Membership is a Gift

Membership is a Gift

I have to admit, I’m a little sad that we are at the end of this sermon series. Some of you are probably like, “Thank goodness! About time we are wrapping this series us. I thought you would never get done Pastor Trish. It’s been a long seven going on eight months.” But I have to say, I’m sad that’s it’s over because…this is it. This is a huge series, and not because of how long it took just to get through, but because this series on the Discipleship Path is it. This is the basis of our faith and the very steps that teach us how to follow Christ, to be a disciple.

You want to know how to follow Christ? It’s by doing these six steps:

Worship, Prayer & Devotion, Service, Small Groups, Share Your Story, Tithe

Whether you are a new Christian or a seasoned Christian, if you have fallen off the path and want to get back on, or you just want to take your faith to the next level…this is how you do it. These are the expectations that Jesus sets forth when He says, “Follow me.”

“Follow me!” The invitation is so simple a small child can understand it. When it was time to for my preschool-age students at my home church to head upstairs for Communion or to reignite with their parents, I would say, “Follow me!” and start marching down the hall like the drum major in a parade. It meant that it was time to get up and move! And it worked. They would get up and join the parade.

“Follow me!” is the invitation with which Jesus called His disciples. It appears 87 times in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the four Gospels. And every time He says it, Jesus is calling for decisive action. He invites and expects a response.

Like Peter, James, and John dropped their fishing nets to fish for people. Matthew left his tax collector table and ended up with his name on a Gospel. But not everyone follows. The rich young ruler hears the invitation, but sadly walks away.

And as Jesus’ path leads closer to the cross, the invitation becomes more costly. And He lets the disciples know that following Him will mean taking up a cross, and for some of them, that meant literally.

Then, at the empty tomb, the women hear the angel say that the Risen Christ is already out ahead of them, calling them, once again, to follow Him into a new life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ final words to Peter are, “Follow me.”

And now, the invitation comes to you!

Wherever you are in your faith journey, this is your invitation to follow Jesus too. You are invited to take your next step along the path of discipleship leading to a life that fulfills Jesus’ great commandment, that we love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength and love others as we have been loved by God.

Deciding to follow Jesus and take the next step along the Discipleship Path may raise some questions for you. Maybe you haven’t been with us during the whole series. Maybe you have questions we didn’t address. Please let me reassure you, I am hear to answer any questions you have, and I am here to help you on your faith journey.

And if you think you’re not fully there yet, like you cannot fully be a follower of Jesus because you don’t have all six of these steps down, well rest assure because we are all on the same journey. You become a follower of Jesus NOT when you have your entire act together. No, you become a follower of Jesus when you say the word, “Yes!” Yes, to the invite. Yes, to Jesus that you will begin to follow Him, that you will take the first step and continue on. At that very moment, it starts, and you are now a follower of Jesus Christ.

None of us are going to be perfect, and we are going to make mistakes. We are all going to be a work in progress. In the Wesleyan tradition, where Methodist church comes from, we believe every follower of Jesus is in an ongoing process of transformation made possible only by the grace of God. That means it’s a process, and it takes time. It also means that we don’t just “get saved” and wait to go to Heaven. God’s love and grace are continually at work within us. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called it sanctifying grace.

Sanctifying grace means we continue to grow in the likeness and image of Christ through the perfecting work of the Holy Spirit.

Ephesians 4:13
13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.

Sound a little familiar? Remember what the word disciple means? It’s someone who adheres to the teachings of another, making them a follower, a learner. It’s someone who takes up the ways of someone else, completely devoted to a teacher to literally learn to imitate their teacher’s life. So applied to Jesus, a disciple is someone who learns from Him to live like Him. And that takes time and a whole a lot of practice.

And here’s the best part. God’s grace describes the undeserved, unearned love of God that meets us where we are but loves us too much to leave us there. God’s grace begins its work in our lives before we respond in commitment to Christ and continues God’s work within us throughout our entire lives.

Since I brought up John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, I want to just say something that I admire about him. John Wesley was not only a theologian and preacher, but he was also a realistic man and leader. And by the way, he never intended to start a new church.

