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Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Spirit-Filled Church: Bold (Acts 17:22-31)

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the place where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are his offspring.’

Since we too are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius and Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Throughout this Easter season, which stretches all the way from Easter Sunday until Pentecost Sunday, we are in a worship series on “The Spirit-Filled Church.” Each week, we are looking at a different glimpse of the early Church as recorded in the book of Acts, noticing how the early Church was filled with the Holy Spirit, and realizing that, in our day and time, we are called to be filled with the Holy Spirit, as well.

It is imperative that the Church be filled with the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, we can never fully live into God’s intended desire for the kind of community we can be and the kinds of things we can do. We human beings are clever and hard-working, and we can do an awful lot, but without the Holy Spirit, we will always fall short. Every time you walk in this sanctuary, you are greeted by a visual reminder of the enduring presence and life-giving power of the Holy Spirit; do you remember where it is? The red banner on the east wall. The dove is one of the most universally recognized symbols of the Holy Spirit; and red reminds us of fire, another way the Holy Spirit has shown up.

Each week, we have looked at a different aspect of the Spirit-filled church. Two weeks ago, from Acts 2, we understood this: In the Spirit-filled Church, we are unified. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, all of Christ’s followers are made one with each other. Last week, from Acts 7, we understood that the Spirit-filled Church is called to be prophetic: to see things as they are, see things as God intends, and draw attention to the distance between the two. Today, we build on that: the Spirit-filled Church is called to be bold. May we pray.

I have a confession to make to you this morning. I’m not exactly sure how to tell you this, but figured you all probably need to know. Are you ready? All right, here goes. I enjoy watching Star Trek. There, I said it! I’ll give you just a moment to let that sink in. I enjoy watching Star Trek. Now, I’m not a trekkie. I’ve never been to a convention, I’ve never dressed up in a Starfleet uniform, I don’t know the name and production date of episodes, but if it’s late at night and I’m flipping through the channels, I may just watch Star Trek. Anyone else here want to own up to that?

During the opening credits of every show, you will hear these words: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, it’s continuing mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

To boldly go where no one has gone before – that’s the part that hooks me. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Boldly going, setting out on a new journey, following the adventure wherever it leads us, not knowing what we’ll encounter, who we’ll meet, or what will ultimately happen to us, but trusting that the journey is good because the mission is right, trusting that the journey will take us, because the mission will lead us there.

Doesn’t that sound like fun? Doesn’t that sound like what church should really be about? Boldly going, setting out on a new journey, following the Holy Spirit wherever it leads us, not knowing what we’ll encounter, who we’ll meet, but trusting that the journey is good because the Holy Spirit is leading us.

If all that could happen on a TV show, why not in real life? If they could boldly go where no one has gone before, why can’t the church? If they were so clear and excited about boldness being a part of their mission, why can’t we be excited and clear and bold about God’s mission? And then it occurred to me – that’s nothing new for the church. That’s part of who we’ve been from the very beginning.

In our today’s Scripture, we catch up with St. Paul on his mission. He has been all over the Mediterranean world, preaching, establishing churches, constantly, boldly sharing the good news of God in Christ.

Some religious folks in every town disliked him. He was changing old customs and teaching new things. He told them their made-up rules didn’t really matter to God! Nearly every town Paul went to, he was run out. Religious leaders in the cities of Thessalonica and Beroea stirred up the people and incited a riot, and Paul was forced to leave. He sent word for his friends, Silas and Timothy to meet him in Athens, and there, he waited.

His time in Athens was supposed to be a little downtime, a little R&R. His first morning there, he slept late, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, and then was off with his Lonely Planet travel guide to see the sights and take in all the cultural and historical richness of this great city.

Everywhere he went, he saw altars and shrines to many gods. We know the Greeks & Romans worshipped a variety of gods, but they also picked up gods everywhere they went. They were deeply respectful of the gods worshiped in other places by other people, and would set up altars and shrines to them, as well. In fact, not wanting to leave anyone out, they even set up an altar to “an unknown god.” Just in case there was some god out there, somewhere, whose name they had never heard, they wanted to show respect to that god, too.

Like any good preacher, Paul saw the opportunity for a sermon and took it. When Paul, the apostle, the missionary, the evangelist, shared the Gospel with the people of Athens, he began with a compliment. He was sharing the Gospel with nonbelievers – he didn’t begin with an insult, by assuming they were stupid, by assuming they were somehow broken and in need of fixing. Paul starts by establishing common ground. Looking around at all the altars, he realizes that people are searching. They haven’t built these altars just for grins; they’ve built them because they’re trying to connect with the divine. And so many altars, so many shrines in one city – these people are definitely trying to connect with something beyond themselves!

