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Order Of Worship (Liturgy)
Reading – Ephesians 3:14 - 4:16
Sermon – Lord’s Day 21
Hy 1 A
Brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, what sets us in this place apart? As a group of people what makes us different from the Rotary Club, from an association of concerned citizens, or from so many other groups of people in this city? What makes us unique? Or are we even unique? Some might point to the Dutch heritage that many of us share. Others might say all of us lean to the right of the political spectrum. Or perhaps we’re set apart from our fellow citizens by being "religious-minded," so much so that we gather two times every Sunday.
We might be unique for any of these reasons, and more. Yet, some of these are only surface matters, and some grow out of a different, deeper, more fundamental root. For we are unique, and set apart, because we are church.
What does it mean that we are church? Well, we’re not "church" in the sense that this building is our identity. Neither are we "church" in the sense that "church" is just another name for a club or association, as if we might just as well be called "The Canadian Reformed Lodge." No, we are church and therefore we’re different, because the church is a possession of God himself! In this connection, some writers give an explanation of the origin of that old word "church." It’s traced to the original Greek word kuriakos, which means "belonging to the Lord." In time, kuriakos became "kirk," which became the English word "church" – thus, a church "belongs to the Lord."
Interesting as that may be, our status of course arises not from obscure histories of words, but from what God clearly says in the Word. In the Scriptures He does declare, "You belong to me," but then He says and does so much more. We are church – we are God’s greatest work here on earth! If we were only unique because of our heritage, or because of our political views, or because of our religious feelings, we could never be so bold as to confess every Sunday: "I believe a holy catholic Christian church." But with the same mouth that professes, "I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth… I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord… I believe in God, the Holy Spirit" – with the same mouth we profess, as an article of our undoubted faith, "I believe a holy catholic Christian church."
It’s God’s church! How glad we must be then, to say, "I belong here, in the assembly of his people!" And it’s only through God’s Son that we are here at all. That’s why in the Catechism, Jesus Christ is at the centre from the very first line: "What do you believe concerning the… church? I believe that the Son of God, out of the whole human race…" (Q&A 54). Those who believe in Jesus Christ are forgiven. He welcomes to himself each one who confesses, "Jesus is Lord." This is millions of individual Christians, individuals all together forming the community of those who have received grace at the cross. May this confession be yours:
"I belong to Christ’s community of the forgiven." We’ll consider:
- Christ’s grace and my comfort
- Christ’s gifts and my calling
1. Christ’s grace and my comfort: You might’ve heard the story of the famous Christian whose sojourn on earth had come to an end. Now this fellow was a "great" Christian, if such a thing could be said. He had done much work for the Kingdom of God on earth. He had founded organizations to help the down-trodden. He had contributed much money to the causes of mission and evangelism, and was himself a street-preacher for a while in a major city. He had written several books that taught and encouraged other believers. And during all his years, above all, he had modeled to his wife, his children, his fellow church members and to his unbelieving neighbors what a true Christian ought to be.
The time had come for this man to die, and he talked with his family about his coming funeral. Talk turned to the matter of his tombstone. What did he want written on the plaque that would mark his grave? A brief summary of all his many Kingdom labours? An eloquent description of how much he meant to those whose lives he had touched? "No," the man replied; "Let only one thing be written on my tombstone, and just one word inscribed: FORGIVEN." Those who’d later come to the graveyard to remember him, and people who’d just happen to be walking by, would all know only one thing about the person whose grave this simple stone marked: He or she was forgiven, forgiven in the sight of God.
For that, truly, is all that matters. That’s what matters to the man slowly dying on his bed at home. That’s what matters to the family who mourns the passing of their mother and Oma. And that’s what should matter to all of us, whom death may visit at any time. Are you forgiven? Today and for eternity, do you belong to Christ’s glorious community of those washed in his blood?
For not everyone will be able to write such a happy description as that nameless Christian man did. The Catechism says the Son of God crafts his church "out of the whole human race" (Q&A 54). That is, from out the multitudes of condemned sinners, from out of that pit filled with people lost in their dark misery, Christ has plucked some who belong to him. Since the first sin, "the whole human race," every single person, has been destined for the eternal grave, destined for a mass grave marked: CONDEMNED. Yet all along God has done his choosing, freely deciding to save some, and to leave others.
Even "from the beginning of the world" the Catechism says (Q&A 54), God gave the promise of his grace to his church: "Satan’s head will be crushed!" (Gen 3:15). From that moment on, Christ began gathering the godly children of Adam and Eve to himself. And after the covenant was made with Abraham, no matter what happened – slavery, war, famine, exile – his descendants were preserved, and their eyes directed to one on the horizon.
