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Sunday, May 25, 2008

When Church is at Its Best (Acts 2.42-47)

May 25, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell

Last week we talked about covenant community, that is, about the promised family we have in the Church. Today we pick up where we left off, in Acts 2:42, and continue reading about that earliest church community. While no community is perfect in this world, there was a quality to the church described in Acts 2 that is appealing.

So, using the snapshot of that early church as an example of what church can look like, I want to talk to you about what it looks like when church is at its best. My hope is that God is molding us into the church family He wants us to be.

Recap (v. 42)

Briefly, let me remind you of the activity of the church family in Acts 2. This is where we ended last week. These early believers were continually devoting themselves. Their faith didn’t stop developing after that Pentecost decision, but continued to grow in faithfulness, obedience, and commitment. We looked at four ways – “core exercises” if you will – that their devotion or commitment was expressed and strengthened.

They were continually devoting themselves to God’s Word – the scriptures and Apostles’ teaching which became our New Testament. They were continually devoting themselves to fellowship, which we noted was less about eating together than about being church family to one another, with all that implies. They were continually devoting themselves to the breaking of the bread, including eating together, but more importantly sharing communion together with its remembrance of, celebration of, and hope in Jesus’ saving death. And they were continually devoting themselves to prayer, communicating with God in praise, thanksgiving, intercession, and confession.

One of the significant signs of God’s Spirit at work in the church are these ongoing expressions of faith and growth. But if we stopped at verse 42, we could be left with the impression that healthy faith and a healthy church is mostly about our efforts and spiritual exercise. But there is more and it is essential for understanding what church looks like – and what we look like – when we are really at our best as God’s family of faith.

In Awe of Whose Church? (v. 43)

The passage continues in verse 43 to say that “everyone kept feeling a sense of awe.” The word ‘awe,’ which can also be translated, ‘fear,’ is not a reaction to the radical commitment of the new believers, but to the presence of God and the Holy Spirit in their midst! Yes, there is specific mention of “many wonders and signs” that were taking place through the Apostles, but again, the awe was not because of them as impressive human leaders, but at the power of the Holy Spirit showing up through them.

All this is to say that the awe that everyone was feeling was not because of the human factor. They were not in awe of the church, but of whose church it was. They were in awe of God and all He was doing. They were in awe of God’s power, God’s mercy and love shown through Jesus, God’s presence demonstrated through the Holy Spirit. They were in awe of their new Savior and the way God was moving all around them.

This is an essential quality of church at its best – recognizing whose church it is. There is so much I love about Good Shepherd, indeed many qualities described here in Acts 2. You love God’s Word, you excel at fellowship – in both the eating together and the intense caring for one another sense. I love the worship; I love the people; I love the freedom to follow God’s leading. But we must never, ever lose a sense of awe over who God is, what He has done, and what He is still doing.

Part of not losing that sense of awe is keeping our eyes and ears open to that last part – what God is still doing. The Gospel doesn’t stop at the cross or on Easter morning. That is the whole story of Acts and Pentecost, that God is moving out into the world through the presence of His Holy Spirit.

Where are these wonders and signs? I mean, I haven’t healed anyone or done any miracles, have I? One of the great sources of these stories are your stories. That is why I encourage you to tell your stories to each other. Do you remember Bettye’s video testimony from a few weeks ago? Do you remember Marcie’s story from the Voice? What about John’s from several newsletter’s ago? Do you remember Jason’s baptism and know what God has brought him through to come to that point? Have you seen how God has been present in the lives of our brothers and sisters who have lost a loved one? Or during the last days of life? Or in the first days of new life? Did you hear the story of what has happened in the lives of the confirmation students? What has God done in your life?

In all these places and more there is healing, deep repentance and forgiveness, new life, a new start, surprising mercies, overwhelming grace, comfort in sorrow, and much more. Can you not see or perceive it? God is still at work – and God is awesome! Really, that’s where our English fails us, for “some awe” isn’t right – we should be “full of awe” – that’s what the early believers in Acts were experiencing! Church is at its best when we are in awe of whose church it is.

