Text: Mark 2:1-12, preached by Daniel Meeter, at Sixth Reformed Church, North Haledon, NJ
Dearly beloved, this is a wonderful thing that you are doing here tonight, and I recognize the honor in your inviting me to preach to you. I was born within your boundaries, I spent my early years within your churches, and I know your landscape and your buildings, so I’m not completely a guest.
My scripture lesson is the same lesson that I heard Richard Kooistra preach on to Classis Passaic in 1979. From this text he said that people are looking for Jesus but often the very churches in which Our Lord is present are blocking their access to him, and we need to take the roofs off our churches to let the people in—speaking metaphorically, of course.
I will take this text a different way. Please notice, first, that Jesus was at home here, he must have been renting this house or something, this was where he lived. Second, he was ministering not to pagans but to the people of God, who knew of God, but only distantly, and for whom the forgiveness of sins was something legalistic and burdensome. Third, it was not the disciples who brought the paralytic in, but a committee of four men who had an interest in him. Fourth, the raising up of the paralytic is offered by St. Mark as a foretaste of the resurrection. Finally, notice that the glorification of God that we see here is not just of a general sort, but a particular sort, namely, the gratitude for the forgiveness of sins and the “raising” of his body.
My application of this is threefold: your motivation, your message, and your method.
First, your motivation. The denomination is not helping us by suggesting that the first motivation of the church is mission. It is not. It is worship. The church should certainly be missional, but it should first be doxological. Now don’t get me wrong, you can’t have worship without mission, and vice versa, but it’s wrong to collapse worship into mission. As J.-J. von Allmen put it once, worship and mission are like the two discrete motions of your blood pressure, the systolic and the diastolic, the compression and the expansion. Don’t collapse the one into the other.
Both worship and mission are necessary, but worship comes first—it’s on the first day of the week. Worship is the compression, and mission follows as the expansion. Though worship should be missional, worship is ultimately not for mission but, yes, for worship. Your people in your churches feel this; most of all they want to worship, and that’s because of the way God made them. If mission is our calling as Christians, worship is our compulsion as human beings.
I can claim that worship is the first purpose of the church because the Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us that the chief purpose of human beings is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. Now the Heidelberg Catechism sharpens this by teaching us that the determinant theme of our glorification is not general but specific, and specifically thanksgiving, particularly thanksgiving for the forgiveness of sins.
And I submit that this is the proper and primary motivation for your forty congregations to gather every Lord’s Day, for thanksgiving, especially thanksgiving for the forgiveness of sins. And to do this well, all forty of your congregations right now have all the members and resources they need. You just need to adjust your liturgies, so that the climax of your worship services is always a great prayer of thanksgiving.
The model for your prayers is the great prayer of thanksgiving right there in our communion liturgy, and you can pray like this every Sunday whether or not you celebrate communion. The climax of your service can be a Trinitarian prayer that centers on the salvation accomplished for us by Jesus and applied to us by the Holy Spirit.
Let me suggest that your classis work on this. That you establish a working group on worship for your churches, to study and model and train your congregations in the ministry of thanksgiving prayer, way beyond the ordinary American notions of thanksgiving. How to pray such prayers, what to say in them, how to help our congregations rise to the company of angels (singing “holy, holy, holy”) in such prayers.
Second, your message. Let your message be first and foremost the resurrection. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the power of resurrection in our lives today, like with the raising of the paralytic and the forgiveness of his sins. Most people today will tell you that the main point of the gospel is that Jesus died for our sins. He certainly did, but that’s not the main point, not if you study the sermons of St. Paul in the Book of Acts. His main point was always the resurrection and the power of the resurrection, and for St. Paul the knowledge of the cross was to serve the knowledge of the resurrection. The resurrection is what makes real in our lives the forgiveness of sins, it’s the whole purpose of the forgiveness of sins.
Think of the Apostles Creed, and its wonderful penultimate phrases, “the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body.” The first is for the second, and the second expresses the first. Even before the final resurrection are the many passing signs in our lives of resurrection, like rising up from your mats of paralysis and guilt and shame, that you may walk with the Lord, that you may be restored to your chief end as a human being, giving glory to God especially in thanksgiving, singing salvation songs, namely the Songs of Moses and the Lamb.
