I recently came across two helpful images for church (in Simply Christian, N.T. Wright). First, the church is like a river. Recalls the scene from the last book of the Bible, Revelation, chapter 7. John sees people from every tribe, language, race, and country coming together in the name of Jesus to worship God. “Like a river, they all started in different places, but they have now brought their different streams into a single flow” (p.200).
In our church people come from people from Burlington, Carrboro, Shelby, Durham, Chapel Hill, and a dozen other North Carolina cities. We are from Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Washington state, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and other states I have not mentioned. We come from China, Russia, Sierra Leone, Taiwan, and Korea, South Africa, Australia, and other places. We here today are joined with those who came in years past and those who will come in the future. We are so many rivulets, streams, and tributaries, guided by the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name. Along with other churches, we flow together and become God’s church.
A second image just as fitting is the tree. We flow together and become a worshipping, praying, mission-working people, and together, we are equipped to then, branch out. One of my favorite sights is the tree in my front yard, when it has about four neighborhood kids and two of my own up in it. All those kids are in the tree, spread out in the branches which hold strong because they’re connected to the powerful trunk. In church, staying connected to the trunk, we boldly head out into the world to share the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Sometimes our going out simply involves being on mission for Jesus right here where we live. Jesus commissioned his disciples to go to Jerusalem (the city), all Judea and Samaria (the surrounding countries), and to the entire world to tell that forgiveness of sins and eternal life is available for all who put their trust in Him. Our Jerusalem is Chapel Hill/Durham/Chatham/the Triangle. This is where we work, shop, go to the doctor, go out to eat. Our kids go to school here. We live our lives here. The Holy Spirit calls us to our Jerusalem to be heralds – people who announce that Jesus come, the Kingdom of God is at hand, and all who want to walk with God can because of Jesus.
We are on mission right here. Every week, when we leave worship and time together, we receive a blessing, a benediction. That blessing is also a commissioning. Go from here filled and empowered so that through your time in the world, you’re ready to share the Gospel.
Often the sending extends beyond being the church in the triangle area, beyond our Jerusalem. Our Judea and Samaria are the rest of North Carolina and the East seaboard. And from there we go where the Holy Spirit sends. We could fill a church with people who have moved away. Some graduate and go on to work in other cities, other states, and even other countries. Nonstudents, professionals follow opportunities or move to be closer to family.
Some do not leave the area, but God leads them to other churches. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. God works in people’s lives and at times that means moving. It doesn’t have to mean that person is angry at HillSong. Even if they are and do leave, the Christian thing to do is to sit down in love and work through the issues of contention. Leaving is part of the Christian life. In Christian community we have to say “Good bye.”
I will quickly add I am not giving a “goodbye sermon” today. I am not going anywhere, I don’t think. This message is the final in our six-part series on community. We belong to one another. We are a part of one another. In 1st Corinthians 12, Paul imagines church as a human body. One person is the knee cap. Another the big toe. And the left eyeball. In church, when we are in Christ, we are as connected as parts of a body. For you and me to be separated from each other, should hurt as much as it would hurt to have my knee cap sawed off, my eye gouged out, and my big toe sliced off. That’s how intensely we are a part of each other, or should be. That’s how God sees it and the New Testament communicates it.
Saying goodbye then should not be a severing of community. It is a part of the journey we take. Saying goodbye is part of being the people of God. And with every goodbye, we know that the entire church is gathered back together at the last judgment. We are re-united at the resurrection when we join Christ in resurrected bodies and Heaven and Earth are eternally, perfectly joined, and we live in the presence of God for eternity.
The Ephesians Christians had to say “good bye.” The city of Ephesus was located in what today is the nation of Turkey. It is on the coast of the Aegean Sea. Like the rest of the Mediterranean world at that time, in Ephesus there were local gods and mystery cults, a Jewish presence, and other cultural influence. They spoke Greek and were under the governance of the Roman Empire.
Paul arrived in Ephesus and found Jesus-followers already there. His calling was to begin new churches and preach where the Gospel had not been previously heard. That did not mean Paul ignored Christian works when he encountered them. He enthusiastically joined with those early Ephesian disciples, teaching them about the Holy Spirit. We aren’t completely sure of their beginnings but he expanded their knowledge.
With this small group, only about 12 in the church when he came, Paul began attending synagogue in Ephesus. The synagogue rejected Paul’s teaching about Jesus. So, he found a man, Tyrannus, who allowed him to use a lecture hall where he taught the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. He would do that for 2 years. There were questions, debates, arguments. Pagans came. Jews came. Gentiles who had converted to Judaism came.
The Holy Spirit’s power flowed through Paul. He healed diseases. People started bringing their sick to Paul; they would even touch a handkerchief to Paul’s skin and then hold it against the diseased friend, and that friend would be made completely well.
