We’ve talked about connecting and we’ve talked about growing in Christ. But those two cannot be the end of our journey as followers of Jesus. They certainly weren’t the end of His. And they aren’t the end of who we were created to be as a church. This week we talked about one last, but critically important, part of our God-given identity: Reaching. Why do we reach out and what can that look like here? Read on to find out.
A Note on Being the Church
Have you ever played capture the flag? When we had P.E. in grade school, that was always one of my favorite games. We consistently played it in the gym. The P.E. teacher, Mr. Wilson, put a line of cones down the middle of the floor and split the class into two teams. On each side there was a zone of cones that was the jail and a zone that was where the flag stayed. The goal, of course, was to get the other team’s flag and make it back across the line to your side without getting tagged. The slowest people in the class always got stuck guarding the jail and the flag itself. The fastest group was tasked with getting the other team’s flag. We would line up along the halfway line in various places, trying to spread the other team’s defense as thinly as we could. Some of the group would be sent as decoys – guys we knew were going to get caught in order to distract the flag watchers and jail keepers which in turn created an opening around the flag. Once you made it into the flag box you were safe for the moment. The next trick was figuring out how to escape back to your side. I don’t know that we ever put that much strategy into things. We just ran around until the game was over.
But before any game was able to progress, someone had to cross the line in “enemy” territory. Until you did that, there was nothing happening. The kick with crossing the line, though, was that although it meant you had a chance at the flag, it also meant there was a chance you were going to get caught. Personally, I hated getting caught. Even though I was one of the fastest in the group, I’d dance around on the line until Mr. Wilson had to start making up rules to force us to play. Sometimes I would volunteer to guard the jail or the flag just to make sure I wouldn’t get caught. Of course, it was all in the name of making sure they couldn’t get our flag or bust anyone out of jail, but it was really about being safe. The thing about refusing to venture into enemy territory, though, is that while you may not get caught, you also won’t ever win. In order to win any contest, eventually you have to generate some offense. That’s where things can get tricky.
This morning we are in the third part of this four-part conversation we have been having called, A Fresh Look. During this four-week span, we are talking about who we are as a church. Well, as we have said already, the basic idea of our identity is one that is, I hope (and particularly over the course of this series), increasingly familiar to you. First Baptist Oakboro is a people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. That’s who we are as a church in one basic statement. But if we don’t understand that basic statement together, we run the risk of its becoming little more than a slogan. And, as we have said, we don’t need a slogan; we need an identity.
Two weeks ago we started unpacking this identity statement by talking about our creation as a people with whom anyone can connect. Everyone needs somewhere they can connect with other people. We seek that out naturally and relentlessly. Whether it is at work or a bar or a political rally or a sporting event or even a church, we all need a group of people who know us and accept us as we are. We need people who have access to our lives and can reach into them with help and support when we need it. And we need people for whom we can do all of those things. When we don’t have that we suffer harm that ranges from debilitating to devastating. Well, God designed us to be a connectable people. That’s simply who you are as a church. But we don’t just want people to connect here with us. We want them to connect with Jesus. That’s who it’s ultimately all about, right? Don’t just invite people to church; invite them to Jesus.
And speaking of Jesus, as we talked about last week, we don’t simply want people to connect with Him. We want them to grow in Him. When following Jesus, growth isn’t an option. This matters in two different ways. First, if you would count yourself a follower of Jesus and you are not taking the steps you need to take to grow in your relationship with Him (we talked about four: making worship a priority, engaging with a Bible study group, applying what you have learned in some practical capacity, and developing the dual disciplines of Bible reading and prayer), you’re treading on dangerous ground. The simple reason for that is if you’re not growing, you’re dying. And if you try to claim you’re growing when you’re not, eventually the lack of fruit in your life is going to rat you out. Second, if you are new to following Jesus – or even if you haven’t yet taken up that journey – you are in the midst of a people who can help you along your way to see you become more fully who God designed you in Christ to be. This is, again, because when we are following Jesus, growth isn’t an option.