And I’d argue that people today aren’t so different. People are searching for a connection with something larger than themselves. People are reaching for an experience of the divine, but we continue to reach for gods made with human hands. Some express their search in their automobile shrine, others in their excessive home, some in their bank accounts, some in experiences, some in drugs, some in sports teams – there are still lots of false gods out there vying for our attention, but their very existence and our religious devotion to them indicates that the search for the divine, the search for something beyond ourselves, is still alive and well.

Philosophers and theologians have had various ways of expressing this concept, often referred to as the God-shaped hole in every person’s heart. I think of it like the little shape ball I played with as a kid, trying to fit those yellow shapes into the various holes. You can try to cram all sorts of things in there, but there is only one thing that can fill the God-shaped hole in each of us – God. None of the false gods will do. As long as we keep trying to put the wrong thing in there, we remain empty inside.

Paul knew that the people were searching. He could tell, just from the prolific number of altars and shrines that peppered the city, that they were devout, religious, seeking people – people who were looking for a connection with the divine, people who were looking to be part of something that much larger than themselves. And Paul, rather than saying, “Hey idiots, that’s the wrong thing!” Patiently, Paul says, “You’ve been searching. You’ve been looking a long time – look at all these attempts you’ve made at connecting with the divine!” Referencing the altar to an unknown God, Paul says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). Paul tells them what they’ve been looking for is the one, true God.

Slowly, patiently, Paul continues to build common ground with his audience. Knowing them to be intellectually curious, he quotes Greek philosophers and makes Aristotelian arguments, slowly building bridges, establishing common ground, helping folks to recognize that they are all searching for the same thing.

Some have said that Paul had the gift of gab. Did you know that I have sometimes been labeled as having the gift of gab? Hard to believe, but it’s true. When I was three, my dad’s district superintendent came to worship and then was coming to Sunday lunch at our house. At the age of three, I climbed into his passenger seat and gave him turn-by-turn directions for the five-mile trip from the church to the house, while having a conversation with him about the paint color of his car, why he chose that color paint, and letting him know about the process by which cars are painted, which I had watched that week on some educational show.

Even at that age, my mom knew I was going to be one of four things when I grew up – a lawyer, a salesman, a politician, or a preacher. Her reasoning is that all four professions rely on a pretty interchangeable skill set. The product may be different, but the same basic skills are required. Most basic? The gift of gab.

Some have said that Paul had the gift of gab, and that is what gave him the ability to share the Gospel with his audience in Athens. But, you know that it was more than that. Paul had the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that is what enabled him to share so boldly. Yes, Paul understood his mission, he understood it with clarity and conviction, but that didn’t come from himself. It came from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gave him boldness in sticking to his God-given mission, to share God’s good news in the death and resurrection of Christ.

Can I let you in on a secret? The mission hasn’t changed. When Star Trek: The Next Generation started, its mission was exactly the same as the original Star Trek. Likewise, the church’s mission is still the same today as it was in the day of the apostle Paul – with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, to boldly go wherever there are people, to share God’s love and presence with them, to invite them to experience new life as disciples of Jesus Christ.

That’s the point of church. That’s why we exist. The apostle Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he was bold in sharing God’s good news. Likewise, when the church today is filled with the Holy Spirit, we are also bold in sharing that same good news.

We exist to be in mission. The church doesn’t do missions. The church doesn’t have a mission program. The church doesn’t give to missions. We don’t do any of that for one simple reason: the church is mission! The church is God’s gift to the world to boldly share the good news, to hear the message of a God who loved the world so much that he willingly took on human flesh, became one of us, and lived among us in order to reconcile us to God. Mission, sharing, reaching, giving, offering ourselves, that’s the whole point. We exist to be in mission. We exist as missions. Mission is to Church as combustion is to fire. Take away combustion, and you don’t have fire. Likewise, take away mission, and you don’t have church!

As we spend these weeks leading up to Mission Awareness Sunday on June 12, we are reminded that our sole reason for existence is to be in mission! I am so thankful to Rob Neill and our Mission team who constantly keep this in front of us and remind us what our primary purpose as a church is.

The church is on a mission. The Spirit-filled church is on a mission – to boldly go. To boldly get beyond ourselves, to boldly get beyond what is comfortable, to boldly get beyond what is familiar – to boldly go wherever the Spirit leads us to share God’s love. When that happens, that’s the church truly being the Church! It’s the church as God intends, it’s the Church as Jesus desires, it’s the Church the Holy Spirit inspires – it’s the Church of St. Paul in Athens so long ago, and it’s the Church of St. Paul in Sedgefield today.

The Spirit-filled Church is on a mission – to boldly go. Being the Church, authentically following Jesus, is supposed to be active! Church is not what happens in a building for an hour on Sunday morning. That’s called “going to church” not “being the church.” “Going to church” is a passive activity. You can “go to church” your whole life without ever knowing God, following Jesus, or having your heart filled with the Holy Spirit.

