The Providence We Need
During these first twenty years, Providence Baptist Church found its calling as a people’s church taking a strong stand for the gospel of Jesus Christ and for the love of God for all people everywhere and against the chief prejudices among Christian people: that directed against women and against gay and lesbian people.
I commend you for this; and God has blessed you for this. Last weekend, we had a grand celebration. Twenty years of worship, service, fellowship, and gospel work. God bless you. I was thrilled to be a part of that celebration; and I look forward to laying the groundwork today, this week, for the 40th anniversary celebration—in the year of our Lord two thousand forty-one. Instead of one member in a wheel chair there may be a dozen! Some of us!
But today, we face trying times: the best of times, the worst of times, to quote the famous British novelist. The best of times, because the Christian community includes people of great talent and influence, because modern technology has enabled every congregation to expand their reach to the far corners of the globe, and because there is a worldwide yearning for that which is true, and honest, and of good report—a good news, a gospel that counters the violence, the fear, the prejudice, and the pettiness of our common life on planet earth.
But it is the worst of because the Christian community in these United States is shrinking: because the rising generation—those born in this millennium—generation z, the scholars tab them, are famously indifferent to religion and its institutions; because the confluence of racial animosity, global pandemic, and economic transformation have brought a perfect story of uncertainty and instability; because tribalism is on the increase, everywhere, but especially in these United States.
Modern technology and growing diversity have pushed people into affinity groups, have connected people who share ideas, values, dress, practices, language, even religion: have connected them into tribes where they share their concerns, stoke their fears, and plot their strategies. A poll released this week revealed that millions of Americans are convinced that militias of armed citizens will be required to take action to secure, as they put it, the American way of life.
We need a church for the times, for these times. We need a Christian community to lead the human community. We need a gospel that is clear, focused on the great movements of the day, and confident in the hope we have in Jesus the Risen Lord and his promise of a new heavens and a new earth.
The challenges of our time call for churches with Gospel Clarity. That is the first task of congregations, of this congregation, of Providence. What is the message we have from God? What is the gospel? What is the good news? How would you summarized what the Bible says?
There are many ways to do this. Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is near.” It is not bad to quote a summary of the preaching of Jesus. And I can go a long way with that.
I also like how Simon Peter encapsulated their first century message: “Evil men killed Jesus. God raised him from the dead.” That is what Simon Peter, speaking for all of those first, surprised believers were saying. It was the day of Pentecost. There was a sound like thunder. There was a wind blowing. There were flames as of fire dancing here and there and everywhere. And there were people talking: in this language and that. They are drunk, somebody said. But Simon Peter said, “No. Not drunk. Full of the Spirit; and here is why: They killed Jesus. God raised him from the dead.” I like the clarity of that.
Then I turn to Paul the great apostle and read his gospel. What about this: ‘Christ died for our sins”? My parents had that summary statement in bronze, framed in wood, hanging on the wall in our home. Or what about this, from his letter to the Romans: “God is at work in all things.” These are a compelling description of the presence and power of God all around us. God is at work in all things: everywhere you look, or live, there is God at work, bringing good out of bad, life out of death, love out of hate, creation out of chaos, new creation out of old. How much more expansive can you get with a good gospel word?
Or what about this: “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.” There are all the elements of what we need: the mention of Jesus Christ, the work of reconciliation, and a vision wide enough to encompass the whole world, all creation, everybody, you and me and the fish in the deep blue see. I like that. That might work.
What do you think? What summary phrase would you underline to offer this church what we need: gospel clarity?
Here is mine. It is not really mine, but I like it. It is not the words of Jesus, or Simon Peter, or Paul; but that great summary statement of John, the one whom Jesus loved. It appears at the end of the familiar story we read earlier today.
Nicodemus was a religious man, a believing, behaving, belonging man who sought after the one and true God, who read the Hebrew Bible, and sought to do what the first psalm command: blessed is the man who do does walk in the way of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the company of mockers; but his delight is in the law of the lord, who meditation of his word day and night.”
This teacher of Israel listened to the great prophet and rabbi of Nazareth, Jesus. He heard the stories, saw the miracles, felt the power and the presence of God. He wanted what Jesus had. He came to Jesus at night and sat for hours to talk with Jesus. It was in this conversation that Jesu introduced the metaphor of birth: new birth, another birth, an awakening, a new beginning. “You must be born again,” Jesus said, referring to a spiritual transformation into faith, hope, and love.
Then John the gospel chronicler summarized the whole event, all the teaching in these memorable words: “For God so loved the world the God gave his only son, that whosoever believed might not die or perish but have eternal life.”
It is a wonderful summary of lots of things; but it is the first half of that statement that appeals to me: For God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten son, Jesus.
Thirteen words in this English version. It has those elements: twice invoking God; reaching out to the world—all there is and all there will be, and all there ever has been; presenting Jesus the Christ as the focal point of God’s action in the world, describing the one overriding activity of God as giving—overflowing with generosity; then naming the one supreme quality of God, the character of God, the action of God: giving. God gave!
God gave! Not God created, or God inspired, or God waited, or God heard, or God elected; but God gave. God so loved… that God gave.
