June 24th, 2012

We are prisoners of the Lord who say to him, “Yes, sir!”

Ephesians 4:1-16

June 24, 2012

(This sermon was preached at Morning Star First Baptist Church in Hickory, NC.)

Be like Dave

Friends, it is an honor to be standing in the pulpit where my good friend, Dave Roberts, preaches the Word every Sunday, and before him, Rev. Dr. Webster Lytle, whom I always admired from afar.  Too far.  I wish now I had humbled myself to spend more time with him.  I still deeply appreciate his life, but I don’t know him as well as I know Rev. Roberts.

When I grow up, I want to be like Dave Roberts.  He’s tall, strong, loves God passionately, and cares for people.  He’s an extrovert, and I’m not.  And he smiles.

I don’t smile enough, people tell me.  I do smile.  I smile at Christmas, on my birthday, and when I’m eating ice cream.  Dave Roberts smiles all the time, so I’d like to be like him.

The problem is that I don’t do well trying to imitate somebody else.  In my first church people used to ask me to do what the former pastor did.  Rev. Marlin Schaeffer was an extrovert like Dave Roberts.  He would finish every service by walking down the aisle as he gave the benediction, looking at people in the eye.  He would even smile as he walked. Several people reminded me early during my ministry how meaningful that was, and asked if I would give the benediction that way.  So finally, one day I decided to try it.  I held my hands up and walked down the aisle while I gave them a blessing.  I was so stiff and stern-faced that nobody ever asked me to do that again.  What was good for Rev. Schaeffer was awkward for Rev. Thompson.

I have made the same mistake at times in pulpit exchanges.  You see, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but most black preachers preach with a different style than white preachers.  What I do my black friends call “teaching,” not “preaching.”  They engage the soul; I engage the mind.  That’s an oversimplification, of course, because they are also speaking to the mind and I want your soul.  But my African American colleagues know how to stir up a crowd with passion.  They energize the congregation, who then talks back.  On most days when I preach in my church I’m lucky to get a smile back.  Maybe if I would smile first.

What I’ve tried to do sometimes in the past is imitate black pastors when I preach in their churches.  I’m about as good at it as I am with a walking benediction.

Today I decided, I’m not going to try to be black.  I heard a long time ago that white men can’t jump, and I don’t know any white man that can preach like Dave Roberts.  So I’m not going to try.  Besides, the whole point of a pulpit exchange is that you experience something different than what you’re used to.

If you want to say Amen, it’s OK.  I hope I say at least a few things you agree with.  But I might also say some strange things you don’t like.  If we agree on everything, one of us isn’t necessary.  I pray the Spirit of God will enable my brother Dave to challenge my congregation with some ways of thinking about God and looking at the Bible that they are not used to hearing.  I pray I can do the same here.

My sermon is titled “The Humble Church,” and it flows out of a book I’m working on this summer on “The Humble Mind.”  Humility is about learning to think in simple phrases, like “I don’t know,” “I choose us,” “Speak, Lord,” and “I could be wrong.”  Let me say it again: humility is about how you think, more than what you say or do.  If your mind is humble, it will flow into your words and actions.  If the thoughts in your brain are proud, people will know that your attempt to be humble in public is just a show.  Jesus himself said, “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Matthew 12:34).

Today, I want to apply this principle of a humble mind to the church.  What are some of the simple phrases that humble people think in church?  The Apostle Paul suggests several such phrases in Ephesians 4:1-16.

Yes, Sir.

Paul begins this passage, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”  Notice how Paul thinks of himself.  He is a “prisoner for the Lord.”  Elsewhere he speaks of himself as a slave of God (Romans 6:22), a servant of Christ (Titus 1:1), or even a soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:3).

What do prisoners, slaves, servants, and soldiers have in common?  They know how to say, “Yes, Sir!”  They are not in charge of their own lives, their schedules.  They don’t think much about their rights or their independence.  They do what they are told.

Paul says, “I am a prisoner for the Lord.”  I’m not sure the word “for” is the best translation.  The word is “in” or “of.”  Paul is literally in a Roman prison as he writes this letter, but he knows that Roman guard is not really in charge of him.  He is a prisoner of the Lord.  It is an imprisonment he has chosen, and he still chooses every day of his life.