Will God then, save only a handful from the Pit? Will the Son of God gather as his church only as many as can fill the land of Palestine? No, the promises He gave to Adam, to Abraham, and to Israel his nation, He gives also to us! The gift of Christ is so rich God couldn’t restrict it to only a few.
Again, we all know many do not belong to Christ. Many do not believe, so many will be left outside the ark, knocking and pleading frantically that they might come in, while the waters of judgment quickly rise. Nevertheless, Christ’s grace is bestowed on many, and forgiveness granted not to few, but to a numberless host.
Think of Rev 7:9, where John sees in heaven "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language." Wearing white robes and holding palm branches, they stand before the Lamb and sing, "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb" (v 10).
These are the blessed ones who’ll "never come into condemnation" (Q&A 56). These are they who could write of themselves in confidence: FORGIVEN. Gathered, defended and preserved by Christ until the end, now they’ve finally put away the clothing stained with sin and put on the white robes of purity – robes washed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14).
Not because Israel was such a great nation did God choose her as his church. Not because God knows we’ll sing well in heaven did He choose us "to everlasting life" (Q&A 54). No, "I believe that God, because of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins… but will graciously grant me [his] righteousness" (Q&A 56). Only by God’s grace in Christ, are we church. By faith in Christ, we the church have comfort – unchanging, unrelenting, unending, unfading comfort – comfort founded on the complete forgiveness of all our sins!
Do you remember the last time you sinned? Sure you do. The nasty thought against your brother in the next pew? Your daydream while God was speaking in his Word? Surely you remember many sins – the shameful lust, the thing you weren’t supposed to do but did, the invitation you were supposed to turn down but didn’t? Remember your sins? Well, God in heaven does not!
For the sake of Christ, "God… will no more remember my sins nor my sinful nature." People like to bring up the past wrongs, past grievances, past failures of others – even 5, 10, 30 years later. But God will not! "As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us" (Ps 103:12). We are an assembly of wretched sinners whose wickedness God remembers no more!
This is a beautiful truth, and not one of us can fully comprehend it. Indeed, after years and years of sitting in our padded pews, we might hardly give a second thought to what it means to be a member of Christ’s church. Does membership here really make us so special, we wonder? Are we so set apart by being church? Isn’t "church" just something that we do, because our parents did, and their parents did?
But listen to what Paul writes to the believers at Ephesus. Fewer of them than us were "born into the church," and far more were converts from paganism, yet Paul prays that even these new and enthusiastic Christians might understand more and more what they have: "I pray that you… may have power… to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge" (3:17-19).
Beloved, heeding the words of Paul, go home this afternoon and ponder for a while what it means that you’re forgiven. Reflect on how much Christ loves you. Consider how much Christ loves us. Let us pray to receive a new enthusiasm for being part of the church of Jesus Christ! Let’s take hold of the love of Jesus for us, his body!
For "He is the Head" says Paul (Eph 4:15), and, just as elementary biology will tell you, without the head, the body is useless and dead. But with the head there is life and direction, there is purpose and drive. He is Head, and not of a single member, but of a whole collection of members. He is Head of a body.
Christ gives his grace to the covenant community, gathered in his Name. Here we listen to the gospel proclaimed. Here we see and taste and hear the visible tokens of God’s love. Here we’re built up in Christian fellowship. That we aren’t alone in the ship of salvation is even more comfort for us. Yes, we gather and pray and sing to the Triune God and to his glory, in the first place. But we also are lifted up by this worship. We’re encouraged when we hear other Christians raise their voices in praise; we’re inspired when we see their enthusiasm and witness their faith; we’re comforted when we know many are praying with us and for us.
Indeed, being a Christian and having communion with other saints are two sides of the same coin. For notice how the phrase "I believe" is repeated in Q&A 54. "I believe" that the Son of God does so many wondrous things for his church, and "I believe" that I am a living member of it. As members we receive living grace from our Head, and as members we must be alive for the rest of the body!
2. Christ’s gifts and my calling: There must be a connection from your hand to your head, if your hand is to serve your body in any way. Otherwise your hand is pointless and dead. In a similar way, we must have communion with Christ before we can have true communion with others. Otherwise we’d be just a room full of severed limbs, separate from one another, and altogether useless.
But faith in Christ unites us! And one of the greatest gifts that flows from Christ’s fountain of grace is that He changes our view of those around us. By nature, we must admit, we look down on others, we hold grudges, we become jealous, and we merrily pass gossip along. But when a person truly knows Christ, his attitude toward all others is slowly transformed.