He was studying to be a priest in the Church of England, the Anglican denomination. And he had an awaking moment with God and realized his church was dry. They were just going through the motions and did not allow for the Holy Spirit to move in them. So he brought this up and worked hard to get others to understand what they were missing. But with no prevail, he was told by a trusted friend, if you aren’t getting anywhere, take it to the streets. Now that didn’t mean what we think today; to go out the streets and literally cry our blues or bash the church.

Instead, he gathered some college friends on campus and invited them into a bible study. It grew, the men grew in their faith, and before they knew it they had what they called the Holy Club or societies, which were small groups popping up all over the place.

John organized his followers around specific disciplines in order to continue to grow in their love of God. He didn’t want them to be saved, and then just left to figure it out by themselves. So Wesley designed the small groups for biblical study, spiritual growth, compassionate service, and mutual accountability.

And here’s an interesting fact some might not know. The label “Methodist” actually came as a mockery. Yes, that’s right. Bullying has been around a long time, at least since Wesley’s days in the early 1700’s. See Wesley and his “Holy Club” were so methodical in their spiritual lives and in their service to the needs of people around them, they woke up the same time every day, went to a meeting room the same time every day, walked out of the meeting room the same time every day (because they all had to get to class), so some outsiders started to call them Methodists for being so methodical.

What I appreciate about Wesley is that, just like Jesus, just like the early church, he gave them the steps to be a disciple. He laid it all out for them, making it simple. He provided the knowledge based on scripture, he gave them opportunities to act on their knowledge, he encouraged them, built up leaders, and built the body of Christ.

As I mentioned, the first and most important thing to being a disciple is to first say “Yes” to Jesus’ invitation. But what Wesley knew was that there was so much more, like also saying “Yes” to Jesus’ church.

When you say “Yes” to Jesus’ invite to follow Him, you are now a part of the family. You are a part of the Kingdom of God, part of the body of Christ. And we know, we can’t be the body by ourselves which is why God designed the church, so we would do all of this together.

But the part that we seem to fall short on is our membership in the local church. Now I know that membership might not seem like a big deal to many people, and I know there are a lot of misconceptions about it. Some think, “I don’t want to lock myself in in case I don’t stay in the church forever.” You’re here now. If God calls you somewhere else, then so be it. But why not commit to the church you are sitting here with to be disciples together.

Membership in a local church is committing and promising to do church together, to live spiritual lives together, to serve in mission and ministry together. And if you are a follower of Christ, why wouldn’t you want to commit and promise to do that with a particular part of the body that God is calling you to.

A Commitment To Christ

When someone becomes a member of a United Methodist congregation, the person or persons get up in front of the congregation and will respond to a series of questions. They are first asked to renounce wickedness, evil, and sin, and to accept the freedom and power of God to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. Then they are asked if they confess Jesus Christ as their Savior, and trust and serve Him as their Lord. The next question asks each to promise to remain a faithful member of Christ’s Church, and to serve as His representative in the world.

Then, together with the congregation, everyone professes the Christian faith by reciting the Apostles’ Creed. Then there are two questions the person is asked.

As a member of Christ’s universal Church, will you be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries?

As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness?

Connected Globally

Question 1 is about being connected globally. It’s about becoming a member of The United Methodist Church, a global web of local congregations. We describe this relationship as connectional. All members of every congregation are joined to all the others across the globe, which is an exciting part of what it means to be the Church.

For example, a couple of years ago, our participation in the ‘Imagine No Malaria’ campaign has reduced deaths from that disease by half. You and I did that! Though we may never meet one another, nor the people who directly benefit from that ministry, we are making great things happen. Lives are being changed in ways no one of us, nor any single congregation, could do on our own. Being a connectional church makes ministries like that possible.

Connected Locally

Then question 2 is about connecting locally. It asks new members to commit to the people who they worship with every Sunday. The vow is to be a part of the body of Christ in our local community and to support it well. We pledge to think less about our individual desires and more about the good of the whole.