In Response to Whose Church (v. 45)

Church is at its best when it is fully awed and aware of God’s presence in and through the church members. And what happens next in the passage gives another snapshot of what our “best” looks like. In response to this awe-inspiring God, the believers in Acts 2 began sharing “with all, as anyone might have need.” (v. 45) It’s easy to read this passage and get hung up on (or overwhelmed by) their selling of property and possessions, like some sort of grand communist experiment. But what was so notable about what was happening wasn’t the institution of a grand program of extreme giving to the church. Rather, what was notable was an extreme awareness of and response to the presence of God in their lives and church community.

Church is at its best when we are responding to the one whose church it is.

Today’s sermon is not about stewardship or giving to the church or making up the budget, but I must insert here that this verse, properly understood, is what we were after in a new approach to stewardship this year. Rather than press you to fund a budget or finance a set of ministries (and it’s so hard not to talk and think that way!), the Session and I tried to lift up before you the One whose church this is and ask you to respond to that amazing Savior and Lord. I still believe that is what it means for us to be at our best and that God will provide what we need when we need it.

In a nutshell, Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church is our family and a gift of God. We gather around and are sent out by an amazing, amazing God. Being church means living life together in response and obedience to that God.

Keep on Keeping On (v. 46-47)

Look, finally, at verses 46-47. Just as v. 42 described their continuing devotion, these verses describe more continuing – ongoing commitment to Christ. We’ve already seen that their continued devotion included the “core exercises” of scripture study, care in the church family, celebration of Christ’s saving work, and prayer. Here, another round of exercises are described, not as some sort of obligation of a Christian, but as signs of life.

What else were they doing habitually in this story of church at its best? They were continuing “with one mind in the temple.” This is not the time to explore the interesting generation that lived between the resurrection and the destruction of the Temple; rather, the point is that they kept worshiping God regularly in the large public context of the Temple. There is no great corresponding point with us for this unless it is regular worship and participation at church. But that’s a sign of life and health. Later in the New Testament, in Hebrews, believers are encouraged not to forsake gathering together in assembly. Church is at its best when we gather together; it is not an individual experience or experiment.

Second, they continued “breaking bread from house to house… taking their meals together…” In addition to the large public worship gatherings, they met in smaller groups for fellowship and worship. While this becomes an absolute necessity for larger churches that want to remain at their best, it is not unimportant even for a church of our size. Our various smaller groups are part of our continued experience of God among us: Primetimers, 20/30 vision, youth group, choir, worship team, FOCUS prayer group, Daisy troop, ladies night out, the softball team, and on and on. These are not just programs; they are expressions of our life together in Christ!

Third, look at the character of these gatherings. They were marked by “gladness and sincerity of heart” and by “praising God and having favor with all the people.” These descriptions reinforce what has already been said and cannot be manufactured – these believers were gathering and acting in response to who God was and what He had done through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Church is at its best when our lives are grounded and found in the character and actions of our great God.

Verse 47 ends with a note of what might be considered growth statistics… but that’s not what it is. This is a testimony of God’s work (not human work). It is not the goal of church, but the result of responding to the awesome God.

Our Best

So, how can we be our best? It’s such a hard thing to talk about or pursue without getting the whole thing turned around backwards. We can’t work from growth backwards to awe of God. We can’t work from meeting the budget backwards to worship. We can’t start with “having favor with all the people” and get back to the one whose church it is.

The key to being a church at its best is to focus on the God whose church this is. That is why, as interested as I am in being missional and outward focused, that worship is the necessary starting point. Without an awareness of who God is and what God is doing, all we have are some programs and expense items. Without an encounter with the God who has stepped among us in Christ, all we can do is try to ramp up our religious efforts. Without the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work in us and through us, we will wander off course. Church is at its best when God is at the center and we respond worshipfully, obediently and joyfully in running whole-heartedly wherever God leads us.

That’s why the very most important thing I could ever do for our life together is point to God through Jesus Christ and scripture and say to you, “This is your God.” Come, let’s serve Him together. Amen.

Monday, May 19, 2008

What is Covenant Community? (Acts 2.36-42)

May 18, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell

On this Confirmation Sunday, where six of our youth confirm the faith that God has stirred in their life, I want to look with you at the description in Acts of the Church as the covenant community. “Covenant community” is not a term used in this passage, but is a way of naming what is described in this passage: a gathering of those in whom God has worked to bring about faith, who have turned to God in repentance, and who have been forgiven according to His promise of salvation by His own hand.

I’d like to look with you at the sequence of coming to faith described in this passage, share with you briefly about the faith of the young men and women coming before you today to be confirmed, and then consider the way the ongoing life of the covenant community is described at the end of the passage.

