Brett will often ask me “what’s going on in church-land today?” Even if his question is job-related, it is a good question. What is happening in church-land? What does it mean to be church? To use the words of a song by Bill Thomas, do you “see a church with a vision; ... a church with a mission?” [Chalice Praise, 133.]
Although we are still in the season of Easter, the reading from Acts 2 takes us to the Day of Pentecost and beyond. Easter is awe-inspiring, because it invites us to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. It invites us to take hold of the promise that in Christ life conquers death. But the story of resurrection continues in the life of the new community which was commissioned to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world, as Jesus directed on the day of his ascension(Acts 1:8), and then formed into a dynamic missional church by the Spirit on Pentecost.
On the day of Pentecost, after the Spirit fell upon the church, Peter got up and preached a sermon. The people responded to his sermon by asking: “what should we do?” If Jesus is Lord and Messiah, how should we respond? Peter answered by telling them to repent of their sins and be baptized in the name of Jesus. If they did this, then God would respond by forgiving their sins and giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit. Walter Scott, who was one of our Disciples’ founders, took that response and turned it into the five-fingered exercise. You may remember that we went over this formula a few weeks back. Going finger by finger, Walter Scott shared the five steps of salvation: Believe, Repent, Be Baptized, and then you will receive Forgiveness of sins and the Gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s simple. It’s easy to remember. It’s easy to share! It’s so easy to understand that Luke tells us that 3000 were baptized that day. That’s what I call church growth.
So, now that you have this growing church, what does life in this church look like? And, even if this is an idealized vision of the church, what can we learn from these early chapters of Acts that can help us envision the future of our congregation and the church as a whole? What does it mean to be an authentic Christian community? Isn’t that what people are saying about church? They want authenticity, but what does that look like?
Even if Luke’s picture is idealized, even Utopian, is there something here that can speak to us today? Now let me offer this word of caution: this isn’t a foolproof blueprint for successful church growth. I’ve been to my share of workshops and seminars that promise great results if only we implement their plan. That’s not what Luke is offering us? Instead, Luke offers us a snapshot of a congregation that is seeking to be led by the Holy Spirit.
When we turn to verse 42 of Acts 2, we find four marks or signs of what an authentic church might look like. Luke tells us that this Spirit-led community “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Apparently this congregation, marked by these four characteristics, caught the attention of their neighbors, because God added to their number daily those being saved.
What emerged in Jerusalem was a community that centered itself in the Scriptures and gathered at the Table for prayers. They shared their possessions in common so that no one was in need, they gathered in the Temple for worship, and they shared meals together. Luke says that they “ate their food with glad and generous hearts,” and they praised God and had the good will of all their neighbors.
So, what should we do today in church land? How do we invite the Spirit of God to create in our midst a community of learning, hospitality, Table Fellowship, and prayers?
Like many of you, I’ve been the church all my life. I may not always like the church, but I’ve always been in the church. It’s in my DNA.
My earliest memories of church involve being an acolyte at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Dunsmuir, California. We were a tiny church, which my Dad led for several years as a volunteer licensed lay reader. That’s because we couldn’t afford to call a priest. That meant we had Morning Prayer most Sundays, unless a traveling priest stopped in so we could have Communion. Then, when I was in third grade we finally got a priest. That meant we could have communion on a regular basis. Since Greg Brooks and I were the oldest children in the church, we got to assist the priest in preparing and serving communion, even though neither of us had been Confirmed. Greg was a year older than me, but both of us were so small that you could only see the top of our heads popping up behind the altar.
Back then I had my heart set on becoming a fire control officer when I grew up, so I could be like my next door neighbor, Mr. Gray. Back then, I didn’t think that someday I would be a pastor. But, that first experience of being an acolyte might have been the starting point in my journey toward ordination. Yes, the Church is in my blood! That doesn’t mean I never wonder about the value or purpose of the church. In fact, there are lots of people who have decided that going to brunch is a better use of their time than going to church on Sunday.
So why the church? More specifically, why gather in this building on a Sunday morning? Why not have church online? Yesterday, a question was asked of Scott Seay about virtual church. He shared something interesting. The age group that finds virtual church the most attractive is those aged 39-50. The next group is those over 50. Apparently the group that is the least interested in virtual church are Millennials, who are already connected in the virtual world, but are looking for authentic human community. I thought that was interesting.
When we look at this picture of the church in Jerusalem, we discover that they were living in close community, sharing everything in common, so that no one was in need. We don’t see anything like this elsewhere in the New Testament. We don’t know how long this form of community existed. If you read on into chapter 5, this experiment in community goes off the rails. And yet there’s something powerful about this vision of a community gathered together around the Apostles’ teaching, hospitality, the breaking of bread, and prayers. Theologian Willie Jennings offers this thought about this early experience of Christian community. He writes this about the decision to share everything in common:
Thus anything they had that might be used to bring people into sight and sound of the incarnate life, anything they had that might be used to draw people to life together and life itself and away from death and end the reign of poverty, hunger, and despair—such things were subject to being given to God. The giving is for the sole purpose of announcing the reign of the Father's love through the Son in the bonds of communion together with the Spirit. [Jennings, Acts, pp. 39-40].
With this vision in mind, Jennings invites to consider how our “time, talent, and treasures, the trinity of possessions we know so well, would feel the pull of this holy vortex.” [Acts: Belief, p. 39]. This raises some important stewardship questions that go beyond the needs of the church budget. Yes, there are bills to pay, but is that why we give our money, our time, our talents to the church? Or, do we give this “trinity of possessions” because we fell the pull of the Spirit tugging on our hearts and minds, inviting us to participate in the task of announcing the reign of God in the world?
As we ponder these questions, how can we discern a path into the future for the church? In preparing this sermon, I encountered a set of questions that might help us decide which causes to invest ourselves in. Writing in the Feasting on the Word commentary, Timothy Hare asks four questions I think are pertinent for discerning how to invest our lives in the various causes, including the church. They are:
• Do they heal?
• Do they bring hope?
• Do they remake a part of the world so that people can rebuild their lives?
• Do they invite us to participate in God’s work of Transformation?
[Timothy Hare, Feasting on the Word, p. 427].
Those are good questions, not only when it comes to our contributions to the life of the church, but life in general. In what will I invest my life as a follower of the Risen Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, who was poured out upon the church on the Day of Pentecost?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
May 7, 2017