Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Converted Community

Acts 2:14, 32-39

We’ve reached the half way point in our Lenten journey, and I believe that God is doing something important in our midst. With Gay Reese as our guide, we have opened ourselves up to being transformed as individuals and as a congregation. I do think it is appropriate to say that we’re becoming a converted community. That is, God is unbinding our hearts and minds so that we might be open both to the future and to the community that lies just beyond our doors.1

There’s a new spirit and purpose in this congregation. Not so long ago our congregation was wracked by conflict and division. We were broken and many were angry. Over the past few years God has been healing those wounds and preparing the congregation for something new. That new thing is beginning to happen. Oh, you may only see the first shoots sticking out of the ground, but it’s happening right before our eyes. As this new thing grows and develops, it will move us beyond these walls and out into the community.

These past few weeks we’ve been hearing testimonies about what God is doing in the lives of our people. We’ve heard from Elmer, from Tamela, from John and now from Rial. Each one told a different story of faith, and each of them invited us to consider our own story.

This morning’s text takes us back to the very birth of the church. It invites us to consider what it means to be church, not just for ourselves, but for those who might come into our midst. If someone were to wander into this place, seeking a church home, what might they find?

1. Called to be a Converted Community

On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell upon that group of believers in such a powerful way that the walls couldn’t contain the joy and the celebration. The people in the city gathered and they listened and they asked: What does this mean? Then they asked: How can we be saved? That is, we want to experience what you have. And Peter said to them: Repent, be baptized, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then you will be part of this converted community.

But what does this mean? I find part of the answer to this question in a statement being used by our broader Disciples church. It might not be as memorable as that of the UCC’s – “God is still speaking” – but I think it helps answer this question. That motto is this: “A movement of wholeness in a fractured world.” I like this statement because it reminds us that even though our world is broken, there’s hope of finding healing and wholeness. Of course, even as we make this proclamation, we must remember that we’re broken as well, and therefore in need of God’s continuous work of healing.

It’s as Paul put it: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” And by and through the Spirit, we get to participate in this work of reconciliation. As Paul writes: “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:20). That’s what Peter was doing that Pentecost day, when the Spirit fell and the church was born. As members of this converted community of Christ, we do the same thing, for the Spirit is present with us as well.

2. The Verdict is in: New Members, seekers, are looking for:

We are bearers of good news, but how might we carry this word into the world? Or to put it another way, how might the seeker after God hear this word? Now it would be great if we could read minds and hearts, and know what everyone was looking for before they ever darkened our doors. Of course, it’s not as if we haven’t tried – but more often than not, when we talk about this topic, we usually focus on programming and style. That is the human side of the equation, but there is another side that we need to consider.

When we focus on the human side, we’re tempted to compete with the spectacles that the world offers. The other day I was reading an essay by Jason Byassee entitled “God Does Not Entertain.” Now his focus was on film and whether God speaks to us through film, but in that essay he also raised the question about our tendency to try to compete with the spectacles that the world offers – it can be high culture or pop culture, but too often we think about our work in such terms. It doesn’t matter if we’re trying to replicate the rock concert or the opera house, if the message of God’s grace gets lost in translation, if all that we do is provide a “cleaner” form of entertainment, will lives get changed?2

Entertainment may work for a while, but ultimately that’s not what people are looking for. Gay Reese suggests that the people who are seeking out the church sense that something is missing in their lives. They’re looking for meaning and purpose. Music and programming have their place, but that’s not what we’re about. The key to our “success” is living out our faith with authenticity. People are tired of hypocrisy, and so they’re looking for a converted community – a community of faith that lives out that faith not just for an hour on Sunday, but throughout the week.

3. What Kind of Community is God Looking For?

If the seekers are looking for authenticity, what is God looking for? Now, I hate to say this, but I don’t think that God is interested in the quality of our music or even the quality of the preaching. What God is interested in; what God requires of us, can be found in these words from the prophet Micah.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8).

Justice, mercy, humility, these are the qualities that God is looking for in a church. It’s not about burnt offerings or even non-burnt offerings – its about living faithfully in the world as God’s people.

When we think about the kind of community that God would want us to be, it might be helpful to consider what Gay Reese calls a trinity of relationships. Using the doctrine of the Trinity as her starting point, she suggests that a congregation is healthy when our relationships with God, with the people in the church and with the people outside the church are healthy. If any one of those relationships isn’t healthy, then the church isn’t healthy.

As we think about our calling to be a converted community of faith, we need to understand that more and more people are walking away from institutional forms of religion. The fastest growing segment of the population defines itself as nonreligious. Now many of these people consider themselves spiritual, just not religious. And young people are the most likely ones of all to describe themselves in this way. Now, there are lots of reasons why this is happening, but part of the reason why so many people are walking away or not even paying attention is that they’re tired of negative, judgmental, anti-intellectual, and coercive religion. I understand their feelings, but I also believe that it’s possible to find places that aren’t like that – places that have experienced true conversion. These places offer a different sense of faith. They give people room to figure out who they are in relationship to God. They welcome doubt and questioning. This is what I believe God is calling us to become – knowing that we must be converted again and again – each new day – as the Spirit falls upon us once again.

1. Martha Grace Reese, Unbinding Your Heart, (Chalice Press, 2008), esp. chapters 3-4.

2. Jason Byassee, “God Does Not Entertain,” in God Does Not . . ., D. Brent Laytham, ed., (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), p. 128.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Third Sunday of Lent
March 15, 2009

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