Is a Good Church?
(This sermon is also available in audio.)
In his book Craddock Stories, Fred Craddock tells of a city's Chamber of Commerce advertising for some good churches to come to their town. Craddock says, "I'm sure they did not mean to cast any reflection on the ones they had; they just wanted to have some good ones. What is a good church?" (Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 76).
I smiled when I read that. I can't tell you the number of times I have invited people to First Baptist and said, "But we are a good Baptist church." What is a good church? Is your church a good church? Is Calvary a good church?
In the movie Saving Private Ryan, Pvt. James Ryan returns to Europe fifty years after his rescue from the war. He is an old man and he brings his family with him. He grieves at the grave of one who died to rescue him and he says to his family, "Tell me that I am a good man." There is the temptation on occasions like today to say to each other, "Tell me that we are a good church."
One day while Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, he startled the people and angered the religious leaders when he healed a crippled woman. But by this miracle of healing, Jesus gives us the measure by which we can judge our churches and ourselves. By this miracle of healing Jesus shows that love is the measure of a good church. That is a message that we need to hear again and again, because there are a lot of temptations to use other models to judge a good church.
is found in Luke 13:10-17:
Jesus was the guest preacher in the synagogue that Sabbath and before he was through, he was again embroiled in controversy-- stirring up trouble, pushing the boundaries of the acceptable, challenging social etiquette, disturbing the status quo, aggravating the religious leaders, and being a rebel. (You have to be careful who you invite to preach. It takes courage to invite a guest preacher. Calvary certainly understands that it takes courage to invite a guest preacher. You really never know what they are going to do.)
Jesus saw a woman with an obvious physical handicap and paused in the middle of his sermon. Now, if you want a non-controversial Jesus, you have to be holding your breath, saying, "Don't do it, Jesus. Just let it go and finish your sermon."
Two weeks ago, I was invited to preach for the 20th Anniversary of the church in Sugar Land that I pastored before coming to Memphis. My wife, Denise said, "Ken, don't say anything that will make them not ask you again." If Jesus had had a wife, she would have been saying, "Don't do it, Jesus." But you know that Jesus is not going to let it go. Jesus was anything but non-controversial. "Woman, you are set free from your ailment. Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and began praising God."
It is easy for us to read this story from our 21st century perspective and miss the point. But the people reading it in Jesus day did not miss the point. They got the point. In fact, the synagogue leader was so offended by Jesus' actions that he spoke out in correction. Imagine that I said something so offensive that your interim rector, Bob Hansel, felt that he had to stand up and refute what had just been said. That is hard for you to even imagine. (Well, it may not be too difficult for some of you to imagine.) But that is exactly what happened at the synagogue that day. What did Jesus say and do?
In that ancient world, disease meant more than just physical illness. To be sick or handicapped also meant to be stigmatized--isolated and excluded from the religious community. To be diseased or wounded or handicapped carried a tremendous emotional cost. In her commentary on this text, Marva Dawn says that, " this woman probably hadn't been touched for eighteen years. Imagine the pain and isolation of that." (Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, p. 121). When Jesus said that Satan had bound her for eighteen years, it was not just physical bondage that she had suffered, as bad as that was. It was also the social and emotional and religious bondage.
Also in that ancient world, women were not allowed to participate in the worship of the synagogue. They could attend, but not participate. That ancient practice is reflected in Paul's instruction to the church that the women were to keep quiet and if they had a question, they could ask their husbands at home. This was the ancient practice of the synagogue. It is amazing to me that some people think this ancient practice is still required in the church today.
We recently ordained our Associate Pastor, Carol McCall Richardson. It made the front page of our local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. I received a letter from a local pastor in which he said, "While the world is on fire and our young men are having to go to war against our enemies, you people feel it important and necessary to have your feelings vented on the front page of The Commercial Appeal, that you have ordained a woman to preach the gospel. Big deal!" Well, it was a pretty big deal. It was certainly a big deal to Carol. It was a pretty big deal to our church, all of whom love Carol. It is also a big deal to remember that our young men and our young women are fighting a war against a repressive religious government that opposes the freedom of women. And it was a big deal when Jesus stopped the sermon and recognized this woman, healing her, and giving to her her rightful place in the worshipping community.
Also in that
ancient world, it was considered inappropriate for a man and woman to
touch in public. When Jesus called the woman forward and laid his hands
on her right there in the synagogue in front of God and everybody and
healed her, there would have been a collective gasp. This was just not
done. If you are wanting a non-controversial Jesus, and most of us do,
he just disappointed you. Jesus has just violated several social and religious
taboos, but the worst of it all was that he violated the Scripture. That
was just too much for the synagogue leader.
The synagogue leader quoted almost verbatim Exodus 20:9. As far as the synagogue leader was concerned, Jesus had gone too far when he violated the Scripture. Jesus obviously knew the Scripture. Jesus obviously knew the Ten Commandments. Jesus obviously knew that this was going to be controversial. Was he just trying to be a rebel or was there something essential in his understanding of the kingdom of God that we need to hear? I believe that Jesus is teaching something essential about the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God, in Jesus' sermon and actions, is a place where love comes first-ahead of our biblical interpretations; ahead of our cultural traditions; ahead of our orthodox doctrines; and even ahead of our desire to be non-controversial. Now we are coming close to what a good church is. Is Calvary a good church? Is First Baptist a good church? Is your church a good church? Is it a place where love comes first?
James Forbes is pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City. He was recently asked about his church's position on some of the controversial issues of the day. He answered by saying, "We figure that there are two ways you can be condemned. You can be condemned for including people that God excludes. Or you can be condemned for excluding people that God includes. We decided in our church that if we had to choose, we would condemned for including people" (James Forbes, spoken at the Stetson Pastors' School, Jan. 30, '02). That's a good church.
says that he has preached the story of the Prodigal Son for many years
without thinking about the party that is held when the son comes home.
Is this a good church? Tell me that after all these years, this is a good church.
But in the kingdom of God what we are is not as important as what we are striving towards. Strive to love God with your whole heart and mind and soul and body and your neighbor as yourself and you will be a good church, whether you know it or not.
Copyright 2002 The Rev. Dr. Kenneth A. Corr
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