Sunday, October 11, 2009

Christian Community - Acts 2:38-47

(This is the first of a three-part series on our new mission statement at St. Paul United Methodist Church. Our mission is to be a Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. On October 18, we will talk about valuing all people. On October 25, we will talk about becoming deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ.)

Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

At a recent testimony service in a nearby but unnamed church, one elderly lady shared this story:

The other day I went up to our local Christian book store and saw a ‘Honk if you love Jesus’ bumper sticker. I was feeling particularly sassy that day because I had just come from a thrilling choir performance, followed by a thunderous prayer meeting. So, I bought the sticker and put it on my bumper. Boy, am I glad I did; what an uplifting experience followed!

I was stopped at a red light at a busy intersection, just lost in thought about the Lord and how good He is, and I didn’t notice that the light had changed. It is a good thing someone else loves Jesus because if he hadn’t honked, I’d never have noticed. I found that lots of people love Jesus! While I was sitting there, the guy behind started honking like crazy, and then he leaned out of his window and screamed, ‘For the love of God! Go! Go! Go!’What an exuberant cheerleader he was for Jesus!

Everyone started honking! I just leaned out my window and started waving and smiling at all those loving people. I even honked my horn a few times to share in the love! There must have been a man from Florida back there because I heard him yelling something about a sunny beach.

I saw another guy waving in a funny way with only his middle finger stuck up in the air. I asked my young teenage grandson in the back seat what that meant. He said it was probably a Hawaiian good luck sign or something. Well, I have never met anyone from Hawaii, so I leaned out the window and gave him the good luck sign right back. My grandson burst out laughing. Why, even he was enjoying this religious experience!!

A couple of the people were so caught up in the joy of the moment that they got out of their cars and started walking towards me. I bet they wanted to pray or ask what church I attended, but this is when I noticed the light had changed. So, grinning, I waved at all my brothers and sisters, and drove on through the intersection. I noticed that I was the only car that got through the intersection before the light changed again and felt sad that I had to leave them after all the love we had shared. So I slowed the car down, leaned out the window and gave them all the Hawaiian good luck sign one last time as I drove away. Praise the Lord for such wonderful folks!!

This morning, we’re talking about Christian community. Today is the first in a three-part series of messages about our new mission statement, even though this mission statement won’t be official until we approve it at our charge conference immediately following worship. Do me a favor – stick around for charge conference and approve this mission statement so my preaching for the next three weeks will make sense. You should also come to charge conference to brag to our DS about what things are like here at the new and improved St. Paul.

You see our new mission statement right on the front of your bulletin. The mission of St. Paul United Methodist Church is to be a Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. Today, we’re focusing on the first aspect of that – being a Christian community. It’s a phrase that means something different to different people. May we pray.

In today’s Scripture reading from the book of Acts, we are given a glimpse of Christian community as God intends. These few verses provide us with a beautiful picture of what church life is supposed to look like. The classic Christian folk song says they will know we are Christians by our love – can’t you just feel the love in the community that’s described? A place devoted to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to breaking bread together, and to prayer. A place where everyone pools their resources, and gives freely and abundantly to anyone among them with need. A place where much time is spent together in worship, and everyone feels at home around everyone else’s table as they do at their own. This is the picture of Christian community – but oh how different this looks from what you find in so many churches.

They will know we are Christians by our love. Instead, we’ve substituted everything else. They will know we are Christians by our t-shirts, or by our bumper stickers! They will know we are Christians by our committee meetings or our building! They will know we are Christians by our fundraisers! They will know we are Christian by our gossip, or by our narrow-mindedness, or by our judgmentalism!

It is difficult to identify so many churches as Christian communities because they have gotten busy doing other stuff. In so many places, all of this other stuff has become more important, is taking more time, and using more resources than any of the things that actually contribute toward being a Christian community. Sure, the love of God, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit are in there somewhere, but sometimes it’s awfully hard to find it.

Churches drift away from being the sort of radical, intentional Christian community described in today’s text because they forget to keep it central. It’s called mission drift, and it happens in all sorts of organizations, not just churches. Unless the organization is constantly and consistently reminded of its purpose and organizing around it, most organizations will lose sight of what their business is. Churches experience it when we allow some other thing or combination of things to come in and be more important than being a Christian community.