A Christian knows he’s nothing but a sinner, a born loser – therefore how dare he look down on others? A Christian knows that everything he has, he has received by grace – therefore how dare he withhold kindness from anyone? A Christian knows that God has forgiven him, that God has cast his sins into the depths of the sea, that God remembers his failures no more – therefore a Christian must also strive to forgive the wrongs his brother did, to put them away and never to bring them up again. And someone united to Christ knows that he must do all he can to serve this God who saved him – therefore he must always love and support those in his new family, the church.
Paul commands us all to lead a new and altered life: "Live a life worthy of the calling you have received" (Eph 4:1). And such a life simply can’t be lived in isolation or seclusion. It’s true, some members of the church are described in this way: "They’re on the fringes." This is said because these members aren’t involved; they don’t associate much with others; they might even have no use for the communion of saints in this place. But Scripture’s teaching is that there can be no such thing as a marginal member in the body of Christ! It’s a contradiction in terms!
For as soon as Paul has told us to live a "life worthy of our calling," he describes not a life that is focused inwards or concerned with its own affairs, but he describes a life that’s fully in communion with others. He commands, "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph 4:2-3). This is our calling – to live together as the family of God!
"But I don’t like other people. I have an issue with those members. I’m fine on my own. And so I’m going to stay home." Beloved, we have to see this as a hindering of the work of the Holy Spirit. For God tells us that the Holy Spirit works in and through this imperfect assembly. The Spirit helps us through the words and deeds of fellow Christians. A Christian can’t be on his own then, away from the fellowship of God’s people. A Christian can’t stay away from the worship services without reason or for some weak excuse. All who are forgiven in Christ must worship Christ together, and must have fellowship in Christ together!
Let none of us now point fingers at who might be "marginal," but let us all heed the calling to work in and for the church. That’s how the Catechism puts it, "Everyone is duty-bound to use his gifts… for the benefit and well-being of the other members" (Q&A 55). We must answer this calling, for everyone has received spiritual gifts from Christ.
Paul puts it this way, "To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it… When he ascended on high… [He] gave gifts to men" (Eph 4:7-8). If some members haven’t received any abilities from Christ, they might possibly be excused for not serving fellow saints. But Scripture always speaks of every member having a place, and speaks of every member serving a purpose. Again, Paul paints a picture of a body, formed of many diverse parts, but all parts given ability and a task: "From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph 4:16).
Each part does its work, for each part has a gift from Christ. Yes, perhaps the problem is sometimes we don’t recognize the gifts Christ has given. Some gifts are very obvious: leadership ability, skill in organizing, talent for counseling or teaching. But everyone has gifts. We must take the time to see these gifts; we must think on how we may use them; and then we must go and get to work!
What are you doing to serve the body of Christ? Can you be a listening ear to a troubled sister? Can you help a family who needs a meal? Can you participate when the evangelism committee asks for involvement? Can you give financially to the needs of others? Can you take care of some of the Sunday details: ushering, making coffee, playing organ or piano? Can you speak a word of encouragement to someone who needs it?
Sure, some members of the body have a smaller role to play than others – Paul says the same thing. Think again of the human body. You might say your ten toes are your forgotten parts; they’re way down below, hardly given any thought. But talk to someone who has lost a toe to a lawnmower or in some accident at work. Without that toe, he now must learn to carry his weight differently, even learn to walk all over again. He never paid it any attention, but he needs that humble toe. Beloved, we need every member! We need the young, the quiet, the old, the weak, the strong, the outgoing – each one.
The body suffers when one member stops working, or when a member is cut off. But the body thrives when all are doing their part. For only when we’re united and working together will we grow. Paul speaks of the great goal of Christ’s gifts to his church: "That the body of Christ may be built up, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13). If we want to grow as church, if we want to persevere as church, if we want to mature as church, if we want to meet each other in heaven, we need each other today!
Fellowship and the communion of saints aren’t just about having fun, though they certainly can be that. Fellowship is Christians getting together, and talking together about the road we are on together. Remember what Paul said in ch 3 about striving to understand Christ’s great love? He said, "I pray that you… may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep in the love of Christ." Together with all the saints, let us praise our God. Together let us talk about what Christ has done for us. Together let us study the Word of God.
In this place we’re united, not because of our physical or cultural heritage, or because of habits we inherited. We’re united, and we’re also set apart, because of Christ. Paul is emphatic about this bond that we have, "There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" (Eph 4:4-5). This is a bond that nothing can break – not age, not hardship, not differences of opinion or differences of position.
Brothers and sisters, we are church. We belong to Christ. We belong to Christ’s community of the forgiven. And we belong together. Amen.
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service. Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2005, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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