In Matthew 7:24-27, Jesus says:
“Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock.
“The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock.
“But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”
This version of the “house built on rock” saying comes from the gospel of Matthew. Last Sunday we heard a slightly different version from the gospel of Luke.
In both versions, the wise builder, who is a follower of Jesus, builds a house on a firm foundation. The foolish builder, who is not a follower of Jesus, builds a house without any foundation at all – “on the ground,” Jesus says in Luke; “on sand,” he says in Matthew.
Either way, lacking a foundation, the house cannot stand against the storm. If you’ve ever seen the raging waters of a flash flood, you know how powerful water can be. Yet a house can withstand a lot of punishment if it has a strong foundation.
A strong foundation is not just rocks piled on top of one another but rocks bonded with mortar that won’t let go. And what is the mortar that holds the rocks together? That’s what we’re looking at today, in the last of this series of messages on the “House of faith.”
We began by looking at how Methodist founder John Wesley uses a house to describe the way a person comes to new life in Christ. Repentance is the porch and faith is the door. Inside the house, you’ll find religion itself. You move from the foyer, where you are welcomed; to the living room, where you get to know people better; to the kitchen, the heart of the house, where you form deep and lasting relationships.
Last week we described six other rooms in the house where you connect with God and other people, grow in your relationships and serve in the name of Jesus.
Today we look at what holds the house together. As we noted earlier, Jesus is the cornerstone and we are living stones who are being built into this spiritual house (1 Peter 2.4-7). Now we ask, what are the ingredients of the mortar that binds us together?
Because this house is a living community of faith, I want to talk about this mortar in terms of five signs of community health. These are “vital signs” because they are measurements of community vitality. When the vitals slip, the community suffers.
Several years ago the United Methodist Church did a study of what behaviors give life to churches. The study came up with six ways of measuring congregational vitality. We report these vital signs to the conference every week – how many people are in worship, in mission and in small groups, and how much they give financially as well. We can even track how the indicators move over time, to measure how we’ve done.
These numbers measure things that can be measured. What I’d like to talk about, though, are some vital signs that cannot be measured. You may see evidence of them in the statistics we report, but these are notoriously hard to quantify.
I’m going to list five of them. These are among the 10 or 12 that you’ll find in the standard literature from church health advisors such as Adam Hamilton, Jorge Acevedo, Mike Slaughter, Lovett Weems, and Tom Berlin, to name only United Methodists.
I think these signs are especially important to us as we think about rebuilding our ministry after the long lockdown caused by the pandemic. We are in reset mode, and it’s a good time to get these things right as we start out anew.
Here are five ingredients to the mortar that binds us together, five signs of a vital house of faith.
1. Clear mission and purpose
The number one sign, from which everything else flows, is clarity of mission and purpose. We get that clarity from Jesus, of course. When we focus on Christ, and make him the cornerstone of our lives together, we are aligned with his mission and his purpose for us.
Mission answers the question, “Why are we here?” All United Methodist churches have the same mission – to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. But each church does that in its own unique way, according to its unique history and its unique context.
Thanks in large part to my guidance, we have a very generic United Methodist mission statement. I now regret moving us in that direction. I think we ought to sharpen it to better reflect who we are. I’ll return to this in coming days.
2. Culture of discipleship
A second part of our mortar mix is a culture of discipleship. Jesus says, “Follow me” (Matthew 4.19 and many other places). So we are all about becoming better disciples. Jesus also says, “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28.19). So we also are all about raising up new followers of Jesus.
As we help others grow more like Jesus, we ourselves are transformed. That’s what discipleship is all about. We are changed as we help others change. Not that we do the changing, in ourselves or others. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, we hope to become agents of transformation, provocateurs of change.
You may be thinking, “Me a provocateur?” Hebrews 10.24 says, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” The Greek word we translate as “provoke” is paroxoosmos´, from which we get our word “paroxysm.”
You know what a paroxysm is. It’s a convulsion. It’s a spasm. It’s an eruption. We are supposed to provoke change, incite change, make change happen. And how do we do that? As Gandhi once said – reflecting Jesus himself – by being the change we want to see. That’s living in a culture of discipleship.
3. Culture of outreach and service
A third vital sign is a culture of outreach and service. “Go and tell others,” Jesus says. (Matthew 28.19, Acts 1.8) To go out and witness to others, we have to be focused outward rather than inward. Many churches, much of the time, focus inward. It’s easy to fall into this trap. We all like each other. We like the way things are. Why would we rock the boat by introducing new people who might have funny ideas about how to do things? Why, they could force us to change!
Some churches think they are focused outward but really aren’t. They’re heavily into what they evangelism, making converts for Jesus – but it’s just a covert membership drive. They want to bring new people into the church so they can make the newcomers just like them. That’s cloning, not discipleship. Discipleship is allowing God to remake each individual uniquely in whose image? – in the image of Jesus.
4. Culture of invitation and welcome
A fourth vital sign is a culture of invitation and welcome. When anyone shows interest in learning more about him, Jesus invites that person to “Come and see.” (John 1.39, 1.46) And so we in the church invite others to meet this Jesus we talk about so much. We try to be welcoming, and much of the time we are, but sometimes we blow it.
For example, some churches we use off-putting churchy language, such as talking about their “narthex.” What in blazes is a “narthex”? Only church people know, or care. Oh, you mean the foyer? The lobby? Well, why didn’t you say so? To welcome others, we have to speak their language, not ours.
You know my favorite beef. How many people do you meet on the street who speak Elizabethan English? In so many churches, we prance around with our highfalutin “thees” and “thous,” and think we are so holy, and most people just think we’re just nuts.
And they’re right. King James English has been passé for 400 years. It is past time that we just dropped it.
That may require rewriting some dreadful old hymns, and a couple of good ones, too. Are we willing to do that to be inviting and welcoming?
5. Willingness to change
A fifth vital sign is a willingness to change. We don’t change just to do it. We change because we are agents of transformation and provocateurs of change. We change because our mission is to make disciples, and to make disciples we have to become better disciples ourselves, and part of being a disciple is reaching out to others on their turf as well as inviting them into our space.
How much are we willing to change for the sake of others? Sometimes we worship the god of personal preference rather than the God of Israel and Jesus Christ. Simply put, we want things our way. Consider it in terms of your favorite candy bar. We like Snickers. If others like Milky Way, they can just go someplace else.
What if you were willing to have Snickers less often and Milky Way more often – or even Three Musketeers – if doing that helped you reach more people? Would you be willing to do that?
What we’re really looking for in our house of faith is an attitude called “holy indifference.” It’s not that we don’t care. We care deeply. But we care about what matters most. We say, “I’m for it as long as Jesus comes out a winner.” Can we cultivate such an attitude?
The house of faith has a strong foundation, anchored by our cornerstone, Jesus Christ. The mortar that holds these living stones together begins with clarity of purpose, out of which flows a culture of discipleship, outreach, welcome and change.
On such a foundation, Jesus says he will build a strong house of faith, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16.18)
Let’s continue to build such a house, shall we?
This message was delivered August 29, 2020, theTenth Sunday After Pentecost, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.