Have you ever had the experience of sitting in church and looking around, asking, "Is this all there is?" Maybe it was a Sunday in which the service just seemed to fall flat. Maybe one Sunday the sermon was so completely boring that you starting tapping your watch and thinking, "This can't be what God intended." Or the music was off. Maybe you've been in a church that had a high level of conflict, and you became disillusioned with what was happening. The question comes to mind, "Is this all there is?"
I have a friend who grew up without ever attending church. He somehow became a follower of Jesus Christ and began reading his Bible. He started to get excited about the church that he read about in the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament. Eventually he started visiting churches, and he was overcome with the feeling, "This isn't it! This isn't what I've been reading about!"
Even pastors go through this. Eugene Peterson writes about the dreams that pastors have about ministry. Then they actually start pastoring a church and find out that every church has furnaces that break and choirs that sing off key, and sinners in the pews. To make it worse, they discover that the pastor is a sinner too.
You might have asked yourself the question sometime in your church experience, "Is this all there is?"
The answer to that is no. This - if you think of church as what happens on Sunday as what church is. What happens here is good, but there's more.
Some of us think of church primarily as what happens on Sundays or whatever other time we come together. This morning I'd like to look back at a key event that reorients us to who the church is called to be and do, and it's far more than what could take place in a gathering like this. Please understand that I'm not criticizing gatherings like these. I am saying, though, that being the church, and doing what the church is called to do, takes more than these gatherings.
Specifically, I want to look at an event that should shape Richview in terms of two critical pieces of information. I'd like to look at who we are (our identity) and what we have been called to do (our mission).
Today is Ascension Sunday, the day that we remember Jesus' ascension to heaven. On that day, Jesus passed the baton to his followers. Forty days before he did this, on the same day that he was raised from the dead, Jesus began to prepare his followers for what would happen when he left.
The event we're going to examine today took place just hours after Jesus was raised. This was the first time that he had seen many of his followers after the resurrection. His followers are locked away in a secret location, afraid that if the Jewish leaders catch them, they'll be killed just as Jesus was killed a few days before.
They're afraid, and they're also probably feeling pretty bad about themselves. This hasn't been a good couple of days. Not only are they afraid for their lives, but they have let Jesus down. One of them has denied Jesus. Others have fled. They've heard the news that Jesus is alive again, and some of them are maybe a bit doubtful. Others are maybe afraid of what Jesus is going to say to them. Jesus could rightfully come and tell them off for how they've acted over the past few days.
Jesus does appear, and when he does a couple of things that look forward to his ascension, and that shape our understanding today of who we are and what he has called us to do. Let's look at what happened. It's found in John 20:19-23.
The first thing that Jesus does is:
1. Jesus re-establishes a relationship with us
John 20:19 says, "That evening, on the first day of the week, the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! 'Peace be with you,' he said."
Jesus could have said, "I've got something to say to you..." He could have condemned them for abandoning him. He could have criticized them for hiding. He didn't come, though, with a word of condemnation. He came instead with the everyday greeting, "Peace be with you."
In English, that sounds like he's saying a lot. That's not how we normally greet people. In that culture, not just back then but today, this was a standard greeting. Jesus came in and simply said our equivalent of "Hello." He repeated himself in verse 21, saying again, "Peace be with you." He knows who he's dealing with. He knows their doubts and their failings. Here, and in other conversations with his followers after his resurrection, he re-establishes a relationship with these very normal people. He doesn't write them off or dismiss them. He re-establishes a relationship with them.
Here's the thing about Jesus that we need to understand. He is very aware of our shortcomings. This week, the new president of the University of Toronto admitted that he was suffering from a case of impostor syndrome. "It was one of the more acute attacks of impostor syndrome that I've had," he said. "You have a real sense that this is an enormous responsibility and worry that this is something you've been chosen to do by some misunderstanding."
I think there is also such a thing as spiritual impostor syndrome, to think that God has chosen us due to some misunderstanding, or to think that God wouldn't have chosen us if he knew the truth about us. Of course, we know that God doesn't have any illusions about us. He's never surprised by how we let him down. It's not some misunderstanding. God looks at our lives, and he understands our weakness, and his word - because of what Christ has done for us - is, "Peace be with you."
When I was twelve, I started to struggle in an area of sin that I thought was really bad. I somehow thought that I was struggling in an area that was unusual for a person who claimed to be a Christian. I remember feeling overwhelmed with guilt. I talked to a couple of people I looked up to, and they recommended that I talk to my pastor about it.
I did. I was as nervous as anything. I suppose I was hoping that he would understand, and I was afraid that I would see this shocked look on his face when I admitted my struggle. I told him, and for a second - before he had a chance to recover - I could tell that he was truly shocked.
We need to remember that Jesus is never shocked by what we've been struggling with. He's not surprised or overwhelmed by our failures and our doubts. He knows, and he still comes to us - even in our failure and our fears - and re-establishes a relationship with us.
He even understands and reassures our doubts. "As he spoke, he held out his hands for them to see, and he showed them his side" (John 20:20). Jesus is not surprised by your sins and your doubts as he looks at you. He has no illusions about who you are.
This is huge,and it forms our identity, our understanding of who we are. We are, before anything else, a community of sinners who are in relationship with God not because of having it together. We are a community of people who are in relationship with God because Jesus looked at us in our weakness and said, "Peace be with you." We are a community of grace because we have received so much grace.
That is primarily how I understand who we are at Richview. A church isn't a building, but a community of people. The thing that ties us together as a group of people is that we are in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We are not in relationship with God because we are any better than anybody else. We are in relationship with God despite our weaknesses and failures and doubts. Jesus, who has no illusions about who we are, looks into our lives and says, "Peace be with you."
