Sermon by Wesley White, Interim Pastor
In recent days we have become reacquainted with bombs. They have gone off in London and 52 people are dead. We are scared. They went off in Iraq and the latest statistics show 8,434 civiilan deaths from bombs dropped from the sky. We are ignorant or proud. The threat of death in not a new one. It was true for Jesus and his followers more than 2,000 years ago. A question: How we might constructively deal with bombshells?
The scriptural response to bombs is Church.
What does that mean for us today? What challenges does being Church put before this congregation?
It means more than recognizing that this is one hot, hot day and we could probably easily challenge you to pass a motion to put in air conditioning. But Church is more than an issue of comfort or staying the same. It has to do with how we deal with the realities in people's lives.
Some have had the bombshell of poor health go off in their lives. Some have had the bombshell of a loss of a job go off in their lives. Some have had the bombshell of a death in the family go off in their lives. All of us are facing the bombshell of our own mortality.
How did the early followers of Jesus make it through the bombs of their times and what might we learn from them?
Well, we have a hint about this in the response to Peter's first sermon after the Spirit of Pentecost brought people to listen to the Wonders of GOD identified in their own life experience, their own language.
It is reported that those who gathered in response to the movement of a Pentecostal Power did four key things that saw them through the dangers of their day. Listen again to verse 42: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." [NRSV] Hear how that is paralleled in verses-46-47: "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...." [NRSV] When two such similar verses show up so close together we know an important point is trying to be made.
Bombs and bombshells have gone off all through history. We even mark historical eras by their explosions. Didn't you learn history by noting war after war?
The followers of Jesus, both new and old, intuitively understood that there is a better way of living and marking the passage of time than the sequence of wars. They did something about it we call Church. [Admittedly, even the Church has sometimes worked contrary to the teaching of Jesus and participated in a war mentality, but here I want to show a different way.]
The first Pentecostal converts commited themselves to the apostles' teaching. The apostles' passed on what they had received from Jesus, who in turn had passed on what he had received from the Jewish prophets and his relationship with GOD. Down through the years this teaching has been passed on, very much like a relay race.
We have been the recipients of this tradition but two serious challenges need to be put before us as a result. The first of these challenges is that of devoting ourselves to "the apostle's teachings" in a community fashion, no longer allowing our easy individualism to simply reflect on the scriptures, one-by-one. The tradition the early church put into motion was community study. The first challenge is to move toward small group experiences here where the apostle's teachings can again come to life.
The second of these challenges regards who we are going to pass the apostles' teachings on to. If we are not engaging our faith with the people we meet and inviting them to come to be related to God and nurtured in discipleship this great gift of Church will become in-grown, watered down, and avoid transforming the world around us from being bomb-happy to being a healing-balm.
Beyond this teaching process, as important as the scriptures and the tradition are for us, lies the important matter of fellowship, of building a community of faith that can help each part through the bomb-shells and pit-falls of life. None of us are up to the issues of security by ourselves, even a single nation is not up to significant security in the midst of an insecure world as JFK said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
When we are in fellowship with one another we are much more ready to do what we have to do, including parting with some of our resources, so we can help our brother or sister with whom we have shared a meal, time, and life. Fellowship is the glue that helps us attend to the apostles' teachings when we might find ourselves fighting over this part or that part of the scriptures or the traditions.
The challenge here is to find ways in our current day to have a deeper experience of one another. It will mean giving up some time in our already overly busy lives. It will mean being disciplined about spending time with one another and intentionally carving out time for each other. We have a built-in opportunity this week with a picnic and a guest missionary coming on Thursday. I hope we will see most of you there. The challenge is how we might continue experiencing one another when we don't have such a built-in opportunity. Will we go out of our way to be with one another or is this congregation a once-a-week for an hour and gone type outfit? If we are serious about building a building that is more conducive to being in than this one is, we will need to be about building relationships that are worth having, regardless of where we are.