However, “being the church,” well, that’s active. “Going to church” is something you can do for an hour a week, passively sitting here. But “being the Church?” That’s something that will take the sacrificial commitment of your whole self, it will take courage, it will take bravery, it will take boldness. Being the Church requires us to boldly go wherever the Holy Spirit leads us, radically and sacrificially following in the way of Jesus, giving of ourselves to bring the world back to God. That’s what Jesus did! And for those who follow Jesus, we are called to nothing less. If you’re going to be a Christian, you’ve got to be bold.

God wants us to do more than simply “go to church.” Far too many Christians are settling for staying in the pew instead of getting into mission. You know what the pew is? It’s a bench! And if all we’re doing is warming the pew, then we’re simply warming the bench. That’s not standing on the promises, it’s simply sitting on the premises! Church is active – we are called to get off the bench and get in the game.

I don’t know about you, but I’m done “going to church.” I want to “be the church.” I don’t want to just take up space for an hour a week; I want to be part of the living, breathing, moving, body of Christ – a body with real hands and feet, a body who represents Christ in the world, a body who is serious and bold about doing the things God wants us to do.

Don’t get me wrong – what we do on Sunday when we gather for worship is still vitally important. I don’t want anyone, for one second, to think that what happens as we worship together is unimportant.

When we worship, we gather to give God the glory God is due, making God a priority and at the center of all we do. Worship is a celebration. A celebration of what God has done as told through Scripture and song, and in the lives of saints long ago and saints sitting next to us. Worship is a time to be equipped. It’s a time for disciples to gather, to be taught, to be nurtured, to be challenged, to be equipped for faithful living in the world. And, worship is a time to encourage each other in our never-ending, continually unfolding journey of becoming Christlike people in the world.

But for the church, for the Spirit-filled Church, sitting on the pew isn’t the main event. We are most fully the Church when we boldly go; just warming the bench for a hour a week won’t do it! The Church is most fully the Church when we can boldly say, “Jesus has left the building!” The Church is most fully the Church when we can boldly say, “Church has left the building!” Being the true, authentic, Spirit-filled Church requires us to be bold.

These are the voyages of the Spirit-filled Church: it’s continuing mission to share God’s presence and invite people into new life, to seek out and save the lost, to boldly go wherever the Holy Spirit leads us to go.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Spirit-Filled Church: Prophetic (Acts 7:55-60)

(This sermon is the second in a four-part series on the Spirit-filled Church.)

Filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While there were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

We are continuing in our sermon series through this great Easter season on the book of Acts. The glimpses of the early Church throughout the book of Acts show us it was filled with the Holy Spirit. Every time you walk in this sanctuary, you are greeted by something to remind you of the enduring power and constant presence of the Holy Spirit. Do you remember where it is? The red banner on the east wall. Every time you look at this banner, pray for the Holy Spirit to fill your heart and to blow through our church with flames of power.

Last week, we began this series with this: the Spirit-filled Church is unified. Christ’s followers are called to unity, and the Holy Spirit enables us to seek unity and love even with the people we find disagreeable and difficult to love. Today, we continue investigating aspects of the Spirit-Filled Church. May we pray.

The Spirit-filled Church is prophetic – not pathetic, prophetic. Most people think the word “prophetic” is about telling the future. Yesterday, for example, was supposed to be the end of the world, at least according to some. I am not going to take a cheap shot; I don’t doubt the sincerity of their convictions. I simply remind all of us that Jesus himself said he didn’t know the time, which means, in all likelihood, neither do we.

However, being prophetic has less to do with being able to see the future than it does with simply being able to see. When we say that the Spirit-filled church is prophetic, we mean that truly being prophetic requires vision – God’s vision of a preferred present and future. Or, to state it another way, being prophetic is the call to see things as they are, to see things as God intends, and to call attention to the distance between the two.

This won’t make everyone happy. A prophet comforts the afflicted, but also afflicts the comfortable.

Today’s Scripture recounts the violent reaction of a mob to a sermon by the first ordinary Christian to follow his shepherd to the slaughter. Earlier, the apostles appointed servants to the everyday task of distributing food. Stephen was supposed to be waiting tables, but as Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Once he had hands laid on his head, all the grace and power that poured into him spilled over as signs and wonders” (“Blood of Martyrs,” Home by Another Way) and persuasive, prophetic, Holy Spirit power led him into the pulpit.

Stephen’s first sermon is given before the Jewish high council, who have dragged him in on trumped-up charges of blasphemy. And Stephen doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut; the sermon is a long, rambling, theological hodgepodge covering pretty much the entire salvation history of the people of Israel. You guys think I ramble on sometimes; in one sermon, he covered over 3000 years of religious history!

Stephen preached before the very Council who had ordered Jesus’ execution. They were angered by the clarity with which Stephen articulated God’s vision, because they realized just how distant from it they were. In his sermon, he re-told the collective story of his people, reminding them of their long history of ignoring the prophets, from Moses to Jesus. He pointed out the worst moments in history when the people were far from God, and said, “Today, you are doing the exact same thing.” He finished his sermon with these convicting words: “You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels; and yet you have not kept it” (7:53).

