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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2006
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to the Apostle Paul and all people of faith who have ventured from their homeland to share and receive the Gospel and always to the glory of God!
A Whole New World

Part I of VII in sermon series: "The Changing Face of Christianity"

Romans 10:10-18, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

He ventured into the unknown world intent on changing it. He had made a name for himself in the big city. He wanted to extend his influence to nations beyond his homeland. After overseeing the crushing defeat of his foes in Jerusalem, he set his sites on Damascus. There he would root out the heretics and lay waste to their recusant beliefs. What he never could have anticipated was this: the band of believers he set out to destroy would become his band of brothers and Christ's greatest joy.

On the Damascus road, Saul was knocked off his high horse by the spirit of Jesus Christ, who implored, "Saul, why do you persecute me?" Then, in the twinkle of an eye, the murder of Christ's disciples became the missionary for the Lord of Life. From darkness to light, from hatred to love, Saul was changed into the greatest writer, preacher, and prophet of the early church. In time, Saul became Paul. In time, he wrote of Christ's Gospel of Salvation to his brothers and sisters in Rome:

"For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, `No one who believes in him shall be put to shame.' For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, `Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved'"(Romans 10:10-13).

In other words, Paul says: take this good news of Christ's salvation to ALL people everywhere and know in your heart that all who receive it will be justified and saved. This good news is SO good and our Savior SO Generous, that all who call on his name will be saved. The simplicity and splendor of the God of Hope known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord was given as gift for the Life of the World. The mission of the church through the ages has been to share this message of good news.

From the earliest times, "mission" has meant different things to different people. Coming from the Latin, "missio" which means "a sending," the question surrounding mission has always been: "who is sending whom to what?" The answer seems simple at first. The Christian mission is the "Missio Dei" - the sending out by God of Jesus and the Holy Spirit to engage in loving service in the world. But, this begs a number of questions: How does God reach out? In what ways does this reaching out reflect clearly the spirit of God's son Jesus Christ? What is the role of the Holy Spirit? What constitutes "loving service?" And, last but by no means least, who are the people to whom God reaches out? (Drawn from Alan Le Grys, Preaching to the Nations: the Origins of Mission in the Early Church, SPK, London, 1998, p. ix).

Answering these questions has empowered and emboldened the church throughout the ages. Different colors, nationalities, cultural styles, theological interpretations and spiritual complexities of Christ's people have addressed each question in a variety of creative and different ways. Since the earliest days of the church, some of the new answers to these questions have threatened those who have held tight to the old answers or at least the last set of new answers.

We, as Congregationalists are a great example of this phenomenon. In 1608, while challenging the state religion of Henry VIII's Anglican Church, a band of pilgrims was driven from England to the Netherlands and eventually to the shores of Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. They didn't believe in the Anglican way of a state run church. These rebels were radical believers in a congregational system of faith expression and a simple gospel of love and justice. But, in time, we have become the church which our forebearers rebelled against. We have become the civil believers of the status quo while others have ventured to new shores of spiritual discovery far beyond our imagining.

On the eve of departure from Leyden, the Netherlands in 1620, pilgrim leader John Robinson's offered these words to his followers, words haunt us (but should embolden us!) now:

Before God, and his blessed Angels, I charge you to follow me no further than I would follow Christ. And if God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument than me, be ready to receive it, as ever we are ready to receive truth in our ministry together. I am very confident the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.

I must say that I am disheartened by the state and condition of the Reformed churches, who have come to a period in Religion, and will go no further than the instruments of their Reformation. For example, the Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw, for whatever part of His Will God had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, the Lutherans would rather die than embrace. And so also, you see this with the Calvinists. They stick where he left them: a misery much to be lamented. For though they were precious, shining lights in their times, yet God had not revealed His whole will to them. And were they now living, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received.

Here also God put us in mind of our Church-Covenant . . . whereby we promise and covenant with God and one another, to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from God's written Word . . . For (concludes John Robinson), It is not possible the Christian world should come lately out of such thick darkness, and that full perfection of knowledge should break forth all at once. (Translated from the third person to the first person from Harry Emerson Fosdick's, Great Voices of the Reformation, Random House Books, New York, NY, 1952, pp. 545-546).

There it is! More light and truth is breaking forth in our generation on God's Holy Word! Do you see it? The beauty of our faith and of our Savior, is that each new day, the Gospel of Salvation and Liberation is received by new people in new ways. This is GOOD NEWS! Today, we must be as open to the breaking forth of God's spirit and God's word as were our forebearers. Or it will be said of us what Robinson said of the Calvinists: "They stick where God left them: a misery much to be lamented."

Across two millennia, the mission of the church has grown and the Word of God gone forth to every corner of the earth. From the Cross of Calvary to the Empty tomb of Easter to Pentecost to Paul, the word has gone out - Jesus Christ is Lord! In him, you will be saved! Today, the world far from Jerusalem and Damascus is filled with billions of Christians. And the church is growing fast! Christianity is experiencing an explosion of faith in these first years of the 21st Century. In Africa alone, Christianity has grown from nine million people in 1900 to 382 million in 2000. In Europe, the church is dying for the most part. But, in the rest of the world, the church is growing by leaps and bounds.

The most successful variation in our growing faith has been witnessed in the Pentecostal movement. Since April 9, 1906, the Pentecostal movement has grown from a handful of interracial believers touched by the Holy Spirit while worshiping in an abandoned Methodist church on Azusa Street in Los Angeles to the second largest Christian group in the world, trailing only the Roman Catholic Church. We can no longer talk only about Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. We must always talk of Pentecostals as well. According to Harvey Cox in his book Fire from Heaven, "the (Pentecostal) movement succeeds in the postmodern era because it has spoken to the spiritual emptiness of our time by reaching beyond the levels of creeds and ceremony to the core of human religiousness, into what might be called `primal spirituality.'" (Quoted in The Christian Century, "Hearts on Fire," March 7, 2006, p. 3).

In the most recent issue of The Christian Century, editor John Buchanan tells of his experience with the spirituality of Pentecostals in Buenos Aires. There he was invited to meet with the board of a Pentecostal seminary. When he arrived, he found himself in an automotive repair shop. He was guided to a large table with folding chairs and bare light bulbs and a large bank of tape-recording equipment. John asked where the seminary was. His host said, "this is it, this room and this taping equipment." The proud president of the seminary told John, "Each week we record sermons and lectures and send them out to our students." John asked, "How many students to you have?" The answer stunned him. "We have thousands. We send out 3,500 tapes each week. Our students are scattered throughout the region. Many of them can't read. They have the Spirit. They want to learn to be pastors and we want to help them." (Ibid).

Do you see what is happening? The church is opening up to the power of God's spirit moving across the globe like fire from on high and like the beating wings of the dove. Today, as we open the season of Lent, I pray that we may also become open to new spiritual discoveries. Let each one of us commit ourselves to enter and end each day with at least 15 minutes of prayer. Let us take time to examine our lives and turn our lives over to the care of God. Easter is 47 days away. Use this time to become open to God's spirit moving across the face of the earth. God's Holy Spirit will touch you, enliven you and guide you to new places of courage and faith. In Paul's words to the Romans: "Their voice (of the faithful) has gone out to all the earth and their words to the ends of the world" (Romans 10:18). Amen.

Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church