As part of the first Transforming the Bay with Christ (TBC) Large Group Gathering at EPIC Church in Downtown San Francisco, Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary, stressed that extraordinary change for Christ in communities can only occur when His followers live out what they claim to believe.
According to his bio page, Labberton had served for 16 years as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California, when he joined Fuller's faculty, in 2009, as Lloyd John Ogilvie Associate Professor of Preaching and director of the newly established Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching. On July 1, 2013, he became Fuller Seminary's fifth president. In addition to publishing articles in such periodicals as Christianity Today and Radix, he has authored a number of books.
In beginning his message at TBC, Labberton revealed that shortly after his conversion as a young man, he was struck by a strong sense of calling.
"I felt I had come to know the God of the universe who really did want to uncloak and unveil and peel back all the layers of impossibility and smallness that either religion or my own mind, or my own ego were somehow pushing in on," he said.
He realized that what God wanted for him -- and for the world -- was a deep, profound, radical transformation: "It's something that happens in really ordinary terms," he said. "But, it's not because it's a small thing; it's because it's a small thing that is the evidence of the extraordinary witness of the kingdom of God. All of that turns on grace."
The challenge, however, is the word "grace," because it is "the very core of what we have to offer when we think about transforming the Bay with Christ," the pastor contended.
"Grace is the very next word that has to be spoken, because it's actually the essence of what transforming the Bay with Christ has to be," he said. "It is an experience and an expression of God's grace."
"Unfortunately, in the lives of some believers, grace has become much more like an infection rather than a cure: "It's just something that sort of settles in the circulatory system," he explained. "Kind of like a conviction that gives people a sense that they're okay with God, and as long as they're okay with God, that's good enough. It never actually transforms people's lives or brings together the two most important things in the world, which is what we actually confess and actually do. Instead, it just settles as a benign infection in our system.
"While millions of people in the United States claim to be a Christian, many of them show no actual evidence of having such beliefs: "the connection between what we confess and what we do is a huge problem, it is an enormous problem," Labberton said, explaining that people get "stuck not on grace, but on 'gracism'".
"Grace becomes an infection that lingers in our system but doesn't actually lead to any kind of healing or transforming impact either in us, or really perhaps in the lives of almost anyone or anything else around us," he said. "It just becomes a private, sort of germinating reality that never does its transformative work."
What believers actually needs is that deep infection to "settle into us in such a way that it actually transforms us," Labberton charged. "If the Gospel is able to bring together what we say and what we do, what we confess and what we actually act in the world, then we begin to have the evidence of a faith that is truly transformative."
The indictment of the church in America is a breakdown between what we say and what we do, the pastor reiterated. "It's the breakdown of our most common critique. It's certainly one of the things that is most pervasive in the Bay Area -- for understandable and entirely legitimate reasons."
He continued, "We are guilty as charged. It's so possible to make a confession of faith and not actually let it be the transformative thing it's really meant to be."
Grace should not be the end of the story, but rather the "starting point" of the story, he said, which ultimately encompasses God's desire to remake everything in unity and love and justice and mercy of Jesus Christ.
"That is an amazing trajectory," he said. "Grace is not anything small; it's something enormous and encompasses every dimension of who I am and who you are, and it encompasses every society of the world that we are a part of."
If, in fact, the witness of the church is broken because of what its members say and do, then it is understandably left without an effective witness.
"Any effective leadership has to be about the marriage of voice and touch," he said, citing Matthew 7:29. "The reason why that's true is ultimately because that's the connection that the human crisis prevents. That is the hope of the Gospel. It's seen in the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and the belief that God is coming in human flesh; that God's voice and God's touch are one thing...What Jesus said and what He did were really one whole."
The whole Protestant church is born out of the belief that humanity is saved through grace, the extraordinary and unexpected love of God.
"It would be impossible to overstate the enormity and profundity of God's generous grace to us," the pastor said. "But the early reformers were absolutely clear -- the point of this was not just our own self-satisfaction."
Instead, "It was a transformation that was meant to lead us to an entirely new way of living in the world, where what we confess and what we do is now not about slavishly earning our righteousness before God, but setting us free to be agents of such love in the world out of the freedom that God has already given to His people through Christ," he continued.
Reflecting on Jesus' relationship with socially unacceptable people such as lepers and Roman centurions, Labberton said, "We are in a society taken up by all kinds of battles of who is standing and who's not. Standing morally, standing racially, standing politically, standing religiously. People whose identity is location; we don't want to get to close, we're not sure what that relationship might look like...So much has divided the American church, especially the White American church...it has been deeply embroiled in the long history of race and racism, and the division refuses to be deeply understood and acknowledged."
He warned: "We are so closely guarding our own small communities and are completely avoiding the reality of the larger gift of the kingdom of God, which is meant to expand our capacity to love and seek justice and walk humbly with God. That is the great trajectory, but we're so caught up in our small spaces."
Labberton challenged the audience to reach out to those who come from different religions, those who hold different political views, and those possess a different social status.
"Ultimately, that's why we get to be here, because God's grace loves enemies," he said. "Turns out, enemies are home territory for grace. That's what grace is for; it enables us to be agents of justice and mercy, where we connect what we say and what we actually do."
He concluded, "The thing that will bring this extraordinary change for Christ does need to involve the verbal witness, it needs to involve the telling of the story of the good news of God's grace, but it needs to also be matched with a profound, tangible evidence that what we say and what we do is the evidence of grace...The Bay Area is an exceptional place in an exceptional time, but we are not exceptional. What is most exceptional is God's grace that saves, renews, and redeems us and calls us out of our own small, private prisons."