Now, I had you notice that Jesus was ministering not to pagans but to God’s own people, but people for whom God was distant and the forgiveness of sins was a priestly technology. This was the situation in the Reformation, and the early Reformed churches considered this population as their proper mission-field. Look, the majority of people in New Jersey still regard themselves as vaguely Christian. Many of them are Roman Catholic in background, but as we know from recent news reports, apart from some dynamic parishes, the Roman Catholic Church is losing them, and leaving them only with notions of a distant God and a feeling of guilt and a legalism of grace. The same is largely true for those of Protestant background. They all were told that Jesus died for their sins. But they are largely ignorant of the resurrection and the power of the resurrection. They are like the people gathered round the house of Jesus, where Jesus lived.
You live in forty houses of worship. Live in them. Be churchly. But open up those doors. Literally. Clear out all your stuff, your precious stuff, because if people come in, you’re going to get broken plaster and roofing tiles and shingles on it all, and they’re going to make a mess of all your stuff, so you might as well clean it all out now (that is, if you really want new people in), but at the same time, don’t stop being churchly; assume the presence of angels. It’s church that people are looking for, churches that will be open to them, giving them good news.
You don’t have to be stingy with the gospel of forgiveness, as if to protect it, like the scribes in the story (and it’s probably your stuff that you’re protecting anyway). You don’t have to try to make them feel guilty, they’ve all got more guilt feelings than Martin Luther ever had. They just don’t know what to do about their guilt, and all they know is how to medicate it. You have good news for them, and you can be generous with it. People are looking for houses of prayer in which they can be raised up from their mats of sin and guilt to know the forgiveness of sins and walk back to their homes and live as God intended them to live. Preach and teach the resurrection.
Let me suggest that your classis work on this. Have a working group do some theology for your mutual benefit. Train your pastors and consistories in the resurrection, in its facts and mysteries and metaphors. There is a whole new literature coming out on this. Teach them to connect what St. Paul says about the power of the resurrection with what Jesus says about the kingdom of God and with what Calvinism says about the Sovereignty of God. This is the special gift and obligation of our Reformed tradition. This sort of message will center you and give you confidence as Reformed. And when people ask what the Reformed church is, you don’t have to mumble about being sort of like Presbyterians only Dutch, you can say, “Oh, we’re the church that’s big on the resurrection.”
Third, your method. I know this is a long sermon, but this is Sixth Church, and I myself have preached much, much longer sermons here. And here, like Richard Kooistra, I will be metaphorical. I want to talk about those four guys who carried the paralytic. Let them be a model for how you organize to extend your mission together as a classis. Because the classis is like the disciples, who are gathered together in the house. And that’s okay. I recommend that you live with the classis itself as an organization for government, not for mission. Don’t make the classis do what it’s not designed to do. But there are things that you can do.
First, a classis-wide diaconate, to which all your deacons belong; your deacons are those four guys. Let your classis constitute a Passaic Valley Board of Deacons. Don’t make your deacons have to come to classis meetings—they should be out there like those four guys. Let your deacons get together behind some of your local outreach, let them all share in such things as what is done at North Reformed in Newark, and feel like they belong to it. Let your deacons get together in supporting an RCA missionary, so that even the smallest church among you can have a share in Global Missions.
Second, a Passaic Valley Board of Education. Let the classis incorporate a board and appoint a couple members, but let this board have its own budget for which it is accountable to the classis, and let this board recruit the rest of its members from task-oriented people who are driven by their interest, like the four friends of the paralytic. Let them hire a director. Let them do four things: training, teaching, sharing, and spreading. Let them train your Sunday school teachers, let them run Bible studies and adult discipleship classes, let them send out Sunday school teachers to congregations among you who have need of them. Let them start new Sunday schools in strategic locations, and out of some of these new congregations might develop. This is what we used to do in the RCA; it was the typical we started new churches in our best periods of church extension.
And third, keep gathering like this at least once a year. Let this convention be your movable cathedral. Let those two teams I mentioned run the service, modeling thanksgiving and resurrection, and let the examples come from the reports of the Boards of Deacons and Education.
These models I have suggested are nothing new; we’ve done them all before. They seemed to have worked quite well with our theology and polity. But you might choose to do it different ways, and I say, go to it. Only this: there is wisdom in our historic structures, and if we trust them, instead of always distracting ourselves on restructuring, then we can pay proper attention to the renovation of our message and the reclaiming of our motivation.
Your facts on the ground are very good. You are 40 congregations. Eight of you have 100 or more at worship, 14 have 50 or more, and eighteen have fewer than 50. The Apostle Paul would have been thrilled to have so many in the whole of Asia Minor. Right now you have exactly the right numbers you need to do your most important job of gathering in forty different places on the Lord’s Day to worship God. If your church has 15 people, you already have more people than you need in order to thank God for the forgiveness sins and to look for the resurrection of the dead.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.