His sermon is an indictment of pious religion that serves only to preserve and perpetuate itself rather than faithfully follow after the living, moving, still-speaking God. He calls religious folks to get unstuck – unstuck off themselves, unstuck from the way it’s always been done, unstuck from blind adherence to traditions without any sense of what God might be doing in the here and now. He calls for an end to all of this, to getting unstuck, to having our eyes open to where God’s Spirit is leading and getting on board with that.

His sermon is an indictment on returning to the familiar when God calls us somewhere new, from resisting God’s messengers who show us something we don’t want to see, from religion that is decent, respectable, and under control, to one that is wild, a little scary, and unpredictable.

His sermon is an indictment on treating Scripture as a set of infallible rules instead of the living Word of God, turning it into an idol which usurps the place of God, so that those who idolize and worship Scripture instead of the God revealed in Scripture actually reject the claims of the Gospel and crucify its Lord. He calls the people, then and now, to remember that all Scripture points to its source, the one single authority, God, who seeks the liberation of all his people. Where the Scripture has been used as a blunt weapon instead of the gracious, healing, welcoming Word of a God who desires relationship, where it has been used to burden people rather than liberate them, Stephen, ever the prophet, calls it what it is: idolatry, and empty religion that is far from the God revealed in Scripture.

Stephen sees things as they are, he sees things as God intends, and he calls attention to the distance between the two.

And did the Council thank him for showing them the error of their ways? No, they ordered his death, keeping with the indictment already leveled against them: “Which one of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” (7:52a). With echoes of the death of Jesus, Stephen prays for forgiveness for his murderers and commends his spirit to God. Mark Twain said, “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The stakes for truly following in the way of Jesus are high.

Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he was prophetic. Likewise, the Spirit-filled Church is also prophetic. A Spirit-filled church is called to honestly see things as they are, to see things as God intends, and to call attention to the distance between the two. That won’t make everyone happy. Religious people abused and killed the prophets for what they did and said. Religious people killed Jesus. Religious people killed Stephen, too. Even so, he was so clear about what he had seen, he was willing to die for his vision.

We need more visions. We should dare to dream dreams and to follow visions, even when those dreams and visions threaten our comfortable way of life. We are called to give up ourselves for the sake of the Gospel.

In the Spirit-filled Church, we are called to be prophetic. Each of us. So, be a prophet today. See things as they are, see them as God intends, and call attention to the distance between the two. You will draw attention to God, who bids us to come and die to all the things, even our religious convictions, that separate us from God. Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God.

When people look at your life, when people look at our church, what will they see? Let the whole world see the light and love of God shining through, and may our lives be the constant song of God’s glory. This is life in the Spirit-filled Church!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Spirit-Filled Church: Unified (Acts 2:42-47)

(This message is the first in a four-part series on the Spirit-Filled Church)

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.

Over the next several weeks, as this great Easter season moves toward its culmination on Pentecost Sunday, we’ll be spending some time in the book of Acts. Every year, the lectionary readings for the Easter season are from Acts, a chance to reconnect with our forbearers in the early Church. Sometimes Acts is referred to as “The Acts of the Apostles,” detailing the work and activities that were done by those first church leaders.

However, it would be much more appropriate to refer to this book as “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” because the early Church was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit was the one really at work. Every time you walk in this sanctuary, you are greeted with a visual reminder of the extraordinary power and constant presence of the Holy Spirit – that red banner right back there. Red is the liturgical color associated with the Holy Spirit because it reminds us of fire, and throughout the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit has appeared as fire, as the wind, and as a dove. I hope that every time you look at this banner, you pray for the Holy Spirit to fill your heart, and pray for the Holy Spirit to blow through our church with flames of power.

We will be looking at characteristics of the Spirit-filled Church over the next few weeks. Today, we begin with this understanding: in the Spirit-filled Church, Christ’s followers are unified. May we pray.

Linguistics has always been a fascinating topic to me. We think it comes easy, but language is something that must be learned. Think of a baby’s first word – the first time a baby can intelligibly utter that word and correctly identify something in their world – that’s a huge deal! I have a cousin whose first word was “bang!” – and that is all you need to know about her personality!

Typically, baby’s first word names an object. If you’ve never noticed, babies are totally self-centered. They are – they don’t do anything for themselves, and expect other people to do things for them. Not only that, but their first words will be objects that are most important to them: things and people that excite them and make them happy. They will name the things close at hand, things they see on a regular basis, things they enjoy.

But, early in their development, when their vocabulary is still quite small, research indicates that every baby will have two non-nouns in the first 30 words of their vocabulary – “No!” and “Mine!” If you’ve spent any amount of time with a baby or a small child, they understand “Mine!” I’m telling you, babies are selfish! Although, at the same time, if you’ve spent any amount of time with an adult, you know that they are also very familiar with the concept of “Mine!” Adults are pretty selfish, too!

