Over the next six weeks we will spend time on what it means to be a Matthew 25 congregation. Our session voted to join the denomination on this movement last spring and our summer mission adventure last summer focused on the passage as we examined what it means when we ask the questions: When did we see you hungry, or thirsty, when did we see you a stranger or naked, when did we see you in prison or sick? These six areas are very clear ways to be in ministry, to care for others. But what is not so clear are the three areas that the denomination has broken this movement into: Congregational vitality, eradicating structural racism, and systemic poverty.
Today, we are going to focus on congregational vitality. I think this is something that is near and dear to all of our hearts. We truly want this congregation to be vital. So, directly from the Matthew 25 website I share this: You might think that the vitality of a congregation or worshiping community is based on the number of members, the scope of programs, the size of financial gifts or some other statistics.
Not so — at least not entirely.
Rather, a community’s vitality is primarily its spiritual strength and its capacity for purposeful mission. Congregational vitality is evident in a worshiping community when its structural systems, finances and discipleship practices are aligned in such a way that the community is actively engaged in the mission of God in their local community and the world, and they are powerfully focused on growing as disciples in the way of Jesus Christ. Faith comes alive when we boldly engage God’s mission and share the hope we have in Christ.
And so we need to ask ourselves: are we spiritually exhausted, financially fragile and structurally unsound? And if we are, what can we do about it? The first, spiritually exhausted needs to be held in distinction from just being exhausted. I think as a society, we are exhausted. But sometime, out of doing ministry and feeling exhausted by it, we are actually spiritually renewed. So, we need to pay very clear attention to what energizes us and what really causes us deep exhaustion. Does Olde Suckasunny Day zap our energy and our spiritual strength? Or do we engage in the day feeling a greater connection to our community and energized by our fundraising and efforts to be a visible presence in our neighborhood? Mission trips are always good examples of being physically exhausted but spiritual energized. So, as we move forward this year, the question we need to ask ourselves before engaging in any sort of activity, ministry, or event is – how will this impact us spiritually?
Are we financially fragile? Yes, and no. We are learning to do ministry within our means and are blessed by a yearly bequest as well as other legacy gifts to the church. Could we be more financially sound? Absolutely, and we have been praying about the ways in which to share our building with the greater community. Are we structurally sound? Yes. We have a strong leadership within the church, we have committees and ministry teams that function, and our building itself is in good shape. Is there more that can be done, absolutely. But when we put our minds to something, it really seems to happen.
I want us to hold this statement: vitality connects to purposeful mission. And I want us to remember that Jesus started his ministry with just a few people and probably very little money. Last week was Baptism of the Lord Sunday when Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. Today’s passage occurs the very next day. John is spending time with his disciples and Jesus is still in the area. They see him walk by and John describes him by calling him “the Lamb of God”. It seems as if John’s description is enough to get his disciples’ attention and the two of them go towards Jesus. Jesus senses that they are following him and he engages them by asking: What are you looking for? Seems to me to be a rather strange way to start a conversation. There are no introductions or basic greetings, but a straight forward question. And they don’t answer him, but rather, they give him a title: Rabbi, and ask him a question: Where are you staying? And his response: Come, and see. So they do and they stay visiting for him for the day.
One of these two men was named Andrew and Andrew has a brother known as Simon Peter or Peter. After his day spent with Jesus, Andrew leaves and goes to find his brother Simon Peter and tells him: We have found the Messiah. And not only does he tell him who he believes Jesus is, he brings his brother to meet Jesus. Vitality connects to purposeful mission. Andrew believes there is something purposeful with Jesus and he wants his brother to be included.
As we think about congregational vitality, I want us to also think of the word thirst. When did we see you thirsty? We could focus on the numerous places around the world and even right here in New Jersey where people do not have clean drinking water. But for congregational vitality, I want us to focus on spiritual thirst. From the Beatitudes: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. And from the Psalm we heard read today: As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
According to the Matthew 25 information on Congregational vitality, there are seven marks, seven ways to determine if your congregation is vital, or it can be seen as seven ways to move the congregation towards vitality.
Congregational vitality grows out of discipleship, and to be a disciple of
something you should thirst for it, long for it, desire it. The Psalmist writes: my soul thirsts for God. And Andrew, a fisherman, a man who spent his days upon the water, thirsted for something more. First, he is with John the Baptist, learning from him, then he gravitates towards Jesus, thirsting even more, finding in him the place he desired to invest himself, and not only himself, but his brother as well. The second mark of congregational vitality is evangelism, which is what Andrew does as he goes and finds his brother proclaiming to him: We have found the Messiah.
This passage concludes with yet one more mark of congregational vitality: Empowering every member to discover their individual calling and the gifts God has given them so they can go forth and serve. When Simon Peter arrives, Jesus gives him a new name. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter[l]), and it also means rock. The future church will be built very literally, on the rock of Peter. So, just in this one passage we have three marks of a vital congregation: Discipleship, evangelism, and empowerment. And that congregational vitality is based on purposeful mission. These first disciples of Jesus are a part of a mission, to share that Jesus is the Messiah, that God’s promised has been fulfilled.