God at Work

We have talked before about sharing our faith story. Ultimately the purpose of that is to point to the greater story of God at work in our own lives and in the world. Acts 2:36-42 tells the story of God at work with one group of people who believed. Consider the process of their salvation.

In the passage preceding, Peter has been preaching the Word of God. In correction to the accusations that the spirit-filled disciples were drunk, he declares to the gathered crowd, “These men are not drunk, but are fulfilling the promises of God through the prophet, Joel!” (Acts 2:15-16) He goes on to speak of the promised Spirit and salvation of God, culminating in testimony about Jesus in verse 36, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ – this Jesus whom you crucified.”

That’s the Word of God; that is the message; that is God’s story and the word of salvation – that Jesus is Lord and Christ, saving one and anointed one, by God’s will and power.

Now look at what God brought about in those who came to believe.

“Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said…. ‘What shall we do?’” (v. 37)

This is describing conviction of sin. They knew that they were not right before God and shared, directly or indirectly, in culpability for Jesus’ death. It is not necessary that you be present for the crucifixion to be responsible for it. One of the necessary realities of salvation is recognizing our sinfulness and being convicted of its tragic consequences… getting to the point of Isaiah facedown before God in Isaiah 6, “Woe is me; I am undone” and asking, “What shall I do?”

“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ…” (v. 38)

What shall we do? Peter says, “Repent.” That means “turn around.” It describes the change from a posture of being turned away from God to one of being turned toward God. That is what conviction of sin can lead to. It is as if, when we recognize that we may be running headlong into our own destruction, we stop momentarily to see if there is a way out. Repentance is turning around to face God. In the first moment, that can be a scarier prospect than continuing to run! But God’s promises are sure and His grace is immediate (even preceding you!).

Peter also instructs them to “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” There were other baptisms already being practiced at that time. Most close to this context, baptism was a sign of conversion to Judaism reserved for pagans. Jesus’ name marked this baptism as distinctly different, but it still would cost the mostly Jewish crowd something in terms of respectability and reputation. It was public and it specifically connected those being baptized with Jesus.

“…for the forgiveness of your sins…” (v. 38)

Baptism not only marked those who publicly repented and aligned themselves with Jesus, bit it signified God’s forgiveness of sins through Jesus. The detail of God’s work among humanity is captured here in the meaning of baptism. Hearers were baptized in Jesus’ name to signify that God accomplished forgiveness of sin through His Son, Jesus. Peter’s instructions were to repent and be marked publicly with the sign of God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

“…and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off…” (vv. 38-39)

Peter continues, saying that God not only forgives sin, but also pours out His Spirit as a gracious gift. Peter has already quoted the Old Testament prophets, and his words here follow them closely. God’s ancient promise was to provide salvation by His own hand and to pour out His Spirit of blessing and presence. This promise was made first to Abraham and his children, but at the same time extended through them to all the people of the world. This is the “promise” here in v. 39. It is for the Jewish crowd, come from “far off” to the Feast of Weeks; it is a promise God has made to their children, and it is a promise made through them to all people, including each of us.

…as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (v. 39)

This is probably the phrase that people have the hardest time comprehending. It puts the salvation of souls squarely in God’s hands. It points to God’s sovereignty – that is, God’s power and wisdom. God is not surprised by anything, and more than that, is instrumental in our salvation at each point and even before were made, if you believe what is written in Ephesians.

More than a few people get their brain tied in knots over this, wanting to insist that God can’t know whether I will believe or not, and even if He does, I have the power and the right to defy God’s will. That gets right to it, doesn’t it… that it is only in recognizing that I yield to God’s will that I could begin to understand the magnitude, scope, and infinite love that underlies God’s purpose for me.

And if that logic escapes you, look where Peter put this phrase. It’s not at the beginning. You don’t lead a conversation with, “Well, you can only believe in God if He wants you to.” No, it’s at the end, as if by way of explanation, of how a hopelessly weak and sinful human being such as I could possibly be convinced of sin, turn my life around to face God, and come to trust Him in faith. Here, looking back on it, it’s because God was calling me all along.

That Day There Were Added

Today, we are welcoming six young men and women into the membership of our church. What I love about this is that you can so clearly see that God doesn’t use just one method to bring people to faith. Confirmation class isn’t about running kids through a certain program and “poof” – out come Christians on the other end. No, their faith stories are as unique as they are.

