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Monday, May 18, 2020

Ekklesia 1 - Rediscovering Church

Introduction
I’m so very proud of the graduating class of 2020. Our church recognizes graduating students every year and we are always proud of each one.  But I can honestly say, we have never had a year like this one.  Each graduating class is unique and has its own struggles, but your class—2020—has faced a pandemic that has shut down the entire world.  Humanity has faced plagues before—some far deadlier than COVID 19.  However, nothing has ever shutdown the entire globe, all at the same time—from Asia to Europe to Africa to America.  Class of 2020, your year will go down in history as one of the most challenging of all times.  Perhaps one day, when you are old and gray, you will take your grandchildren of great grandchildren in your arms and you will say, “I was in the graduating class of 2020.  They canceled the last 2 months of school, along with proms and sports and all our extracurricular activities.  But we endured and we graduated.”  And I hope, after having some time to reflect upon your experience,  you will also be able to say, “We learned more during that crazy time about what really matters in life than we could have ever learned in our classrooms.”

I hope we have all been reflecting and learning a lot more these day—about life, about death, about the meaning of it all and what’s really important.  I know many pastors and Christians have been reflecting on what church is all about.  It has now been nine weeks since we had a regular onsite worship service at Pleasant Grove.  All our services since March 15th have been “online only”.  In fact, the graduates and their families that joined us for worship in the sanctuary on May 17 (about 60 people spread out for social distancing) were the first “congregation” we’ve had on site in over two months (other than a small worship team that’s helped us lead our LIVE stream service on Facebook).

And so, many pastors and Christians have been pausing to reflect on what “Church” is really all about.  What is the purpose of Church?  If we can’t meet in person, are we really still a church?  Pleasant Grove Methodist is a very active church; our calendar is normally full of activities.  But for the last two months, all of those activities have been canceled.  We've tried to limit our work to only what we've felt had to be done--online worship, managing essential administrative tasks, and some vital mission work that needed tp be done.

High school seniors from this year’s class know what it’s like to have activities canceled.  Your senior year is supposed to be full of special activities.  Yet many of those activities have been canceled.  Does that mean you are not a senior?  Does that mean you won’t be a graduate?  Does the cancellation of these extracurricular activities nullify all the work you’ve done for over a decade in your academic career?  No.  Of course not.  They will still graduate.

Here’s why.  It all goes back to the purpose of your education.  I’m not an expert in public education so I don’t know if I can perfectly distill down the essence of public education.  However, I’m certain what is most central to a high school education is not marching band or football games or prom or baseball or even the graduation ceremony itself.  All of these (and more) have become beloved traditions of high school education and it hurts your heart when they are taken away.  But the cancellation of all these activities does not nullify in any way whatsoever the fact that you are high school educated graduates. 

Therefore, the purpose of a high school education must be something greater than our beloved traditions—something that you have attained.  Again, I’m not a public educator, but I would speculate that the core purposes of a high school education is to teach you the knowledge you need to succeed in life.  To this you might add, the skills you need to succeed in life.  Perhaps, even more important, maybe, is that a proper education teaches you to be a good person who will be a good citizen. (That’s something that’s important to all of us, because the last thing we need is a bunch of smart, skillful people running around doing evil things!)

As I said, I’m not an educator.  I’m a pastor.  So the big questions on my mind through all this craziness has been: “What is essential about church?”  It’s a question I’ve thought about many times over the years throughout my ministry—it’s not totally new.  However, this question—what is essential about Church—has become especially pressing for me during this time when so many of the traditional things the American Church does have been called off.  Does that make sense?

So today, I’m beginning a new series titled “Ekklesia,” because Ekklesia is the Greek word Bible originally used for “church”.  My purpose today is not to give answers.  Today, I want to give questions. I will spend more time in the next two Sundays sharing some answers about the essence of the Church from Scripture.  But today, I want to get everyone asking the question.  And maybe, as part of that, the graduates of the class of 2020 can ask some deep questions about their own lives as well.  Maybe we can all ask ourselves some core questions that get to the heart of our individual lives.

Jesus always had a way of asking the right questions.

