The Work of God's People


February 25, 2007 DR. WILLIAM L. SELF Senior Pastor, Johns Creek Baptist Church

2 Corinthians 5: 16-21

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

I was one time being interviewed by a pulpit committee, if you can imagine years ago when I had hair and a slim waist, and so the committees were interested in me, and I was talking to this committee and I said to them, “Okay, you’ve asked me all the questions, let me ask you. What’s the purpose of the church?” They looked at each other. They couldn’t quite get it together. They weren’t sure what the purpose of the church was. Finally somebody blurted out, “The church should be there when I want it.” I stayed in Atlanta.

I related to you not long ago about an opinion poll they took from a group of clergy and a group of laymen. They went to a group of laymen and asked them, “What is the purpose of the church?” Eighty percent of the laymen said, “The purpose of the church is to take care of me and the church members,” and 20 percent of the people said, “The purpose of the church is to tell the world about Jesus Christ.”

They went to a group of clergy and asked them the same question and they got exactly the opposite. Eighty percent of the clergy said that the purpose of the church is to represent Christ in this world and to preach the gospel, and 20 percent said the purpose of the church is just to take care of people. There’s great confusion about this all over the place. No matter where you go, whether it’s on television or in the journals or in the newspaper, people are not sure why we’re here.

We’re equally confused with the secular culture about the purpose of the church. Paul said we preach Christ and him crucified, but if you listen closely to a lot of the sermons and I listen to other sermons and I read other sermons, and I find out that we don’t preach Christ and him crucified. We preach humanity and it improved. We spend a lot of time and energy in church world convincing people that nothing will be said that will bother them at all or require any kind of change in their lives. Very little is said in church that can’t be said elsewhere or heard elsewhere.

And some churches have misread their mission. They’ve jumped into politics in order to keep the attention of their people, or some have become psychological institutions. Others are an entertainment forum on Sunday morning, and some have walked in to just simply an adult education program. Some churches have decided that they represent special interests , partisan politics, health and wealth, or a subversive movement. In the midst of all this, people starve to death spiritually.

What’s being said in many churches today you can hear anywhere. You could hear it in any forum. You could hear it on public television. You can hear it anywhere. You can read it in “The Reader’s Digest,” and the people starve spiritually and they wonder what’s wrong on the inside of us.

I like that story of the Romans. Nero was the emperor and the people in Rome were starving. The people in the streets were starving. They just didn’t have enough grain because of all the political intrigue that had transpired, and so Nero commanded all the ships to refit themselves, and he sent all of his vast navy down to Alexandria. The people thought the navy was going to Alexandria to buy grain, because at that time Egypt was the grain belt of the Mediterranean basin.

So when they got there, they filled these ships up with sand and brought them back. The sand was for the purpose of putting down another layer on the floor of the coliseum, so the people could be entertained. People needed food, but they got sand and entertainment.

There’s great clarity in the Bible about why we’re here. The Bible gives a certain sound about the mission of the church and Paul says it in Corinthians. He says it all through his writings, but he says it primarily in 2 Corinthians. Now let’s back up and look at this. You’ve been in Sunday School and church most of your life. Many of you know this background material, but you know that Corinth was a very pagan city.

Now the church got started there, but Paul, as you recall, had preached in Athens earlier. When he preached in Athens he tried to relate to the philosophical minds of the day. He was at Mars Hill and he talked to them about the unknown god, and he tried to come in the side door, so he talked to them about their unknown god and he said it was Jesus Christ. He didn’t get anywhere.

Later in his letters, he repents of that. He said, “I made a mistake, and so I now vow to you that the only message I have will be Christ Jesus, crucified for the sins of the world and resurrected. Christ and his resurrection will be the core of my message.”

And so he writes to the church in Corinth. He says, “You’ve got problems.” Now he was off in Ephesus at the time. He said, “You’ve got problems. You’re in deep yogurt down where you are. You’re fighting with one another. You don’t know who you are or why you’re doing what you’re doing,” and he said, “What you need to understand is that we have a clear mandate from God to be the voice of God and to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ. Don’t compromise your gospel just because your culture is not listening.”

He said the problem with human beings is that there’s a vacuum inside, and this vacuum needs filling with Christ. We’re separated from God and the only way we can be reconciled with God is through Jesus Christ. We can’t be reconciled through positive thinking, or success gospel. We can only be reconciled through Jesus Christ. And he said, “I have seen that we are now ambassadors for Christ.”

Maurice and Dodie Bean were the only ambassadors that we ever really knew well. Maurice was among the first African American ambassadors the United Stated ever appointed. I was invited to his swearing-in ceremony when they made Maurice an ambassador. Couldn’t go because of commitments I had at the church, but the thing that stays in my mind about Maurice is that he was always conscious of the fact that he represented the President of the United States, and in our conversations he let me know clearly, “I represent the President of the United States, and my opinions may be thus and so, but I am here to represent our President.”