Phyllis Tickle says that every few years, the church needs to have a rummage sale. Every few years, the church needs to take stock of what its doing and why it exists, and get rid of the junk. Too many churches that I’ve seen fail to do this, and their ministry model looks about like their building does – tired, worn-out, cluttered, antiquated. Too many churches begin as movements, have become monuments, and are on their way to becoming mausoleums.

Friends, we have got to be clear about why we’re here. We need to know what our purpose is. We are, first and foremost, a Christian community. I think so many churches fail to grasp this fundamental concept, and that is why so many ministries are floundering the way they are. That’s why the church is losing step in society, and why an increasing number of people, particularly young people, are checking out of churches even faster than the old people are dying off.

We are, first and foremost, a Christian community. I want us to be very clear about what that means, so let me break it down even further.

We are Christian. Everything we do is about Christ. Jesus is at the center of everything we do. If it’s not about Jesus, we shouldn’t be doing it. It’s amazing, though, that in so many churches, Jesus is the last person that some people are thinking about.

I know of one church out in the country that is named for a particular family. I’m not going to name it. After several decades of decline and almost dying, the church began to experience new life. Things started to turn around, and once again that small country church became strong and vibrant again – the sort of place that was making a real difference in the lives of those who worshiped there, and those people were making a real difference in the life of their community.

The family for whom the church was named called the pastor one day because they wanted to have a day of special celebration and recognition during the worship service for some of the departed members of the family. Against his better judgment, the pastor reluctantly agreed. The family began to put together all sorts of plans that were more about bringing glory to their family than to God. The pastor had enough and told the matriarch of the family that enough was enough and that they wouldn’t construct the worship service just to honor her father. She got a little huffy, and said, “You do understand that my last name is the name on this church, don’t you?” The pastor said, “Lady, the only way we’re gonna do it your way is if your last name is Christ.” Sixty years ago, her family had built that church – that much is true. For the last thirty years, her family had almost single-handedly caused its decline, because they thought the church was a monument to themselves, not a living, breathing Christian community. She wanted to make it all about her, and she was really the last person that anyone should have been allowing to dictate the church’s future direction.

We need to make it about Jesus, not about ourselves. If any church fails to make itself about Jesus, there is no way that church will outlive its current membership.

The church isn’t about us – it’s about Jesus! Sometimes, I think we’re sorta like the donkey that took Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. You’d better believe that donkey was feeling pretty special. You know that donkey was starting to strut as they walked through the city. “I am looking good! All these people lining the road, out here to see ME work my magic!” People lining the street, all shouting, “Hosanna!” The donkey was like, “Hey, that’s not my name, but thanks anyway!” We can become like that donkey, forgetting that it’s not about us. In fact, sometimes we’re just the ass that takes Jesus where he needs to go.

I hate to break it to you, but the church isn’t about any of us. It’s about Jesus.

In August, students from ASU were here doing some refurbishment work in our Education Building. One of the students lives in Charlotte, and she brought her 10-year-old brother to help with some of the work. He found out I was the pastor, and while we were painting together, he asked, “Pastor, do you own this church?” My first inclination was to respond, “No, actually, I think this church owns me!” But instead of explaining the complicated way property is held in our connectional system, I just replied, “This church belongs to Jesus.”

Friends, we are a Christian community, and this church belongs to Jesus! It doesn’t belong to any group, family, or individual. It doesn’t belong to any of us – it belongs to Jesus! The driving missional force of everything and anything we do needs to be the things that Jesus wants to do, far and above the things that any of want to do or don’t want to do. The church belongs to Jesus! It doesn’t belong to the trustees, the finance committee, the worship committee, the administrative council, or the choir. It belongs to Jesus! It doesn’t belong to the pastor, no matter how young, good-looking, or exceptional he is. It belongs to Jesus! Even though he’s sitting right here, it doesn’t belong to the DS. It doesn’t belong to the bishop or the conference, or the denominational hierarchy. It belongs to Jesus! It doesn’t belong to the Blackwells or the Bridges, the Byrums or the Davidsons, the Ferrebees or the Fields, the Hedbergs or the Hinkles, the Jacksons or the Kidds, the Lightners or the Littles, the Neills or the Richards, the Smiths or the Thompsons, the Walkers or the Warrens. It belongs to Jesus!

If, for even a second, we think the church belongs to anyone or anything other than Jesus, we will fail to be the church God desires for us to be. In fact, if we think this church belongs to any of us, we have already ceased to be the Church. We are a Christian community, and we belong to Jesus. The driving missional force behind everything we do should be to do the things that Jesus wants us to do. As a Christian community, let us stand together and tolerate no agenda other than Christ’s, because we belong to Jesus.

