“The Living Body of Christ: Can We Hear the Groans of Our World”


Dr. Jim Somerville


Romans 8:22-27


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The Living Body of Christ

“Can We Hear the Groans of Our World?”

First Baptist Richmond, May 19, 2024

Romans 8:22-27

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

It’s the Day of Pentecost.

The sermon today should be all about the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the church. But I can’t seem to stop thinking about last Sunday’s sermon, which began with a story about Lynn Turner knocking on doors when she was in seminary, asking perfect strangers the question: “If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure that you would go to Heaven?” It was a requirement for the evangelism class she was taking in seminary, and she told me later that it came from something called “Evangelism Explosion.” I looked it up and found that Evangelism Explosion was started by D. James Kennedy in 1962, and that the question Lynn asked was one of two “diagnostic questions” that were meant to prompt evangelistic conversations. The first one was this: “Have you come to the place in your spiritual life where you can say you know for certain that if you were to die today you would go to heaven?” And the second one was this: “Suppose that you were to die today and stand before God and he were to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?”i The thing I notice about both of those questions is that they are about going to heaven, as if that’s what the gospel was all about, but I don’t think that is what the gospel is all about.

I used to. As a young preacher I think I said once from the pulpit that on the

eternal scale your entire life is lived in about the time it takes to snap your fingers. “Only enough time,” I said, “to make one very important decision.” But in the years since I’ve tried to look at things from God’s perspective and not only from my own. From my perspective it makes an enormous amount of difference whether I end up in Heaven or in Hell, but what about from God’s perspective? Lately I’ve pictured God dropping pennies into two big jars: one labeled “Heaven” and the other labeled “Hell.” God looks at a penny, makes a decision about whether it’s a good one or a bad one, and then drops it into one of those jars. And he keeps doing this, day after day, because every day an angel brings him 150,000 new pennies (which is about how many people die each day). How long do you think God would have to do that before he got tired of it? How long do you think he would have to do that before he wondered, “What’s the point?”

A few years ago I told you about a video I had seen where a young theologian named Tim Mackie shared his version of what many people think we Christians believe.ii He used a big marker on a white board and wrote the word “Earth” on one side. And then, next to it, he wrote the word “Me.” He said, “A lot of people seem to think about it like this, that here you are, living your life, going along from day to day (and here he drew a horizontal line about halfway across the board), getting it right sometimes and other times getting it wrong but mostly, you know, doing OK. But at the end of the game God’s going to close the curtain on history and then, based on how good you’ve been or how bad you’ve been, or on whether you happen to hold correct beliefs about who Jesus is, your destiny is one of two places.” He drew a line slanting upward at a 45 degree angle and wrote the word “Heaven” beside it, and another line slanting downward with the word “Hell” beside it. And then he said, “Heaven is this place with clouds and harps and

singing and hell is basically this subterranean torture chamber.” He turned to his audience and said, “Are you guys with me? I mean this is what some people think the followers of Jesus believe. The vast majority of people in the west think that this is what you believe.” And then he laughed nervously and said, “Actually, some of you might be thinking, ‘Well, yeah. That is what I believe!’”

And then he said, “Look, I love you, and I care about you, but this is wrong. The main problem with this story is the Bible, and the other main problem with this story is the actual life and teachings of Jesus.” And then he challenged people to actually read the Bible, and to actually look at the life and teachings of Jesus. Because Jesus had plenty of opportunities to ask people if they knew for sure they were going to heaven, but he didn’t do it. Instead he helped them and healed them. He told them parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. He asked his followers to pray that it would come on earth. Jesus’ message wasn’t about us going to heaven; it was about heaven coming here. And when it was time to leave his mission in the hands of his disciples he gave them some very specific instructions, which you can find in the four canonical Gospels and in the Book of Acts:

1. In Acts 1:8 (the passage that I preached last week) Jesus says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

2. In Luke 24:46-47 he says, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

3. In John 20:21-23 Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

4. In the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel, which is not found in the earliest and best manuscripts, Jesus says, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned” (this is the same passage that insists believers will be able to pick up poisonous snakes in their hands, which may be the main reason we don’t pay much attention to it).

