May 7, 2017
Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A
My sermon preparation this week included a series of text messages from my sisters that began on Thursday with the really bad pun “May the 4th be with you.” For those of you who might miss this reference, the fourth of May is known among a certain population as Star Wars Day. Then another sister replied, “And also with you,” to which I responded, “Hey, that’s my line!” And then I recalled one of my daughter’s elementary school friends, who was a bit of a Star Wars geek in her day, saying that the Force is like duct tape: it has a dark side and a light side, and it binds the universe together. Finally, the last sister helpfully suggested that I adopt a Star Wars theme for this sermon. Well, I’m not going to go there. Some of you may be relieved, and others of you may be a little disappointed. But this exchange of text messages did cause me to reflect a bit on the enduring attraction of the Star Wars story. After the initial excitement of the original three episodes, and what seems to have been a bit of a slump in the three prequels, the universe of Star Wars seems to have got a new lease on life with the release of Episode 7, the upcoming release of Episode 8, the prequel story of Rogue 1, and the death of Carrie Fisher, who played the role of Princess Leia.
Stories like Star Wars speak to us because they draw on the deep myths of Western culture. And by myths I don’t mean stories that aren’t true. I mean stories that convey profound truth in symbolic form about the holy, about identity, stories that convey some truth about mystery, about the universe and our place in it. I would suggest that the Harry Potter stories could also be described as contemporary myths. Both Harry Potter and Star Wars are about the struggle between good and evil, the importance of personal choices in determining the outcome of that struggle, the discovery of identity, and the need for friendship and community in supporting the protagonist or hero in fulfilling his task.
It’s interesting and significant to me that Harry Potter’s world of magic, along with other mythical universes like Narnia and Middle Earth, are creations of writers who espoused Christian faith. (I don’t know if that applies to George Lucas, but he drew from the same mythical well.) As Christians, we find our ultimate answers to the same themes of the struggle between good and evil, our true identity, the importance of choice, and the need for community, in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. It’s the community piece that I want to focus on today, and I’d like to begin by asking you a series of questions.
What draws people to church? What drew you to this church? What keeps you coming? What is it that people are looking for in a church? What is it that attracts people, invites them, and makes them want to discover more? There are many different answers, but I can think of at least three. Each of them has their positive side, but also their potential drawbacks.
Many people – not all – are looking for some kind of reference point, a benchmark, a measuring rod in making decisions about both the ordinary things of daily life, and about the great issues of our day, whether political or moral. Many people – not all – are looking for guidance, for leadership. They want to know what the church says about the issues facing our society. They may even be looking for advice, although they may choose not to follow the advice given. A potential drawback is the possibility that people may abdicate responsibility, avoid tough issues, and passively follow along with the “official” position. At its best, though, the church can be a place that invites people to wrestle with big questions within the context of a community of disciples trying to discern the faithful way. I think more than simply advice, people want tools. They want the church to help them with the resources to make their own decisions. So people want education, teaching, opportunity for reflection and discussion, for challenge and growth. And they expect the church to respect the decisions they make, even if individual members find a decision hard to live with.
A very large element in a person’s attraction to the church is the search for community. We all need a place to belong, somewhere that feels like home, a place where we count, where we are valued not for what we have or what we can do, but simply for who we are. One of the first things by which a local Christian community is judged is the friendliness or openness of its members, how readily it welcomes newcomers and invites them to become part of its ongoing life and work, how readily too it respects and values the uniqueness of each person’s story and pilgrimage.
What are the potential pitfalls in the search for community? For one thing, we may find a community so comfortable and congenial that we discover we have placed ourselves in the middle of a collection of the like-minded, and the challenge to grow and to change has all but evaporated. Then, too, there is the danger of coming to expect too much of the community, having unrealistic expectations, so that when it lets us down, as will inevitably happen from time to time, we feel disappointed and betrayed. We need to remember that the church is a community of ordinary people called together and formed by God, not a club for professional holy people. We are all on the journey to wholeness or holiness or abundant life. The spiritual journey is not a smooth upward slope; it has peaks and valleys, times when we feel like we’re making great progress and times when we seem to be going backwards.
Many people look to the church as a place of refreshment. They come to church to be relieved of their problems, to air their anxieties and guilt, to receive forgiveness, support, and sustenance. Then, with batteries recharged, they head back out for another week of day-to-day living. We do need the nurture, care, and concern of the church, especially in times of difficulty. This aspect also has its potential shadow side, as we sometimes expect the church to be an escape, a haven of sanctity an island of stability in an ocean of change. Once again, we are bound to be disappointed when we discover that the church is no refuge from anything, that the problems of the world and individuals follow us through these doors, moreover that the church itself has changed and is changing. And change always brings with it both opportunity and loss. You have to let go of one thing to embrace something else.