We live into this vow when we teach a Sunday school class, serve as an acolyte or usher, or stand shoulder-to-shoulder working on a local mission project. We fulfill this promise by serving on committees, giving a portion of our income, and setting up tables and chairs. We’re faithful to our promise when we support one who is struggling, when we visit one another in the hospital, and support others in grief.

All In This Together

And when the new members finish their vows, the entire congregation then renew those same vows as a sign of our commitment to one another. And then the pastor asks the congregation to do all in their power to support the new members. And when the previous members respond to this invitation, they renew their promise to faithfully “participate in the ministries of the Church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness, that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”

Every church member must decide between two options, as to what kind of church member they will be. The first option is the country club church membership. A “What’s in it for me” mentality. A consumer mentality.

The second option is the biblical option which views church membership not as an obligation, but as a gift. It sees membership as an opportunity to serve and give rather than just a requirement just to do so. Our entire attitude is different when we approach church membership in the biblical way. Church membership is a gift, not a perk. It’s a treasure.

Treasure refers to something that is special, important, or valuable. If we see church membership as something to be treasured, we won’t view it as being minor or trivial. Instead, we’ll pay attention to the scripture when it says…

Hebrew 10:24-25
24 And let us consider (meaning give careful attention to) how we may spur (meaning to stir or provoke) one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Church membership has to do with uniting yourself with other fellow believers for mission, mentoring, and ministry. Those things happen most efficiently in the context of local church membership.

Some will argue that the body of Christ refers to the universal church – all believers everywhere for all ages. And they’re right. However, the universal church and the local church are not mutually exclusive.

The majority of New Testament books are written about and to local churches. The book of Act gives a historical narrative of the work of the Holy Spirit in the churches in Jerusalem, in Antioch, in Cyprus, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Rome, and many others.

Nine New Testament books were written to specific local churches: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Four of Paul’s letters were written to specific people and address specific church concerns: 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. The book of Revelation includes messages to 7 specific churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey): Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

Local church membership is about mutual belonging, uniting yourself with other fellow believers. This is such an important part of our faith. And it’s also the key to understanding why arguing “I’m a member of the universal church, and therefore don’t have to join a local church” is to wrongly put in opposition two things that actually belong together. It also denies the kind of ongoing care necessary to the body of Christ.

Mutual belonging in the church consist of three things:
The first is the recognition of a person’s new birth – Jesus Christ now as their Savior and Lord.

Secondly is the recognition by the local church of a desire, a responsibility and commitment to care for an individual in a continuing relationship.

And lastly, is the recognition by the individual of a desire, a responsibility and commitment to care for and participate in the life of the local church.

That’s what mutual belonging is all about.

It’s a gift. A special, important, and valuable gift. A gift is something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation. It’s not deserved or earned. If there is payment or compensation involved, it’s a purchase and not a gift.

When we repent of sin and place our faith in Christ, we receive the gift of salvation.

Ephesians 2:8-9
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.

And when we receive the gift of salvation, we become part of the body of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:27
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

Salvation is a free gift. It includes forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death on the cross. It includes adoption by God the Father. And it includes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But it also includes becoming a part of the body of Christ.

Membership in the body of Christ, in the local the church, is a gift from God. Therefore, our membership in a local church means more than belonging to a social club or having your name on the church books.

Our membership vows connect the promises that began with our baptisms when we become members of the family of Christ, and extend into our everyday lives as we live as Christ’s disciples. By our vows, we commit to fulfill our promises to Christ.

As members of the local church, we are called to be loyal and do all in our power to strengthen the ministries of the church. So I invite anyone who is not currently a member of this church to become one. I will be offering a membership class this fall, starting in September that is just seven weeks long and offered during the Sunday school hour.

In a world with so many distractions, let’s get this right. Let’s not let the devil have the upper hand. Let’s commit and promise to stick together, to grow together, to build each other up and hold each other accountable. Let’s be so methodical that others notice.

I invite you to refresh your spirits and commitment to Christ and His local church through five means of grace: Our Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service and our Witness.