Sermon for April 13, 2008
Sermon for April 13, 2008
Acts 2:42-27, I Peter 2:19-25, and John 10:1-10
Grace and Peace. Let's focus on the first lesson which is a description of life in the early church. In the beginning, church life was so exciting that it was described as awe inspiring.
First, what is does the word "awe” mean? Awe, the dictionary says, is an emotion of mingled reverence, dread and wonder. Wherever there is awe in Acts the spirit is also present. We preserve this connection in our phrase awe-inspiring. Awe comes from the power to inspire.
Awe has both a wonderful and an apprehensive side. In previous versions of the Bible the word was translated “fear.” But these days, words denoting fear have become more difficult for us to use in a religious sense; and it is better for us to translate fear of God as awe in God’s presence. Awe maintains the mingled reverence, apprehension, wonder, excitement and joy.
Verse forty-three of the first lesson declares that church life was once so amazing that awe came upon everyone. This may seem strange to us because we live in a time when church life is more likely to be described as boring, or underwhelming, or irrelevant, or even hurtful, close-minded, un-caring, or not worthy of trust, or perpetuating outdated notions. These days, awe-inspiring is not the term that usually is used to describe church life.
I think this lesson honestly challenges each present day congregation to address the issue of awe. We may not be awe-inspiring, but we can at least honestly reflect the values of Jesus who brought us into being as a congregation. That may or may not inspire awe. But at least we would be true to our calling as Christians, and we would be focused on our strengths rather than lamenting all the negativity that can easily overwhelm anyone involved in contemporary Christianity.
So what are our values? What is our calling? Actually, the activities of the early church described in this first lesson echo our own congregation’s organization around four things: learning, fellowship, worship, and care.
Now it must be said, that this passage from Acts is a highly idealized picture of the early church. Everything is wonderful in this passage.
But in honesty everything was not wonderful in the early church. You do not get very far in the letters of Paul before you sense the underlying tensions, conflicts, and controversies that marked life in the early church. Look at John 10, the third lesson today. At first this seems to be all about Jesus as the good shepherd. But note that underneath all the shepherd language in John there are some people who are good leaders and others who are considered bad leaders. There is embedded in this passage already a preconceived right way and a wrong way of doing things.
Look at the lesson from I Peter. Here we sense the violence and persecution that the early Christians faced on a daily basis. These passages remind us that early Christianity had its challenges, conflicts, and problems as well as its ideals.
And yet those ideals still inspire and shape us. We still organize our congregation around learning, fellowship, worship, and care.
Learning. The first Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the Bible says. The first Christians were being formed in faith and were forming faith to fit the world in which they found themselves.
In our own efforts with Sunday Learning Place, adult forums, special speakers, lay leadership involvement, small groups, Bible studies, and careful consideration of issues in our own time, we continue to learn the faith, being formed in Christ, and forming the faith in new and fresh ways.
Fellowship. The first Christians spent time together, broke bread together, and lived in common. This primitive communal life may be hard for us to relate to with our emphasis on nuclear families and independent living, but it is clear that fellowship was at the core of congregational life.
In our countless cups of coffee together, in ham sandwiches after funerals, in our quarterly meetings, congregational dialogues and deliberations, in our conversations before church on the benches outside and after church as well, in our lingering together, in things like a Holden Village trip or an Advent trip to Germany or our women headed to Utah this summer for the women’s assembly, in our interest in each other’s well being, we too find ourselves filled with joy in koinonia, or fellowship.
Worship. These first Christians offered prayer and gathered weekly, probably on Sunday evening for worship. It was a time of gathering, reflecting on the word, prayer and song, and sharing the bread and wine.
In our own time, we continue to worship in the Lutheran tradition. We have wonderful musicians leading us. We use several different forms of worship regularly. We tolerate new hymns reasonably well. We’ve been learning settings one, three, six, nine, and ten within the last year and a half from a new hymnal. We assembled a post modern special worship event last October. And this congregation has actually taught me how to chant when needed. Above all we celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday, welcoming everyone to the Lord’s Table.
Care. These first Christians shared according to need. The first descriptions of pastors and bishops that we have in ancient Christianity give them two responsibilities: to preside at the weekly gathering, and then to redistribute to the poor the gifts that had been received.
In our own time we continue to gather resources for those in need. We offer our time to be a welcoming servant in the heart of the city. In this regard, this is an amazing congregation. This past year, we received about $410k from all sources. About $167k or 40% of those resources were used for direct relief, offering our building to those in need, or partnership ministries. These are highly unusual numbers for a congregation that has a weekly worship attendance of 100.
Oh when you look at St. Johns, you may sense the challenges facing all urban congregations or you may be rather unimpressed by how we look, or you may wonder about why we are even still here, or you may have a somewhat unresolved church issue rumbling around inside your head. Awe may be the furthest thing from your mind.
But Jesus is here and now. In the prayers, the breaking of the bread, the learning and formation, the holding of things in common, the mutual love and care, the passion to serve those in need. Let us continue to be honest and authentic as we share this vision of God’s presence in Madison, Wisconsin.