Not only are we Christian, we are a community as well. We are a place of relationships. We are a place of belonging. We are a place where strong bonds are built and dense networks are developed.

I know that some have looked at the community described in today’s Scripture reading and thought it provided a formula for strengthening the community aspect of a congregation. But can I let you in on a secret? The elements of Christian community in today’s text are descriptive and not prescriptive. It’s not, “Go out and increase your devotion to teaching and fellowship, break bread more often, and pray together, and then you’ll be a stronger community!” Rather, the opposite is true. When a Christian community is strong, it naturally devotes itself to teaching and fellowship, its members desire to break bread, and they constantly pray for one another. These things are not the strategy to become a Christian community; they are the fruit of a Christian community.

When we enter into community, we enter into solidarity with each other. Sort of like in marriage vows when people promise to take each other in better or in worse, in community we promise to take each other just as we are, warts and all. We come together and we share in the good times and the bad times, but most importantly, we do it together.

The incarnation of Jesus Christ was evidence enough to us that God wants us to live in community. In the incarnation, God moved into our neighborhood. But God didn’t just move into the neighborhood, God moved into the hood. God moved into one of the places of the worst suffering at the time. God was born to an unwed teenage mother, in the middle of a genocide, in a territory under control by a repressive government – the worst, nastiest, scruffiest, other-side-of-the-tracks corner of that territory. God moved into the worst possible part of our human existence, because he so desired community with us. This is the heart of the Gospel! God cared so deeply about us humans that he entered into the worst we had to offer, and he took it on as his own.

Our expressions of the Gospel must have the same sacrificial characteristic.

In community, we come and we build relationships, and we share. We move into each other’s neighborhoods, even the messy parts and the ugly parts and the difficult parts. We confront each other’s needs, and we seek to meet them. The heart of the Gospel is that God moves right into the middle of our lives, and our proclamation of the Gospel needs to take Jesus right into the middle of the places he is needed. This is where lives are changed; this is where Christian communities are formed. They don’t come from master plans or strategic sessions, they come from ordinary people who decide to center their lives on Jesus, and then share life with each other.

As your pastor, I will keep telling you the stories of Jesus and providing opportunities for all God’s people to have encounters with him, because I know that such encounters change hearts from the inside. When hearts are changed, behaviors are changed, communities are changed, lives are changed.

Christian communities happen when our hearts are changed. Christian communities happen like in our text, when the crowd responded to Peter’s preaching and received the Holy Spirit. Christian communities happen when, in the words of John Wesley, we find our hearts strangely warmed. Christian communities happen when Jesus’ priorities become our priorities, and we each surrender our own wills to his, and when we think of our brothers and sisters with more importance than we think of ourselves. To such communities, the Lord adds daily.

Friends, I pray that three months from now there are dramatically more people worshiping at St. Paul than there are today. But I pray it, not because numerical growth is a goal in and of itself, but because numerical growth is evidence that indeed, we are the sort of Christian community God has called us to be. Growth is not our goal. Growth is simply a byproduct of a Christian community, a group of people who continue to grow into the knowledge that they belong to Jesus and to each other.

This is the first and fundamental part of our mission – to be a Christian community. My prayer is that we will continue to have encounters with Jesus that change us from the inside. My prayer is that we will continue to find our hearts strangely warmed. My prayer is that we receive the Holy Spirit in fresh and powerful and dramatically new ways. My prayer is that we will become the kind of community God desires for us to be, that the Lord would add to our number daily, because they really will be able to tell that we are Christians by our love.

We are Christian community. We belong to each other, and together, we belong to Jesus.

1 comment:

  1. These things are not the strategy to become a Christian community; they are the fruit of a Christian community.
    That is very important. If we are a community, we WANT to hang out together!

    We have this kind of community among the English-speaking expats here. We work together, go to cafes together, gather in apartments on the weekends to watch movies and play cards together, call to check up on each other, translate and navigate for and advise each other, vent to and encourage each other. Surrounded by a sometimes hostile foreign culture, we need each other. Not everyone shares interests or experience or an age bracket or are a good match of personalities, but we all are living a common enough experience that we are bound together.

    We all live IN this culture and actively engage it, but we also commune with others who understand the side of the world we're looking from. It is vital and empowering.

    So should the church be.

    Great reminder. And nice use of ass.