One is being baptized and the others, having already been baptized under the promise, are remembering their own baptisms and making those vows their own. Some of them trusted Jesus as their Lord and Savior years ago, others did more recently. Some cannot remember a time they didn’t believe in Jesus; for others this is their first very public profession of faith. Each is recognizing God’s work in their life and knows that God has been leading them all along.

For some of them, faith is as natural and close to them as the love of their parents… something that they are choosing to embrace and receive. Others may feel like they have had to run a marathon obstacle course to get here. That’s how much “our story” can vary from person to person.

What is the same for each of them and for each of us is what underlies the individuality of your own journey of faith: God’s consistency and God’s faithfulness to keep His promises. God saves us by His own strong hand. God has come all the way down to where we are to rescue us through His own suffering and death. God calls all to repentance and faith. God invites each of us to come and see, to believe, and to trust and follow.

That’s how each of our individual and different stories points to the one story of God at work in the world, out of love for the world.

Life Goes On

The Church is a covenant community. We are that because ultimately we are drawn together here (that’s the community) by the promises and the working of God (that’s the covenant). Our children are a part of that from the earliest age because of the promise in verse 39, first made to Abraham’s children, now made to ours through Christ – that God will save all who turn to Him. How is the promise to our children different than the promise to anyone then? The difference is that the promise is spoken, proclaimed, and lived out in the covenant community – that is God’s gift and our gift to our children! The confirmation students are today confirming that reality in their own lives, and join the adult community of faith by their profession of faith.

The passage in Acts describes what the covenant community looks like. First, it is full of families of faith, intent on sharing the story and promise of God with the children of the community.

It is also described in verse 42:

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

The last word I want to highlight out of this passage is “devoting.” A Christian is one who has not only been convicted of sin, turned to God, publicly professed faith in Jesus Christ as signified by baptism, but who has been filled with the Holy Spirit and continues to live devoted to God through the covenant community.

The vows I will ask the students are the same ones I ask anyone who joins this covenant community. Simplified, they are the following:
  • Who is your Lord and Savior?
  • Do you turn from sin and turn to God?
  • Do you declare your absolute reliance upon God’s grace and forgiveness?
  • Will you be devoted to the Lord through this covenant community?
These questions follow this passage in Acts well. The first three deal with how God has worked and is working in your life. The fourth deals with life in the covenant community – will you be devoted to the Lord?

In v. 42, this devotion is illustrated in several ways, which only begin to describe life committed to following Jesus Christ. We are to be devoted to the Apostles’ teaching, that is to God’s Word. We are to study it, learn it, and live it. We are to be devoted to fellowship, which is not potluck dinners so much as what we might call “church family.” We belong to each other through Christ because we belong to Christ. We are to be devoted to the breaking of the bread, understood to be the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, where we remember, celebrate, and hope in Christ’s saving death. It also refers to being in the habit of eating and making a “church home” here with each other. And we are to be devoted to prayer, in all the different ways we can pray with and for one another.

This just scratches the surface – as we have been talking about for some time, we are also to be devoted to those who are still “far off,” even as God is!

If I had to summarize all this into one statement, I would say this:

Our God is the God of eternity, who from the beginning has kept His promise to not forsake us, but save us and make us into a family bearing His name, for His glory and for the sake of the world.

What is covenant community? It is what God is doing here at Good Shepherd and it is what you are a part of by God’s grace.

If you are convicted of sin, thanks be to God!

If you need to repent, turn around and ask, “What now?”

If you need to be baptized, profess faith, or somehow tell your story, let’s do it!

If you need forgiveness of sin, listen and believe; God’s mercy is new every morning, and every week we speak the truth of God’s forgiveness to all who would receive it. “If you confess your sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. Rejoice, for in and through Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.”

If you believe, but feel disconnected from God, pray for a renewed sense of the Holy Spirit in your life. If you believe, the Spirit is there. Ask God to fan the flames of faith and make His presence known.

If you lack devotion, recommit yourself to learning and obeying God’s Word; recommit yourself to one another in this family; recommit yourself to Christ, who gave body and blood for you; and recommit yourself to prayer.