Still, as important as connecting and growing are, even those two together are not ends in themselves. You see, growth goes somewhere. It goes up. It goes out. Well, if we are going to grow, our growth has to go somewhere. It goes up. It goes out. So must we. We are not simply a people with whom anyone can connect. We are not even simply a people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ. We are a people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. Once you have connected here and are growing, the natural next step is to reach out. We as a church must reach out if we are going to be faithful not only to who God made us to be as First Baptist Oakboro, but if we are going to be faithful to our identity as a church at all. This morning, then, I want to talk with you about what this means, why it is, and what it can look like here.
Well, thinking about our charge to reach out as followers of Jesus who are part of His body, there were three commissions to go Jesus gave His followers after His resurrection from the dead. The first one, which you may not even remember because it gets overlooked, is found in John 20. This one was on the morning of the resurrection before Thomas rejoined the group. He told them they were being sent as the Father had sent Him. The most famous of the three commissions is the one you’ve heard of for certain if you’ve been around the church for long. This is at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel and came just near the end of Jesus’ forty days with His followers before ascending back to the Father. Jesus told them – and us – that we are to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the triune name of God, and teaching them to obey His commands. There’s one more that Luke records and which probably came in the context of that same conversation happening in Matthew’s Gospel. I want to draw your attention there this morning. You can find this at the beginning of the book of Acts.
When Acts opens, we find Jesus and the disciples gathered together and He is giving them some final instructions before departing. This conversation is a whole lot less spiritual-sounding than what Matthew recorded. Jesus tells them to go back to Jerusalem and stay there until the Holy Spirit comes. “While he was with them, he commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. ‘Which,’ he said, ‘you have heard me speak about; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a few days.’” Now, let’s just be honest: That would have made them all pretty nervous. Jerusalem was where all the folks were who had engineered His death in the first place. The disciples were all excited about His being alive now, but they still didn’t really have a good handle on what it meant just yet. This was all still pretty new. As a matter of fact, they demonstrated just how new all of this was in their next question to Him. We see this in Acts 1:6: “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?’”
You see, they were still thinking about His being the Messiah and the nature of the kingdom of God in the same terms they had been before the resurrection. They were the same terms they had always thought in and which the rest of the nation generally embraced as well. The only difference between the rest of the nation and the disciples was that they were certain Jesus was the guy because He had risen from the grave. Far from what the Holy Spirit would gradually help them understand in the weeks, months, and years ahead of them, they still expected a physical kingdom with Jesus at its head to arrive right then. You know, in His conversation with them before His arrest John records for us John 14-17, Jesus told the disciples at one point it was to their benefit He was going away. I think this is one of the reasons it was to their benefit. As long as He was physically with them they were expecting Him to rule over a physical kingdom. They weren’t going to start thinking about the kingdom of God properly until He wasn’t there to rely on in the same way they always had. Exhibiting far more patience with them than I would have had, Jesus responded to them by saying, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” In other words, “That’s none of your business.”
Okay, but then what was their business? Reaching out to advance His kingdom by bearing witness to His resurrection. Look at v. 8 now: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Now, if you pay careful attention to what Jesus says and how He says it, this isn’t so much a commission as a description. But it is an important one all the same. Jesus was describing what they were going to do once they were empowered by the Holy Spirit. They would bear witness to His resurrection starting where they were and then branching out from there until the whole world had heard the news.
And, that’s what they did. The rest of the narrative Luke writes in Acts follows this trifold prediction as its outline. They started by spreading the news in Jerusalem, just like Jesus told them they would. Within a few months, Jerusalem was seeing huge numbers of conversions to the Way, as they called Christianity in its earliest days. The way to what? The kingdom of God and eternal life. Before long even members of the Jewish religious elite that had worked so hard to see Jesus condemned began to believe the news about the resurrection. They covered the city with the Gospel.
