Eight years ago while listening to a popular sermon podcast, Jeff learned about an outdoor conference in North Carolina. The conference had a wide variety of speakers and learning opportunities, and some well-known Christian bands were going to be playing. Because the conference was outdoors, everyone who came would be camping. Jeff and I are not usually impulsive people, but when he learned about this conference, it piqued his curiosity. He asked me if I wanted to load up our car with our two kids and a bunch of camping equipment and drive from Iowa to North Carolina. To my own surprise, I looked at him and said, “Yes. That sounds like fun!”
That trip ended up being one of the most memorable we’ve had as a family. My kids got to see the ocean for the first time (because when you’re only going to be four hours from the ocean, you drive the extra distance to Charleston), we visited a tavern dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe, we met people at the outdoor conference who are still our friends to this day, and we experienced a week of rain, mud, and fun while having our faith reinvigorated. I am glad we took the risk and went to that conference, even though I look back on that time and think we were pretty silly to do it.
I also had my first experience being protested while at that conference. Across the way from the location of the conference, there was a man with a Bible in one hand and a bullhorn in the other. I couldn’t tell exactly what issue he had with the conference or the speakers, but it was clear he thought we had missed the boat as far as salvation was concerned. He was calling through the bullhorn that we needed to repent. I think the words he used were, “Turn or burn!” He stayed outside the conference location all day calling out our need for repentance.
At one of my learning seminars, a couple of people started talking about the man with the bullhorn. They decided that it must be a lot of work to stand on a corner and shout all day. We had also had pop up rain storms off and on, and they were concerned about him getting wet. While the person across the street yelled through his bullhorn that everyone at the conference was in danger of hellfire, these two conference participants went and bought the man food and gave him an umbrella. I don’t know if they had a conversation with him after that or not, but I was inspired by the way they showed kindness to him, even as he had been yelling negative things about our conference all day.
This experience at the outdoor conference has been in the back of my mind ever since I started preparing for this sermon series on “The Great Ends of the Church.” In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we have a book called The Book of Order. This book is part 2 of the constitution of the denomination. Part 1 of the constitution is the Book of Confessions, which includes the historical witnesses to the faith (such as the Apostles Creed and Westminster Confession). The Book of Order contains information on church government, discipline, and worship.
At the very beginning of The Book of Order, there is a section about the calling of the church. This section talks about the marks of the church, the distinctives of the church, and what it means to be the church in the world. For the next six weeks, we are going to be focusing on the very last section of “The Calling of the Church” in the Book of Order–a section called “The Great Ends of the Church.” These “Great Ends” are six mission statements, six goals, of the church, and our hope is that this sermon series will invite you to consider these six mission statements in your own life and in our life together as a church.
Today, we are looking at the first of the six “Great Ends.” Each of the “Great Ends” are thoughtful and packed with meaning. Feel free to write them down each week as we go along. The first “Great End” is: “The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.” But what does that mean? The word “proclaim” means “to cry out.” As I think back to that day at the outdoor conference, I find myself asking who was “crying out” the gospel of salvation most clearly? The person with the bullhorn, or the people who gave him food and an umbrella?
Our first mission, the first Great End of the church, is to proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind. We are to cry out, to make known the gospel–or the good news about Jesus. And the purpose for this is for “the salvation” of humankind. But what does all of that really mean? What is salvation?
To answer this question, we have before us Psalm 107 and Ephesians 2. While these are only two chapters out of the whole Bible, they give us a great place to start as we ask ourselves what salvation is really all about. Verse 2 of Psalm 107 echoes the first “great end” of the church. It says, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” In other words, if you’ve been redeemed by God, say so. The psalm goes on to list many of the trials and struggles the people have faced. Some were in prison. Some were sick. Some wandered in the desert and were hungry and thirsty. Some sailed in ships and experienced the might of God on the open waters. In each of these instances, the psalm writer said the people “cried to the Lord” and God heard and delivered them. God saved them. God redeemed them, and this became their identity. They weren’t just random people in a random place. They were the redeemed of the Lord.
