What Christ Says to MDPC: Don’t Be Christian In Name Only
Let me begin by saying that I missed being here last week terribly. And I would also say that when Trisha and I at last climbed on the airplane last Sunday night to fly back to Houston, we felt like we were coming home. And I want to thank you for helping us to feel that way. Bless you all.
Ah, we’re moving on in the Book of Revelation. Now we’re in the 3rd chapter, the first six verses. This is the Word of God:
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write, these are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name before my Father and His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His Holy Word.
Pray with me please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
Children, aren’t they wonderful? I know a minister who, one Sunday, invited the children to come down front for the children’s sermon. When the children were arrayed on the chancel steps, the minister announced to them that he was going to be talking to them about frogs. And then he addressed a question to the whole group. He said, “What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say the word frog?” One little boy piped up immediately, “God.” Puzzled and surprised, the minister said, “What in the world makes you think about God when I say the word frog?” “Because,” the little boy said, “I know good and well you didn’t bring us down here to talk about frogs.”
Well, I didn’t come here to talk about frogs either. I came to talk about God and God’s only son Jesus Christ and what the spirit of Jesus Christ is saying to this incredible church of ours. I came to talk about the fifth of the seven letters Jesus wrote in the Book of Revelation, this letter addressed to the church at Sardis. Sardis was called the Church of Five—the City of Five Points because the city was actually located at a spot where five inland trading routes all converged together. Now, you can imagine that a city with that kind of location would be a prosperous place, and that was certainly true of Sardis. In fact, the wealth of Sardis was legendary in the ancient world. You might be interested to know that the very first coin ever minted was minted in Sardis. And so you could say, I think, that Sardis was the birthplace of money.
Furthermore, the greatest king of Sardis was a man named Croesus. Yes, the very same man whose name now is a part of our vocabulary when we use the phrase, rich as Croesus. And so you see, Sardis was a place widely regarded as being extraordinarily wealthy. But the city was not highly regarded in any other way. In fact, it was looked down on with scorn because of its loose-living decadents. Sad to say, the church at Sardis was very much like the city. That is why Jesus directed some of His harshest words to that congregation. He said, “I know your deeds. You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”
You see, apparently, the church at Sardis, while outwardly seeming to be vigorous, was spiritually empty on the inside. The people professed to be followers of Jesus Christ, but they were not following the way of Jesus Christ in their everyday. They were Christians in name only. The church, when looking from the outside, seemed to be an active church. But inside, it was dead, dead as a doornail. And so Jesus said to them, “I know your deeds. You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”
Now, I would like today to try to measure the meaning of those words of Jesus by posing two questions.
Question number one. What are the marks of a dead church?
A church that is dead is a church which worships its past. Clearly, that was a problem in Sardis. The church apparently at one time had been a spiritual powerhouse. But the people had long since lost their sense of deep commitment to Jesus Christ, and as a result, the church was now getting by on the spiritual heritage handed down to them from those who had gone before. It was existing on the spiritual capital acquired from the church’s yesterdays.
One of the sights for you to see in New England, should you visit there, is the oldest church in New England. It’s the First Congregational Church of Bennington, Vermont. It is an architectural gem, splendid simplicity at its very best. Yet unbelievably, the church was actually built by a group of ordinary farmers who had no plans and no blueprints. It is an astonishing achievement, and it’s a sight worth seeing. And they conduct tours of that church each day. Well, one Sunday morning early, a tour group was there being shown through the church by a proper New England lady, and in that group was a distinguished minister. At one point in the tour, he said to the guide, “Will there be a service in this church later today?” She turned and looked at him and said rather frostily, “Sir, I’m here to tell you what happened in this church in its past. I have no idea what’s happening in this church today.” Well, I have to tell you I know some churches that are right there. They are moving full speed backwards. They are looking over their shoulders at their yesterdays rather than facing the challenges of today and looking forward eagerly to the opportunities of tomorrow.
But thankfully, that is not the case in this church. Oh, no. Oh, make no mistake, oh, in this church, we have a history. Oh, we have a glorious, stirring, sterling history indeed. Just recently, Gay Hudson—God bless him—he actually gave me his own personal copy of the book Growing in God’s Grace MDPC at 50. It’s now a cherished possession of mine. And I have to tell you it’s great fun leafing through the pages and seeing and reading about the women and men who dream such great dreams and who committed themselves to such magnificent accomplishments in order to make this church what it is today. Oh, yes, we have a great history in this church, and we treasure that history, but we do not worship it. Our future as a church is not behind us. It’s upon us, and it’s before us. Our future is there before us. We follow a Christ who says, “Behold, I make all things new.” Why? Because a church which focuses on its yesterdays, which puts its past out front, is a church in the grip of a slow, torturous death. And the mark of a dead church is a church which has lost its purpose.
That was also true of the church at Sardis. Those people had turned inward. They were focused only upon themselves. They were no longer concerned with the city and the people around them. They were living only for themselves. They had forgotten John 3:16. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Dear friends, that is the mission of the church in 25 words or less. Count them. The purpose of the church, any church, every church, was, is, and always will be to reach people, whoever they are, wherever they are, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Lose sight of that purpose, and the church inevitably will die.
One day, Gordon MacDonald and his wife were actually out enjoying a walk in their neighborhood. And they were noting the houses that they pass by, taking a comment or two about the appearance and the architecture. And then suddenly, MacDonald was aware of the fact that in the couple of the homes right in the front window, there was mounted a small, bright poster featuring the silhouette of an open hand. MacDonald wondered what that meant. His wife immediately informed him that that was a sign for children that that house is a safe place, that a frightened child or a sick child would know that to knock on the door of that house would bring protection and assistance. Well, it occurs to me that in this church, we could put open hands in the windows because this church is a safe place, strengthening people in the midst of life’s demands, sheltering people in the midst of life’s storms. This is a safe place.