This is covenant community; we are God’s covenant community; jump in with both feet, and heart, and mind, and strength. Amen.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Sheep for the World (Acts 2.1-13)

May 11, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell

Today is Pentecost Sunday; it is also Mother’s Day. While today’s text and sermon focus on Pentecost, I will make one connection with Mother’s Day. A mother doesn’t keep a child in the womb or nursing or even in the home forever, but gives birth to the child in order to nurture and raise and send the child out, finally mature, into the world. And we are so thankful for that role and purpose for motherhood. In the same way, when we are born again as believers in Jesus Christ (to use Jesus’ language from John 3), the Holy Spirit doesn’t intend to keep us in the womb, or nursing, or at home; rather, the Holy Spirit gives us birth in order to raise us up and train us up and send us out into the world.

It is helpful, then, on this day to recognize the necessary role of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, and understand that with that role comes recognition and embracing of our own purpose as growing children of God. Listen now to the story of Pentecost.

Father and Son Send the Spirit

Starting this past Wednesday night and continuing through May, we are studying the “sent and sending” character of God. God’s sent and sending character is demonstrated notably through sending Jesus, the Son. But today we focus on a second way that God demonstrates His character and that is through Father and Son sending the Holy Spirit. In our call to worship, we heard Jesus’ promise:

When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about me… (John 15:26)

Pentecost is that promise coming true! Fifty days after Easter (Pentecost means ’50’) the Holy Spirit of God came upon the disciples and through them to the whole world. That is the story of Pentecost. The sent and sending God, who sent Jesus the Son into the world, was now sending the promised Spirit of truth, to give the early Christians power and authority to be sent to the world with the message about what God had done.

This event reveals something significant about the character of God and it reveals something important about the role of all who would trust and follow Jesus Christ.

God for the World

First, God is involved with humanity. God does not keep to Himself, waiting for human beings to earn His attention, climb a mystical ladder, or prove our worthiness. God came all the way down to where we live to show us His face and pursue us. That is the character of God – involved out of love with his Creation.

We see this at Pentecost, not just in the sending of the Holy Spirit, but in the reach of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit didn’t just come to bless the small circle of believers or to help them hunker down in defense against a harsh world. Rather, the Holy Spirit spoke through them to all those within earshot, comprising people from most of the nations of the known world. They are listed there in Acts and I have included in your bulletin a map with the home nations mentioned marked on it. All these had come to Jerusalem and were confronted with the message of Jesus Christ through the work of this sent Holy Spirit speaking through the words of the disciples.

God’s Holy Spirit revealed the character of God Himself – sent and sending, involved with the world out of love and compassion.

This is the basis for half of our local church vision, that of being a LIGHTHOUSE. The gathered local church should look like the neighborhood around it! People from our neighborhood should be able to walk in here and see other neighbors, see people who shop at Harris Teeter and Food Lion on this block, and see people whose kids go to Old Providence Elementary. To be an effective lighthouse for Jesus Christ, we won’t just welcome and teach people who are wealthy, people who are white, or people who vote like we do. Rather, if we are full of the Holy Spirit of Truth, we will speak and live out the hopeful message of Jesus Christ to all who draw near!

Look at verse 11. It contains the extent of the ministry and programs for these first Pentecost believers. Open to all God brought their way, they spoke of the “mighty deeds of God.” Being a lighthouse church doesn’t mean that we compromise the message, cater to the culture, or water down the truth. We speak and live out our hope in Jesus Christ, inviting and welcoming all whom God would welcome, which is all who would come.

We are a neighborhood church, and to be a good one, we must be good neighbors!

Having said all that, note the reception these Holy Spirit filled disciples got. Some drew near and listened; some were intrigued and interested, asking, “What does this mean?”; and some mocked them as being drunk. (vv. 12-13)

Our mission is simple and clear:
  1. Do not shut out God’s Spirit, which is promised to all who believe;
  2. Love and receive those whom God loves (which is all people)
  3. Speak the Truth in love
  4. Measure success by faithfulness and obedience, not by response
Pentecost is the story of God for the world.

Sheep for the World

There is a second and related application of the events of Pentecost. The basis for the application is contained in this text, but the demonstration of it follows later in the rest of Acts.

If God reveals Himself to us as a sent and sending God, and we are created in God’s image and made for faithfulness and obedience, it follows that we are to be a sent and sending people. The template for this is in this text, as we see the Holy Spirit sent from God and borne through the disciples’ words to the peoples of the world. The rest of Acts documents the actual “get up and get out” mission of the Church to the world.

