God's Story, Our Story: Back to the Basics
August 21, 2016
Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: 1 John 1:1-10 & 4:7-21
John Wooden is considered by many as the all time greatest basketball coach in NCAA history. Wooden, who coached the UCLA Bruins from 1948-1975, led his team to win ten NCAA championships in a twelve year span. Whenever Wooden would begin a new season, with a new team, the very first thing he did was spend 30 minutes teaching his players how to put on their socks properly. He would give them deliberate, careful instruction on the right way to wear your socks.
Really? Instructions on how to put on socks? Isn’t this something every child knows how to do? Apparently not. Wooden was convinced that you need to begin with the basics. And putting on socks properly is foundational. If you don’t put your socks on properly, you get blisters. And if you get blisters, it impacts everything else you try to do as a player and team.
The writer of what we call the epistles of John is a wise and seasoned pastor-coach, like Wooden, who understands the importance of always going back to the basics. The three letters he writes, and especially the first letter, are written to help the early church learn to put on their socks properly so they won’t get blisters as they walk together as children of God. It’s back to the basics, which is to point them back to the beginning, to the very heart of the gospel and what God has done for us in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
When we set the preaching schedule for the summer, we weren’t sure when we would be moving into the new sanctuary. In the beautiful providence of God, it just so happens that on this historic Sunday in the life of our church, as we move from the old sanctuary into the new, we get to hear this message of 1 John. A voice of wisdom that calls us back to the beginning, back to the basics.
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…”
1 John needs to be heard with the Gospel of John in mind, and no doubt this opening line is intended to point us back to the opening prologue of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. And all things came into being through him….What came into being was life, and that life was the light of all people…And the Word became flesh, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.”
When John points us back to the beginning, he’s going all the way back, to the dawn of creation…to the Word of Life and Light that was spoken and brought all things into being…
But he’s also pointing his hearers back to the beginning of his own experience of walking with Christ…and their experience of Christ in their own lives. He’s reminding them of how he is passing on to them a message he experienced firsthand, this gospel, this Word of Life, and testifying to it. And throughout the letter he will point them back to their own experience of the Word of Life, Jesus in the flesh, so they don’t forget the simple heart of the gospel.
John wants to do this for us today as well. He reminds us that this message comes down first hand from those who walked with Christ. And he wants to remind us of how we’ve experienced Christ in our own lives.
But this passage from 1 John has even extra significance for us today, as we enter into a new season that we’ve been sensing is really a “new beginning.” 1 John:1-4 is the Scripture from which our name, Fellowship Church, is derived and it is this passage that, almost from the beginning, has been our church’s “life verse: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
So here we are, in a new sanctuary, in our 50th Anniversary as a church, embarking on a new season, a new beginning. And yet with all the newness, there are some things that have not changed and will not ever change (God willing). And that is the heart of the gospel that first birthed this church fifty years ago in a school gymnasium, burgeoned a congregation of 100 people into a church of over a thousand, involved building a sanctuary 45 years ago that has been such a special and meaningful place for us to encounter the living Christ personally and together.
Today, we’re being called back to the basics, back to the beginning, back to the heart of this beautiful Gospel. Which is all about Jesus and his death and resurrection. And a simple call to love God and others. This is what it means to put on our socks right so that we don’t get blisters; so that everything else we do might flourish.
There are three key things I want to say about what it means, then, to put on our socks right. John loves imagery and metaphor, and so I’m going to point to some important symbols in our sanctuary today to emphasize these three key points.
First, putting on our socks right it is about experiencing fellowship with God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God made us for relationship with him, for deep and intimate communion (or connection). This is symbolized in a tree—look at how this main vertical beam in the sanctuary is shaped like a tree (do you see it?). In the Garden of Eden, after God made humanity in his image, he set them in the Garden with two trees that were of ultimate importance. The tree of life—from which they could eat and enjoy. This tree represented their life in communion with God, their life with each other and the rest of creation. There was another tree, you know it: the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And God forbid them to eat from this tree. Yet, coaxed by the lies of the serpent, Adam and Eve chose to distrust God and his love for them; instead, they hustled to be their own gods. And we know the rest of the story. That communion with God is disrupted, broken; communion with each other, with all of creation is fractured. Where there was life is now tainted with death; light is encamped by darkness.
But God….we’ve been saying this all along, since we began this sermon series almost a year ago…but God stays in the story and the Bible renders to us the story of God active in the world to bring light and life and restore all that is broken. To bring us back into communion, life and flourishing. And that’s where the cross comes in. Let me point to the cross—the cross that was hanging central in our former sanctuary, we’ve brought into this new one. A symbol of how Jesus himself has gone before us into this new space.
It is in the person of Jesus—fully God and fully human—and his atoning work on the cross that God brings light into the darkness, replaces life where there is death, engrafts us once again into the Tree of Life, which is Jesus himself. It’s back to the basics: Jesus came into this world, suffered on the cross and rose from the grave, so that we might have true fellowship with God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And as we abide in Jesus, confess our need for his love and grace, we flourish as children of light. We find the power to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength.