Along with the physical healing, they learned of forgiveness of sin; they heard about the new life in Christ; they were invited to open their hearts and receive the Holy Spirit.
God is doing similar work among us. We send sick people to the hospital, but sins are not forgiven at that hospital. God works the forgiving of sins and the giving of new life in Christ through His churches. He is doing that here.
Great things done by God bonded together those Christians we meet in Ephesus in Acts 19 & 20. Great works of God bring us together.
Last week three young people declared their faith and were baptized. Two others, already Christians but not previously immersed, were baptized as a reaffirmation of their devotion to Jesus and as a declaration of their desire to join with this church as members. Next month, we will collect Christmas presents for extremely poor children around the world in the Operation Christmas Child program. Next month one of our HillSong people, John Roberts, will go to Kenya using his skills to represent the Lord and work alongside the Christians there. God is doing mighty works among us and through those works and through the Spirit we are united.
After two years in Ephesus, it was time to go. For many reasons, most importantly the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Paul was headed to Jerusalem. And he knew he’s be saying goodbye to the Jerusalem brothers and sisters aft his time there. He said as much. “After I have gone there, I must see Rome” (Acts 19:21d). It was in Rome that Paul would explore the calling to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
He left Ephesus, spent time in Macedonia, and then Troas. The writer of Acts, Luke, who also wrote the Gospel of Luke, was with Paul. After Troas, there were stops in various cities, still in Turkey, Assos, Mitylene, Samos, and Miletus. In Miletus, Paul sent for the Ephesian leaders to come and meet him. They had been through so much together in his two years in Ephesus; he wanted to give final words so that even though they would be parted, his teaching about Jesus would remain, and they stayed connected in heart and in their prayers.
“Now, I know that none of you will ever see my face again” (20:25). They wept upon hearing Paul’s words. But he had more to say.
“Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock,” (v.28) that is, the church. Watch over one another with diligent care.
“Be alert” (v.31). Some, even in the church, will entice Jesus-followers with distortions of the truth.
Keep watch. Be alert. Finally, Paul commends extravagant generosity to those in need. He says in verse 35, “I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of Jesus who said, ‘it is more blessed to give than receive.’” There was weeping, hugging, kissing, and praying. With that, Paul was gone. Why the tears and deep emotions? These were people joined together in Christ.
That’s the call of God on HillSong Church. Why did Heather instruct us to spend seven weeks thinking about the church as a community? Or if you like, a family? Look in your bulletins on the page that says, “Welcome to HillSong.” On the left column, in the second paragraph, the title is Our Purpose.
(1) Our purpose is to be a safe place where all people are welcomed and loved. Jesus welcomed the diseased, the gentile, the divorced and rejected, ashamed. He also welcomed the Pharisee and the rich who were humble enough to come. As the body of Christ, we are called to welcome the tired, the broken, the seeking, and all who God sends to us. We are called to be a place where they can feel safe seeking God.
(2) Second, our purpose is to be a place where people are transformed by God. The diseased came to Jesus and were healed. The shamed came to Jesus and their sins were forgiven and dignity restored. The lost came to Jesus and in him they met God and their lives took on meaning. Come as you are to Him; but if you come to Jesus, do not expect to remain as you are. How can someone meet God and not be made new?
(3) Finally, our purpose is to be a place that sends people into the world on mission. Once we have come here and been made new in our encounter with the Lord, He’s got a mission for us. Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and all of the world are before us and God is sending us. This sending will involve good-byes and sometimes, long goodbyes.
Long goodbyes can be hard. I said that long goodbye to one of my grandmothers in 1994 and to one of my grandfathers in 2006. We said that goodbye to Bob Thompson this year. These are still a part of us and we know we will be reunited.
I remember a long goodbye here, a few years ago. A Chinese man came and stayed about 5 months. The first Sunday he was energetic, and I didn’t know what to make of his enthusiasm. His English was not good. I could not understand most of what he said, but God has blessed us with some Chinese speakers. So we learned he just wanted to hear the Gospel. I don’t know how much of the content of our sermons he understood, but for five months here, he heard the Gospel. Then we as a church laid hands on him and now he’s China, probably leading a church, maybe risking arrest to do so.
I think of many of you students who I am coming to know and love. I always get happy you buy houses locally. But some of you will graduate and leave this area and not come back for a long time. And you must go because God is calling. We can be sad and celebrate at the same time. Farewells bring tears even as we celebrate you answering God’s call in your life. As a church, we will lay hands you; we will weep, laugh, and pray, knowing you will go out in His name and risk much and through you, God will accomplish much for the Kingdom.
Parting, we say to one another “Marantha! Til Jesus comes.” We know we will be together when he comes. Until then, we go out in His name, rejoicing.