This was one of those weeks that brought forth all the emotions of life out of me. I’ve been sad. I’ve been happy. I’ve been nervous. I’ve been pleased. I’ve been anxious. And I’ve been relaxed. That seems to be the state of a Methodist pastor during General Conference season.
If you followed my posts or seen the news, this week, our tradition of faith has seen better days. The world unfortunately saw us at our worst. We focused on our divisions between conservatives and progressives. We became disinterested in doing ministry together. We lost our way. Yet, in the news of the discord over issues that have defined our nation – such as human sexuality, which we will talk in more detail about on Wednesday – came word that approximately 70 percent of our congregations did not have a profession of faith or a baptism in recent years.
We are a church that is struggling. We are a church that has lost its purpose. We are a church that is dying.
In recognizing this, we are tempted to look to the past to sing of the glory of better days. To talk of days when our church was more accepted by mainstream society. To talk of days when pews were filled and the ministries that took place in those times reached new people for Christ. To talk of just surviving until we shut the doors one last time.
Yet, in a time when it is so easy to come before you in despair for the future of the church I stand before you with hope. I have a hope for the church because we are people who believe that death is not the final story. We are a people who believe in resurrection, of life that comes forth from the pains of death. We do not look to the cross as the final story. We look to a tomb that is empty and announces that better days are here and are coming. I have hope today, because I believe better days are coming for the church, for our church, and for the mission of God’s kingdom.
Out of death of what will arise, I believe, is a return to what makes the church the community of fellowship of people who are committed to Christ and who desire to make the world a better place. We’ve lost our way, yes, but we can find it again by getting back to the basics of what makes the church not an institution of religiosity, but the foundation of hope that shares the message of Christ’s love to a broken and hurting world.
As we reflect upon this, it is here where I believe God has a great sense of humor. This series was planned out well before the moments of the past week. It is perfect timing, almost coincidental, that as we dream of the church’s resurrection that our text from Acts 2:42-47 gives us the imagery of what that church might look like. What may come from the death of what we have known as the church is the resurrected church that is devoted to teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer.
Before we get into this, let’s take a moment to look at where we are in our journey through Acts. We’ve moved to the aftermath of Peter’s first sermon on Pentecost Sunday. A sermon that led to more than 3,000 coming to faith. Luke follows up on this moment by giving a summary of the early church’s activities. He will use these summaries throughout Acts to describe the growth of the church and to lead into a new period of activity.
What Luke gives are four basic aspects to the church. Think of them as something like the walls that are built on the foundations of our faith in Christ. They are what gives our faith expression and helps to build a lasting commitment to our love of God in all things. Without these things as the basic parts of our lives, it is easy to fall away from our commitment to God. Without these as part of our church, it is too easy to no longer be defined by our devotion to God and to be defined by our own desires and whims.
The first basic building block, if you will, is teaching. The more than 3,000 people who came to faith after Peter’s sermon needed to be encouraged to grow and to continue in their faith. They needed someone to teach them. For that they needed the Apostles who were the ones who knew the truth that came from Christ and were called to share it with others.
Teaching is about discipleship. It is about growing daily in our knowledge and love of God. Often, we think that once we accept Christ then that is it. That we do not need to hear a sermon, be part of a Bible study, or even pick up the Bible on our own. Yet, if we do not commit ourselves to what it is that we believe we will never put it into practice. Without a daily commitment to discipleship, we will be taught by the message of the world that will lead us further and further away from God’s love even as we sit in our pews each week.
The second block, Luke tells us, is fellowship. Now, when we think of fellowship in the church we immediately think of potlucks. You cannot go wrong with a good potluck, much like the one we had last Sunday. I believe if you leave a potluck hungry then you have no one to blame but yourself.
That is what we think of fellowship, but it is not entirely what Luke is thinking about. Sure, there was the commitment to dining with one another. The early church ate daily with each other and had that practice as a basic core of their life together. Fellowship, though, goes much deeper. It is about a connection with one another that shares life with each other.
We cannot journey upon the road of faith alone. There is no such thing as a “me and Jesus” faith. This is an “us and Jesus” faith. Faith that is absent of a community of believers is a faith that is not truly lived out. We need each other. We need men and women, seniors and children, parents and empty nesters, conservatives and progressives, and so many others. This community enriches our life and reminds us that we are never alone. We have each other. We need each other.
The third block that Luke gives us is communion. We hinted on this a little bit ago, but communion for the early church was not a monthly act that was attached to the end of a service to remind us of Jesus’ love and life within us. The meal was about their commitment to eat together and be reminded of God’s love together. They saw every meal, together, as a meal of communion, because in the eating together they were reminded of Christ’s last meal with the disciples and the commitment to remember Jesus’ words through our life and love.
For us, communion is a meal of remembrance that teaches and inspires. There is something deep and holy when we take the bread and take the cup. We encounter the Living Presence of Christ that inspires us to go forth to take the life of Christ into the world by our words, actions, and deeds. It is not just an act we take. It is meal that we live into and changes our lives and perspective upon the world.
Finally, Luke gives us the final building block as prayer. We spent a lot of time talking about prayer during Lent. As we looked at the Lord’s Prayer, we focused on how prayer was a central aspect of Jesus’ life and how prayer encourages us to live into our prayers each day. Prayer strengthens us and calls upon God’s mighty actions into our world.
Prayer matters because we believe that heaven and earth are part of God’s creation. That as we pray we desire for heaven to come upon the earth. We pray seeking God’s will and desires in the places of struggles, weakness, or discernment. And through our prayers we are determined to be used by God to be a voice of hope in the very places that we are praying about.
Each of these foundations of true Christian community are needed. We want to think that we can do without one or two and have a good church. A true community needs strong teaching, devoted fellowship, a rich experience of community, and deep prayer life. This is what we are called to be committed to, each and every one of us. We cannot pick and choose what we want for the church. If we want a vibrant and true Christian community, then this is what will be at its core.
To be honest, many people today believe they do not need the church. That you can have faith without the church being a part of their lives. Some of you may have that feeling today. We’ve created that believe among people. We’ve created it when we make church to be more about rules than faith. We’ve created it when we make church to be more about what you cannot do than the freedom that comes from Christ. We’ve created it when we are more focused on ourselves than in reaching out to all people. We’ve created it when we are more focused on preserving a building, an institution, than reaching the brokenhearted and the lost. It is no wonder the church in America is dying, today, when we are no longer committed to the things Jesus calls us to be committed to: teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer.
Yet, I have a hope because out of death life will come. Out of the death of a church that has lost its way will come resurrection of a new church. A recommitted church. A church that is beyond anything we can ever imagine. A few months weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, I said God is in the business of making all things new. It is not just true for us. It is true for the church.
And we have the great privilege of participating in that recreation and resurrection of the church. Let us do just that. May we commit ourselves to the teaching of God’s love. May we commit ourselves to one another and not just in this time on Sunday morning. May we commit ourselves around the table of communion. May we commit ourselves to a vibrant prayer life.
As we do, just watch what God will do. God will bring forth life out of what appears dead to the world. There is no need for despair. There is hope. New life is coming for the church, and we are part of it.