I may have to say “Yes, Sir” out loud to this sentry, Paul says, but in my mind I choose to say “Yes, Sir” to my Lord.  My calling in life is complete loyalty to him.  You Ephesians, he tells them, I want you to see that and do the same.  “Life a life worthy of the calling you have received.”  Walk around thinking, “Yes, Sir” to your Lord.

What difference might it make in a humble church if all its members walked in that door thinking, “Yes, Sir”?  It’s not about saying it out loud; it’s how you think.  You hear God saying, “I need you to welcome that stranger over there into your midst.”  “Yes, Sir.”  “I want you to return to me at least 10% of what I have given you.”  “Yes, Sir.”  “I want you to give something extra so that child can go to camp.”  “Yes, Sir.”  “I want you to embrace the least of these and love the poor in my name.”  “Yes, Sir.”  I want you to forgive that brother who has offended you.”  “Yes, Sir.”

A pastor friend of mine once told me about a woman who stopped coming to church for years.  The pastor went to visit her and she said, “Well, so-and-so hurt my feelings and I can’t forgive her.”  The pastor said, “Don’t you know that Jesus said if you don’t forgive others he won’t forgive you?”  She answered, “I’ll take my chances.”

That’s not a “Yes, Sir” mind, is it?  In the humble church God’s people listen for what God is saying, how he is calling.  We don’t offer excuses.  We don’t delay.  I am a prisoner of the Lord.  “Yes, Sir.”

I can wait.

Paul continues in verse 2, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”  It’s the word “humble” that catches my attention, of course, because that’s the theme of what I’m writing about.  But what does humility look like?

Humility is first of all vertical.  It is looking up to God and saying, “Yes, Sir.”  But the problem with vertical humility is that it is unverifiable.  I can look like I’m in church to worship, but my mind is really thinking about how LeBron James finally won a championship.  I can bow my head to pray, but I’m really angry at my kids.  Who knows what’s going on inside me?  I can give away all my possessions, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, but if I don’t love, it’s worth nothing.

In other words, vertical humility doesn’t mean anything unless there is horizontal humility.  I’m not humble toward God if I’m not humble toward other people.  I’m not really saying, “Yes, Sir” to God unless I am, as Paul says here, gentle and patient.

That’s why in a humble church people walk around thinking, “I can wait.”  Paul says “bear with one another in love.”  A simpler way to say it is, “Put up with each other.”

I have people say to me from time to time, “I don’t come to church because of all the hypocrites.”  I want to say, “Come on and join us; one more won’t hurt.”

Why do people need to tell me there are hypocrites in church?  Don’t they think I know?  I see them up close and personal.  I like to say, “The biggest problem with churches is that they’re full of sinners.”  Everywhere you look.  I’m the chief of sinners.

The church isn’t a place for perfect people.  It’s for people in process.  God’s going to finish what he started (Philippians 1:6), but he just started!  Every one of us, as one of my young people said recently, is a “dirty rotten sinner.”  In a humble church, we don’t expect otherwise.  Humility is being suspicious of yourself and giving grace to others.

Fellow sinner, I know you haven’t arrived yet.  I can wait.  You don’t have to be perfect for me to call you “brother” or “sister.”  If, when I notice your sins, I think to myself, “I can wait for God to finish his work in you,” my words will be kinder and my actions will be more grace-filled to you.  And maybe, just maybe that will inspire you to say, “I can wait” right back at me.

I can’t add.

Christians are not very good at Math, as Paul illustrates in the next section.  A humble church, he says, lives in harmony.  “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

I find it interesting that he says to “keep” the unity of the Spirit.  You already have unity.  Preserve it.

I grew up in a family with one older sister and four brothers.  We brothers, especially, we fought.  I can still picture the Friday night when my brother and I started hitting each other in the bathroom.  I don’t know what the fight was all about, but I remember what my Dad said.  “You are not going to the football game tonight.”  It was a hard lesson.

When brothers disagree, their parents don’t say, “I hope one day we will become a family.”  What do they say?  “You are family, so act like it.”   That’s what Paul is saying here.  “You have unity.  Keep it.”

