By Don Meyer
ESTES PARK, CO (June 28, 2011) – A sense of anticipation filled the auditorium as hundreds gathered for the opening worship service of the 126th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church.
As the praise band warmed up the crowd, all eyes were on the countdown clock on the large projection screens at the front of the room, ticking off the seconds before the service officially got under way.
Then, it was lights, sound and vibrant music as missionaries paraded down the aisles, waving colorful flags representing the 38 countries around the world where Covenant World Mission is at work.
The theme of this year’s meeting was reflected in almost every aspect of the worship planning, from the greeting brought by Executive Vice President Donn Engebretson to the sermon delivered by Ruth Hill: “The Church as a Fellowship of Believers,” one of the Covenant’s six affirmations.
Engebretson reflected on the founding of the denomination 126 years ago, noting the principles and values that permeated that founding group and continue to represent the Covenant today. “They were all about Christ, all the time,” he observed, reminding his listeners that we also are to be about Christ all the time.
“The Evangelical Covenant Church is a sending church,” noted Curt Peterson, executive minister of Covenant World Mission, who presented missionary candidates for commissioning for short-term and project work.
“It was the passion of those founders as Mission Friends to go and make disciples to all nations,” Peterson added, a commitment that was demonstrated in the decision of that founding body early on to send missionaries to China and Alaska. “Tonight, it is our privilege to commission a new team of missionaries to join the others serving in countries around the world.”
Following the commissioning by President Gary Walter, the new missionaries moved into the audience where those in attendance formed groups, laid hands on them and prayed for the work that lies ahead. Following that time together, conference superintendents were invited to come forward and share One Step commitment cards bearing the names of those for whom people throughout the Covenant have been praying – the cards overflowed the large basket that had been positioned on stage.
The fellowship of believers theme was the foundation for the message of the evening brought by Hill, who served for more than a decade as executive minister of Women Ministries and now serves as national awareness director for Shared Hope International, continuing her work in fighting human trafficking.
She began by challenging the phrase itself – a fellowship of believers – saying she doesn’t particularly care for the word fellowship. Too often, she suggested, it passes itself off as polite banter over coffee in fellowship halls in churches. She recalled the Apostle Paul’s letter of exhortation to love one another, pointing out that that exhortation was there only because there was a problem in that early church when it came to a more honest and authentic definition of the term fellowship.
Using Matthew 16 as a foundational text, Hill notes that this is the first time Jesus mentions the church. “What does God ask of us in order to realize his vision for the church?” she asked. “How do we achieve authentic fellowship?”
She identified five key words taken from the text – each beginning with the letter C – that suggest what God expects of us in order to accomplish his mission.
The first is context, and it is drawn from verse 13 where we see Jesus and the disciples in Caesarea Philippi. This area, a bit remote from the other regions more familiar to the disciples, was a hotbed of idolatry – the city was littered with temples to a variety of gods, even one honoring fertility. It also was a region with considerable Roman influence – Caesar as god.
“The disciples are out of their element,” Hill said. “That environment had to be unsettling for good, religious Jews, an area of pagan influence.” It was is this pagan context that Jesus asks, “Who do they say I am?” Jesus never asked that question when the group traveled in friendlier environs – just here, she observed.
“He was testing them,” Hill continued. “Did they understand the battle ahead? Were they ready?” She then suggested that we today need to ask the same questions, understanding what is at stake in today’s world that also is filled with different forms of idolatry. “If we are to be the light of the world, we must remember that people live in darkness, an ungodly world that does not think like we do, people who do not know Jesus.”
In the text, Jesus then asks a second question of his disciples: “Who do you say I am?” Peter quickly confesses, “you are the Christ.” And it is that second C – confession – that God also expects of us if we are to be successful in the mission. Confession is more than just speaking words, Hill cautioned. In confession, we are answering God’s call, acknowledging our need of him and allowing our lives to be transformed.
“Authentic confession leads to authentic transformation,” Hill declared. “Lip service alone is not enough.”
The third key word comes in verses 17 and 18, where Jesus declares: “upon this rock I will build my church.” The church – the third C – is to be the people who are called out of the unbelieving world.
“Jesus was introducing something new,” Hill observed, “combining Jews and Gentiles to form a new temple, a new church.” She shared numerous personal experiences from around the world of new believers sharing their faith under trying, even dangerous circumstances. “The work of Jesus continues today, being done through his called out ones who confess Jesus Christ as the living God,” echoing again Christ’s declaration, “I will build my church!”
The fourth key word is found in the rebuke Jesus gave Peter when the disciple argued with Jesus over Christ’s forecast of what awaited him in Jerusalem, that Jesus would be killed, but also resurrected. Peter says “not you Lord, never,” but Jesus rebukes him, saying, “you do not have in mind the concerns of God.” Too often people focus on their own personal concerns – the fourth C – rather than the concerns of God.
Perhaps the more difficult challenge comes in the cross – the fifth C she identified – noting that whoever wants to be Christ’s disciple must take up their cross and follow Jesus.
“That was shocking to the disciples,” Hill said, noting that in those days the cross was an instrument of extreme torture and death.” However, Hill continued, the cross is in reality a symbol of our identification with Jesus, essential if we are to stand apart as the called out of God to be light to a darkened world.
Context, confession, church, concerns, the cross. If believers today are to become a true fellowship of believers, then it is imperative that we deny ourselves, listen to the leading of his spirit, and follow in obedience, she concluded.
“Then we will be the church, alive and life-giving.”
Editor’s note: The live broadcast of tonight’s worship service will be found archived at CovChurch.tv.