ARE 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? As our confirmation class is learning by traveling to visit other denominations, "Church" can be a very different experience from place to place...even within the same town...even within the same denomination.
I always have to smile when I hear someone say something like, "I just want a good old Methodist service!" Well, Methodist services are about as different as they come...and have always been so. There were old time Methodist camp meetings that were so rowdy the neighbors complained, and there were high church Methodist services where not a word was out of place and no unrefined note was ever played. Some Methodists jumped up and down and clapped and rolled in the aisle, while across town other Methodists bowed their heads quietly and sang with measured dignity. Neither was a right way or a wrong way -- just different ways of all being Methodist. They were all "traditional Methodist services," and there is even more variety in Methodism today.
To me, job #1 for every pastor in a local congregation is to help that congregation be "the Church" -- not "the Methodist church," but "the Church." But what does that really mean? Does it mean adopting a certain style of worship? Does it mean adopting a certain style of worship? Does it mean having certain programs? What does it mean to be the Church? I've been struggling with that question since my first day in ministry...and I know some of you wish I would hurry up and figure it out so the worship service might stay the same for once...so this morning I thought we would look at the question together. 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. We have the gist of it printed on the coffee mugs we give out to visitors -- "Go and make disciples." 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 disciples and teach them. We might and we should go about that differently in different cultures and times and places -- trying to impose sameness or forcing discipleship are not what it's about. But the mandate is the same, to go make disciples and to teach.
You need to know that I evaluate everything that happens in this church....from worship services, to business meetings, to counseling sessions, to program decisions through the lens of that verse. If it does not support the mission of making and teaching disciples of Jesus, it is not the mission of the Church. It might be the mission of another organization. It might be quite worthwhile and fun in and of itself. But if I am trying to decide how to distribute limited resources...whether it is my time, talent, or money or the resources of the church...things that don't support the mission of making disciples and teaching will not make my priority list.. It's just fair that you know where I stand on that, and it may help you see why I make some of the choices that I do.
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 Christianity," 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 then making our church gatherings that kind of meeting.
I want you to know that I am afraid of that. I want it more than anything, but it also scares me to death, because the more I think and pray and study about it, the less I think it looks like any kind of church anybody around here knows. When John Wesley finally figured out what Church was, they kicked him out, and his real ministry began preaching in the fields. 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. 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, scarce, 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. Again, I am in liturgical trouble because this is a post-Pentecost text that I am using before Pentecost, but there you have it.
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 decided to become disciples of the risen Jesus that day. We call it the birthday of the church...which means that that rowdy bunch that people thought were drunk was the first Church service.
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.
I don't think we need to go past the first verse of this section to see how the church today has fallen away from its roots -- although not everywhere -- there are parts of the world where they get it. 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 and to each other, and to the means of making that relationship stronger. To fail to go where their Lord would be present was unthinkable, both because of their promise and because of the love that made them want to draw closer to God, even if it cost them their lives.
For the most part, we in the church today are not devoted. As Mr. Swett said, "We can't even get people to church if it rains." Or in the good weather either. Somewhere along the line, we stopped teaching that it was important to be devoted to God -- not just committed to a cause, devotion goes a step beyond commitment. Devotion has love in it. If God were writing a letter to the Church today, I think it would sound much like the letter that the Spirit to the church in Ephesus, found in the book of Revelation. The Spirit says, "I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance...yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love."
We come together each week, many of us very faithfully, but do we come rushing as lovers to meet the beloved? If you've ever been the parent of a teenager who has fallen in love, how successful have you been in keeping those lovers apart? It's that kind of devotion, that drive to be with the beloved, and that finally makes the commitment to walk down the aisle, that deserves saying to each other, "We are going to stick this out." Do we have that kind of devotion to each other and to God? Not if the rain will keep us away, or the good weather, or a late night, or some friends dropping by. We have lost our first love. But I don't want to sound like this is just a push to get more people in church, because that's not it. Devotion to God is not just about one hour on Sunday morning. 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. [Every day!] 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 response. 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. They became disciples...learners...ones who study and grow and pray. To say they were disciples does not mean they were perfect. It means they had made a conscious decision to grow, and to learn the ways of Jesus who loved them. As a result, their lives are re-oriented. Whatever they did before, now they meet together every single day. They sell their possessions. Those things don't matter any more. What does matter is the people who don't have what they need. They share meals with each other. They are sincere and so happy that others want what they have, and more 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 St. John's, 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, not one without problems, but one where your heart can sing even in the midst of problems, 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.
If you have been here for these three years of my ministry, you know you can count on one hand the number of times we have had altar calls, but you can add one more this morning. Whether you do this by coming to the front or by staying in your seat doesn't matter, but what does matter is that anyone who wishes has the opportunity to make a decision to turn toward Jesus and toward the life that He offers.
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 now -- in your heart, in your seat, with your tongue, coming to the front -- 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. I invite you, in your heart or on your feet, to come.
Sermon © 2002, Anne Robertson
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