Then comes the part where he’s bad in Math.  Paul says, “There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”  So we believe in one Father + one Jesus + one Holy Spirit.   So how many gods are there? 1+1+1=1!  We do the same with baptism.  We might have immersion over here and sprinkling over there and a baby baptism over there.  How many baptisms does that add up to?  One!  We may have a Baptist church on this corner, an AME church on the corner, a Presbyterian church downtown, a Catholic church on 127 North, a Reformed church in Viewmont, but how many faiths are there?  1+1+1+1+1+1=1.  We may have a black church here and a white church over there and Hispanic church up there, but how many bodies of Christ are there? 1+1+1+1+1=1.

“I can’t add” is a humble way to think in church.  One of you plus one of me = one in Christ.  We may not feel it, we may not look like it, but we’re going to live it.

When I think of you as one with me, together we can work and serve. We are not in competition.  We are on the same team, doing God’s work as best we can.

God did it.

Starting in verse 7, Paul changes the subject from unity to diversity.  His math confusion is now in reverse.  Before it was 1+1=1.  Now it’s 1=1+1.  The one body is many different parts.  “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Grace is such a beautiful word in the Bible.  It means “God did it.”  You will never be humble until you grasp God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  In premarital counseling I always be sure the couple first of all knows their broken, sinful state before a loving God who gave his Son to die for them.  “Marriage,” I tell them, “is not about finding the perfect person.  It’s about learning to live with an imperfect person.  The more I understand how much I have been forgiven by God the more I can forgive this flawed human being who messes up every single day.”

Grace starts with our salvation.  I was broken and far from God, but now I’m forgiven and free. God did it.  I was in a miry pit, but now my feet are on a rock. God did it.  A man is set free from the prison of his addiction.  God did it.  A woman finds a new job to feed her family.  God did it.  The choir moved us with their selection. God did it.  A new building was erected.  God did it.  That’s how we think in a humble church.

All over this congregation there are folks with gifts from God.  Some pray with great faith.  God did it.  Some teach the Word in an understandable way.  God did it.  Some can make a pie to die for at the church supper.  God did it.  Some know just the right words to say when a brother is down.  God did it.  Some give sacrificially – not just in the offering plate, but they can tell when a sister has lost hope for putting food on the table.  God did it.  Some step out into the community and everywhere they go they just smell like Jesus.  God did it.

In a humble church we see human faces all around doing God’s work.  Our lips say, “Thank you,” but our minds think, “God did it.”

I’m here to serve.

In verses 8-13 Paul gives one of his classic teachings on spiritual gifts.  Christ descended to the earth, he says, so that he could ascend to heaven and “give gifts to men” (8).  Right now, seated at the right hand of God, his passion is giving gifts.  Paul seems almost to picture Jesus like we think of Santa at the North Pole.  He’s up there, out of sights, for the sole purpose of giving gifts.

But here’s the big difference.  Santa gives gifts for children to enjoy for themselves.  Jesus gives gifts so that we can serve others.

One of the simple phrases that dwells in the minds of a humble church is, “I’m here to serve.”

When I was a young man, I read a book called Body Life by Ray Stedman, a California pastor.  Pastor Stedman compared the church to a football team – 22 men on the field desperately in need of rest, and 20,000 in the stands, desperately in need of exercise![1]

Paul says that God gave the church leaders – he calls them apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers.  But look what he says in verse 12.  They are not there to do the work of the ministry.  They are to equip God’s people to do the work of the ministry.

The word “ministry” is also the word for “servant.”  So my NIV Bible says, “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so 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.”

Do you know why there are so many spiritual babies in the church?  Because of all those who come to church to be served instead of to serve.

In a humble church people don’t have to say it out loud, but everywhere they go in their minds they are thinking, “How can I serve?”  It cuts down on a lot of griping in the church when instead of asking, “Why didn’t that job get done?” we ask, “How can I serve?”  The saints of God in times of old didn’t ask, “Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?”  They asked, “How can I serve?  What difference can I make?”

Paul didn’t ask, “Why isn’t anyone taking the Gospel to the Gentiles?” He asked, “How can I serve?” and went to Asia.  St. Augustine didn’t ask, “Why don’t people understand the Bible?”  He asked, “How can I serve?” and wrote his Confessions.  St. Francis didn’t ask, “Why doesn’t anyone care for the lepers?”  He asked, “How can I serve?” and lived in the leper colony to dress their wounds.  Martin Luther didn’t ask, “Why won’t anyone stand up for the Gospel?”  He asked, “How can I serve?” and took his stand on the Word of God.  Mother Teresa didn’t ask, “Why does no one serve the poorest of the poor in India?”  She asked, “How can I serve?” and established 610 missions in 123 countries during her lifetime to serve orphans, the hungry, and those with HIV/AIDS.  Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t ask, “Why won’t people advocate for justice?”  He asked, “How can I serve?” and then boycotted the buses of Montgomery, Alabama, marched in the streets from Selma to Washington, and advocated for the cause of civil disobedience to the point of being a prisoner for the Lord and a martyr for the cause of liberty and justice for all.