Humans can be a pretty selfish bunch. Our most natural inclination is to take care of ourselves, look out for number one. We can be incredibly self-centered, which is why we pay all the more attention to the picture of the early Church portrayed in today’s Scripture reading.

The book of Acts gives us a glimpse of the early Church. It gives us a guide, a pattern, a shape for what it looks like when a Christian community is filled with the Holy Spirit, and what do we see? A collection of selfish people, each asserting their own dominance, withholding their resources, and marking their own territory, right? Quite the opposite, actually. As described in the book of Acts, the believers were all together and held all things in common. With glad and generous hearts, they praised God and had the goodwill of all the people.

It’s the greatest and most difficult miracle recorded in Scripture. Only the Holy Spirit could cause us to lay aside our inherent selfishness, biases, prejudices, and self-importance to bring us together with such a clear sense of purpose and unity. Community like that – such radical sharing – doesn’t just happen; it’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit forms a Christian community who so whole-heartedly, completely, and joyfully does precisely what Jesus wants us to do, I count that as God’s greatest and most difficult miracle.

Maybe that’s why it was so short-lived. A few chapters later, we read about a couple in the church, Ananias and Sapphira, who sell a piece of property and give the proceeds to the church, but they decide to hold back a portion of the proceeds for themselves (Acts 5:1-11) – maybe a rainy day fund, maybe a little something for the kids’ education, or to make the payments on their boat they used on the weekends up at Lake Galilee.

However, they lie to the church and say they are giving the entire proceeds from the sale of the property to the church. Caught in this lie, they are both struck dead. I love the Bible – you can’t make this stuff up!

It’s not the fact that they didn’t give everything to the church that gets them in trouble, it’s their deceitful actions in lying about what they were actually giving. They wanted people to think they were giving more and making a bigger sacrifice than they actually were. Friends, being deceitful about anything is wrong; it’s particularly wrong when we’re deceitful about what we’re offering back to God. In light of all God has done for us, for us to cheat God but desire for other people to still think highly of us – that’s just bad news! Right before they are struck dead, Peter simply says, “You did not lie to us but to God!” (Acts 5:4).

It took less than three chapters for the early Church to go from “glad and generous hearts” to selfishness and deceit. That didn’t last long! Like babies, our default is “mine.” It continues to be such a problem that St. Paul appeals “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you. It has been reported to me that there are quarrels among you” (1 Corinthians 1:10-11). Quarrels and fighting and selfishness – now THAT sounds more like church!

Sometimes, Christians get confused. We make claims over things that just don’t belong to us. The church is something we like, something close at hand, something we enjoy, and just like a baby, we claim it as “mine!” “My” church! “My” worship service! “Mine! Mine! Mine!”

Just one problem with that. The church doesn’t belong to any of us; it belongs to God! You ever watch a child throw a temper tantrum when a toy that belongs to another child gets taken away from them? Likewise, have you ever watched an adult throw a temper tantrum when something in the church didn’t go their way? I’m embarrassed for them when Christian adults like that. We can call the church “mine” all day long, but it’s God’s! Calling the church “mine” leads to quarrels, due to confusion about who the church belongs to, when we each want the church to conform to our desires instead of being shaped by God’s desires.

God’s desire for the Church is that we would be unified. On the night in which he gave himself up for us, Jesus prayed in the garden. He prayed for several hours, and one of the things he prayed was that his disciples – all of us – would be unified. “I ask . . . that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21ff).

The stained glass window behind me depicts Jesus praying in the garden. Anybody like this window? I love it too, because when Jesus prayed in the garden, among the things he prayed, he prayed for us. He prayed for our unity, he prayed that we would all be made one. On the night before he met with death, he prayed that we would be unified. The window reminds me that Jesus has been praying for us. Every time I look at this window, I join my prayer with his, that we would all be one. That we would be unified, that our hearts would be glad and generous, that we would spend our time praising God and gaining the goodwill of ALL people.

That’s the picture of Spirit-filled Christian community – where everyone is fully in love with God and fully in love with their neighbor. Verse 42 gives us the stuff that true Christian community is made of: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.”

Authentic, true, Christian community is marked by this sort of devotion – devotion to a relationship with God, and devotion to relationships with each other. Authentic Christian community is a place of unity, a place where we throw off our natural, selfish inclinations, a place where we devote ourselves to following Jesus and doing what Jesus wants us to do. A group of individuals who, as babies, mastered the word, “Mine!” was filled with the Holy Spirit and shaped into a community called the Church, and that Spirit-filled church was unified.

As evidence of this, we only need to keep reading. “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” (Acts 2:43-45).

Praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. That sounds familiar, that sounds like something else I’ve heard before – “love of God and neighbor.” Who was it who told us about the importance of loving God and loving neighbor? Seems like it was someone important – oh that’s right, it was Jesus! When he was asked which commandment in the Old Testament law was the most important, Jesus held up two instructions and fused them together as opposite sides of the same coin – to love God with everything we’ve got, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). The early Church spent their time praising God and having the goodwill of all the people; they were living out Jesus’ command to love God neighbor.

Some smart-mouthed person in the crowd said, “OK, Jesus, I’ll love my neighbor, but who IS my neighbor?” Jesus responded by telling the story of the Good Samaritan, an example of who is a neighbor and what a neighbor looks like. According to Jesus, neighbors are not only people of the same social class, of the same religion, who live in the same country, people like us, people we like, people who like us. No, everyone is a neighbor. Jesus says, “Love your neighbor,” and when we realize how broadly Jesus uses the term “neighbor,” we realize that Jesus commands us to love everyone. No exceptions – everyone is a neighbor.

That sounds simple enough, but once you start to actually interact with other people, you realize it’s far from easy. We all have biases and prejudices. Does Jesus really want me to love all people? Besides, a lot of people are just jerks! Jesus tells us to love our neighbors – well, clearly Jesus doesn’t know my neighbors. Nobody could love my neighbors! Certainly, Jesus doesn’t expect me to love those people!

There will always be people who rub us the wrong way. There’s no way that, on our own, we can love them!

That’s precisely the point. You can’t do it. I can’t do it. Nobody can. But with the Holy Spirit’s help, we can. Jesus gave us the command to love God and love neighbor, and then he promised that he would send the Holy Spirit who would help us and guide us in that task. When the Church – any church anywhere, is filled with the Holy Spirit, everyone is fully in love with God and fully in love with their neighbor. And in the 2nd chapter of Acts, the Holy Spirit has just been poured out on the followers of Jesus; they spend their time praising God and enjoying goodwill relationships among the people.

Incidentally, this is also the place Japanese cars are mentioned in the Bible. If you’re reading verse 46 in the King James Version, it says they “were all in one accord.” Considering that the early Church, this Spirit-filled community, numbered around 3000 at this point, getting them all into one accord is pretty impressive!

But there’s no way we can get together on our own. We can’t unite on our own. On our own, we keep resorting to that word we learned so early in life – “Mine!” Even so, Jesus prayed that we would be one, indicating God’s desire for the Church, and if we’re truly going to get together, it’s going to take the Holy Spirit to do it. For this reason, every Christian and every church should be constantly praying for the Holy Spirit to fill us, to transform us, to make it possible for us to do what we cannot do on our own.

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). What were the most important commandments Jesus gave? To love God and neighbor. So, in essence, Jesus is saying, if we love Jesus, then we will love God and neighbor.

But then Jesus continues. “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). So then, the Holy Spirit comes to us to empower us to do the things that Jesus said were most important – loving God and loving neighbor.

It’s about love. What are the strings of unity? Love. What are the chords that bind us together? Love – God’s love, a love that is poured out by the Holy Spirit, a love that expresses itself through praising God and personal goodwill, a love you can see on the outside when our hearts are glad and generous on the inside.

The Christian song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” The Captain and Tennille said, “Love will keep us together.” I don’t think they meant it quite this way, but we’ll steal the sentiment anyway.

Love will keep us together, and we need the Holy Spirit to recognize that. The Holy Spirit bears witness with my spirit and with your spirit, and unites our hearts. The Holy Spirit allows the Christ in me to recognize the Christ in you, and it says, “Hey, you both are on the same team!” The Holy Spirit will bear witness within us that we belong together, because the love of Christ dwells within each of us. And so, we rejoice over each other and celebrate each other – Christ is alive in the hearts of his followers, and that reality unites us!

For too long, in too many places, and over too many issues, the Church has quarreled. We’ve fought, we’ve argued, we’ve picked sides, and there are always winners and losers. Historically, we’ve spent a lot of time, we’ve spilled a lot of ink and blood fighting over things that just don’t matter that much. For what? To win an argument? To prove a point? To assert our dominance or flex our theological muscle?

What a waste. If churches would stop arguing and focus on loving, just imagine what could be accomplished.

We are called to unity. In the Spirit-filled church, hearts are united. We are in one accord. We share freely with each other, we hold things in common, we spend our time praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people, and our hearts are glad and generous. In the power of the Holy Spirit, love really will keep us together. We are called to unity; and this is life in the Spirit-filled church.

If the love of God’s Holy Spirit swept through this church, just imagine what we might look like.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Mother of All-- (1 Timothy 1:3-7)

I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and self-discipline.

I’ve got a question for you this morning. And, no lying – we’re in church! All right – how many you woke up early last Friday morning to watch live coverage of the royal wedding? How many of you found yourselves watching as much coverage of the wedding as you could throughout the day on Friday and on through the weekend?