Unfortunately, success tends to make us complacent. Rather than remaining a primarily missionary movement, the early disciples began to institutionalize there in the city. For a little while it was looking like they might forget about the rest of the world and just build a really powerful organization there in Jerusalem. That would have made a lot of sense too. Any new movement needs a strong base of operations in order for it to really succeed. That’s what Jerusalem was becoming for the church. But that’s not what Jesus had told them they were going to do. In order to get back on that track, they were going to need a little push. That came in the form of a widespread and intense wave of violent persecution breaking out against the believers there. It was so bad all of them save the apostles themselves had to flee the city for their lives. But, as Luke tells us later in the story, they went preaching the word on their way. In other words, they began reaching further. Then, a short while later, Saul was converted, and the “end of the earth” became a much more imaginable goal. Their reach expanded even more.
So, what are we seeing here? What we are seeing is the fact that the movement of God’s people has always been outward. We were never intended to remain in one spot and do our thing there in perpetuity. From the church’s very first moment of existence, there was always to be a directional nature to our existence. We may have started in a single place – God’s kingdom exploded into the world with a single beachhead – but outward expansion was always the plan. That plan hasn’t changed. Our mission from the start was to expand God’s kingdom in this world.
This is intimately connected with the church’s overall design by God. Let me explain what I mean with a question: What is the church? The reason that question matters is there are a lot of wrong ideas about what the church is out there. Some think the church is somewhere you can have a profound spiritual experience. You can have those anywhere. I dare say more folks have those outside of the church than inside of it. Others think the church is supposed to help you feel better about yourself. Whether you feel good or bad about yourself is between you and God, and is conditioned on the state of sin in your life. You don’t need the church for that one way or the other. The church shouldn’t make you feel unnecessarily bad about yourself, but if you come and get convicted of sin and feel bad because of that, then the church is still working like it should. People used to think the church is all about image. That’s not as popular of an idea today, but it’s obviously not right. Some treat it like a social club. Wrong again. We could keep going, but you get the point. There are a lot of wrong ideas about the church out there. Okay, but what is the church? The church is God’s primary means of advancing His kingdom into this world. And there’s not a secondary one.
But before you go thinking that’s me describing the church as being some sort of instrument of divine power, it is, but think again. What does it look like for God’s kingdom to be advanced in the world? Well, what is life in His kingdom like? From what we can tell in the Scriptures, God’s kingdom is present wherever He is honored as Lord and His reign is meaningfully acknowledged. Okay, but what does that look like? God’s kingdom is present most where His character is practiced the best. And what is God’s character? He is just and loving and holy and compassionate and merciful and humble and righteous and good. He cares for the sick and the downtrodden. He brings relief to those who are hurting and suffering. He encourages the weak and the weary. All of those things and more like them are the effects of His kingdom made manifest in this sin-broken world. And the church is the primary, no, the only means by which He is advancing them into it.
Now, there’s something here to not miss but which is easy to overlook and is forgotten about by too many churches. If the church is the means by which God is advancing those things into the world, then if the church is not doing anything to advance them into the world, it is not being the church. Well, the whole concept of advancing implies forward motion. A church that sits back on its heels and waits for the world to come to its doors isn’t being the church. It isn’t going to win in the mission God has set before it in the same way a capture the flag team isn’t going to have a hope of winning if it just sits back on its heels and waits for the other team’s flag to be dropped in its lap. Indeed, in order for us to advance anything we have to move beyond where we are and into the world around us. Well, what do you call it when you are stretching forward toward something that is beyond where you currently are? I don’t know about you, but I call that reaching. In addition to making First Baptist Oakboro a people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ, God has also made us a people who reach out to advance His kingdom. Expanding God’s kingdom means reaching out.
If we are going to be the church at all, let alone the church God created us to be, we absolutely cannot sit here within our four walls and wait for the world to come to our doorstep. Now, that doesn’t mean that your being here doesn’t matter as much as your being there. Being here is incredibly important. All of the things I said about this gathering and your involvement in our other ministries last week are just as true today as they were then. You need to be here if you are going to become fully who God designed you to be. But being here can’t be the only thing you’re doing. You as a follower of Jesus and us as an entire group must reach beyond our borders and into the community, the region, and the world around us in order to advance God’s kingdom by making it manifest in the places where it has yet to fully take hold. Anything less is unfaithfulness to the mission and message of Jesus. Expanding God’s kingdom means reaching out.
