As our facebook profile picture suggests, the First Christian Church of Fort Smith is on a mission.
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 when we graciously and generously welcome others, we welcome God. When we compassionately and lovingly include others, we include God.
And when we say we include God here, we are saying that we believe the spirit of the Risen Christ is actually present, moving, working, stirring, prodding, pulling, pushing, and calling us to be on this mission, and I believe he is calling us in the same way he called the first disciples, with the simple, yet profound 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 to decide if we want to follow him. He said: “If any want to be my followers…”
You have heard me say that I believe the reason there are so many empty pews these days on Sunday mornings, is because of the perception that many have of the church. Instead of seeing a group of people who have made a decision to follow Jesus, they look at the church and see some type of religious club created for members to make them feel holier and more 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’s not about making us feel spiritual, righteous, enriched or blessed. It is not about achieving a good, better, happy or successful life, or even gaining an eternal life. It’s about dying to self.
Church is not about receiving a blessing. It is about being a blessing.
It is not about having our souls fed. It is about feeding the hungry.
It is not about finding a home. It is about providing shelter for the homeless.
It is not about prosperity. 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.
I recently saw a church billboard inviting people to their church by saying: “Help people win.”
The problem with that is that our faith is not about winning. It’s about sacrifice.
I believe the reason some churches fail to look like Jesus today is because, in our attempt to entice new members, excite new members, gain new members, we have made the church about us. We say: “Come, and join our church where we have sermons, music and programs that are certain to enrich 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 selflessly serve.”
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. The crosses we bear have become synonymous with the suffering that we involuntarily have to 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 my cross.”
However, when Jesus is talking about cross bearing, he is talking about something completely different. He is not talking about some kind of involuntary suffering that we are forced to endure for being human. He is talking about the suffering that we voluntarily choose for the sake of our mission to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.
Jesus is talking about living a life so transformed by the love of God that we cannot remain comfortably complacent while others are suffering from disease, grief, disability, poverty, a catastrophic flood, abuse, addiction, discrimination, or even from bad choices they have made.
Forgiving someone who has wronged us and continues to cause indescribable pain in our life, may be a cross Jesus is calling us to carry.
Visiting residents in a nursing home when a nursing home is the last place we want to be, may be a cross Jesus is calling us to bear.
Spending our time mentoring a young adult raised in foster care when we already have little or no time for ourselves, may be a cross Jesus is calling us to pick up.
Agreeing to volunteer to feed the food insecure when our own cabinets are almost bare, may be a cross Christ is calling us to take up.
Choosing a less lucrative career path because we feel called to serve others might be a cross Jesus is asking us to carry.
Loving all of our neighbors as ourselves knowing that loving some of our neighbors will inevitably cost us something is a cross Jesus wants all of us to bear.
Donating to the Week of Compassion Mission fund to help hurricane victims when our own budgets are tight, or making plans to go rebuild a flooded home when our own homes need some work, is a cross I believe Jesus is calling us to carry.
Standing up for the dignity and rights of minorities, of the poor, of those marginalized by the culture and by bad religion, is a cross that I believe Jesus commands all of us to take up.
I believe the reason some churches are failing to look like Jesus is because they only encourage their members to do what makes them happy, what brings them satisfaction, what makes them comfortable. “Do you love kids? Do children make you happy? Then help us with children’s church!” “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!”
However, as a leader of this church, I am going to lead you to do things may not only be uncomfortable for you, but I am going to lead you to do some things that actually might cause you to suffer.
Because, you called me to be your pastor. You didn’t call me to be your activities director.
That’s because we are a church. We are not a club. We are far from perfect, but we have intentionally made a decision to follow Jesus by denying ourselves and taking up a cross.
This is what makes being a pastor so difficult, especially being a new pastor. Because, like most pastors that I know, I want you to like me.
Seriously, right or wrong, that is perhaps the most stressful part of my life right now. Does my new congregation like me? After all, I like them. And besides that, they pay my salary, and I have two kids in college!
However, because I am called to be your pastor and not your club president, and because this mission we are on together is not about what either one of us like, it is my calling to lead us to do things we may not want to do, to go to places we may not want to go, to love people we don’t want to love, to include people we would rather exclude. And I realize how difficult it is to always like someone who is leading you in that direction. Jesus’ disciples certainly did not like Jesus leading them in that direction.
I suppose it’s a cross that I have been asked to carry. But may God forgive me, may the Spirit convict me, and may the elders of this church have a special meeting and call me out, if I ever succumb to the temptation to be your pastor without carrying a cross.
Finally, Jesus says, “After you make the decision to follow me, after you deny yourselves, and after you pick up your crosses, then I want you to follow me.”
Notice he doesn’t say to walk down a church aisle and publically confess he is our personal Lord and Savior. Notice he doesn’t say: “Have a personal relationship with me.” And notice he doesn’t say to “worship me” or “study me.”
Jesus says to “follow,” which denotes going, moving, action; not sitting in a pew or in a Sunday School classroom. Jesus wants us to go and do the things that he does, share the same radical grace that he shares, go and do what we can to lavish this world with his revolutionary love even if it costs us everything.
It’s important to make this sanctuary, our narthex, our chapel, Disciples Hall, and every Sunday School room, even every restroom, a place of welcome every Sunday morning. Because, when we welcome others here, we welcome God. And if we don’t welcome God here, then I am not sure what we are doing here. We’re certainly not doing church. It’s important to come together in this beautiful place to worship and to study together each week; however, church should never be limited to any place or time.
We are a church that meets in this place, but we are also a church that is on the move. We’re on a mission 24/7, following the risen Christ, loving our neighbors as ourselves, sacrificially denying ourselves, courageously taking risks, generously giving our gifts, leaving behind family and friends if we have to, as we feed the hungry, fight for the marginalized, stand against the haters, care for the elderly, include the disabled, befriend the stranger, provide shelter for the down-and-out, restore shelter for the flooded-out, give hope to the despairing, bring to life the aspirations of the Dreamer. Whether or not people like us for it, we’re going follow wherever Christ leads us, throughout the River Valley, into eastern Oklahoma, across our entire region, down to Lake Charles, then maybe over to Beaumont, Port Arthur, and in and around Houston. Though none go with us, we still will follow. Our cross we’ll carry forward together, not one step back. Until we see Jesus, no turning back, no walking it back, no dialing it back, no turning back, no turning back.
Invitation to the Table
When we share the bread and the cup from this table, we remember that for our sakes, Christ denied himself and carried a cross, Christ gave himself, poured himself out for us.
We also remember that this is the one we have decided to follow. We remember that we have been called to deny ourselves and to carry a cross. We are called to give ourselves, to pour ourselves out for the sake of others.
As we sing our hymn of communion may we pray for the courage to follow the Christ wherever he leads us. And may we remember that he invites all of us who have gathered here to follow him.