Is there more gospel clarity anywhere than in this sentence we all love: God loves the world so much that God gave the only begotten son, Jesus the Lord? What did God give? To whom did God give? Why did God give? If these 13 words of Gospel clarity do not suffice to shape our understanding of the gospel, I am at a loss.
The gospel is this: God is, God loves, God gives, God gives Jesus to you and me and the whole world. That is the good news.
It is not the only way to summarize the good news but it is a good way, and today I seize upon it as the way that appeals to my soul, that satisfies my longing, that meets the needs of my mind and heart.
I offer this to you as one statement of gospel clarity: God so loved the world—all of us—that God gave and gave and gave…the one and only son Jesus, to be savior, lord, teacher, friend, and ever-present help in a time of trouble.
This gospel clarity gives us opportunity to engage in gospel work.
During great periods of the past, Gospel Work has focused on education, on personal and public health, on individual and national freedom, and on racial reconciliation. When I was a child, all the energy flowed into a type of gospel work known as evangelism. Campus Crusade for Christ, four spiritual Laws, and the hour of decision were at the forefront of what Christians were doing around the world.
As I became a teenager, ministers of a different color started marching in the street, invoking God, and Bible, and Jesus to demand social justice and national responsibility. Today, much of the passion for the things of Christ flow into these campaigns for setting things right, for addressing the news of this life rather than the life to come, for doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.
But today, there is yet another need pressing in upon the human race. There is another gospel calling announcing its claim upon the Christian community. Jesus said, Come follow me, and millions today hear that invitation in terms of another saying of Jesus, as it is worded in the old King James: Suffer the little children to come to me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus had in mind children, but this wide-open invitation addresses every isolated and marginalized group in our community, in our world.
Too often, even the church puts of the sign, NO ROOM IN THE INN. We want only our kind, our brand, our tribe; we find it hard to accept those with different political views, who vote another way, who dress another way, who speak another way. Now, even public health protocols are dividing us into groups, separating sheep from goats. Today, my brothers and sisters, we are called to practice hospitality, in the name of Jesus.
That same gospel writer I quoted earlier, John, wrote this: Jesus came to his own and his own people did not receive him, but to all that did receive him, he gave the right to be children of God. Gospel work is welcoming all the peoples of the world that are looking for a home, a place, a promised land.
The Bible is full of this. Adam and Eve kicked out of the garden to John exiled on the aisle of Patmos, from Moses leading the Hebrew people out of slavery through the desert to Paul the itinerant apostle, spending his life traveling from one Roman city to another. The symbol of that day and this is Pentecost. The account lists the cities of the Mediterranean world from which people had come to seek God, and good news, and a better future.
Look around you, not just in this city and county but in every continent and country: people on the move: soldiers and explorers, students and executives, diplomats and migrant workers.
A month ago, I ran into a former student of mine, David He is back in the states, now, after five years of pastoral work in Abu Dabhi, teaching and baptizing Asian migrant workers, living in huge camps on the edge of the wealthiest country in the world. Hospitality in the name of Jesus was central to his gospel work.
A few years ago, when I was a pastor in PGH, it was said to me more than once: on any given day, one third of the future leaders of the world are in Boston, attending some university, preparing for their coming responsibility.
And now: refugees: on every continent, crowding our southern border, pouring from one South American country into another, flooding the Mediterranean with a desperation to escape political unrest and economic failure. Now, residents of Hong Kong and Korea, fearful of a takeover by China are standing in line for visas.
This is the gospel work of our age.
A few years ago, Pope Francis took to his small six floor balcony and called upon every Catholic parish in Europe to receive and adopt a family flee the violence in the Middle East. There are 120,000 parishes in Europe. What a gospel witness. What a gospel work!
All around us, Providence, as people seeking God, searching for a better way of life, open to the spiritual side of things, needing a friend and a good gospel word.
Let us open our minds, and our hearts, and our doors, and our imaginations to what is around us. Let us tear down any version of that sign, NO ROOM IN THIS INN, and put in its place, an obedience to the command recorded in the book of Hebrews:
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have show hospitality to angels without knowing it.
I want to say to God: send us some angels; send us some strangers. Open our eyes to the strangers around us; open our eyes to the angels in our midst.
This focus on gospel work is inspired by the Gospel Hope we have in God our savior. Our hope is not in America or its flag. Our hope is not in capitalism and its economic philosophy. Our hope is not in democracy and its promise of free elections. These might be good, might even be the best for us and our times. But Jesus was not a democrat. Jesus was not a capitalist. He was not an American. My kingdom is not of this world, he famously said. It is not like these other principalities and powers, these other governors and caesars. It is not won with ballots or bullets or bank accounts.
It is carried along by faith in God our father, by a love that is “deeper than the mighty rolling sea, higher than the mountain, sparkling like a fountain, all sufficient grace for even me.” It is the hope built on nothing less than Jesus life, Jesus death, Jesus resurrection from the dead.
Being a gospel church today requires that we have gospel clarity about our message and our purpose; that we engage in the kind of gospel work that God presents to us today; that we build our gospel hope squarely on Jesus Christ, friend of sinners, savior of the world, worker of wonders, and keeper of promises.