This is the basis for the second part of our local church mission, that of being a SEARCHLIGHT.

I was stunned and captivated by an article I read this week. The lead line was the question, “What would it look like to completely win a city for Jesus Christ?” In other words, what would a 100% evangelized and Christianized city look like?

Churches everywhere? Christian doctors and dentists? All Christian radio stations? No crime? No hunger or poverty? What do you think?

And then I saw the picture near the end of the article. It was a picture of a ghost town – completely abandoned.[1] What in the world? The author of the article made the radical suggestion that if a city were truly and 100% converted, that everyone would leave to take the Gospel elsewhere.

Whoa! I’m still wrestling with the implications of that. Even if you don’t buy that completely, think of the alternative. If everyone in town was converted and we just closed in on ourselves, perhaps waiting for other non-believers to wander by, we would have missed the point of following Jesus, the sent Son of God. Yet that is the attitude of most churches. We make sure every member is a Christian and then just wait for a few folks to move to town or transfer in from another church. And that’s something we have to break out of.

God didn’t kick back in Heaven and roll down a golden ladder, waiting for the chosen few to find their way to Him. He rolled up His sleeves, got down in the mud, and came among us. That’s our model for mission. That’s our model for faith and faithfulness. That’s our model for ministry. That’s where the Holy Spirit blows – through scripture and through here out into the world, where God is changing and bringing people back from the edge of death.

We can be a part of that or we can go back to sleep. Psalms says that we are God’s people and the sheep of His pasture. God is for the world; so we must be sheep for the world – we must be people of God for the world. That’s the challenge of Pentecost. Amen.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Building Stuff (1 Corinthians 3.10-15)

May 4, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell

Today we are going to talk about foundations and what we build on top of them. In Paul’s case, he was addressing the life of the church in the Greek city of Corinth, where different pastors had worked to build a local church. More broadly, his teaching applies to each of us as we build a life, family, career, and church.


First, let’s talk about foundations. Foundations are important. The wrong foundation puts the entire structure at risk. You may remember Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7 about the wise man who built his house upon a rock and the foolish man who built his house upon the sand.

Before we ever get to family, career, church, and life, we must ask what the foundation of our life is. What is at the very core – the bedrock – of our lives? Is it God? Is it ourselves? Is it our appetites? Is it a worshipful and loving obedience to our Savior? It is, perhaps, the ultimate introspective question with the ultimate outward impact. What drives you? What anchors you? What is the foundation?

The Bible makes clear in a number of places that the only secure foundation is Jesus Christ. That simply means that faith in Jesus Christ – belief in and dependency on that amazing story of obedience, sacrifice, and grace – is the only secure foundation for life. Paul says that any other foundation is no foundation at all, “For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (v. 11) Anything else is, at best, a na├»ve child pretending she can fly with a towel-cape and flapping arms. We can pretend we have another foundation, but the only real and true foundation is Jesus Christ. At worst, we build a house on a foundation doomed to destruction – a house of cards… a house of sand.

Here’s the deal, as simply as I know how to say it: the Bible teaches that the one essential thing we need is a personal knowledge of and relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is through hearing, believing, and trusting the news of God sending Jesus in love to save us that we are rescued from ultimate death and destruction. There is more that God desires for us to build on that foundation, but without Jesus Christ as our foundation, we are lost!

That must be clear before we go any further. Without faith in and love of Jesus Christ at the very heart of who we are, nothing else we do will ultimately matter… nothing.

What We Build

The real meat of this passage is not about the foundation, however, but about what we build on top of it. Paul is writing to the church in Corinth, in the context of his having “planted” the church and Apollos serving it subsequently as pastor. He is specifically challenging the church members to be thoughtful and careful about how they build up the church in Corinth. While many decisions might be possible, not all are wise.

Paul extends his analogy to speak of the materials used to “build on” the foundation. He describes gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and straw. He says that each one contributes to this work in some way. It’s easy to put this into literal context as we drive by and see the beautiful stonework that you have helped put up in the front of our church. This is literally building something beautiful that will last.

But Paul is getting at more than that. He is getting at the things that really build up a local church body. This includes financial support, but more importantly, the spiritual and practical decisions behind the financial picture. Are we building a monument to the founding pastor or the current pastor? That was one of the pressing questions for the church in Corinth. Are we building an icon of Presbyterianism in this city where Presbyterians have done so much?