Matthew 16:13-18
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
14 “Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”
15 Then he asked them, “But who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. 18 Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.

Important Information
Jesus reveals some very important information in this short conversation.  First of all, he reveals that he is the Messiah (Chosen One), the Son of the living God.  These were actually Simon (Peter's) words, but Jesus did not dispute them.  Jesus affirms Peter's statement.  Everyone has an opinion about the identity of Jesus--both today and in Jesus day.  Some say he is a prophet, a religious leader, a revolutionary, or even a fiction character.  But Jesus asks, who do you say I am and Peter replies he is the Chosen One, the Son of the Living God.

Jesus also reveals that God inspired Peter to believe this.  Peter didn't get that idea from any person, but directly from God.  It was divinely inspired.  We ought to pay careful attention to this revelation then.

Lastly, Jesus reveals that the Church (Ekklesia) will be founded on Peter’s kind of faith in Jesus.  This is huge.  For any church to stand and remain legitimate, it must be built upon the affirmation that Jesus is the Chosen One, the Son of the Living God.  Otherwise, it is not really a church and will crumble.

Foundations are Critical
The foundation is the most important part of any structure.  Last Saturday morning, a group of men from my church went to another member's house to help build a porch.  We worked for about 8 hours, but nearly half that time was spent laying the foundation.  We needed to take our time and make sure everything in the foundation was right.  Was it level?  Was it square?  Was it firm?  It was very important to make sure the foundation was firm, because otherwise the structure--no matter how pretty--would not last or be reliable.  Once the foundation was laid, we moved very quickly and the rest of the porch was assembled very fast because it was built on a firm foundation.

Foundations are not just for buildings.  Your high school education  is the foundation you need to succeed in life.  It is only a foundation.  You still need more.  Maybe you  go on to get a college education or job training or you  go to work.  But you wouldn’t be prepared to begin those things without the foundation you built over the first 18 or so years of your life.  And a faulty foundation will give you trouble with everything else you try to build in your life as an adult.

What’s Your Purpose?
Your foundation is built from far more than just your education.  Here’s where the questions come in.  Who are you?  What is your essence?  Remember, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?”  Well, who do people say you are?

What you family and closest friends say may be some indication as to what’s most essential about you.  They know you well and may see things you don't  However, if you really want to know the core of who you are, I would recommend looking to God.  God is the One who designed and created you.  He is the One who brought you into this world and has been guiding you all along the way (even if you didn’t know it).  He was there all along.

This is a message especially applicable to graduates as you enter a new phase in life (but it’s also a message we all need to consider during this time when our normal lives have been turned upside down).  Who are you?  What is your purpose?  What kind of life do you want to build?  I would think this is the time for schools and educators to be asking the same things.  What is school all about?  What is the purpose of eduaction?  Now that all the extra stuff has had to be canceled, what is it about school that is essential and cannot be canceled?

Graduates, as you start a new phase of life, you have so much potential and a great amount of freedom to build whatever kind of life you want.  What do you want to build?  More importantly, What do you think God wants you to build?  Because, here’s the thing, what God wants you to build will be so much more fulfilling than anything else.  Believe it or not, God knows you better than you have ever known yourself and His way will always be the better way.

This is a message for everyone, not just graduates.  The COVID 19 pandemic has been awful, but it has given us all a unique opportunity.  Since our normal lives have been so severely disrupted, don’t miss the opportunity to take a good, hard look at what’s most essential in your life.  Now that so much of the fluff is stripped away, ask the question:  Who are you?  What’s your purpose?  What kind of life do you want to build going forward?  Many of us in so many ways will be building something new in our lives in the coming days.  What will it be?

I pray you won’t just opt for the easy, comfortable thing, which is to just go back to the way things were before COVID. (That may not even be possible.  The world has changed.)

I am looking at my own life.  I am also looking at the Church to see what needs to change.  I think that’s what God wants us all to do.  After all, I believe this life is not my own anyway—it belongs to God.  And this church is not ours either—it belongs to God.  So, I want both my life and our church to be what God wants it to be.  How about you?

I invite you all to meditate on the questions God has put on your heart.

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