The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE BUSINESS OF THE CHURCH

Delivered 6/8/08
Text: Galatians 1:1-12
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Is there one simple answer to the question of what is the business of the church? I was curious so I googled "the business of the church" to see what might be out there. The first hit was an article from the March 17, 1952 issue of Time magazine which was appropriately titled "The Business of the Church." At issue was the Washington advocacy activity of the Council for Social Action of the Congregationalist church that was considered somewhat left of center by some prominent church people. Dr. Walter Judd, a congressman from Minnesota who was well-known for his commitment to the church was quoted as saying, "We do not believe it is the business of the church to tell the state what to do. It is the business of the church to discover what is righteous, what is the will of God and inculcate those ideas in the individual." OK, that is one answer.

Another google hit pointed to the website of The White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated radio talk show that features a regular roundtable discussion of Christian theology and apologetics. The header promoting this particular program asked, "What is the business of the church? Should it play a political role?" We can only guess at the panel's answer because no further information was provided. We know very well that, depending upon whom you ask the answer to the question would be absolutely Yes or absolutely No.

That, of course, is not a new argument. The American church can remember a century and a half ago and the controversy about slavery. Even though in our 21st century sophistication we might wonder how such could be possible, there were voices on both sides of the issue. James Henley Thornwell, for example, was a prominent Presbyterian from South Carolina who insisted the church had no business discussing the problem because the business of the church was spiritual, not temporal. Just as the church should keep its ecclesiastical nose out of slavery, he argued, so "it is not the distinctive province of the church to build asylums for the needy or insane, to organize societies for the improvement of the penal code, or for the arresting of the progress of intemperance, gambling, or lust." (1) Ironically, a South Carolina orphanage (that is still in operation today) was established in Thornwell's honor not many years after his death in 1862. It is hard to imagine that kind of thinking in our own day, but in Thornwell's it was widely held.

Google responded with a number of other quotes:
  • "The business of the church is ministry; the church is in the business of saving souls, helping people move from a life of sin to salvation."
  • "The business of the church is to gather and hear Christ. The results of that meeting is unity/love with God and each other..."
  • "It is the business of the church to tell truth to the world. We must never forget that."
  • There were, as might be expected, a number of google hits that referred to ecclesiastical councils doing "the business of the church."
The point of this exercise, of course, is to note that there is no unanimity in answering the question about what is the business of the church.

If it is any consolation, the problem goes back to the earliest days of the faith. The Apostle Paul felt compelled to address the issue in one of his first encyclicals, the Epistle to the Galatians. The Galatian churches were wrestling with the same question that other congregations of the day were: namely, how should new Gentile Christians be incorporated into the faith? Some, the so-called "Judaizers," argued that, since the Jews were God's chosen people, these new Christians should become Jewish - obey Jewish law and adhere to Jewish tradition and practice including the ritual of circumcision for male converts. This was part and parcel of the business of the young church.

In a way, that thinking had a certain appeal to these new believers. Obedience to the Jewish law was not seen as onerous; it could be actually liberating as it helped someone deal with life in a pagan environment where questions of morality could be overwhelming. The Law was helpful in providing boundaries, just as a yellow line down the middle of a highway helps a driver stay in the correct lane. As to circumcision, even though painful surgery was involved, there was a certain sense of security in the ritual; after all, this was a tangible sign of membership in God's family. Beyond that, realizing that this was God's commandment from generation to generation ever since Abraham, (2) the thought would be that surely God would honor this kind of faithfulness.

Paul objected, and he did not mince words. He begins with the traditional salutation that we find in any other letters of the day, but then, instead of kind words or a brief prayer for his recipients, he lashes out: "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--which is really no gospel at all." The key word is grace which, for Paul, should not be understood as something God gives, but rather the way that God establishes a relationship with people. In Sunday School we learned that grace is the "unmerited favor of God," and is not something we can earn by what we do, even surgically. "God sent forth his Son...to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons." (3) That being the case, Paul insists that there is no other way to gain membership in God's family, no middle ground where God does the divine part and humans do the human (and painful) part. And a curse on anyone who would suggest otherwise!!!

Grace. The Grace Business. That is the business of the church. For Paul the business of the church is to communicate the grace of God that we come to know in Jesus Christ to a world that is desperate to hear. Grace.

