Good things are happening at Central Christian Church as our church is on a mission. As we say every Sunday around this table, we are on a mission to be a church of extravagant welcome. We want to live up to the identity statement of our denomination and truly welcome all people to the Lord’s Table as God has graciously welcomed us. Because we believe when we graciously and generously welcome others, we welcome God. When we compassionately and lovingly include others, we include God. And when we welcome and include God in our lives, in our church, good things happen.
Here at Central we believe God is here with us. The spirit of the Risen Christ is here moving, working, stirring, calling, prodding, pulling, transforming. Central Christian Church is on a mission, and we are on this mission with none other than the Risen Christ himself.
Thus, I believe it is the Christ who is calling us today to be faithful disciples, and I believe he is calling us in the same way he called the first disciples, with the simple, yet powerful words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Jesus says that the first thing we need to do is decide if we want to follow him. He said: “If any want to be my followers…”
I have said in recent weeks that I believe the reason many churches are losing members today is because, for many, the does not look like a group of people who have decided to follow Jesus. Church members do not look like people on a mission for others, but look more like some type of religious club created for the members, to make them feel holier and superior than others.
This is perhaps why the first thing Jesus says we must do once we decide we want to follow him is to “deny ourselves.” This thing called “discipleship,” this thing called “church,” is not about us. It is not about achieving a good, happy and successful life or even an eternal life. It is not about receiving a blessing. It is about being a blessing others. It is not about feeding our souls. It is about feeding the hungry. It is not about finding a home. It is about welcoming the outcast and the homeless. It is not about acquiring spiritual riches. It is about giving everything away to the poor. It is not about getting ahead. It is about sharing with people who can barely get by. It is not about winning. It is about sacrifice. It is not about gaining eternal life for ourselves. It is about dying to self.
There is a reason that we do not make a habit of clapping in church after the choral anthem or after a solo. Because the music being offered is not for us. It is for God. It is not about sharing music to bless or uplift us. It is about sharing the best of what we have to praise God.
I believe the reason that churches struggle today is because, in our attempt to entice new members, excite new members, gain new members, we have made the church about us. We have said, “Come, and join our church where we have services and programs that are certain to benefit your life. Instead of saying: “Come, join our church, where you will be given opportunities to give your life away.” “Come, join our church, where you will be encouraged to sacrifice and serve and to deny yourselves.”
Jesus said, “Let them deny themselves, and take up their crosses.”
I don’t know how it happened, or precisely when it happened, but I can understand why it happened. At some point we have interpreted taking up and carrying our crosses to mean something completely different than what Jesus intended. Somehow, the crosses we bear have become synonymous with the pain and sufferings that we involuntarily put up with in life.
We say: “Diabetes: It’s my cross that I have to bear.” “Arthritis: It’s the cross I carry.” “Migraine headaches: It’s the cross that I have take up.” Anything from High Blood Pressure, heart disease and C.O.P.D. to a bad back, cold sores and varicose veins: “It’s the cross that I bear in this life.”
However, when Jesus is talking about cross bearing, he is talking about something completely different. He is not talking about some kind of involuntary pain and suffering that we are forced to put up with. He is talking about pain and suffering, the giving way of our lives, that we voluntarily choose for the sake of others.
On this fifteenth anniversary of 9-11, we remember a day of great tragedy for our nation, but also a day of great heroism. With much pride, admiration and gratitude we remember the first responders who gave their lives trying to rescue those trapped inside of those towers.
We also remember the men and women who, loving country more than self, gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting the war on terror. Every September 11, I think of my friend Christopher Cash, who did not hesitate to report for duty when his National Guard Unit was summoned to go to Iraq. And in Iraq, Chris carried a cross, meaning that he gave all that he had, as he lost his life in an ambush.
And of course, we do not have to be a first responder or join the military to carry a cross.
Adopting a resident in the nursing home to visit when the nursing home is the last place on earth you want to go may be a cross Jesus is calling you to bear.
Deciding to forgive someone who has wronged you and has caused indescribable pain in your life may be a cross you Jesus is calling to carry.
Electing to serve on the youth or children’s ministry team when you already have little or no time for yourself, may be a cross Jesus is calling you to pick up.
Agreeing to volunteer to feed the food insecure when your own cabinets are almost bare, may be a cross Christ is calling you to take up.
Picking a less lucrative career because you feel called to serve others might be a cross Jesus wants you to pick up.
Choosing to love someone when you know that loving that someone will inevitably bring enormous grief may be a cross Jesus wants you to bear.
Resolving to make a generous pledge to the church’s annual budget when your own budget is tight is a cross Jesus is calling you to carry.
Standing up for the rights of minorities when the majority is against you is cross that I believe Jesus asks us all to take up.
I believe churches are struggling today, because they only encourage their members to do what makes them happy, what is comfortable for them. “Do you love kids? Do children make you happy? Then serve on our children’s ministry team!” “Do you love going to the hospital to visit sick people? Have you always wanted to be a nurse? Then serve on our hospital ministry team!”
As a leader of this church, I want to ask you to sign up for, not only what may be uncomfortable for you, but those things that actually might cause you great pain and grief. Because, more than anything, I want to lead a church of committed disciples who have intentionally decided to deny themselves and take up their crosses to sacrificially serve others.
Finally, Jesus says, “After you decide to follow, after you deny yourselves, and after you pick up your crosses, then I want you to follow me.”
Jesus wants us to “follow;” which denotes moving; not sitting in a pew.
Our faith, our discipleship, our church is to never be complacent, stationary or constricted. It is not an inert, static thing. It is not something that we can hold or withhold. It is a dynamic, moving, changing, progressing, dancing, advancing, all-embracing energy of sacrificial, selfless love.
As we say every Sunday, we need to make this place a place of welcome for all people. Because, when we welcome others, we welcome God. However, our church, our discipleship should never be limited to any place. Yes, I do believe that the doors, walls and ceilings of our buildings should be warm welcoming; however, they should never constrain our true mission.
We are a church that meets in a place, but we are also a church on the move, following Christ, sacrificially denying self, courageously taking risks, wherever Christ leads in our community, throughout the region, into all the world.
Central Christian Church is indeed on a mission. And we believe we are on a mission with none other than the Spirit of the Risen Christ himself. We believe he is here today, right now, moving, working, stirring, calling, prodding, pulling, transforming.