The reason the Presbyterian church lists “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind” as the first “great end” of the church is that it is our identity too. We are the redeemed of the Lord. We have experienced the salvation of God, and it has fundamentally changed who we are. We aren’t always able to see in the moment how God has saved us, but we can look back and see the ways God was with us as we went through the difficult seasons of our lives. We can see the way God has led us to this point, and we can even imagine where God may be leading us next. We are called to proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind first and foremost because this is our own story. The good news of Jesus reached down and transformed us in some way. We can’t help but proclaim it because it is who we are.
If you’ve been outside recently, I imagine you have heard the song of the cicadas. Whenever I hear it, it makes me both happy and sad–happy because I love the hot days of summer when the flowers are blooming and my garden is producing its fruits, and sad because I know in a few week’s time, fall will be here and then winter after that. I recently learned that the song of the cicadas in North America can reach up to 90 decibels in volume. That is louder than many standard lawnmowers! One cicada can sing louder than your lawnmower. Isn’t that astounding? What inspires me about this is that when cicadas sing, they are just doing what they were made to do. They emerge in the hottest days of summer, and they sing their song to attract a mate. It’s just who they are.
The church is called to proclaim the gospel by being who God has called us to be. Many of you did this by working on a home for Habitat for Humanity recently. Some of you have lent a hand to help others unpack and move. I know those of you who have brought meals to those who are sick, or who sat to read a book with a child. You do this by pulling weeds around the church and by buying a little extra at the store so that you can share. Every time you are faithful to the gifts God has given you, you are proclaiming the Gospel with your life. You are singing the song of the redeemed, and you are proclaiming that God has done wondrous things for you–even if you never say a word while you are doing these things.
We are called to proclaim the gospel, and the first “great end” of the church continues that we are to do this “for the salvation of humankind.” So, what is salvation? Quite simply, it is being rescued from danger and brought into safety. I love the way it says this in Ephesians 2, beginning with verse 4: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” This is all in the past tense. God already did this for us. Because of God’s great love, through Jesus, we were rescued from our trespasses and sins and brought into new life in Christ. We have been made alive, set free, rescued, and invited into a new life that is a beginning glimpse of life in the kingdom of God.
Verse 10 continues: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” The NRSV says “we are what he has made us,” but the Greek word there is the word poiema, masterpiece, workmanship. This word is where we get our word for “poem.” God saved us, called us, and created us as beautiful masterpieces. As a result, we can’t help but do good works and proclaim the good news with our lives because it is who we are. I believe this is why the first “great end” of the church is “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.” As people who have been loved by God and called by God to share that love with others, we can’t help but love others. Even though St. Francis of Assisi never said this quote that is often attributed to him, I think he would’ve agreed with it, and I think it is true. The quote says, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” In other words, as people who have been transformed by the love of God, we will be proclaiming the gospel just by living out of the love God gave to us. It’s just who we are and how it works.
We are to proclaim the gospel–to live our lives out loud like the cicadas who can’t help what they sing because it is who they are. We proclaim it for the salvation of humankind–because God has been gracious and loving to us so that we could be gracious and love to others. But, what does salvation look like? Does it look like praying a specific prayer, or answering the right questions before the elders, or like becoming a member of the church?
I love the way Ephesians 2 says this. It says that God has saved us right now, and raised us to new life right now, so that in the days to come we will receive the kindness and grace of God. Salvation is both now and later. It is both what we have now and what we will experience down the road. We aren’t saved only for some future day when everything is made new, but we experience glimmers of God’s kingdom every single day. One of the quotes from Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird that has always had an impact on me says this, “There are just some kind of men who—who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”
As I think about what it means to proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind, I can’t help but think about that outdoor conference all over again. The person with the Bible, the bullhorn, and the loud message, and the people who fed him and gave him shelter. It’s not my place to judge which of these people best proclaimed the gospel for the salvation of humankind. I don’t know what was in each of their hearts. But, this experience challenged me to think about proclaiming the gospel in a whole new way. What if the gospel is something we proclaim just by living it out? What if the song we sing as God’s redeemed people just happens to be as loud as the cicadas, not because of anything we do or say but because of the God who made us who we are in the first place.
May God call to our minds the many ways God has saved us throughout our lives. May God rekindle within us a sense of call and a sense of purpose as we seek to be faithful with our gifts. And, as we do so, may God take the songs each of us are singing and weave them together into a masterful symphony that proclaims the gospel for the salvation of humankind.