The title of this morning’s homily is, “What is the Purpose of the Church?” From the outset, this title is too big of a question for a short homily. It could easily be a series of homilies or even a Ph. D dissertation. It is a BIG question. In fact I can’t possibly explore the depth of this in a few minutes, however, our Scripture readings this morning give us insights into a couple of facets of the reason the Church exists.
Last week, I spoke about the liturgical season we have been in the past two, now three weeks. It is a transition from the Paschal season to Pentecost. Last Sunday was the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit came upon believers to equip them for ministry to the world. This, of course, is one of the primary reasons for the existence of the Church- to spread the good news of salvation. Indeed, the Great Commission itself tells us of one of the primary reasons for the Church’s existence: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Here we see that the reason for the Church is to spread the Gospel, to administer sacraments (baptism), and equipping the new believers- which in both ancient and modern times takes place in the catechumenate. From the Great Commision then, we see that one of the primary purposes of the Church is to evangelize, administer sacraments such as baptism, and prepare converts for life in the faith.
Evangelism, however, is also accomplished in other ways. Consider this morning’s gospel reading. The first part is about basic human compassion and sacrifice for those around us. Jesus says, “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.” The point is to give of ourselves freely to those in need. We are to offer to help others freely because they are God’s good creation. This flies in the face of what society teaches us. Our world teaches us to value material items, it carefully trains us to be materialistic.
The whole field of advertising is designed to get you to desire a product you may not need or want. Our consumer society leads us to desire more and more- we have, as economists say, “unlimited wants”. Our desires lead to greed and greed is the enemy of human compassion to those in genuine need. Jesus uses the idea of giving over your cloak to show that even the things that you are currently using may be fair game. If we have a coat and someone isfreezing, can we offer it to them? This is easy in concept, but challenging to actually put into practice.
So what does this have to do with evangelism? One is reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow, a psychologist, argued that there are stages of needs that humans have. Basic needs need to be met in order for the person to advance to a higher state. We see this in education. If the base need of hunger is not met, a student can’t focus enough to learn. Thus the advent of food programs. Likewise, meeting people’s basic needs is the first step to their salvation. Interestingly enough, I founda statement from the Salvation Army to this effect, “At the Salvation Army - Fox Cities, we know that feeding the person is the first step before you can feed the soul.” Evangelism includes meeting people’s basic needs. Needs met opens the heart to the message of the Gospel.
While this passage is specifically about giving material things to those who are in need of physical / material help, the principles are applicable to other areas beyond the material. Can we freely offer a listening ear, our compassion, kindness, and empathy to those in need? Humanity has more than material needs, although those are the most basic that we should seek to help others with. Often giving of our time and emotional self is a challenge. Like physical needs, meeting emotional needs is also a doorway to being able to share the faith.
But then Jesus offers perhaps a harder challenge: “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” This is easy to gloss over, but if you think about it, this is highly counter-cultural. The world doesn’ teach us to love our enemies- it teaches us to hate them and not only to hate them, but to seek revenge, to get “even”. The world is full of Hatfields and McCoys- people who take a dispute and escalate it until it reaches grand scales and massive carnage. We are taught to vilify, gossip, and undermine our enemies.
If you still doubt me, consider our politics these days. Each side demonizes the other. There is never any good on the other side- they never have a valid point. OUr politics have become simple. If you don’t share my viewpoint you are evil, a Nazi, a Commie, racist, an extremist, hack, any number of phobes, the list goes on.... The generalization and stereotyping is overused by both sides to almost become meaningless- except that the levels of malice are so great it is nauseating. It is reaching the point that words, on both sides, are spurring people to evil actions against those they choose to neither understand or see as human beings.
God has another way. He calls us to have compassion on our enemies. To pray for them. To love them. Love doesn’t always mean agreement. But it does mean having compassion and looking out for the best interest of others. An acquaintance of mine once defined loves as “authentic concern for the legitimate interests of others.” I like this definition. It doesn’t call for overly emotional love, it doesn’t call for a false face. It calls for genuine compassion and looking out for our fellow men and women.
This is what we are called to and it is very difficult to achieve when the approach is not reciprocated. It is difficult to love those who vilify us, attack us at work, undermine us, gossip against us.... But this is exactly what Christ calls us to do when he tells us to turn the other cheek.
Returning to evangelism... what would be the impact if Christians lived this out. What if we balanced our steadfast beliefs with genuine love. Many Christians are openly hostile to those who have different lifestyles or have made life choices that are counter to what we believe God has called us to. But what if we, as Christians, demonstrated genuine compassion rather than non-stop criticism. What if we refused to be bated by those who hate us and attack us and instead offer a kind word. Would it change people’s perceptions of us? Would some be intrigued?
We have been talking this morning about the purpose of the Church. We have talked about evangelism, sacraments, and equipping of new believers as some of those reasons we exist as a body. There is one more from our passage I’d like to address. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, writes,“I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine.”
Another reason we exist is to equip each other, to encourage the use of all our spiritual gifts on behalf of the community and the world, but also to encourage each other. If we are to live sacrificially for the world, if we are to seek to live a holy life, if we seek to love those who do us harm- we will need support. No one, save Christ himself, can do this on their own. We need each other for mutual support and encouragement. When we are frustrated with those who hate us, we need someone to remind us what our end goals are.
When we struggle with sin, psychological stresses, or other troubles in our lives- we need words of compassion and support. This is why meeting together is so important. We cannot succeed in living the faith in isolation. Even the monks of the desert needed fellowship on occasion. We, living in a secular, hostile world, need it all the more. BUt glory to Jesus Christ, who gave us his spirit and established his church for just this reason.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Deacon Kevin Haan, from his Homily on Saturday, June 13