Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 7, 2017
As churches are declining in membership and mainline denominations (including ours), they have either already or appear to be on the verge of splitting over issues like the inclusion of ordination for LGBQTI members. As buildings age and budgets flail, we ask ourselves what does a healthy church look like in our time. Pastors and leaders worry constantly. There is a palpable sense of low morale in the New York Annual Conference and burn out among clergy – not the most appealing job these days. The demands are high and salaries are moderate at best with little staff support and most on call 24/7.
And then, there is the political divide that has infiltrated our nation as never before and the struggle to proclaim the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ without being “political” or too partisan and saying it in a way that does not offend too many people on too many Sundays.
Yet, the broken still find their way. The hungry look for food that nourishes the soul and spirit as well as the body. The tired and weary come looking to lay down their burdens and catch a glimmer of hope through a word or song. The fearful listen for a prayer that might connect with the anxiety in their lives and how to make sense of it all.
People still come and I think the Church – capital “C” – will survive no matter what. Somehow, I think it will. Yet, we must continue to ask these relevant questions: What does a healthy church look like in which all are welcome and all are able to express themselves regardless of how different their opinions and ideologies are? How do we forge ahead and uplift the essential message of God’s inclusion of all people and have enough remaining to keep the doors open? What is the portrait of a healthy church – a growing community where we all exist together in faith?
Our New Testament lesson gives us a glimpse of what the early church looked like from the book of Acts. Is this the model we should be aiming for? Is it outdated? Practical? Still relevant?
Many scholars label the book of Acts as “the acts of the Holy Spirit” as it provides a sense of how the Spirit functioned among those early believers immediately after the Resurrection amid so much doubt and confusion; bewilderment and hopelessness. Their leader after all had been crucified and surely, the Movement would have appeared dead at best. But if we read and listen carefully, I think we might find some clues that will help us with our own good work.
Remember that we are still in the Easter season that takes us up to Pentecost. The word “Church” was barely used in the New Testament. A more accurate reference is the Greek word, ekklesia which means “the called out ones”. It describes the people and not the building. In early translations, the ekklesia meant the assembly, the congregation or believers, the gathered ones; those who have set themselves apart to be God’s presence and light in the world; called together as the actual body of Christ. Though we come to be edified and built up, comforted, and nurtured, we are then pushed out into the world for our greater purpose God has in mind.
First, of all, Luke tells us that they were filled with a sense of awe and wonder. My brothers and sisters, have we lost that sense of awe and wonder and reverence? Do we really believe there is a God and do we expect God to be with us? Are we anticipating the surprising and miraculous ways that God might want to transform our thinking, actions, and attitudes?
We need something that is above and beyond ourselves; signs of the holy and miraculous in our lives and world. What does God say about this? The Holy Spirit was and is the presence of God among believers in every age so that we might be relevant in every age. What are the issues in this age that need our attention and how is God at work through the Holy Spirit calling us to respond in a way that includes the well-being of all? The Holy Spirit is a spirit of truth and action; not passivity. The Spirit moves upon the ekklesia transforming people and the body into the image that God has designed and wants to use for a particular time.
Secondly, the early gatherers (the ekklesia) cared about one another. They cared about one another and they cared about their shared mission and purpose. They came together on one accord and they were united in purpose and mission. A new standard of economic empowerment was ushered in as these new believers tended to one another. The rich gladly sell their property and share with the needy. They had all things in common. Did they all agree on everything? I can hardly imagine such a thing.
But that work and shared purpose that they had in common was more important than their individual ideas and biases – opinions and differences. Luke tells us that they united and they shared everything. They sold their property and possessions and distributed it among themselves.
Can you imagine a sense that all that we are and all we possess – all of our gifts and all of our opinions are for the common good; each person doing their part giving what they can and what they have? Some have money – or more than others. Some have time – or more than others. Some have gifts and talents and creative ideas and experiences. Some have good will and a positive attitude but all give and all benefit; and none feeling more entitled than the other. This is a powerful image for the church and if we all embraced it; it would radically change a whole lot of things. Everybody offers something – and not minimally – not just enough to get by and enjoy the perks and benefits – but sacrificially. We ask ourselves: is our giving of whatever we have in proportion to what we receive or feel entitled to? This give and take of shared life for the common good is key to having and sustaining a healthy church and make no mistake; we all have something that we can give for the sake of the body.
And third, they met together regularly for breaking of bread with gladness and simplicity. They came together on a regular basis around a shared table in spirit of hospitality and welcome. And they reminded themselves that they are the actual “body” of Christ broken.
Did you pay attention to the hymn we just sang: “They’ll Know we are Christians by Our Love.” We ask ourselves – do the poor, the homeless, and marginalized know that we are Christians? Do they know? Do our brothers and sisters of the LGBTQI community know that we are Christians by the way we treat them and include them? Love and include them with full rights and benefits as everybody else? Do immigrant families who simply want a fair chance at a good and decent life know that we walk in solidarity – hand in hand with them because they are human beings and worthy of basic privileges? Parents of black youth disproportionately shot down by the people sworn to protect them without just cause – do they know that the “assembly of believers” love them and feel their ache, and anxiety, and sorrow? Do the young people know? People with tattoos and long hair; and those who walk the night streets of our city because the only way they know how to make a living is to sell their body; the most precious thing they have. Do they know that “we” love them too?
We know that this kind of “love” costs doesn’t it? This kind of love is radical and revolutionary; it goes against the powers that be and it is not without price. It requires something of us to love in this way; to be this kind of Christian.
We’ve started this midweek Holy Communion service on Wednesday at 12:30. I’m not altogether sure why God laid it on my heart. All I know is that it has been an act of obedience and a meaningful experience. People come. Not a lot. But for those who do – it is a reminder that we are all one. Stranger and member; some we will never see again. But at this table all welcome.
And get this: Luke tells us that the Lord added to the church daily. So much for church growth! The Lord able to the church daily and people were being saved daily.
I think this is a model worth immolating. May it be so.