My great friend, Ken Medema, he is a terrific songwriter, Christian songwriter. He happens to be blind. But Ken Medema never fails to help us see God’s Truth. He wrote these words, “If this is not a place where my tears are understood, then where shall I go to cry? If this is not a place where my spirit can take wings, then where shall I go to fly?” Well, whether to cry or to fly, when people come to this church, they come to the right place because the great, commanding purpose of this church is to meet the needs of people for the sake and the name of Jesus Christ. And that is a purpose that we must maintain and preserve at MDPC at all costs because if a church ever loses that sense of purpose, that church sooner or later will die.
Well, that’s enough about question one. Now, question two.
What are the marks of a church alive?
A church alive in Jesus Christ is a church where people have a world vision. The great John Wesley once said, “The world is my parish,” and he wasn’t kidding. Note this down please. Jesus did not come to save the church; Jesus came to save the world. I love the way P.T. Forsyth, the great English theologian, expresses it. He said, “A church which disavows the mission of Christ is a church bankrupt in grace and faith. I brand as heresy,” he said, “the notion that we as Christians ought to leave non-Christians alone and keep our religion to ourselves because,” he said, “the truth of the matter is, no one is all right without Jesus Christ, and we dare not forget that.” Say it again, P.T. No one, but no one, is all right without Jesus Christ, and we dare not forget that.
Oh, but it’s easy to forget it. I’m forever hearing people say, “Charity begins at home.” That’s nice, isn’t it? The problem is, I looked in the Bible. I can’t find that in the Bible. What I find in the Bible is Jesus saying, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole of creation.” I hear people say, “Brighten the corner where you live.” That’s sweet, isn’t it? The problem is, I looked in the Bible. I can’t find that in the Bible. What I find in the Bible is Jesus saying, “As my father has sent me into the world, so I send you into the world.” Today, I hear people say, “Bloom where you are planted.” Lovely, don’t you think? The problem is, I looked in the Bible. I can’t find that in the Bible. What I find in the Bible is Jesus saying, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” That’s what I find in the Bible.
Jesus did not come to save the church. He came to save the world. But Jesus calls the church to join Him in that world-saving work. And a church alive in Christ is a church where people practice what they preach. Dear friends, the reality is we will never be able to convince the outside world of the validity of our faith unless we truly practice what we preach. The world does not really care very much about arcane theological debates. But the world is intensely interested in whether or not our Christian faith is impacting the behavior of human lives. Note this down. The one evidence for Christianity which the world can never, ever refute is the evidence of a transformed life.
Fred Craddock, a great preacher and a great teacher of preachers, tells how, in his growing-up years, his father never ever went to church. And his father spent a lot of time carping and criticizing the church, declaring that the church was filled with hypocrites. He wanted nothing to do with it. Once in a while, the pastor would stop by for a visit, and the father would go after him. He’d say to him, “You don’t really care about me. All you want is another name on your rolls and another pledge for your budget.” He would speak so harshly to the pastor that Craddock’s mother, who dearly loved the church, was so embarrassed that she would slip off into the kitchen and start to cry. This went on for years. Then one day, Craddock’s father was stricken ill, seriously ill. They operated on him. It was too late. They wound up having to insert a tube so he could breathe, and because of that, he no longer had the ability to speak. Craddock rushed back home across the country in order to be with his father as the end drew very near. And when he walked into the hospital room, he was stunned at what he saw. The place was filled almost overflowing with expressions of love—flowers and plants and letters and cards and gifts—all of them from the people of that church, the men’s Bible study and the women’s group and even the youth fellowship, for heaven’s sake, all of them, expressions of love from that church. Craddock was rather startled. And then he looked at his father in the bed. And his father quickly reached over and picked up a pencil and a sheet of paper. And he wrote down on that sheet of paper a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “In this harsh and cruel world, draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.” Craddock looked at what his father had written. Then he looked at his father, and he said, “Well, dad, what is your story?” He took the pencil, and he wrote, “Tell them that I was wrong.” “Tell them that I was wrong.” All because a church and the people of that church who had been rebuffed again and again and again would not stop loving graciously and unconditionally. That little church was a church alive in Jesus Christ because the people of that Church practiced what they preached. May we at MDPC always do the same.
A personal word please. Yesterday, August the 17th, marked the first day of my 47th year in the Gospel Ministry of Jesus Christ. Today, August the 18th, marks the first day of my 10th week with you at MDPC. And what I want to say to you from my heart is simply this: I came to know and to love Jesus Christ when I was just a boy. I have wintered with him, and I have summered with him for many, many years now. While it is true that my life has been marked by my share of sins and shortcomings, what I have found in Jesus Christ is nothing less than forgiving grace and unconditional love. And that’s why I’m trying for all I am worth to live my life the way He has called me to live it. And that’s why I preach His gospel for 46 years. Sunday after Sunday after Sunday I have preached His gospel. And I will keep on preaching that gospel Sunday after Sunday after Sunday as long as God gives me the grace to live and breathe.
And what I want you to understand is that something like a fire burns in my bones. It is my desire that you, that you should know Christ and love Christ and believe Christ and live Christ in your own life too. Don’t be Christian in name only. Commit or recommit your life to Jesus Christ today. For here, my beloved people, is what is everlastingly true: Jesus Christ will be forever true to those who are true to Him.
Soli Deo Gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and Amen.