Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"The Churches of Christ: What Makes Us Who We Are"

Ashley's Uncle Dan Williams preached this sermon recently in Arkansas.  I enjoyed it so much I just thought I'd share.

October 23, 2011                  `                                                                       Dan Williams
Sermon:  “The Churches of Christ:  What Makes Us Who We Are”        24th Annual Area-Wide Assembly
Text:  1 Corinthians 1:10-24                                                               El Dorado, Arkansas
Aim:   to discuss the common bonds of our religious heritage.
Thesis:  what makes us who we are is our passion for unity, for truth, and for Christ!

After our service tonight we will have a fellowship, and I know many of you have brought food.  One thing about these ladies in the churches of Christ:  they can cook!  It reminds me of an elementary school teacher who was leading a social studies class in a section on world religions.  She had a diverse group, so the teacher had the bright idea of asking her students to each bring something to show to the class that was representative of his or her religion.  The next day…..

q       The Jewish boy brought a menorah and a skullcap.
q       The Buddhist girl brought a statue of a fat little Buddha.
q       The Catholic girl brought a rosary and a crucifix.
q       And the little boy from the Church of Christ……. brought a casserole.

That’s my people!  We are assembled tonight because of our common bond:  we are the churches of Christ.  We are each separately A church of Christ (the Junction City church of Christ, the Norphlet church of Christ, the East Faulkner church of Christ, and so on) but we are all collectively THE church of Christ in South Arkansas.

I am so thankful that I live in a county where at least most of the scattered congregations of the churches of Christ can gather for an annual worship service.  I have friends in other regions of the nation who tell me such an assembly would be unheard of in their city, which I think is a tragedy for a group that began as a sincere effort to unite all believers.
In fact, that’s what I want to talk about tonight:  our history, our heritage, what makes us who we are.