So, how do we do this? We start by remembering all of these things we’ve been talking about build on themselves. Remember what we talked about a couple of weeks ago? Our invitation to come and see what God is doing here must come out of our efforts to go and tell. By the way, when your go and tell becomes a come and see, the cycle of life God has created us to spin is brought full circle. You have connected, you have grown, you have reached, and now someone else can connect to repeat the cycle. That’s how He made us to grow His kingdom.
That’s pretty general though. What can you do with greater specificity than that? Here’s one opportunity for you: Consider freeing up room in your schedule to volunteer with (or give to!) our Meals on a Mission ministry. It’s one that has flown fairly well under the radar, but one that is nonetheless powerful in its reach and impact. Each month we are feeding about 60 individuals in our community, some of whom are among the most at-risk we have. Not only have many of these folks come to rely on these meals, but our delivering them means we have folks actively checking up and loving on them each and every month. It sends a powerful signal that these folks who so easily feel forgotten by the world haven’t been. As the need around us continues to increase, your partnership in both funding and delivering can be a powerful reaching out for the kingdom because not only are these folks being ministered to in all of this, but their families are as well. Indeed, you tend to look pretty favorably on the person or group who loves on someone you love. If any of these folks have family members who aren’t believers, guess what their attitude toward the church is going to be relative to what it might have been? Expanding God’s kingdom means reaching out, and this is one easy way for you to do that.
There’s more. We’ve got some key community outreach events on our near horizon right now. Most notably is our annual Trunk or Treat Halloween event. If you haven’t participated in or at least witnessed this event, we are showing the love of Jesus in a very tangible way to hundreds of folks in our community each year. I’ve already had folks reaching out to me wanting to know if we’re doing it and how they can help. That event has become one of our community’s fixtures. People know about it and come out in droves. Two years ago the ocean fell out of the sky on us and we still had a crowd lined up from the fellowship hall doors to 4th Street. In the pouring rain. For an hour and a half. Last year, we changed things up entirely, made it Covid-safe, and held it at the Park. We’re doing that same thing again this year, but on Saturday, October 30. We had traffic lined up from the Park into downtown. We’re looking forward to a similar experience again this year. And you can take part in that. Expanding God’s kingdom means reaching out.
How about some more? Operation Christmas Child is coming up soon. Next week, Lord willing, we are going to kick that project into action. Those shoeboxes are an incredible, hands-on way to put the Gospel in the hands of children across the world. Those boxes don’t just get dropped off somewhere. They are given to churches who hold community events and connect with families to share the Gospel. And again, when someone loves someone you love, you’re a whole lot more inclined to give that person and their message the time of day. Come ready next week to get your box (or boxes!) to fill and share. We’re going to have 200 available for you right out of the gate, and I challenge you to make sure they are all filled. Expanding God’s kingdom means reaching out, and you can be sure those boxes go to the ends of the earth.
I mentioned this earlier this morning, but starting this coming Wednesday – just three days from now – we are finally kicking back off our women’s and men’s ministry teams. Now, the women had their official start on Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago, but this coming Wednesday is going to be our first true missions night on this side of Covid. Be here at 6:30 to learn more about what’s going on and what’s coming up. Angel Copple and Tracy Lowder have been hard at work getting ready for it.
Now, I’ve talked about several different opportunities you have available to you right now to reach out into this community to expand God’s kingdom. But you know what, there may be something you have on your mind or heart right now that I haven’t even thought about yet. This is because God has given you the passion and calling to this ministry and not me. After all, my job is not to have every idea and do every ministry; it’s to equip, empower, and unleash you for that. God has a plan for you to expand His kingdom – that is, to be the church. And expanding His kingdom means reaching out. There’s a world waiting for us. Next week, we’ll talk about where we go from here. I can’t wait to see you then.