WE THE CHURCH?
When you become the pastor of a church, one of the very first things you realize is how very little you know...about the Church, about God, about people, about anything. Suddenly you are there, put in a congregation to lead and to serve and to help them be "the Church." Well, what does that mean, exactly?
"Church" can be a very different experience from place to place...even within the same town...even within the same denomination. Does it mean adopting a certain style of worship? Does it mean having certain programs? What does it mean to be the Church? There are, actually, two questions that I think we can ask of the Bible, and the two scriptures for this morning address each of those. The first is, "What did Jesus intend for the church to be and do?" and the second is, "How did the first Christians actually do it?"
The answer to the first question, to me, is as plain as the nose on your face, and the United Methodist Church has codified it into our Book of Discipline. It can be found at the end of Matthew's Gospel...the last words that Jesus says to his disciples before his ascension. "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."
If you ask me, there is no church of any denomination that needs to spend time writing a mission statement. It is the same for every church around the globe...make, train, and deploy disciples. That is the purpose and mission of the Church. Now there are as many ways to go about that as there are churches, but the core process of the Church is the same in every place and in every denomination. If disciples aren’t being made, trained, and deployed, you might have a great organization, but you don’t have a church.
The second question, "How did the first Christians actually do it?" is a bit harder to get at. We don't have a lot of records from the first century church, and the ones we have are sketchy at best. During much of that period, Christians were actively persecuted, so you don't find a lot of published tracts about what Christian worship looked like and how they organized themselves. But we do know there was a church of some sort, and that people were willing to die rather than give it up.
A man named Ben Swett, who began a group called "First Century Christians," put the question this way, "What kind of church meeting would bring me out at night if the government was trying to kill me? Today we can't even get people to church if it rains. What was it? What was there, in those early Christian meetings that we don't have? What did they do that we don't do? –- and what do we do that they never heard of? What has been added, and what has been lost?"
The answer to those questions is the answer that will revive the church. We won't revive it by simply going back to the old hymns or by finding the right new ones. We won't revive it by playing the organ more, or by cranking up the volume of the band. We won't revive it by making it quiet in the sanctuary or by standing on the pews and shouting our prayers. We won't revive it by repeating the right creed or by eliminating all ritual. We will revive it when we can answer for ourselves, "What kind of church meeting would bring me out at night if the government was trying to kill me?"...and adjusting our lives accordingly.
The more I think and pray and study about that question, the more nervous I get. When John Wesley finally figured out what Church was, they kicked him out, and his real ministry began as he preached in the fields and streets of England. He was one of the lucky ones. Across history when people have figured out the answer to that question, often they were burned at the stake. When I pray and seek answers, what I hear are things that would disturb the system, and I find myself saying things like, "God can't you be a bit more orthodox so I won't get in trouble? Can't you be a bit more traditional, so people won't get upset? Can't you at least fit it into sixty minutes?" And what I hear in response is, "Do you love me? Then feed my sheep."
And so I invite you to turn to the most radical book in the Bible...the book of Acts. The book of Acts is one of the few, sketchy sources that we have about how the very first Christians set out to be the Church. For this morning, I just want to point you to a few verses from Acts 2.
Earlier in the chapter, the Holy Spirit came down on the disciples, who were gathered in Jerusalem with thousands of others for the Jewish feast of Pentecost. It came like a rushing wind with fire and the disciples started talking in languages they had never learned but that were native to others who were gathered there. God showed up, and the group was so rowdy, people said they were drunk. Nobody really knew what was happening or how or why, but the disciples knew that the power of the Spirit of God was behind it all. Peter stood up to preach, and at least 3,000 people decided to become disciples of the risen Jesus that day. We call it the birthday of the church...which means that the earliest example of a church service we have is a rowdy bunch of disciples who were doing such strange things that people thought they were drunk.
The very next thing we hear in Acts is how those thousands of new Christians behaved in the days, weeks, and months that followed...how they ordered themselves, how they lived together, and what was important to them. As I looked at this passage over this past week, I found it hard to get past the first part of the first verse..."they devoted themselves." By conscious choice, they gave over their devotion...they made a commitment. Devotion was the foundation of the earliest Church.
Devotion is a strong word. It isn't..."I think I might like to..." or "If nothing else better happens I will..." or "If it won't cause me any trouble, I will..." Devotion is simply..."I will, no matter what." Devotion is what parents are supposed to have to their children and married people for their spouses. Devotion is, "For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part...I will." Devotion is a commitment made in response to love.
The very first Christians "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." It wasn't that they invented a meeting so compelling that people would come out to it even at risk of their own lives. The first Christians were not devoted to an organization or a style of worship. They were devoted to Jesus, to each other, and to the message they were called to proclaim. It was a mission for which they would risk their lives.
Do we have that kind of devotion? I’m not just talking about whether we are devoted enough to come on Sunday morning. Devotion to God is not just about one hour on Sunday, although it can certainly be reflected there. It is about how we live every minute of our lives, and it is a conscious decision that we make. Listen to what the devotion of those first Christians looked like:
"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
The Church was born as a response. God shows up in the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, and thousands returned that love in return. But they were not fickle or naive lovers. They realized that love is sustained in committed action, and they made a conscious decision to devote themselves to practices that would enrich their relationship with God and their relationships with each other, giving them the strength to fulfill their mission of making disciples and making the kingdom of earth as much like the kingdom of heaven as they could.
They became disciples...learners...ones who intentionally study and grow and pray. To say they were disciples does not mean they were perfect. It means they made a conscious decision to grow and to learn how to become more like Jesus. As a result, their lives are re-oriented. Whatever they might have done before, now they meet together every single day. They sell their possessions. Those things don't matter any more. What does matter are the people who don't have what they need. They share meals with each other. They provide for the poor. They are sincere and so eager to invite others into the relationship that more disciples were added to their number every single day. They are devoted. They are in love.
Whatever else it might mean to be the Church, I think it first means to make a decision to be devoted -- not to this local church, not to the United Methodist Church, but to Jesus. And like the early Church, that decision doesn't come out of the blue. It is a response--a response to what Jesus has already done for us. That's what Peter explained when he got up and preached that sermon. That's why I'm up here every week telling the old, old story--not so you can guess the Bible category on Jeopardy, but so that you can realize that the same Jesus who lived and died 2000 years ago is alive now and shows up here every Sunday, just because He loves you.
Making the decision to be devoted to the God revealed in Jesus will bring you a life you never knew was possible. It is not a life without problems or even tragedy, but one where your heart can sing even in the midst of the trial--a life so entwined with the life of God that you absolutely know it will never end, even if you go through a physical death; a life so filled with love that you will be driven to seek out more, even if it means selling all you have and giving to the poor, even if it means going out at night when the government is trying to kill you. The wonder is that it is a life available for free, but it is a life we must consciously choose for ourselves.
Some of you may have already made the decision; some may still be investigating. But there may be some who have dabbled in faith long enough and are ready to be devoted to God, to be committed to learning how to live as Jesus taught. If that is you, I invite you to make that commitment to God in your heart now. It doesn't matter how it happens. But until it happens, your life will be the same old rat race and church will be the same old wrangling over this creed and that hymn and who gets credit for what. It can be different; it should be different, but it has to start with a decision and a commitment that we make in our lives, for our community, to our Lord. We are the church, or so we say. Is it true? Amen.
Sermon © 2007, Anne Robertson
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