To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Monday, September 13, 2004

To the Whole Creation

Preached Sunday morning, September 12, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believe and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned -- Mark 16:15-16

These words that Jesus spoke after his resurrection are words of hope and warning--but in such an unpleasant way! Jesus makes a stark, uncompromising contrast between the saved and condemned. Does Jesus really mean that eternal salvation depends on things as simple as believing and being baptized? What serious results for such simple acts!

Elsewhere in the New Testament the contrast is just as sharp. In Mt. 25:32-33 & 46, for example, Jesus said that on the day of the Lord, "All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will put the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. . . . And [the goats] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

As we prepare to look more closely at this text from Mark's Gospel, I've got to warn you---these kinds of words that Jesus spoke are not very popular.

Tolerance is a demi-god of our age, and tolerance says that reality is not made up of clear distinctions in black and white. Education, from the earliest grades of public school all the way through the most advanced higher education, teaches that nearly every moral and religious issue is really gray, however black or white they may seem. The sophisticated elite prefer ambiguity to choices of absolute black and white. Many of us go along with this ambiguity because we like to be let off the hook for being no more evil than the next guy---both of us different shades of gray.

Jesus, however, had the troubling habit of framing religious issues in black or white---between sheep and goats, lost and saved. We'd better listen to him, because if Jesus is correct, then either the greatest gift or saddest loss awaits each one of us on the day of judgement.

The gospel is the good news in this scene. In fact, the gospel is the greatest news in any scene. And the good news is this: even though, because we've sinned (Rm 3:23) and disqualified ourselves from earning a spot in heaven (Rm 6:23), God still loves us enough to give us a way back to him (Jn 3:16). That way back, to put it simply, is Jesus Christ. Because Jesus lived a life without sin (Heb 4:15), he died on the cross to become the perfect offering to pay the price for the whole world's sin (1 Jn 2:2). If we join him by faith, his resurrection separates us from our sin (1 Cor 15:17) and we look forward to the hope of joining him in resurrection (Rom 6:5). On that day when Jesus returns to earth, he'll bring salvation to his people (Heb. 9:28).

The salvation he brings is more full than we can understand or even imagine. We are being saved from so much: from death, of course, from destruction in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15). We're also saved from suffering right here on earth---from despair and meaninglessness, from confusion and conflict, from loneliness. At the rummage sale yesterday I saw a young man in Goth attire---black, torn jeans stuck through with safety pins, black suspenders hanging down below his waist with hundreds of pins piercing the straps, black Spandex shirt, spike-studded leather belt and wristbands, black death-shade makeup below his eyes, long stringy hair nearly obscuring his face. I wish I had had the courage to talk with him more than I did. I don't know why this particular young man chose the Goth style, but in general the Goth style is a cry of rebellion and a cry for help---young people who know that the world they live in simply doesn't have the appeal, the meaning they want to find. Although most of the people around us don't paint their faces and cover themselves with pin-studded black, I think the Goths are simply displaying a frustration that lies deep within millions of people. Without Christ life is really a walking death, however bright and happy a person may seem on the outside.

Salvation in Jesus Christ is more than being saved from something. It also means being saved for something, to something. Those who are in Christ are being saved to peace---not just in the sense of the absence of conflict, but in the sense of fullness, completeness, fulfillment. And we're saved to the best kind of peace of all. As Paul told the Romans, "Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rm 5:1). When that peace with God begins to take hold in our hearts, it flows over into every other kind of peace--with our families, our neighbors, ourselves. Those who believe and are baptized are raised to walk in newness of life (Rm 6:4). New life in service to Christ is a life of freedom---free from the slavery of sin (Rm 6:6). And God has given us the power to resist sin, to walk in the light as heirs of the kingdom of God (Rm 8:15-17).

So we are to proclaim the Gospel. And notice what our passage says about that proclamation? We are to "go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation." That's really a tall order for the church, even if we had the cooperation of the world---which we won't. The world denounces Christian missions as intolerance, as cultural imperialism. When foreign missionaries try to convert new peoples, Christians are criticized for disrupting their culture (As Jesus and the apostles showed us, if people really live the gospel, it will disrupt any culture). At home, we hear those around us saying that "every religion is good---it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you do good to your neighbor." Such statements, of course, don't jibe with Jesus' bold proclamation that "I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn 14:16). With few exceptions, the world doesn't want to hear the gospel. But whether they want it or not, they need the gospel.

So Christians are called to go. Here at New York Avenue we've been praying for years for God to send us people. And, praise him, he has answered our prayers. We have been blessed with Christians who are joining us in our journey of faith and holiness. God has honored our requests, but if we go no further we haven't done enough to honor God. Sitting back and asking for people to come to us is not enough. We have to go and proclaim---all of us, to the whole world. Not all of us are foreign missionaries. Not all of us are preachers or evangelists. But all of us are called to tell the good news---to everyone who will listen.