5. And then there’s Matthew 28:18-20, often called the Great Commission (although, just to be clear, Jesus didn’t call it that). It says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Please notice that in none of these five commissions does Jesus mention the words heaven or hell, and yet we sometimes behave as if that’s what the gospel is all about, as if that’s what Jesus wanted us to do—go around knocking on doors and asking people where they plan to spend eternity. In one of these commissions he says, “You shall be my witnesses” (I talked about that last week), in another he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (I’d love for us to think more about that), and in another he says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”

Let me spend a few minutes talking about that because I think there’s been

some confusion about the Great Commission through the years. Some people seem to think Jesus was asking us to make converts rather than disciples; that if you could get someone to say the Sinners’ Prayer you had done your job; you could carve a notch in the spine of your Bible and move on. But the Greek word for disciple is mathētēs: it means “learner,” and it suggests that there are some things to learn. Jesus, after all, didn’t simply make converts out of those first followers; he spent three years teaching them all the things he wanted them to know. And then he told them to go and make disciples on their own, teaching them to obey everything he had commanded them. So, if we are only making converts, and not teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded, we’re not really making disciples, are we?

The word I prefer is apprentice, because I think that’s the way Jesus learned the trade of carpentry. Can you picture him as a boy, sitting in Joseph’s shop, watching him work? At some point he might have asked his abba to teach him how to do what he was doing. Joseph would have started with something simple, would have shown Jesus how to measure twice and cut once, but then he would have watched him while he did it and eventually let him try it on his own. I think that’s what Jesus was doing with his disciples. I think he called them into an apprenticeship. But instead of teaching them the work of carpentry he was teaching them the work of the Kingdom. They got to watch him help and heal. They got to listen to him teach and preach. At one point he sent them out to try it on their own, getting them ready for the day when it would all be up to them. He needed them to learn his trade because bringing heaven to earth is too big a job for any one person to do by himself, even Jesus.

And maybe that’s what I’ve been working toward from the beginning of this

sermon, toward the question of how we fit into all of this. Because I remember that when I came to First Baptist our mission was to “make disciples,” and I started asking, “OK, let’s say we do that. Let’s say fully formed, fully functioning disciples are rolling off the assembly line and out the door of First Baptist Church every day. What do they do?” And nobody seemed to have a good answer to that. The closest they came was to make more disciples. I wrote a blog post about that a few years later where I talked about my coffeemaker. I said, “What I don’t want my coffeemaker to do is make more coffeemakers. I already have a coffeemaker. No, what I want my coffeemaker to do is make coffee. That’s what I really need.” And I wondered if disciples weren’t supposed to be making some Kingdom coffee. I’m not even sure what that might be, but it was a provocative question. How do we learn to make not only more coffeemakers, but also some actual coffee?

There’s a movement that’s been gaining ground over the past few decades centered on the mission of God rather than the mission of the church. It’s called the missio Dei, and missiologist David Bosch describes it like this: “During the past half a century or so there has been a subtle but nevertheless decisive shift toward understanding mission as God’s mission. During preceding centuries mission was understood in a variety of ways. Sometimes it was interpreted primarily in soteriological terms: as saving individuals from eternal damnation. Or it was understood in cultural terms: as introducing people from the East and South to the blessings and privileges of the Christian West. Often it was perceived in ecclesiastical categories: as the expansion of the church (or of a specific denomination). But in recent times the classical understanding of missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit, has been expanded to include yet another ‘movement’: The Father, Son and

the Holy Spirit sending the church into the world…. Mission is thereby seen as a movement from God to the world; the church is viewed as an instrument for that mission (or, as Alan Hirsch puts it, the church is the tool of God’s mission, not the goal). To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love.”iii Darrell Guder adds: “We have come to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.”iv

And that’s the line that captures my imagination—“God’s purposes to restore and heal creation”—because it sounds so much more like the God I know and love than the one who would sit there dropping pennies into jars. For years now I have believed that what God wants, and what God is working toward, is “the redemption of all creation.” I believe that’s the missio Dei. It suggests that God created a perfectly beautiful world, but then humankind, in its God-given freedom, behaved in ways that made of the world a perfect mess. Ever since God has been working to redeem his creation and invites those of us who will to help him do it. This seems to be what Paul has in mind when he says, in today’s passage from Romans 8, “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now,” but now things are changing. Now we can see that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and that the only Son so loved the church that he sent the Holy Spirit. Now we have a chance to work together toward the redemption of all creation. On this Pentecost Sunday my friend Don Flowers asks, “We often listen for the rush of a mighty wind, but can we hear the groans of our world?” Can we roll up our sleeves and join Father, Son, and Spirit in working for its full redemption?

At staff retreat we were talking about how this congregation sings the Lord’s Prayer on the first Sunday of every month, how they love it and lean into it, with some people closing their eyes and others raising their hands. I said, “Maybe we love it so much because it so beautifully expresses our mission. ‘Thy kingdom come,’ we sing. ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ Maybe when we sing that prayer with our eyes closed and our hands raised we are saying to God, “This! This is what we want. We want to see the redemption of all creation. We want to see your will be done, and your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. And as the living body of Christ this is what we want to be:

“An answer to the Lord’s Prayer.”

—Jim Somerville © 2024