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Theology For Aliens:
The Church Nurtures And Challenges
March 27, 1994

EPHESIANS 4:1-16

Arenít we audacious? We have a lot of nerve! We have come together this morning to be the church! Not only do we confess a belief in the holy catholic church, but we claim to be the holy catholic church! Talk about nerve! On the other hand, audacious and presumptuous though we may be, we are not here solely because of our own doing. I firmly believe God, the Holy Spirit, called us here, not only this morning, but called us to be the church.

Imagine! God chose you and me. God reaches out, claims you, breaks into your life, disrupts you, disturbs you, and calls you to do something significant with your life. God calls you to come out of your self-centeredness, out of the world, to be the church. To use ancient language, God has plucked you out of the arms of the devil, saves you, protects you, nurtures you so that you may be a soldier in Christís army. Yes, the holy catholic church is the army of Christian soldiers fighting the forces of evil.

Many Protestants are uncomfortable confessing a belief in the holy catholic church. I know of a family who changed churches rather than say they believe in the holy catholic church! Some people remain silent when we reach that point in the creed. Others are less obvious and feel a sneeze coming on, or stop to blow their noses. Have you noticed the flags of kleenex waving? When we affirm belief in the holy catholic church (notice, not the Roman Catholic Church), we are saying the church that was powered by the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost has transcended time, schisms, heresies, and is still present in the world today. We affirm that where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered, there is the true church. The church is not just a biblical concept. The church is not just an ancient institution. The church is a present reality.

In other words, belief in the holy catholic church requires the audacity to believe that our church has its roots in Jesus Christ. We are not just part of the church. We are the church. The promise of the gospel in its entirety has been given to us. Christ is present in us. The Holy Spirit is bestowed upon us. This is an astounding claim. A small congregation of Fijians worshiping in a village is the church. A congregation of Hmongs worshiping in Laos is the church. The thousands who gather this morning in Dallas in the largest United Methodist Church in the country are the church. You and I gathered here this morning are the church.

What is the church? The church is not a building; the building is where the church meets. The church is a group of people, a community of persons, who are being redeemed by Jesus Christ, gathered together as the visible body of Jesus Christ on this earth, gathered together as the people of God. We are the church when we assemble. The New Testament meaning of church is based on Old Testament concepts, and means the assembling of Godís people. The emphasis is on the verb assemble rather than on the noun assembly. The Bible emphasizes a dynamic, moving process, rather than a static institution or organization. The church is a group of people seeking to be the people of God. We come humbly into Godís presence, confessing our brokenness, confessing our estrangement from God and from one another. We are not perfect. I heard of one church who awards a humility pin to the most humble member; but if the recipient wears the humility pin, they take it away! When we gather, we admit our brokenness. Then God can forgive, renew and power us with the Holy Spirit. The church is a community of persons gathered together as the visible body of Christ.

What does the church do? Why has God gathered us together as the body of Christ, Godís people? Why has God chosen us to be his church here in this time and in this place? The Scripture lesson this morning told us, Ephesians 4:12-13

equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

In other words, the church nurtures and challenges. The church nurtures. Have you ever watched a mother bird take care of her young? The little baby birds are secure in the nest. Mother Bird flies away at times to find food. She brings the food back, feeds her babies, keeps them warm under her wings, and protects them. Have you ever tried to get near a nest that housed babies? Mother Bird attacked you. She defended her babies.

The church is our nest. Here among Christian brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandpas and grandmas, you are safe. You are loved, protected, respected. You are taught in classes, you find fellowship and fun in groups. You have a place here. You belong. You are nurtured. One of my favorite drawings has the caption, "When Jesus is in church, he plays with the children." If Jesus were physically here this morning, he would probably be in the nursery playing with the children. Church is a happy place, filled with all kinds of folks. Church is where you can feel at home. Church is where you find a new family, Godís family. Church is where you find roots, where you relax, take off your shoes and best behavior, where you can be yourself, where people will understand you and accept you. Church is where you can be a child again! One reason I like Family Camp is because camp is a setting where we lose our inhibitions and act like kids again, where we sing, dance, play and have fun. It was the devil who got the church to banish fun! What a way to defeat God: declare fun to be unchristian and inappropriate for church! Church is where you find joy, fun, peace, fellowship, and love. Church is where you are nurtured.

But, there come times when you leave the nest. Mother Bird pushes her children out of the nest and they learn to fly on their own. They donít get to go back to the nest, but we do. Bill Cosby says one contradiction to the theory of evolution is that humans are the only species that allows children to return! Some of them even move in! Yes, we get to return to the nest--the church--for nurture, and then go back into the world.

The church challenges you to live your life on your own, challenges you to fly, challenges you to become all that God intended you to be, and do what God created you to do. We are constantly challenged to go out into the world and act as the people of God. Go out into the world, into your school, into your daily job, into your neighborhood, to tackle the problems, befriend those who are hurting, and tell them about and share with them the love of Jesus. But, when we take Jesus seriously church is not necessarily popular with the world. Jesus was crucified. Because Jesus played with children, identified with the poor and the outcasts, criticized and attacked the power structures, Jesus was crucified. Likewise, the church is the conscience of the nation, standing up for people, and holding the nation and the world accountable to Godís laws.

The book, Resident Aliens, recalls an incident in a small Southern town when the schools were desegregated. Those were tense, frightening times. A white citizensí group organized to fight the Supreme Courtís desegregation order. They were not going to allow black children to go to school with their children. A meeting of the white citizensí group was called at the high school to discuss tactics for fighting racial integration. The auditorium was packed. Speaker after speaker condemned the courtís order and urged people to resist. Then, the pastor of the Baptist Church for several decades, with great dignity and presence, rose to speak. He walked to the microphone, looked over the audience, and spoke in deliberate, grave tones.

I am ashamed. I am ashamed. I have labored here for many years. I have baptized, preached to, and counseled with many in this room. I might have thought that my preaching of the gospel had done some good. But tonight I think differently. I cannot speak to those who are not of my congregation, but to those who are, I can only say that I am hurt and ashamed of you and might have expected more.

He then walked out of the auditorium. The meeting resumed awkwardly. But one by one, most of the members of the Baptist church quietly left the room until the auditorium was half empty, and the meeting dribbled off into adjournment with no action taken. The schools integrated the next month without incident.

When the church is the church, the church challenges us to be the people of God, to be aliens, and do what God calls us to do in an unfriendly world. .

ã 1994 Douglas I. Norris