Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.
(2 Corinthians 13:11-13 ESV)
Last week we finished the series we’ve been doing since Easter. If you were with us the past seven weeks you know we were listening to Voices of the Resurrection. Thomas, Peter, Paul, Luke and Stephen… even Jesus got his say. Preaching is an art form as well as a calling. I learned some time ago that the most unwise thing a pastor can do is to inject himself into the text of a sermon. Of course, all preaching involves injecting yourself into the Word through interpretation. One of the greatest mysteries of the Scriptures is that they weren’t delivered through automatic writing. God used the personalities, the joys, the sorrows, and even the sins of the men and women who wrote the Bible to illumine and illustrate his character for us who believe.
I’m not here this morning to inject myself into this message any more than at any other time. But as your pastor, I have spent the past seven weeks letting all these other people have their say. I just feel like I haven’t had my chance yet. After worship this morning you’re going to be asked to vote on the future of Immanuel Community Church by telling the Lord whether or not you believe he has sent you your next pastor. What an excellent, weighty opportunity that is. Don’t miss the profound blessing and responsibility you’re being given. No bishop is telling you who to call. No council stands over you bringing you a series of dossiers to sift through. This is your decision. Yours alone.
Not coincidentally, today is Trinity Sunday. I believe God coordinates in the Heavenly places the things that happen to his church. On Trinity Sunday we are called upon to pay special attention to understanding that our God is Three-in-One. Three Persons, yet one God. Jesus himself placed the importance of that before us one afternoon during the 40 days between his Resurrection and Ascension. He did it far away from Jerusalem. The eleven surviving Apostles had traveled back up north, to Galilee of the Gentiles. Some of them were spending their time fishing. We have no idea what the rest were doing with their days. But we do know that they were there together. Don’t miss that. There were not enough of them that they could afford to scatter. There are not enough of you that you can afford to say, “We found our new pastor, let’s take a break.”
Because the Apostles chose to stick together, none of them missed the great moments Jesus had planned for them to share with him. The first happened on a hillside somewhere in Galilee. I like to think this might have been the same hillside where Jesus had fed fish and bread to 5000 people because he had compassion on them. Why not. What better place for him to choose. The second great moment would happen at the end of the 40 days. On that day they would go back to the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem, and there watch him taken up into Heaven. But it was on a hillside in Galilee of the Gentiles, in a place where people of many backgrounds lived side by side with pure bred Jews that Jesus chose to give his disciples their marching orders and tell them what to do after he left:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” No other rabbi picked any of you after you finished shul. You weren’t the best of the best. You weren’t going to be anyone’s disciples. I didn’t pick you because you were the best. I picked you because of my love. Now you go and do the same. You go and pick others because of my love, and because of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Trinity Sunday is a good day to remember that is what Jesus did. It is also a good day to receive your marching orders, people of Immanuel. You live in Galilee of the Gentiles every bit as much as if your home was in Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And there are not enough of you for you to say you’ll let someone else do the work. Jesus has called you. YOU, go and make disciples in Concord. When you do, you’ll be fulfilling the charge Jesus gave his Apostles one afternoon on a hillside sometime between the Resurrection and his Ascension.
But before you will be able to do that, there is a trinity of things you have to agree that you will do first. In truth they are not three things, they are only one. That’s why they’re a trinity. But if you fail to do these three things in the months to come, Immanuel Community Church will die. I can also confidently tell you that if you do these three things… this one thing… Jesus will be in a position to empower you as he empowered his Apostles.
Listen again to the very brief admonition Paul gave to the church in Corinth at the end of his second letter. “Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.”
The first, most important, most weighty thing you can do is: rejoice. Rejoicing is the most serious business a church can do. Paul ends his letter to the church at Philippi with this, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, REJOICE.” Rejoicing is also the most serious business of Heaven. Jesus said, “Just so I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)
Joy is not merely happiness. They are two quite different emotions. Happiness is very much a condition brought on in the moment by circumstances. Something you do can make me happy or unhappy in a flash. But Joy actually involves longing. As contradictory as this will sound, joy is never satisfied with things as they are. Even in heaven, the joy around the throne of God is always characterized as a crying out, a longing to be with the source of joy. When the angels cry out “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord! They are not satisfied to simply say it once. They are compelled to say it over and over and over, so much so that it is a gift that they are not bound by Time, for longing at this level would surely destroy any being living in time.
The problem with most churches is that they spend their time trying to get to a place where they can be happy with the circumstances of their fellowship. But the more you look at the very real needs in any congregation, the very real dysfunctions and sins of any group of people, the more unhappy it makes you.
Here at Immanuel you have a choice being placed before you by God. You can choose to look around you at the circumstances: the building needs updates, the deed has problems, the parsonage is land-locked, the median age of the congregation has crept up, and frankly there have been more funerals than baptisms for a long time now. You can do that, and you will constantly have an uphill battle just to maintain a good attitude. Or else you can decide you are going to long for God. As Paul said the Philippians, “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.” (Philippians 1:27-28) Or as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus.” That is, “Let us lay aside trying to be happy, adding burden to burden, buying the next gadget, trying the next fad, trying sin after sin in a pursuit of pleasure, and let us run with longing endurance into the arms of Jesus.” That is the choice of joy.