The members of a humble church are not asking, “Why don’t you do something?”  They remember that Jesus is in his workshop giving gifts.  I have gifts and you have gifts.  The question is, “How can I serve?”

I could be wrong.

Paul closes this section of his letter by warning us about the possibility of being “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (14)  He wants us “in all things to grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (15), because “from him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”  That sounds like a humble church, doesn’t it?

As I was reading that paragraph, I skipped over one key phrase on purpose.  I believe it’s the most important five words in that paragraph.  How does this “growing up” happen?  By “speaking the truth in love” (15).  It’s hard to get love and truth into the same “speaking,” isn’t it?  Usually we want to love without telling the truth or tell the truth without loving.

In a humble church we are looking for ways to speak the truth in love.  We are also looking for ways to listen to the truth in love.  Why?  Because I could be wrong.

Not long ago I read a book by Shane Hipps, a Mennonite pastor.  The book is called Flickering Pixels, and it’s a warning against allowing technology to take over the church.  What impressed me about the book, though, was that Hipps writes a whole chapter about the fact that he might be wrong.  Not many people write books and admit, “I could be wrong.”

In that chapter, Hipps tells the story of a member of his congregation named Paul who was 21 years old when he was drafted into World War II.  As a Mennonite, Paul was a conscientious objector to the war.  He did not believe in killing, not even his nation’s enemy.  It was his right not to go to war, but his alternative service landed him a job at a Rhode Island mental hospital.  In retaliation for his convictions, Paul was given duty on the most violent ward of the hospital, where he suffered incessant physical and verbal abuse – but he never fought back.  He took it.

Pastor Hipps said he recently asked Paul, now 86, why he didn’t just go in the Army.  And why he did he not use physical force with the patients, as others did?

Paul answered, “Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek.  Jesus was nonviolent.  And my best understanding is that I am supposed to imitate that.  So that’s what I did.”

He paused, then continued.  “But…I could be wrong.”

Wow.  Sixty-five years of living out a life of costly conviction, and he can still say, “I could be wrong.”  That’s humility.

The only way we can join hands on this journey and help each grow up into  Christ is with humility.

One God

That’s a little about a humble mind thinks in church: “Yes, Sir,”  “I can wait.”  “I can’t add.”  “God did it.”  “I’m here to serve.”  “I could be wrong.”  These are all phrases that a humble mind thinks.

But perhaps the best reminder for a humble mind is what Paul says back in verse 6:  “There is one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  To say that another way, there is only one God, and it’s not me.

Humility is the willingness to admit that I am one of more than two billion Christians in the world.  I might not be the best one!  My church is one of 335,000 religious congregations in the United States, and mine might not have it “together” the most.  There are more than 20,000 denominations in the world, and it’s just possible my denomination is not right about everything.  Fifty generations have come and gone since the time of Christ.  Looking back, I can see where all the other 49 messed up.  Won’t future Christians say the same about us?

I am one of 7 billion people on a planet that looks like a pale blue dot in a solar system of nine planets revolving around the sun.  If I could leave the sun at the speed of a modern jet (550 miles an hour), it would take four million years to reach the next closest star.  There are at least 100 billion other stars in our corner of the universe, the Milky Way Galaxy.  There may be as many as 200 billion or more other galaxies.

And yet the Psalmist says, “He determines the number of the stars and calls each one by name” (Psalm 147:4).  The greatness of God and the smallness of man makes me humble.  The power of God and the weakness of man makes me humble.  The holiness of God and the sinfulness of man makes me humble.

But knowing he loves me makes me smile.  Knowing he called me into his eternal glory and into the ministry of the gospel makes me smile.  Being here with you today, glorying in the God we worship together and serve as one in Christ.  That makes even me smile.  Amen.

[1] Pages 78-79.

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