Last week, we had over 300 people serving in our community. Packed thousands of meal. Cleaned up parks. Built Ramps…
You can believe by yourself, but no one person can have more impact than an entire community of faith. the power of the church is not what you can do by ourselves, but it’s in our partnerships. It’s when we pool our resources. Pool our connections. Share our knowledge. Offer our skills. Use our time. Share connections. Share our experiences. The power of the church goes beyond any one person but to truly answer the needs of this world, it’s in our ability to be in partnership with each other. It’s in our connections and partnerships.
Embracing the Power of Proximity.
Here’s the dilemma. The power of our partnerships cannot end just when gather. From the start the goal of the church was never to just gather. I had a class that was taught by the Dean of Wesley Theological Seminary, Dr. Robert Martin and he asked a class of about 30 clergy that made us all rethink our lives. He asked, “Where is your most transformative experience with God. So we started naming all of these things like nature. Coffee shops. Solitude, Camping, Exercise, etc etc…
Our professor noticed something. He noticed that of out the entire room only a few people people actually said “church!” He challenged us, he said so you trained clergy have all of these cool transformative experiences with God in all of these places and yet every Sunday he keep inviting people back to places you don’t need deem to be your most transformative place.
So for the next three hours we talked about the difference between going to church versus being church. He wasn’t discouraging the act of gathering, he was only trying to highlight the needed reminder that what makes us the church is not just when we gather in a building but when we actually manifest the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in the world. That’s when the church becomes the church. Church can be a place, but doesn’t have to be the only place. (By the way I still hope to see all of you next Sunday!)
It helps me look at Paul’s custom of going into synagogues differently. Paul has a pattern. When he goes into a city one of the first places he goes is to the synagogue. Now this doesn’t mean that he just went to church three times. But their synagogues were often public spaces where people would gather and discuss scripture. They would talk and share ideas. It had a communal aspect to their gathering. So it would make sense that if Paul wanted to get the word out, strategically he had to go where people were already gathering.
It was an intentional decision to go where the people were already present. Paul would go to their homes. Go to the market place. Strategically they figured they would have a greater impact and influence if they were in proximity, if they got close to the people. He embraces the power of proximity. (slide) It’s hard to make a difference from a distance. It’s not impossible, it’s just hard. Distance is not always determined space. Sometimes we can be close to someone but it feels like your miles apart! Same zipcode, different world. Same block, totally different cultures.
My professors words hit so close to home because I remember a time when the church could have been more of the church. I served as an associate at church in Brooklyn NY. All of the associate pastors lived directly across the street from the church. But in between the church and the Brownstones was a basketball court. On really nice days there would be hundreds of people at this one court. Vendors Italian ice. Fans. Kids. Packed! I loved it!
Although it was only 20 feet away from the church it felt like miles apart. The kind of people that would go the parks were not the people that went to the church. Different cultures. Different language. Same block. Mile apart. It’s hard to make a difference where there is so much distance. We spent the whole time wondering how do we invite them to church instead of trying to figure out how we could have been the church where they were already gathering. We could have just gone to their synagogue. Made a commitment to be in proximity. It’s hard to change what I’m unwilling to touch.
I get it now. There would times when Jesus would heal from afar. But other times he would touch the person’s eye. He would go by the pool of Bethsaida. He would take the long way just to stop by a well to meet a Samartian women. He made the trip to Lazarus’ grave. He went to the home of Roman soldier. Its why he calls us salt of the earth. It’s why Jesus Christ came into the world and lived among us. Its why he commanded to be in the world but not off the world. There is an expectation of nearness and proximity that essential to impact and influence. Otherwise, the needs of the world simply become gloried scenery. Good for pictures. Things to write home about. Things to judge from afar.
Because at a distance we are just making assumptions. At a distance, we are going by what we hear. At a distance we don’t get an accurate picture of their needs. We only see what we want to see. Our opinions about people change once we get in proximity. Proximity lessens the gal between us and them.
Here’s what’s going to be challenging for the post Covid world. The synagogue might not be on 86th and Meridian. For a year people didn’t gather here! Where is the place where people are gathering? Is it virtual? It is at the school. Is it at coffee shops. People gather at stadiums. At restaurants. At splash pads. In retirement homes, co working spaces, basketball courts, soccer games, banks, grocery stores. Apartments, New subdivisions. Downtown? How can we be the church in the world where people are already gathering? Because it’s hard to make a difference when their is so much distance. (by the way I still hope to see you here next Sunday!)
This will lend itself to a church that is willing to see it through even when it gets hard. Remember this can sometimes feel like an impossible mission. So we recognize the power in our own partnerships, we embrace the power of proximity and in order to turn the world right side up, we is commit to the power of persistence. (Slide)
We cannot turn the world right side up if we are not persistence. Look at the persistence of their earthly Christians. Truth is they had mixed results, scripture says, “some of them were persuaded”. Some bought it. Some didn’t. Not only that, but some of the religious people got so upset they formed a mob and they started causing troubling in the city!
In fact Paul would later go on to describe his personal journals and admit, “Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”
You don’t make a difference with opposition. This new movement was radically inclusive. It accepted the poor and the rich. The Jew and the Gentile. It recognized a higher power than Caesar. It went against everything they believed. Christ deconstructed what they believed about boundaries. It challenged what they thought about certain people.
On every mission, there will always be a reason to quit. Always. This will be the great temptation for the church. It’s not as though we don’t desire to change the world. We desire to make a difference. But making a difference always comes with difficulties. Difference is always on the other side of difficulties. Questions every church must ask, 1. is the willingness to make a difference stronger than our fear of difficulties? 2. Am we willing to deal with the natural outcome of what will happen when the difference is made.
I was reminded of this by a recent story from Human of New York. Human of New York ran by a guy that basically travels around the around collecting stories of struggle and inspiration. He tells these stories through photographs. His most recent one was about a Ghanian man by the name of Paul. Paul grew up in Ghana and had a kid at 17. When he graduated, he wanted to provide for his family. That was his main drive. He wanted to be photographer but there wasn’t any resources or books available to help him. So his mother gave Paul his life savings to buy a camera. Someone takes an interest in him and tells him about a photographers retreat. He gets there but is denied, because someone looks at his cheap camera and says this is for professionals only! (chance to quit) Calls his mother and she tells him, “You are an apostle Paul, you are so much more to write.”
So he keeps taking pictures. Watches Youtube videos. And starts following Humans of New York online. Randomly meets Brandon in guy and says, I recognize you and shows Brandon his pictures. (Partnerships!) Brandon tell him about some scholarships in NYC. He apply and accepted. Every book he gets his hands on he saves it so that he can build a photograph library in Ghana. People start buying in storage facilities. Start buying books. More than any one person can handle. Too big for one person. Brandon writes the story in humans of NYC and in less than 24 the stories raised over a million dollars.
To date Paul will have collected the largest photographic library in Africa! What start as a mission impossible was realized because of the power of partnerships, someone willing to embrace proximity, and a commitment to persist. He could do that by himself. Neither do we. Of all the things and people God could have sent into the world, he sent to the church, should we choose to accept, we must recognize our partnership, embrace proximity, and commit to persisting. Good Luck.