●Suppose you are on vacation and are driving down a country road when you pass this scene.  When you see that building, what goes through your mind?
Now, I’ve never seen this particular church before – don’t even know where it’s located – I lifted the picture from the Internet. But even though I’ve never visited this congregation, I can tell you what you’d find inside.
When you walk in you’ll find an interior that is simple and unadorned;  nothing fancy, strictly functional.  The pews may be a bit hard, and the carpet may be old, but the auditorium will be neat and tidy and well-cared for.
(By the way, it will be called an “auditorium,” not a “sanctuary.”)
There will be a communion table at the front of the auditorium, with the words “This do in remembrance of me” etched in the front.  And you’ll find the bread and the wine on the table, because I can guarantee you the Lord’s Supper is served every Sunday.
Some of the things most folks find familiar will be missing:  there won’t be a piano or organ;  there won’t be a choir loft;  there won’t be an American flag.
There will be a board posted on the front wall, to the left of the pulpit, with the figures for the attendance in Bible school and worship and, of course, the record of the contribution (which probably doesn’t meet the budget).
There will be a baptistery behind the pulpit, and most likely it will feature a scene of the Jordan River lovingly painted on the wall by some good brother or sister with artistic ability.
There will be a man who is sincerely praying that the Lord will “guard, guide, and direct us” and that God will give the preacher a “ready recollection of the things he has prepared” and he will fervently thank the Father that we can meet “without fear of molestation.”
There will be a preacher who is over-worked and underpaid, and he will be called “Brother” Smith or Jones or Wilson, not “Reverend” or “Father” or any other title that sounds pretentious or proud.  He will probably preach a sermon that runs a bit too long, and it may not be eloquent or impressive, but it will be earnest and true.  The preacher will be dressed like the rest of the men there. Oh, he may have on a suit and tie, but he will not wear a robe or a clergy collar or vestments.
The assembly will be filled with honest, hardworking, God-fearing people who match the auditorium:  nothing fancy, strictly functional.  Some of them will live on a farm;  most of the others at least grew up on one.
They will represent the usual assortment of humanity:  the hard-of-hearing old fellow sitting near the front, wearing suspenders and a belt;  over on this side, the gray-haired lady who always brings her famous potato salad to the church pot luck;  midway toward the back, the young parents struggling with the squalling baby;  at the back of the auditorium, a couple of giggling teens.
Even though I’ve never been there, I am sure that’s what you’ll find.  One other thing: when I drive by that building, and mentally picture all those things, I will get a warm feeling inside, because……..that’s my people.
Not only that:  when I do go on vacation, this is the building I’m looking for.  When I visit the big cities, I don’t head for the cathedrals or the megachurches or the big charismatic carnivals with the television programs and the bands and the light shows.  No, I’ll take this simple little white church, because…..that’s my people.
●When I plan my trip I will go to www.churchzip.com and enter the zip code for my destination, and that website will magically display all of the churches of Christ nearest my location.  That way, come Sunday morning, I can honor the Lord by showing up for worship. And when I walk through that door, I am sure of one other thing I will find:  I will find a warm welcome – a smile and a hearty handshake, and maybe even an invitation to lunch – because, you see, that’s my people.
May I tell you tonight why I’m looking for that building?  What it is that makes this particular assembly of believers my people?
Our movement began in the freedom of the American frontier, as pioneers pushed out into the wilderness and carved communities out of the forests.  In that new land, far from the oppressive oversight of their differing ecclesiastical authorities, those settlers began to ask “Why can’t we worship together?  Why should our church headquarters back east, or back in the old country, tell us we have to remain separate?” And as far back as 1801 in the Cane Ridge revival on the Kentucky frontier: “Why can’t we take communion together?”
●Those are valid questions!  After all, Jesus prayed earnestly in John 17 “that all of them may be one……that they may be one as we are one….may they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me”;  ●Paul listed “dissensions and factions” among the works of the flesh in Galatians 5.
Much of the religious world long ago made its peace with the confused crazy-quilt of what passes for Christianity today, but our people still share the Lord’s grief over religious division.
●In our text tonight, in 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paul tells the contentious Corinthians, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, ●that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought…….●What I mean is this:  One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’;  still another, ‘I follow Christ.’”
These carnal Christians were using the names of men to justify their sectarian groups;  which ought to ring a bell today, because the word “denomination” means “name.”  And Paul says, “Don’t do it! Don’t denominate yourself into separate sectarian sections.”
Denominationalism is clearly not God’s will.  Even Billy Graham admitted that “God didn’t make denominations;  man did.”
Well, my people are the heirs of a noble dream:  “Why can’t we be just Christians?  Why can’t we be ‘Christians only’”?  That is such an unfamiliar idea for some folks, I lead them through a little thought exercise:
●Picture Jesus at the Last Supper, surrounded by his disciples.  As you glance at the Twelve sitting there at the table, what denomination are they?  There’s Simon Peter – is he a Baptist?  Over there is Matthew – is he a Methodist?  James and John – are they Catholic, or Lutheran, or Adventist?  What denomination are they?
People invariably tell me, “Dan, they’re not any denomination.  They’re just Christians.”  My response is, “Exactly – and that’s what we want to be – Christians, and Christians only!”
That’s our heritage, that’s our history, it’s our religious DNA.   That’s what makes us who we are.  The second reason these are my people….
We are part of the Restoration Movement:  a sincere effort to go back to the purity of the First Century church.  We still believe in apostolic authority, in undenominational Christianity, we still believe in truth, the absolute truth of the Bible.  That’s not a minor matter!
●In this postmodern, relativistic culture of ours, 20% of all those who identify themselves as “born again Christians” believe in reincarnation;  45% believe “if people are good enough they can earn a place in heaven”;  50% of “born again” baby boomers believe all religions are equally good and true;  and 70% of young Americans do not even believe there is such a thing as absolute truth.
I do not subscribe to sectarian bitterness, and I want to love every sincere follower of Jesus, but at the same time I must honor my Lord by making the same distinction he made in Matthew 15 between God’s Word and human traditions and manmade laws.  It makes a difference what you believe!
I am convinced there is no group on earth that has more fully restored the forms of the New Testament church than have we.  All of the practices that identify us, that others would consider distinctive about us, are derived directly from the example of the first century church:
q       We take the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day – because that’s how the early church did it, to honor the personal request of their Master.

q       Our congregations are autonomous, self-governing congregations, because there was no denominational bureaucracy in the early church.  In fact, Jesus emphatically rejected every attempt of his own disciples to gain personal prominence and power over their brethren, and thus our churches have rightfully been skeptical of manmade organizations.

q       When our churches are fully organized they have a simple leadership structure, with elders to shepherd the flock, deacons to lead the various ministries, and evangelists to proclaim the word – because that’s how it is described in the New Testament.

q       When we join our voices in praise to God in our worship services we sing a cappella because that was the practice of the original followers of Jesus from the beginning of the New Testament church and for nearly a thousand years thereafter.  Some of the earliest Christian writers, from the second century on, explained that instruments were intentionally omitted in keeping with the shift from the practices of the Old Covenant to the spiritual worship of the New.

q       We baptize by immersion because that is unquestionably the meaning of the word and it was indisputably the practice of the early church, and we baptize penitent believers as soon as they make their confession of faith, because that is the example of every single conversion story in the book of Acts.

