A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
May 7, 2017: Easter Four
Acts 2:42-47 & John 10:1-10
In the weeks after Easter, there is a tremendous amount of information for us to reflect upon and understand. Easter changes everything! Easter confirms that the God of heaven and earth, who formed us in our mother’s womb, is deeply invested in who and what we are. Easter confirms that the chains of sin and death are broken where they once held us captive. Easter makes it very clear that life is God’s desire for all people. Easter teaches us that when death and betrayal and suffering hunt down the people of God, God is willing to stand in our place and fight the battles that we cannot. And this is to say nothing about the one who rose from the grave on Easter, Jesus Christ. In the weeks after Easter he keeps popping up in unexpected, and even uninvited, places. He broke through locked doors in order to send the disciples out his name. He let Thomas touch his hands and his side. He showed up along disciples who were overcome with sorrow and grief, showing us that showing up is the best thing we can do sometimes. Easter changes everything! And it will continue to do so because God will not be contained.
The Scripture lesson appointed for today from the Acts of the Apostles continues to tell us about the miraculous and mysterious world after the resurrection. The book of Acts is the origin story of our faith. Within its pages are contained the trials and tribulations, the joys and the celebrations, the sermons, meals, and disagreements of the first followers of Jesus Christ. Act is the equivalent 23 and Me genetic tests, minus the saliva sample. If you want to know how the church of Jesus Christ started, if you want to learn about the early church’s forms of worship, if you want to find a place of solace in the fact that the church has struggled with similar issues throughout all of history, simply read the book of Acts. Where we drop into the story today, we are being asked to consider what Easter means for our life together as a community.
What we see happening in the early church is a really beautiful thing. The first Gospel revival has just taken place when the Holy Spirit blew into the house where they were gathered. People are bewildered and amazed and perplexed, and the crowds think the disciples are throwing a huge, open-air drinking party. The whole thing is so loud and so large and so out of control. There are people from all over the region and each person is speaking in their native language, but they all understand each other. Finally, when the noise gets to be just too much, Peter stands up and gives the kind of sermon that most preachers can only dream of giving. He weaves in the Hebrew Scripture with Jesus’ life, helping his audience to understand this one who came and died and rose from the grave. And he’s yelling—Acts says that he is pleading with them—and three thousand people join the young Christian community. This is a wild and wonderful way for a church to get its start!
As we read on in the book of Acts, we see that the emotional revival that started the church eventually calms and the disciples get to work. That is where we are today in our reading. The disciples, after the wild entrance of the Holy Spirit, are doing theology, speaking words about God, devoting themselves to the teaching of those who sat at the feet of Jesus. They are living together, enjoying fellowship with one another, sharing what they have according to each person’s need, and they are breaking bread together. This could mean either of two things: either they are breaking bread as part of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or they are breaking bread as part of their daily meals. Either way, they are doing it together. They are also praying together, offering their joys and their sorrows to God, not because it changes God but because it changes the one praying. This is a community of believers that is fully realizing the impact Easter has on their life together. These new Christians are literally giving everything away so that no one is hungry or homeless and they are doing it with a spirit of generosity and praise. These new Christians are living with goodwill towards all people. And they are growing every day.
This story of the beginning of the Church is just glorious. This is the Church alive. This is the Church on the move. This is the Church that is alive in the reality of resurrection!
But let’s tell the truth to ourselves and to one another and to God. This is not always how I experience the church and I’m pretty sure you could say the same. I’m absolutely sure that the church in the book of Acts looks very different to those who have been cut out or left behind or excluded from the body of Christ. When we think about the church on the move, how often do we think about good news proclaimed to the poor or giving away all that we have. Instead, we think about heavy offering plates and standing room only and superstar preachers who attain celebrity status. This isn’t a modern problem, either; looking back we see church-sponsored genocide against groups of people, church-sponsored power struggles with governments and nations, and church-sponsored oppression and injustice, all of which has been done in the name of God. This truth is painful and easy to avoid, and it reaches into the heart of every believer.
For many, though, it gets even more personal than this. Maybe it happened in an individual church community. It was the moment that the pastor said that the women could do children’s ministry or women’s ministry but could not preach. Or the day that the music director was asked to step down because they were presenting music that was too repetitive or too showy or too ethnic. Or it could be the time the congregation chose sides and fought their brothers and sisters using the Bible as a weapon, until one day half of them took their toys and went home—left—gave it up and called it a day. We could name even more of these moment, in individual church communities or in larger church denominations, and the truth would be the same. We have all been in churches full of corruption, greed, abuses of power, and abuses of people. We have all been in churches full of gossip and backbiting, churches that tell one person that God loves them and another person that God hates them, churches where voices are silenced because of gender or race or sexual orientation. There are times when we, the church of Jesus Christ, do nothing but live and relive the excruciating pain and agony of Good Friday, over and over and over again.
The Church, if we believe the book of Acts, is supposed to be the answer to our wounds, but instead, many sit here and in other churches this day, and many, many more at home, because church is the reason they are wounded.