I watched coverage of the wedding all week leading up to the big day, I watched on Friday, and I watched throughout much of last weekend – not because I’m obsessed with the UK’s Royal family, but because Ashley and I are all about stealing any useful idea we come across and making it better.

If you watched the coverage for any length of time, one of the consistent threads that emerged were the ways William and Kate were trying to honor the memory of William’s mother, Princess Diana, through the planning and events of the day. There were numerous comparisons between the prince’s mother and his bride and how the new princess might handle her royal role. There was the huge engagement ring that belonged to Princess Diana, and one of the hymns that was sung at her funeral was sung at the wedding. Clearly, Prince William wanted to make sure his mother wasn’t left out of the day’s events.

This struck a chord with me, as we are trying to figure out ways to honor my mother’s memory and legacy in our own wedding planning.

As people of faith, how do we celebrate the gifts and legacy mothers have left us? Take out your sermon notes as we celebrate the stories of mothers and what they mean to us. May we pray.

Mother’s Day was first celebrated in 1907 in a Methodist Church in West Virginia. The day caught on, and the second Sunday in May was set aside to honor all mothers.

Some churches do really goofy things for Mother’s Day – like asking all the mothers to stand, and then awarding roses to the oldest, the youngest, or the one with the most children. Instead of roses, I always had a suggestion for a practical gift for the mother with the most children—ask me about it later.

On facebook this week, several of you shared what your moms mean to you.

Tam Thompson said, “My mother taught me to responsible, independent and to keep my word. She told me I could do anything and I believed her. I owe my strength to my mother. She never stopped telling me how wonderful I was. She was cool and we could talk about anything. She was the rock in our family; a woman of amazing faith. When I grow up, I want to be just like Mick.

Christine Wyman said, “My mom is much stronger than she'll admit. She's always there with a smile and hug, ready to help no matter what. She worked hard and always had time for family and friends. Together with my dad they raised three wonderful girls and have 6 beautiful grandchildren to dote on. She's been there for me despite her health struggles and I'm very blessed to have her for a mom.”

Carrie Davis said, “My mom is the strongest person I know and the kindest! Sometimes I can be a little challenging as a daughter.....she has always stuck by me and not once ever given up on me. She to me is exactly the kind of mother I’m striving to be!!!”

At the same time, we also must recognize that Mother’s Day can be a very difficult day for some folks. That is some of the inherent conflict Mother’s Day presents – for many people, today is a day of mixed emotions or perhaps even great sadness. There are strained relationships between some mothers and children. Some people are mourning loss. Some women are unable to be mothers, or have chosen not to be mothers, or are prevented by certain complex circumstances from being able to be mothers.

And so, we are not singling out mothers today because we don’t want to add insult to injury to those for whom today is already a difficult day. Not only that, but as the church, our task is to proclaim the Gospel. The Christian Gospel tells us the good news that all of us – each and every single one of us – belong to a great big family that is bigger than any individual family – we are brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers all wrapped up together. We are part of a faith that has room for lots of mothers and fathers who have passed their faith to us.

In the African tradition, it is common to speak of the “mothers” of the church – women who are nurturers, who are wise, who are compassionate – women from whose hearts the love of God is showered on all God’s children, whether or not those women have children of their own. We would do well to learn from that tradition.

And so, on Mother’s Day, we honor women, all women, everywhere, who have made this sort of investment in the lives of others. We honor all women, whether they are married or not, have children or not, who have touched our hearts and made us who we are because of what they’ve placed within us. Insofar as they have influenced us, they are our mothers, and we honor them.

The Bible is full of the stories of people who shared the faith. What intrigues me about the Bible is how countercultural it is sometimes, because throughout the Bible, written in a time and culture where men ruled and women were regarded as little more than property, we find, intermingled with the stories of men, awe-inspiring stories of incredible women of faith.

And when you think about it, that makes sense. If you were to ask me about my family of origin, and I only told you about my Dad or my Dad’s family, I would be missing about 50% of the DNA that makes me me. Because I am not only the son of Rusty and his family and all that entails, I am also the son of Julie and her family and all that entails. I am a child of my father, but I am also a child of my mother.

Anybody have an idea how many women are mentioned in the Bible? No cheating, put your I-phones away! 188 women are mentioned by name through the Old and New Testaments, and the stories of countless other women whose names we don’t know are also told. The Bible shows us women operating in somewhat expected roles, nurturing roles, hospitality roles, mothering roles. But, the Bible also gives us stories of women leading armies into battle, women serving as judges over the people. I love the story of Jael – you can find her story in the book of Judges. She led the Israelites to victory over the Canaanites after being invited to “entertain” the captain of the Canaanite army in his tent. While he was sleeping, she killed him by driving a tent peg through the side of his head. I love the Bible! You can’t make this stuff up!