That reminds me of a story.  ●Marshall Keeble was without a doubt the greatest evangelist in the churches of Christ during the past 100 years.  He baptized more than 40,000 people during his ministry, and influenced multitudes of others.   Brother Keeble was not able to obtain a formal education beyond the eighth grade, but he made up for it by a keen intelligence and by a deep study of the Word of God.  If you only know one book, that’s the book to know!
Brother Keeble was once asked to conduct a gospel meeting in a community in which the church of Christ was so small it didn’t have a meeting house large enough to accommodate the crowds they expected.  There was a denominational church building large enough, so brother Keeble asked the pastor if they could use his building.
The pastor agreed on one condition:  he said Keeble could use the building only if he agreed not to mention baptism.  Marshall Keeble surprised all his friends by taking the pastor up on the offer.  Well, the news spread that brother Keeble was going to do something he had never done before – preach the gospel without mentioning baptism!
When the night arrived for the meeting to begin, the church building was packed.  All eyes were on Keeble, including the pastor of the church, who was seated on the front row.
Brother Keeble made a few opening remarks, and then announced his text:  Acts 2:38.  He began by quoting the verse:  “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent and do that thing that your pastor told me not to tell you!’  Every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Brother Keeble went on to quote many other scriptures in the same way, until finally the pastor on the front row said, ‘Go on and tell them, Pastor Kebble.  Go on and tell them.”  Brother Keeble did go on to tell them.  In fact, he went on to eventually baptize that pastor and many of the members of his church!  [Source:  Amanzo Jones, “Marshall Keeble,” Gospel Advocate, July 2011, pages 21-22]
The churches of Christ are my people because they’re still a people of the book, and God forbid that we should ever depart from that authority!
Did you notice, in our text tonight, that before Paul chastised the Corinthians for their division, he first based his appeal on ● “the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”?
●And did you notice, after he rebuked them for splitting the church, he asked “Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Were you baptized into the name of Paul?”
And did you notice that he capped his correction by taking the Corinthians to the Cross?
q       ● “For the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, ●but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” – Verse 18.

q       ● “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, ●but WE PREACH CHRIST CRUCIFIED” – Verses 22-23a

To be a church of Christ means to be a church “of Christ”!  Otherwise the signs in front of our buildings are meaningless.  It all comes back to Jesus:
q       Jesus loved, lived, and quoted the Scriptures; so we need to respect and obey the Word of God as well.

q       Jesus loved all people, regardless of their background; so there is no room for racial prejudice in a true church of Christ

q       Jesus rescued the poor woman in John 8 who was made the pawn of the Pharisees, so there is no place for mistreating women in a church that claims the name of Jesus.
q       Jesus was a friend of sinners, so none of his followers can ever afford the luxury of a self-righteous snobbery, of looking down their pious noses at those “sinners.”

Unity is not our ultimate goal – restoration is not our ultimate goal – they are only means to an end.  The true value in going back to the Bible is not simply to reproduce the patterns of the first century church, but to eliminate any man-made traditions and obstructions that prevent people from coming to Christ!
Years ago I was reminded of this when I invited a friend to visit our worship service.  Richard was a Pentecostal, and we were having a Bible study together.  Everything was fine during the worship until we got to the communion service – my friend began to cry, to just weep.  I thought, “Oh no, what have we done to offend him?”  After worship I asked him, “Richard, I couldn’t help but notice you crying during communion:  is it something we said or did?”
He replied, “Oh no, Dan, you don’t understand. That’s my time with my Lord, and we only observe the Lord’s Supper every three months at my church.  I have begged the leaders of my church to have communion every Sunday, but they won’t.”
When I used to preach sermons on the frequency of the Lord’s Supper I would quote proof texts or cite church history.  But Richard’s reaction reminded me that the most important thing is not the restoration of the church of Christ, but a real relationship with Christ.  Now, when I preach those sermons, I also make sure to say that the reason we observe this memorial to the Lord so frequently is because meeting at the table was the last wish of a dying man, and that man died for me!
And that reminds me of one other thing you’ll always find in a church of Christ:  an INVITATION to make Jesus the Lord of your life!

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