‘Wounded’ is a good word when we consider the not-so-Easter-side of the Christ’s church. A wound is ordinarily a physical problem—a cut, a bruise, a break. The Apostle Paul says that the Church is a body—the Body of Jesus Christ. The individual members of the church are the eyes and ears and hands and feet of Christ on earth. The diversity of roles and personalities and gifts and problems are meant to work together, not against each other, in showing Christ to the world. We are one body, many parts. We are diverse, as diverse as the stars Abraham and Sarah saw when God made them a promise, and we can be united. Its just that we can be united…we are called, by God, to be united. We are called to enter into intimate, interdependent relationship with people who are like us and ridiculously different from us. The lungs stick together because they are alike and have the same function, but they cannot function without the heart, which has a different function and form all together. The hands work together because they have the same parts and skills, but they cannot function without the brain. The church is supposed to live and work in the same way. When the church doesn’t, or can’t—when we don’t, or can’t, or chose not to—the whole body is wounded. It is just like a broken arm or a severed artery…when one part suffers, the other parts suffer with it.
This is where we have failed. Somewhere we forgot that one part of the body cannot function without the others. Somewhere along the line we forgot, intentionally or not, that no part of the body can function on its own. We’ve been fooled, or have fooled ourselves, into thinking that the brain can get up and walk around without the legs and feet; we have been fooled, or have fooled ourselves, into thinking that one lung can do the work of two; we’ve fooled ourselves in thinking that there are parts of the body that can be eliminated all together. Somewhere along the line we forgot that it is God who creates us; somewhere along the line we forgot that it is God who calls us by name and we have little to no say in the matter. At some point in our history a line was drawn between those that read the bible literally and those that read it as inspired, between those who vote red and those who vote blue, between orthodox and progressive, and between so many other things, and we were fooled into thinking that the two shall never meet. At some point in our history we took it upon ourselves to say who is and who is out. And most tragically of all, we came to believe that our salvation is dependent on what we do or don’t do and not on the wild, unconditional, and irrational love of God.
And yet. And yet, the news does not end with bad news. It never ends with Good Friday when God is involved. The Good News is that it is not up to us. We do not need to be perfect in order for God to work with us, with the church. We do not need to have our stuff together before God starts to move in and around us. God is still working, at this very moment. The Church is God’s beloved creation, and God is not done working with us and for us. God is not done forming and re-forming the structures and institutions and individual members that make up the body of Christ. The Spirit is at work when other people fail us, when we fail ourselves, and when we fail other people. This is what Easter means for our life together.
Here’s something interesting that we might miss in the book of Acts if we just read a specific passage here and there. If we move out from what we’ve read today and take a look at the early church from 10,000 feet we see a young church that on a wild ride, leaping off into the world empowered by the Spirit. We see a church loving people because of who God created them to be, and not regardless of who they are. We see a church preaching the good news of Gospel with their words and with their actions. But we also see a church broken apart by embezzlement, conflict, racial exclusion, sexual discrimination, self-destruction, and infighting. Just read it and you’ll see for yourself.
And yet. And yet, here we are today. We are still moving. The Church is still moving. The Spirit is still moving in and around us just as it did in and among the earliest followers of Jesus. The horrible, heart-breaking failures of the early Church didn’t stop the movement of the Spirit and they did not stop the risen Christ. For over two thousand years, the good news that the blind will see and the lame will walk has been reaching those who need it most. Our heartbreaking failures cannot and will not stop the grace of Jesus Christ from continuing to move in us and through us and with us. The main character of the book of Acts is not Peter or the early church as it multiplied and multiplied and multiplied and it is not Paul and his missionary work; the main character of the book of Acts is the Holy Spirit and the way the Spirit forms and re-forms communities gathered in Christ’s name. The main character in our lives today is the same: it is the Holy Spirit sweeping through our lives, whether we want it to or not. It is sweeping through the church throughout the world at this very moment even when we can’t see it. I is making all things new. For sure, my brothers and sisters, not even the gates of hell can stop it!
Friends in Christ, this is the good news of our faith. It may seem right now that the church is heading towards its death; it may seem that Christianity is becoming a hobby of a few instead of a way of life for all; it may seem like division will ultimately kill the church. But hear this: Christ is risen! God’s story did not end on Good Friday and ours will not either. In our time of waiting, of searching, for the new and resurrected life, we must do not lazy. We must not sit around and wait for something to happen; we must not imagine that someone else will do the work we must do. Let’s get to work right now. Let’s consider what it is that brings us together and not what tears us apart. Let’s strive to make the church an alternative community where there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but where all are one in Christ Jesus. Let’s remember that the lungs cannot function without the brain, that the hands need the heart, and that even the little toe has a purpose. Let’s continue to be devoted to the teaching of the apostles. Let’s continue to fellowship with one another. Let’s continue to break bread together, at this table and at the tables where we have our meals. Let’s not give up on each other. And above all, let’s continue to pray with and for one another.
Jesus, the good shepherd of the flock, has called us each by name into this wild and wonderful, and broken, place called the church. Listen to his voice and obey his call. And you will have life, life in abundance. Amen.
I am deeply grateful to Laura Truman for her creative and meaningful interpretation of this text, which I quote heavily in this sermon.--APL