The early church was full of women leaders. Even St. Paul, who is often taken out of context to sound like he was against women in church leadership. Yet, in his letters, he frequently addresses the leaders of the various churches by name, and women are always named in these lists. Women like Lydia, a successful, wealthy business owner who was basically bankrolling Paul’s entire operation. There are women like Phoebe, who had a position similar to what we would call a pastor today. From the very beginning, Scripture embraces the leadership of women.

All these women are mothers of our faith. Their lives are woven into the tapestry that is the Christian faith; their stories are our stories, the contributions they have made continue to shape us, and we are who we are because of their witness. They are our spiritual mothers; we are grateful for their faith.

In today’s Scripture, Paul is writing to his young friend and protégé, Timothy, and Paul is grateful to God as he remembers Timothy in his prayers. Paul is reminded of Timothy’s sincere faith, which first lived in Timothy’s grandmother, and then in his mother, and now, Paul is sure, resides in Timothy.

Is there a more beautiful and lasting tribute to mothers than this sentiment? Every Christian mother’s strongest desire for her children is to see them grow into the Faith. You see, at any given time, Christianity is only one generation away from extinction. If we don’t share the faith with younger generations, then the church will die a slow, natural, painful death. The church is never more than a generation away from extinction – the faith must constantly be shared with each generation.

But, before you can share faith, before you can talk with another person about something so intimate as spirituality, as their walk with God, you have to get to know someone. Before you have the right to ask people deep probing questions about the faith, and before you have earned the right to share your faith with them, you have to build relationships.

When I was an associate pastor in Boone, one of my responsibilities was nurturing the faith of the college students who came to our congregation during their time at ASU. One of the most critical components of that ministry was our adopt-a-student program, in which interested students were paired with willing families from the congregation. I’m not going to lie to you – not every match was a winner. We had families who didn’t really hold up their end of things, and we had students who never returned the emails or calls from their host families trying to take them out to dinner.

However, in the situations that worked out, the students and their hosts built relationships, shared the faith, and became like family. Next month, I am doing a wedding for two of my former college students; I met with her a couple months ago as we were going over details for the service, and I asked her if she was still in touch with her adoptive mom from the adopt-a-student program. Not only is she in touch, her adoptive mom is being seated with the grandmothers at the wedding, receiving a very prominent spot in the day’s events. Faith was shared across generational lines.

Generations are meant to mingle. In every church that is healthy, generations cross-pollinate. The wisdom of the elders is shared with the whippersnappers, the vitality and energy of youth is shared with the old folks. And as that happens, the faith is shared across the generations.

One thing I want to see happen here is that we form intentional groups where people can build relationships and share the faith. Sunday School is one such group, but it is not the only one. I envision all sorts of groups – Bible studies, supper clubs, prayer groups, community service groups and other focal groups – groups that gather in homes and coffee shops, groups that gather on Sunday mornings and at all times throughout the week – I envision those groups being the place where sincere, faithful Christians gather to share the faith.

In fact, if you’re interested in being part of one of those groups, jot your name and phone number down on a prayer request slip and hand it to me on your way out of church today. If you’re interested in being a group leader or co-leader, in hosting a group in your home, indicate that. Don’t worry if you don’t feel your qualified or don’t have enough to offer or something like that – all I am looking for are willing and open hearts. We’ll find you the resources you need. You know if God’s nudging your heart right now, so go ahead and do something about it – jot your name and phone number down, and tell me what sort of group you want to get involved in.

On Mother’s Day, we honor those who have invested in us and made us who we are today. It is a day of mixed emotions for many people. This day, for the last two years, has been a hard day for me. I miss my mom terribly, but at the same time, I honor her legacy and am grateful for the faithful woman of God she was, and the ways she continues to influence me. And, I am also grateful for the many other women in my life who have been like moms to me. If your mom is still alive and you’re grateful for something she’s instilled in you, sometime today, tell your mom what you appreciate about her. It will be the best Mother’s Day gift you could get her.

OK – that’s not homework – that’s just fundamental to being a decent human being. Now, here’s a homework assignment for all the Christians in the room.

Everyone here should be looking for a mentor, and everyone here should be looking for a protégé. Find a person who emulates the kind of person you want to be when you grow up in Christ, and build a relationship with them so that the faith that is within them might grow in you. But then, whatever faith is springing up within you, pass that along to someone else. Everyone here can be a mentor to someone else. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, how long you’ve been a Christian, what you think you do or do not have to pass along to someone else – everyone here can be mentored by someone else, and everyone here can be a mentor to someone else.

We are part of a family – a great big family that is bigger than your family or my family. We are part of a family with lots of moms and dads, we all have much to learn from each other and much to teach each other. So get out there and share the faith – build relationships first, and then share the faith with each other. You never know what you might learn, and how your life will be better because of it. When it all comes down to it – that’s the whole point – to grow in God’s love, and to rejoice in the blessing we are all meant to be to each other.