In Eugene Peterson's wonderful paraphrase of scripture, The Message, (4) he says this in his introduction to Galatians:
When men and women get their hands on religion, one of the first things they often do is turn it into an instrument for controlling others, either putting or keeping them "in their place." The history of such religious manipulation and coercion is long and tedious. It is little wonder that people who have only known religion on such terms experience release or escape from it as freedom. The problem is that the freedom turns out to be short-lived.

Paul of Tarsus was doing his diligent best to add yet another chapter to this dreary history when he was converted by Jesus to something radically and entirely different - a free life in God. Through Jesus, Paul learned that God was not an impersonal force to be used to make people behave in certain prescribed ways, but a personal Savior who set us free to live a free life. God did not coerce us from without, but set us free from within.
Regardless of what the scripture teaches, there are still plenty of folks who want to add some additional business. Generally, it has to do with the hot button social issue of the day - as we noted previously, 150 years ago it was slavery; after World War II it was communism, the cold war and the arms race; in the early 21st century, we have issues like abortion, creationism, and homosexuality from one quarter while from another we have poverty, global warming, and genocide. All of these were and are important topics of conversation, and the church absolutely should discuss them. Moral issues are important. But the church has to remember what business it is in.

Several years ago Tony Campolo wrote a book entitled The Kingdom of God Is a Party. (5) In it he tells of flying to Hawaii to speak at a conference. He describes checking into his hotel and trying to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock wakes him at 3:00 AM. The night is dark, the streets are silent, the world is asleep, but Tony is wide awake and his stomach is growling. He ends up in a grungy dive in an alley munching on a donut and sipping some coffee when in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes who have just finished with their night's work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulps his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him says to her friend, "You know what? Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm gonna be 39."

To which her friend nastily replies, "So what d'ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?"

The first woman says, "Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I'm just sayin' it's my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?"

Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the fat guy at the counter, "Do they come in here every night?"

"Yeah," he answered.

"The one right next to me," he asked, "she comes in every night?"

"Yeah," he said, "that's Agnes. Yeah, she's here every night. She's been comin' here for years. Why do you want to know?"

"Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?"

A cute kind of smile crept over the fat man's chubby cheeks. "That's great," he says, "yeah, that's great. I like it." He turns to the kitchen and shouts to his wife, "Hey, come on out here. This guy's got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes' birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here."

His wife comes out. "That's terrific," she says. "You know, Agnes is really nice. She's always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her."

So they make their plans. Tony says he'll be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turns out to be Harry, says he'll make a cake.

At 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He has crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that says, "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" They decorate the place from one end to the other and get it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.

At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friend. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout and scream "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" Agnes is absolutely flabbergasted. She's stunned, her mouth falls open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost falls over.

And when the birthday cake with all the candles is carried out, that's when she totally loses it. Now she's sobbing and crying. Harry, who's not used to seeing a prostitute cry, gruffly mumbles, "Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake."

So she pulls herself together and blows them out. Everyone cheers and yells, "Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!"

But Agnes looks down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly says, "Look, Harry, is it all right with you if...I mean, if I don't...I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"

Harry doesn't know what to say so he shrugs and says, "Sure, if that's what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want."

"Oh, could I?" she asks. Looking at Tony she says, "I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I'll be right back, honest."

She gets off her stool, picks up the cake, and carries it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watches in stunned silence and when the door closes behind her, nobody seems to know what to do. They look at each other. They look at Tony.

So Tony gets up on a chair and says, "What do you say that we pray together?" And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 AM listening to Tony Campolo as he prays for Agnes. Tony recalls, "I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her."

When he's finished, Harry leans over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he says, "Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?"

In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answers him quietly, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."

Harry thinks for a moment, and in a mocking way says, "No you don't. There ain't no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. Yep, I'd join a church like that."

No, the church is not in the morality business, despite what many people think. Society handles that role just fine, thank you, pays legislatures to codify that morality by writing the appropriate rules and regulations then pays police to enforce that code. The church is not in the morality business, the church is in the grace business. Ask the Apostle Paul. Hear that again: the church is not in the morality business, the church is in the grace business. What's that, Paul? One more time: the church is not in the morality business, the church is in the grace business.

Paul adds, "And don't you forget it!"

Amen!

1. Quoted by Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, & Moderates, (New York : Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 35

2. Genesis 17:9-14

3. Galatians 4:4-5

4. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002, p. 2113

5. Anthony Campolo, The Kingdom of God Is a Party, (Dallas : Word Publishing, 1990)

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