Thirdly, we hear of the first Church going out of their way to share communion with one another. Just as their paying attention to the apostles' teachings were helped by their fellowship, even so fellowship can fall apart at a moment's notice when a harsh word is spoken or an innocent act is attributed to a bad motive. We can get ourselves in all manner of fixes in our relationships. Think about your family or this congregation. The earliest church knew that if they were going to hold so many different life experiences, so many different cultures and languages together they would need something larger than interpretations of scripture or fellowship gatherings.
For them it was the communion bread and cup that kept them from splintering apart. We have one bread, the servant Jesus, and one cup, the forgiving Jesus, that allows us to serve and forgive one another rather than lord it over and run one another out.
In today's individual oriented culture we often hear that communion loses its meaning if done frequently. The early church knew that communion was the basis of their fellowship. Communion kept them remembering Jesus and not their own sensitivities. Communion is a matter of faith and not limited by our feelings.
A challenge to us is to find ways of teaching and experiencing this larger picture of communion so it is not just a ritual that sometimes has a little meaning, but mostly not. How can we invest ourselves with remembering Jesus in the midst of the bombs and bombshells that go off all around and within us? The Church says, communion. Communion, remembering Jesus, is a source for glad and generous hearts in a world that is scary and tells us to isolate ourselves for Security's sake.
It has been a hot, hot day and you've done very well to stay with this as long as you have. Hear then the fourth challenge to us from the earliest church. Prayer.
Just as the apostles' teachings need to be done together and fellowship and communion are inherently communal, so prayer needs to be done together. The promise is: where two or three are united in prayer they will see God. We need to talk about what we are praying about and we need to practice praying together. I am thankful that more of our teams are not first looking to me to pray on their behalf, but are picking that up and going with it themselves.
There is still the challenge, though, about how we share prayers. We need to revitalize our telephone prayer tree and our computer prayer line only touches a few of our members. Even joys and concerns time on Sunday brings only "safe" prayers to us. We are being challenged to relearn prayer so it is not just Sunday School thanks that's a good starting place for the kids, but as we mature we need to mature in our praying and that means maturing in praying together.
When we offer an opportunity to learn more about praying, will you come or think you have something more important to do? The Korean Methodist Church, one of the fastest growing churches in the world, credits its phenomenal growth to community prayer that has people getting up at 5 in the morning, coming to church to hear a passage of the apostles' teaching, and to pray together. People then return home to sleep until it is time to get up for the rest of their day. This is unAmerican, but it is very Christian. We are challenged to consider how much time and effort we put into prayer and to grow our common prayer life.
For a hot day this has been a very full sermon. I probably would have been well-advised to bring something lighter and shorter, but this is the sermon I wanted to bring on the anniversary of my being here a year, with two to go, and to say this is an agenda for the next two years that will shape our thoughts about everything from building plans to float decorations, from funeral dinners to picnics, from Sunday School for a few to a small group experience for everyone.
Here, then, the challenge to us as a congregation:
The promise is that in these four gifts we will find the blessing GOD desires us to live out.
To see this another way, follow the diagram.
The people of Pentecost, both listeners to and speakers of the Wonders of GOD were reached and received, reaching and receiving. The cycle of Church begins. Peter's sermon related them all to GOD. The response of the 3,000 was to be nurtured in discipleship through their daily disciplines of devotion to the apostles' teachings, fellowship, communion, and prayer. From here they were sent out to extend the church, to live as disciples, sharing the Wonders of GOD they received. Additional folks were reached and received and added to those growing toward wholeness. And the cycle continues.
We are challenged by this to evaluate where we as a congregation have our strengths and weakness, our opportunities, and to get better. We are challenged as individuals to extend the church into our daily living at work and school and volunteering and families and friendships.
What a joy it is to be a part of a congregation that is working together at learning GOD's desire for us that is larger than any one of us or any group of us or even all of us together. We are, indeed, "the church together."
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The New Interpreter's Bible, "Acts" by Robert W. Wall
Quest for Quality in the Church: A New Paradigm, by Ezra Earl Jones, Discipleship Resources, 1993
We are the Church, Hymn by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh, 1972