This is the basis of our identity. It shapes everything about us. It also means that as we come into contact with others, we don't go, "Ha! Sinner!" We live as those who have been forgiven, so we can live and explain grace and joy and peace and hope.
This is who we are - a group of people who know failure and doubt, but who are in relationship with Jesus. This is important but it's not enough. Jesus does something else as he meets his followers:
2. Jesus sends us into the world
Jesus re-establishes a relationship with his followers. He also gives them a job to do - one that is unbelievable, considering their failures. He passes the baton to them, and gives his job over to them.
This is the opposite of what you'd expect. These people fail the test, and Jesus comes to them and puts them in charge. Jesus looks at us, sees who we are, and still he gives us the responsibility of doing what he did during his ministry.
Verses 21-23 say:
He spoke to them again and said, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Then he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven. If you refuse to forgive them, they are unforgiven."
Jesus restates his mission - "As the Father has sent me..." Jesus talked a lot about being sent by his Father. Over and over again, he talked about the reason for his existence, and the reason for what he was doing. "As the Father has sent me..." Jesus served because Jesus was sent. He preached, healed, and forgave because that is what God called him to do. Jesus was always clear on his mission, what he was there to do.
Jesus accomplished this mission by going to those who were out of relationship with him. He talked about not going to the spiritually healthy but to those who weren't doing well spiritually. His ministry was grounded in the nature of God, who is a sending God.
You can capture the sweep of this throughout Scripture. One of the big macro-themes is the image of God. God made us in his image (imago dei). This image has been broken by sin. God's been working to restore that image, to undo the damage caused by sin. The Bible tells us that we're being changed into the image of Christ, who is in the image of God. He's restoring that image.
Another macro-theme is the mission of God (missio dei). God is on mission to restore that image. The whole Bible is about the mission of God. God chose a people to carry out his mission to bless the world. God sent his Son to carry out this mission. Now, Jesus gives the mission to those who follow him, to the glory of God (gloria dei).
This is what it's all about: the mission of God to restore the image of God in his people, to the glory of God. Jesus knew his mission.
Jesus gives us his mission - Jesus said, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21). He gives us his mission. This is why church as a gathering is not enough. Church is both a gathering of people who have had a relationship re-established with Jesus. It is also a group of people who have been sent by Jesus into the world, to live as he lived, to serve as he served.
This is the reason for our existence as a church, as a group of people. It's rooted in the very nature of God. God is a sending God. The Father sent Jesus; the Father and the Son sent the Spirit; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together send the church into the world.
Richview is a gathering of people. It is more than that too. We are a gathering of people who have been sent into the world, our world, to do what Jesus did. We've been called to enter the lives of people who are out there. We have been sent to leave our place of security, to risk ourselves, to travel to the places where people are, to go onto their turf rather than to expect them to come onto our turf. We've been called to become missionaries in our own societies, to understand our culture, to creatively engage the issues of the day. We've been sent into the world just as Christ as sent.
I find it fairly easy to remember who we are - imperfect people in relationship with Christ - compared to remembering what we're called to do. It's easy to focus on being in relationship with Christ and to forget about being on mission, on being sent just as Christ was sent. When we forget our mission, we soon find ourselves asking of church, "Is this all there is?"
A church can't exist without mission. It's not an add-on or part of what we do. There is no such thing as a missions budget. The entire budget of the church is the missions budget. The essence of the church is to live in relationship with God, sent into the world just as Christ was sent into the world.
You may have seen the movie The Terminal. It's about a man, Viktor Navorski, who travels to JFK from his native country, Krakozhia. Navorski gets stranded at the airport when Krakozhia is split apart by a civil war. He can't be allowed into the States because he doesn't have a country. He can't be deported because he has nowhere to go. Navorski ends up living at the airport.
When we remember who we are but forget our mission, we become like Navorski living at the airport. We're not home. It's easy for the church to get into airport mode, gathering together to wait for the flight home, maybe even trying to get other people to join us at the airport. We can even occasionally send representatives out from the airport to try to recruit others to join us in waiting for the plane home.
Jesus called us to something different than that. Jesus has sent us into the world, just as he came into the world. He calls us to leave the airport, to see our calling as those who are sent to live just as Jesus lived.
Think this is too much? I don't blame you. This is why Jesus breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit." We're going to look at this more next week.
God has called you. He's not surprised by your mistakes or doubts. He's given you the job to be sent to live and serve just as Jesus lived and served. Reggie McNeal says:
God must have a lot of confidence in you to put you on the planet at just this time. It was his sovereign decision to insert you onto planet earth during a time of huge transition. It takes incredible faith to lead [or follow Christ] during hinge points of history...Jesus doesn't slam you for your doubts, fears and uncertainties either. He wants to encourage you in your current assignment. (Reggie McNeal, The Present Future)
Some of us have been ordained as pastors. But some of you have an even higher calling. You've been ordained as teachers, firefighters, students, sales representatives, parents. You've been sent to where you live and work and study, just as Christ was sent.
You're not there by accident. God has strategically placed you there. He's given you all the resources you need. You have been sent. You are in relationship with God, and sent into the world to be a blessing to the world.
Last week, we started this missional confession. We're going to add a little to it every week. I'd invite you to stand and to read the second paragraph of this confession, to say, "Yes, this is what it's all about." Then I'd love to pray for you in the current assignment God has given you, where you live, study and work.
We believe that we are the church, that is, we are a community of God's people called and set apart to be a witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. We are blessed to be a blessing.
Just as the Father has sent his Son into the world for the sake of the world, Jesus has sent his Church into the world for the sake of the world.