Well Paul doesn’t just stumble upon that. He uses that analogy on purpose. Now, each one of us — not just the clergy, not just the deacons, but each one of us — represents the Lord God Almighty. We are his ambassadors. That means that in your store, in your classroom, in your neighborhood, we represent God. We represent a God who gets his hands dirty in this world, a God who is so involved that he came, was crucified and was resurrected. We represent a God of costly love, not a God who stays apart, not a God who resides only on Mount Olympus, not a God who is capricious, but it’s a God who is involved in the daily lives of his people and loves them so much that he was willing, in Christ Jesus, to die for them.

Now if that’s true — and I stake my life on it and so have you — if that’s true, then it ought to make a difference in the way that we do our work. If that’s true, then we must see ourselves differently. And if it’s not true, or if we don’t want to appropriate it, or if we deny that, or if we pick and choose and cherry-pick the Bible and determine certain things there will not be ours, then it’s been an impossible dream.

Great decisions must be made. It won’t be long until all of these buildings will be paid for. Now, they’re here for one purpose, for the worship of God, for the teaching of his people. That’s what we’ll use them for and we must understand that it’s not a place for me to be made happy. It’s not a place for any of us to be scratched or cajoled. It’s not a place for me to be affirmed in a minor way. It’s a place where all of the ambassadors meet. We meet once a week to be informed, to be infused, to be excited so that we can go out into the mission fields all around us that God’s given us. And if we don’t see it that way then we are taking our credentials, given to us by God, and throwing them away.

Years and years ago I saw an ad in the paper, you’ll buy this car in Germany, pick it up in Germany, you won’t have to rent a car, and it’ll be fun. So I talked to a banker and the banker said, “Maybe.” I talked him into it. I had a car. I picked it up in Germany. It was a lot of fun, all 50 months paying for it. But I never will forget what happened to us as we got there.

Before we could pick up the car, we got the tour of the factory and I felt like Gomer Pyle, “Gawlee!” They had railroad cars coming in at one end of the factory with just metal — steel — and over here they had automobiles coming out. And in between, that metal went through the factory, and all of these people in there were stamping them, and bending them, and painting them, and spraying them, and all of that stuff was going on. I just stood around watching it and all these people working.

I saw these machines that looked as big as this room and they were huffing and puffing and stamping I’d never seen such machines in my life. That machinery was there to make automobiles. That machinery was there for a purpose, and it was to make automobiles, not to crack walnuts.

We’re not doing this to crack walnuts. We didn’t put these buildings together to simply give us something to do in our spare time. This was not done for any other purpose, but to create Christians . We come in raw human beings, and come out Christians on the other end. And there may be some imperfection that we deal with along the way, but we come in raw and go out Christian.

On that same trip, we went to the Dachau prison, right outside Munich. It’s now set up for tourists. It was absolutely the most depressing place I had ever been. The boys were in five minutes and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

I went through the whole thing and was sick for a half a day, for you could see over here where the railroad tracks coming in and they brought in the people. Over here were the ovens and they took out dead bodies. Whereas the factory took in metal and turned out cars, whereas the church takes in raw sinners and turns out Christians, the merchants of death, many times fooling and lying to those they were bringing in in those freight cars and sent them out dead.

Now what are we doing? Are we cracking walnuts? Are we creating Christians? Or are we simply deadening people when they come out the other end.

We need to understand that there is a responsibility; unto whom much is given, more shall be required. For every privilege there is a corresponding responsibility and I want to see, at the other end, people coming through the baptismal waters, and people coming down the aisle, families whose lives are coming together.

God wanted to reconcile the world to himself, so he chose a group of people. Out of that group of people the Savior was born. They had a chance to follow the Savior. They rejected him. So what did God do? God’s going to redeem his people. He turned to the gentile community and the gentile community struggled with it, but finally, through a message of preaching with Paul and others, they got hold of it.

You either use it or lose it. You either take or not. The privilege, the responsibility, is on us. But if you reject the opportunity God gives, God goes somewhere else. God doesn’t wait around. If we reject the opportunity, we will simply be barren in open buildings and people wondering why we’re here.

The Jerusalem church had 3,000 join one day at Pentecost. Then they got all introverted, turned it upon themselves, trying to get their rules together, tried to take the gospel of Jesus Christ and fit it back into the Jewish law and it didn’t work. So God moved from Jerusalem to Antioch. That church saw a world in need and sent missionaries all over the world. Antioch thrived; Jerusalem died. What decisions do we have to make?

The only way a church lives is to do what God wants it to do. Every church is on a mission. There is no option. Each member is a missionary. I hope the day will come when we send hundreds of people to places like Pearlington (MS). Not a hundred, but hundreds. I hope the day will come when our hearts will beat with the desire to do the work of God around the world and we’ll see our mission as more than just to make sure that our children are entertained and that our sensibilities are cultivated, and that we will understand that God has called us for a mission.

Every Christian is either a missionary, or he is an imposter. Every Christian is either a missionary, or a mission project. We need to pray that God will pour out upon us a sense of mission, as we have never had.

We’ll celebrate the fact that God’s let us pull together this house, which will become an embassy, filled with ambassadors, who will take the message of reconciliation to the world. Will you go? Will you move out of your comfort zone? Will you step up to the task? We must if we’re to be the people God’s called us to be.

(Taken from an audio recording with minor editorial revisions.)