We're blessed at this congregation with growth---so much that we're having to find seats for everyone. We've begun asking questions: how big do we want to be? How much more should we grow? Are we getting too big? The answer is simple. As long as there is one lost soul in Oak Ridge, we are too small. To put it bluntly, the church is not in the business of being nice, of being friendly, of having comfortable seating, of being one big happy family. We're in the business of saving the lost and of building disciples to be more like Christ (Mt 28:19). And we are to proclaim the gospel to the whole world. Missionaries go out into the world. Most of us in this area don't have to go that far, because in Oak Ridge the whole world has come to us: Mexico, Germany, Russia, China, Korea, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, even Massachusetts and California. Our mission is to call out to them to join us in the wonderful work of redemption that God is doing in his people.

Jesus makes clear how we join him in that work. In this passage from Mark's Gospel Jesus gives very clear instructions---perhaps his clearest---on being saved. See verse 16: "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." Some people have trouble with the idea that we're told to be baptized to be saved. The importance of baptism for salvation is explained elsewhere, too. Peter, for example, said, "Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Pe 3:21). At Pentecost, Peter had already called the Jews to "repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

Some will argue that insisting on baptism is mere legalism. In fairness, certain verses do seem to say that belief is what saves us. In Rm 10:9, for example, Paul makes no mention of baptism for salvation. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus has a lot more to say about belief than baptism. There are important reasons for this emphasis on faith, but they don't erase the need for baptism. We can look at the New Testament and argue all we want about whether or not we can be saved without being baptized. But three things are clear: Christ died to save the church (Eph 5:23), he expects us to be baptized (Acts 2:38, 1 Pe 3:21), and the church has always treated baptism as the entry point into the church.

Some preachers, I think, have taken this teaching to an extreme. Some of you have heard sermons about the man who made his confession of Christ, died on the way to the river, and now he's eternally lost. I don't think that kind of talk is helpful, especially when we presume to know how God will deal with another soul. God is sovereign, and if can save a thief on the cross, I suppose he could save a man on the way to his baptism. Still, I wouldn't stake my eternal salvation on the hope that God would make an exception in my case.

Jesus tells us another reason not to give all our attention to baptism. It's in the second half of verse 16: "but whoever does not believe will be condemned." Of these two points, belief and baptism, which is easier to come by? Baptism, of course. We can just go and do that, whether we mean it or not, but belief is a deep-down matter. Belief is a precious gift from the moment it begins growing in our heart. From belief grows all obedience and righteousness. Baptism without belief, however, is worthless. I don't know how many people I've seen be baptized just to score points with a boyfriend or girlfriend (I don't know because I can't know--we don't see into other people's hearts; but I've seen too many people quit practicing their faith when they broke up with the other person). Belief, faith, is not only in the brain, but in the bones.

The best story I ever heard about real belief involves a tightrope walker with a wheelbarrow on a rope far, far above the ground. The tightrope walker shouts down to the crowd far below, "Do you believe I can push this wheelbarrow across this rope?" The crowd shouts up, "Yes!" And the tightrope walker replies, "OK, then who will come up here and ride in the wheelbarrow?" That's the kind of belief that God wants from us---not belief that something is true, but a willingness to stake our whole lives on it. It's the kind of belief that gives fruit to confession, repentance, baptism, discipleship. The importance of belief is why Bible writers like John focus so much on it. The importance of baptism is why we preach it.

And of course, baptism is not the final step. It's one of the first steps in a wonderful journey, an adventure of faith. It's a journey we share with millions of other companions who encourage and support us. Salvation, you see, is not an individual activity. Yes, we each individually must come before God for salvation, but God's work of salvation is worldwide, for the whole creation. Each one of us has a part to play in the grand symphony of God's redeemed people. We play those parts together, as part of the community of the redeemed.

Like it or not, the most important things in life really are black and white. Will we be slaves to sin or have freedom as adopted members of the royal family in Christ? Will we be lost or found? Redeemed or condemned? That's the question, and that's why we take a few minutes at the end of every worship service for you to give your answer, to make a commitment. And let's not be confused. Everyone gives an answer, either by standing still or by coming forward.

Let's be clear about one more thing: We don't offer an invitation for the personal gain of the people at New York Avenue. We aren't in it for more offering money or to fill more pews. We proclaim the gospel from love---the love that God first had for us and shares with us. If you're outside Christ, don't let this moment pass.


McGarvey, J.W. and Phillip Y. Pendleton. The Fourfold Gospel. On-line version at .

Rodgers-Melnick, Ann. "Goths: Morose Outcasts in Dire Need of Acceptance." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 27, 1999. On-line copy at .

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ


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