So then, people approach the church for many different reasons, looking for many different things. At its best, the church reflects the portrait drawn for us in the reading from Acts, our first reading for today. What we have here is probably as much a theology of the early church as a history – that is, an idealized picture of what the church should be. It is characterized by four things: communion, prayers, breaking bread, and apostolic teaching.
Throughout his public ministry, Jesus showed no interest in developing a formal organization. His mission was to reform, not start something new. As an aside, it’s interesting how often that drive to reform ends up starting something new – witness the Protestant Reformation that is observing the 500th anniversary this year of Martin Luther’s theses. The followers of Jesus, though, through their use of baptism, were keen to have people “join up”. Those who believed belonged to a group. They were bound together in a deep communion by the Spirit that held them together. It was a natural extension of their common faith and experience that they should hold property in common. Sharing goods and livelihood is a powerful binding force. You know two partners are deeply committed to each other when they both put money into a joint bank account. The goal of the Jerusalem community’s sharing was that no member might be completely impoverished. The result may have been that most members were relatively poor. Several of Paul’s letters refer to the poor Christians in Jerusalem for whom he is collecting money. The willingness of gentile Christians to share their resources with Jewish Christians in Jerusalem was visible proof of the communion that bound all the believers together. The sharing of goods was a testimony to their common faith and common salvation. Jesus had come to be the one shepherd over the one flock.
Praying for each other was another aspect of communion. Jews who came to believe that Jesus was God’s Messiah remained Jewish in their worship, attending the Temple and using the prayers they had always known. In addition, these early Christians adopted Jesus’ own prayer style, modelled in what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Eventually, prayers that were explicitly Christian developed, which centered on recalling and praising what God had done in Jesus.
Yet another aspect of communion was breaking bread. Acts shows us that the early believers went frequently, even daily, to the Temple to pray at the regular hours. The first Jews to believe in Jesus experienced no disruption in their worship pattern. The breaking of the bread – an ancient name for the Eucharist – was in addition to, not in place of, the sacrifices and worship of the Temple. It took place on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, in the homes of believers who knew the presence of Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
The final strand in the forging of communion was the teaching of the apostles. All Jews held the scriptures, consisting of the Law, the Prophets and what were termed the Writings, to be authoritative. So early Christian teaching was for the most part Jewish teaching. When Paul took his message to the cities of the Roman empire, he began by attending the local synagogue and summarizing the story of Israel, then announcing its fulfillment in Jesus. Points where Jesus modified or differed from the Law were remembered and passed on. Christian preachers made their own applications to situations that Jesus had not encountered. Jesus’ own teaching was passed on and expanded by the apostles. All of this in time became the nucleus of a second set of scriptures – what we now call the New Testament. As another aside, the Old Testament is not simply an interesting prelude to the really important New Testament, nor is it the false contrast between the Law in the Old and the Gospel in the New. The First Testament is the basis of the Second, and to be fully faithful we need to be familiar with both.
What, then, do people look for in the church? Belonging, nurture, and guidance. What did the first Christians do? “They continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.” These words appear verbatim in our baptismal covenant. We renewed it at the Easter Vigil; we renew it every time we baptize a new member; we renew it every Sunday when we repeat the Statement of Faith or Creed together. Every time we renew that baptismal relationship with God and the church, we promise to continue as an active member of the worshipping community. What distinguishes the church from any other institution, organization, or collection of people is its worship. We are the people called together by God to re-tell the story, to recall and re-present the death and resurrection of Jesus, to receive and pass on the abundant life of the one who laid down his life for the sheep. At the font and at the altar we discover our true identity as God’s holy people. At the font and at the altar we are shaped for mission.
There is, of course, a force that binds the universe together, but there is no dark side to it at all. That force is Love, and it is pure goodness and pure light. It is the love of the Creator God, who is pure goodness, light, and life. It is the Love that came in its fulness in Jesus, the gate and the shepherd, who knows each one intimately and calls each one by name, who leads the flock to security and nurture, who lays down his life that we might have life abundant. That Love binds us, the flock, in communion with him. As we, today, gathered around this table, continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers, may we be fed that we may share with others the abundant life we have received from him. Amen.