Or are we physically, materially, and spiritually, a witness to God’s Word and work among the people of this neighborhood? That’s the vision the officers and I believe God has laid before us. Is that what you are building here? Is that the precious jewel God would set into the Jesus-foundation here on Rea Road?

Is the extent of your building showing up and signing the pad each week? Those get thrown away after a while… is there anything lasting about what you and I and we are building in this place?

That’s the first and obvious question this text raises for us as Christians.

What Else We Build

There is more being asked of us here than that, however. Good Shepherd is not the only thing you and I are building (or not building) on the foundation of Jesus Christ. There is also marriage, family, career, and a life-witness. Each of these areas bears scrutiny.

Take marriage first. Paul would always ask first, “Is Jesus Christ the foundation?” Do you and your spouse trust in and love Jesus Christ personally? If not, there is no other more important issue to address. But then, after that question, what are you building on that foundation? Are you, brick by brick, building a marriage that embodies and demonstrates Christ-like love, mutual forbearance, forgiveness, and grace? Do you show your spouse a fraction of the patience, attentiveness, love, and grace that Christ has shown you? Is this news to you about marriage? I hope not. But if you want more to think about, spend some time in the end of Ephesians 5. Or are you building, brick by brick, a wall between you and your spouse? Has marriage become a convenience (or an inconvenience!)? Have you stopped building into your husband or wife, or turned your energies and attentions elsewhere. If you are single, you are not off the hook. These are exactly the questions you should be asking, and the model for marriage that you should be preparing for as you date. Paul raises all these questions in this text, challenging each of us in this crucial building area of marriage.

Consider family. Many of the same things this text teaches about marriage apply to raising children. First, is Jesus the foundation? And then what are you building? Are you teaching your children how to fit into a family or does your life revolve around catering to their needs. [If it’s not clear, the first one is the biblical model!] Do we spend our time with pressing but short-lived conversations about fashion, videogames, what’s for dinner, and school gossip, or are we working hard to find ways to teach our children the story of Jesus Christ, model grace and accountability, and train them in godliness?

Or consider career. It is easy to elevate career as the purpose of our lives. We may even think of it as “our life’s work.” But this text speaks to this as well. Again, we must ask if Jesus Christ is the foundation of our life, even in the area of work. If you’ve heard me teach on the Creation story, you know that work is a form of worship or serving God. From the beginning, God designed work that He might be at the foundation of it. What do we build on top of that foundation of work as service to God? Success? Getting ahead? Making money? Building a reputation? Getting out of the house? There is a lot of straw and hay that we can come up with. What are the jewels? It is possible to work hard in a secular field and honor God’s name. Could it be that is the bottom-line purpose of work?

Let’s look at the consequences of the choices we make about building stuff.

You Get What You Pay For

In essence, scripture teaches us the old lesson that you get what you pay for. All this stuff we build – marriage, family, career, church – can be built cheaply or with great effort and attention to detail. You can slide by for a time in each area, but you’ll get what you pay for. If you build into these areas with “hay and straw” it’s not going to last. That’s what Paul tells us in vv. 13-15. Your works will be tested by time and God’s judgment. God has revealed what is good and right and godly as well as what is insubstantial, cheap, and untrustworthy. Just getting by, the hay and straw, will fail; you will lose in the end, because it won’t last.

Conversely, if you build the stuff of life out of the stuff of God – with quality, intention, wisdom, effort, and grace – God says the work will remain and you will be rewarded. It is not clear whether the reward is a heavenly reward or that of seeing what you have built last, to God’s glory. I do know that the Ephesians passage describes building on the foundation of Christ as a “holy temple… a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” That sounds pretty rewarding to me!

All in all, this text presses the simple question: “How are you spending your life?” The rewards of good choices are straightforward and the cost of going our own way is equally as clear.

Finally, to clarify something, Paul says that even the person who builds poorly will not lose salvation if the foundation of his or her life is Jesus Christ. But that salvation will be one of trial by fire, with everything stripped away. That’s God’s mercy at work, but it’s hardly His desire for any of us. Rather, God’s purpose and desire are that we do something with the treasure we have been given, that we build lives – marriages, families, careers, and faith – that is rewarding because it is blessed; it is “jewels” built on the foundation of Christ.

God encourages us to go build stuff – but the right stuff at the right price and with the right materials. Amen.