The second marching order God wants to give you is this: Aim for restoration. If you have ever served in the military you’ve learned about tactics and strategy. The goal is to defeat your enemy. For a church the goal is to rejoice in the Lord and to long after him with every fiber of your collective being, because that will represent the ultimate defeat for the Enemy of your Soul. That’s the tactic you’re going to use. But there has to be a plan. To get there, you have to develop a strategy.
I don’t know what plans your new pastor will lay before you, but if you will commit yourselves as a body to making restoration a part of every plan you make, you will step out of the perpetual cycle of trying to preserve things as they are and you will step into a cycle of perseverance. When you focus on not losing you have already lost. It is only a short step from preserving to embalming. Life comes when you aim for restoration. New relationships and new relational patterns are built; fresh ideas are hatched when you do that. You must focus on developing a plan of how you are going to go about restoring the witness to Jesus in Concord Heights. Only then can you gain the high ground with God.
We’ve already come a long way. The word is out that Immanuel is not in danger of closing any time in the near future. A few weeks ago you made such a life-affirming decision when first you said that ¼ time wasn’t enough pastoral ministry for you, and then when you decided an interim pastor wasn’t going to work for you. You are already moving from being a church in crisis to being a church in Christ. Every time you sit down to make the next decision for this church, ask yourself the question, “Does what we are about to do aim for restoration?”
Along the way, as you make plans that aim for restoration, there are three things you can do among yourselves to keep the momentum going: Comfort one another, agree with one another, and live in peace. Each of these three things is a mark of a successful and growing community in Christ. The text of the marriage ceremony I usually use says of Christian marriage that it is intended by God for the mutual joy of husband and wife, and for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity.” Being a church together is more like being married to one another than it is like any other structure in the human experience. As long as a group of people see themselves as merely a church corporation, they will forever be out to get their own personal needs met, their own agenda attended to. But a church that aims at restoration will be like a married couple who set goals, have careers, and raise children, all the while comforting each other along the way.
A successful church also practices agreement. This is tricky, because it does not mean that you don’t have your own opinions about things. But it means that opinions are expressed in order to clarify and understand, not in order to have your own way. A successful church learns and then agrees.
A successful church also lives in peace. Yes, the church strives. But it must strive side by side, as we already saw from Philippians. You will never arrive at joy when you are straining against one another. Struggling with one another robs you of joy because you cannot focus in two directions at once. You cannot fix your eyes on Jesus when you are standing toe to toe with your brother or sister across a line you drew in the sand. But there is a real serenity in a community that is at peace with each other. Those who are all headed in the same direction are a force to be reckoned with.
Comfort one another, agree with one another, and live in peace. That’s what to do as you aim for the restoration of the witness to Jesus here in Concord. The result of doing all that is that the God of love and peace will be with you.
Your final marching order will sound a little obscure when you first hear it because the modern church never developed a cultural equivalent to the First Century model. So if I say, “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” you will probably have visions in your head of superficial southerners and what they used to call “kissin’ cousins.” But if I were to say to you, “Let holiness be what passes between you at each interaction you have with the believers in this body,” now your eyebrows will raise and your ears perk up.
What does that mean, to have as a standard that every interaction you have with each other is a practice of holiness? It means that no matter what you are doing, from your time in worship to committee meetings to painting the parsonage, that the time you spend with each other is about Christ. I don’t mean that you’re constantly spouting Scripture references at each other, though reminding each other of things the Word says isn’t a bad thing either. But the holy kiss was a practice that reminded everyone who did it that they were together because of Jesus. They had it deep in their DNA that the tag sale was because of Jesus, they were feeding the hungry because of Jesus, they were preaching and teaching because of Jesus, they were because of Jesus. You want Immanuel Community Church to really come alive? Greet one another in this way. Every time you step into the presence of another member of this body, let that moment of intense joy – of longing for the presence of Jesus – pass between you. It will revolutionize your fellowship.
There is one final thing you need to know. You are not alone. The way Paul ends his correspondence to the church in Corinth is very important. He doesn’t just say, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” He goes on. He wants them to know that he has spread the word in Philippi and Colossae, in Thessalonica and in Ephesus. He spread the word that there is a church in Corinth that is struggling. There is a church in Corinth that needs your faithful prayers. He spread the word in Rome and in Athens and Jerusalem. “Pray for the people of the church in Corinth!” He spread the word in Crete and Malta, in Laodicea and Thyatira and in places whose names you will never know.
Internally, here in this church on this Trinity Sunday you must live in the power of the Three: everything you do must be done in the deep confidence that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – the Triune God -- has called you and that he is directing your steps.
First, Internally, YOU must believe that these are not crisis days; these are Christ’s Days. For, in Christ there is never a crisis. Among yourselves, Rejoice. Aim for restoration. Greet one another in holiness, and relax. Those are your marching orders. That’s all you have to do.
Second, know that the God of love and of peace is with you and among you. In the Heavenlies, right this second, Jesus is interceding before the Father on your behalf, ready to bring the full resource of Heaven to see you through.
And third, be assured that you, as a church, will be lifted up in prayer in churches all over the world. Over the next weeks the word is going to be spread to churches in Loudon and Manchester, in Melrose and Malden and Jamaica Plain. They will be praying for you in Windsor and Salem in Connecticut, in Windham, Maine and Charlottesville, Virginia. Immanuel Community Church will be remembered before the throne in Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina and in churches in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Faithful people will pray for you in the coming days as far away as Australia. ALL the saints will greet you.
The blessing of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit be upon you and rest upon you all.