Here’s the second main thing I want to say, and it is intimately connected with the first: the cross of Christ is also the way in which we have fellowship with one another. Sin not only breaks communion with God, but with each other. It is in Christ that we are made a new community, the family of God, brothers and sisters. And so as we abide in Christ, we are empowered to love one another.
Even with our differences, even with our imperfections, even with our own brokenness, we are made one in Christ and commit to learning to love one another. It’s back to the basics. Love God; love each other. John says it so clearly: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (4:20-21).
John tells us that love is not just about what we say—it is “truth in action.” It is following the pattern of Jesus, who demonstrates love by laying down his life for his friends. Maybe this will help. There is a parable the rabbis of old tell about two brothers who farmed the same land together. Each day during the harvest season, they would divide up the grain and deposit it in their separate granaries. Well, one brother was single; and the other was married with several small children. The single brother was concerned for his married brother, with all those mouths to feed, and so each night he would take grain from his own granary and deposit it in his brother’s. The married brother was concerned for his single brother, wondering who would provide for him in old age, so each night he would take grain from his granary and deposit it in his brother’s. One night, while they were each doing this, they ran into each other beneath the moonlit sky. Each discover what the other was doing—this love that went beyond speech but was “truth in action”, and they embraced. As the rabbis tell the story, God saw what happened, this kind of sacrificial love, and he said, “On this spot I shall build my Temple. For it is here, in this kind of love, that the world shall know who I am and human beings shall discover each other in love.”
Fellowship Church, this is the kind of fellowship Christ has made available to us in him, and to which God is calling us. It is the kind of fellowship that has characterized our church from the beginning. And this is why we’ve designed the new sanctuary this way—to see one another, to have a sense of connection—because when we love one another we are seeing God and how he lives in us and how his love is perfected in us. It’s back to the basics.
The cross. A tree. Which converge at a table with bread and wine. All pointing to fellowship with God and fellowship with one another. We’re learning to put on our socks so we can walk in the light of God’s truth. But there is one more thing that must be said today as we get back to the basics. The cross, the tree, the table...all is symbols of our fellowship with God and fellowship with each other. Thirdly and lastly, let us not forget the heartbeat of our mission: to be a church for others. “We declare to you [others who are not yet part of our church family] what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us…”
This is ever and always a call to face out towards our community and world. To be witnesses, to invite others into this fellowship with God and God’s family. The cross, the tree, the table, all of this is not for us alone but for the sake of the world. And so there is one more important symbol I must mention today: the bell.
Pastor Lindsay told the story of our church bell, which belonged to Lakewood Elementary School and was given to June Reimink at her retirement. Church bells have a long history, and were originally intended to be a way to call people in a community to gather for worship. When you hear the church bell ring, you come and worship our Maker and Redeemer. It’s a summons. But this bell, our bell, isn’t just a call gather but a call to scatter—it sends us out into the community and world to walk in the life of God’s love and join God’s mission. It reminds us especially of our mission field with Lakewood Elementary and the entire West Ottawa school district. When this bell rings, it sends us out. Revelation 21 brings us back to the beginning of Genesis with a tree: a tree whose leaves will be for the healing of the nations! The life and light we have in Christ is for all the nations, for the whole world! It’s back to the basics, why we exist in the first place.
This new sanctuary is beautiful…I’m so pleased with how it has been designed and built. I can’t wait to learn how to inhabit this space and all the stories that will be birthed in this place over the next 50 years. But as we get back to the basics today, back to the beginning, let me just remind you of something I was adamant about when we began this discernment process about a new sanctuary. It’s ultimately not about the building; it’s about what happens in the building, and what happens as we are sent from the building. It’s about the mission—to love God and others, as an accepting community, centered in Christ, focused on developing faithful followers of Jesus. This building is a mission station—to which we are gathered and from which we are sent to walk in the light of God’s love and truth.
Remember, to be disciples is to be a pilgrim people—a people on the move with the living Jesus. We learn to put our socks on right so that we can walk well, faithfully, courageously, as children of God.
Did you know that when the first sanctuary was built forty five years ago, for the first worship service in that space, the people called “Fellowship Church” walked from Waukazoo elementary school down the country roads and into the new sanctuary?
Like we walked today, from the old sanctuary, into the new, with our children leading us.
Like we walk out into the world at the end of this service, with the benediction. Gathered and sent by a tree, a cross, a table, and a bell. So that the world my know the light and life we’ve found, or which has found us, in the love of Savior.
And we keep walking. Abiding in Jesus, committed to the most important things of fellowship with God and others, we walk into a new beginning, a new chapter of our church’s story. A new chapter that begins today…
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…we declare this to you so that you may have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.