Re-Imagining Church Part II
Last Sunday I stood up here and kneaded dough as I spoke about the kingdom of heaven. We looked at the parable where Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to yeast that gets mixed all through a batch of dough.
I explained how the kind of yeast Jesus was talking about wasn’t at all like we think of yeast today.
I talked about how they would have made bread way back then, not by adding yeast as its own ingredient, but by capturing the wild yeast that’s all around us, in our environment wherever we go; in the air that we breathe.
That wild yeast will never do its job until it has a host that is willing to nourish it, to protect it, to give it life.
Last week we saw how at the time Jesus told that parable, it would have been impossible to imagine yeast like we know it—yeast isolated from it’s host.
We saw how the yeast and its host depended on each other to define their relationship, for the survival of both.
I went on to suggest that if the kingdom of heaven really is like this wild yeast, then it’s all around us—we can’t get away from it, but it needs the right conditions to do its work.
And so I suggested that it’s not our job to do anything to expand or grow or advance God’s kingdom…but rather that it’s simply our job to create hospitable conditions for the yeast of the kingdom to do its job.
And I made that dough available for people who wanted to experiment hosting that wild yeast last week. And at least a few of us had some success! Hopefully we gained a better understanding of how the kingdom of heaven is all around us as we tended to that starter dough.
Hopefully we learned a little bit more concretely that the kingdom of God is not something we can purchase or put away and take out when we need it…it’s nothing to force upon those who don’t have it—but rather it’s like that wild yeast that just needs a willing host to do it’s job.
I implied last Sunday what I’ll say more clearly today—that church as we understand it today would be as foreign to the earliest Christians as commercial yeast that you buy in a store would be to them.
I’m not saying it’s better or worse today than it was in the beginning—It’s just different. Technology and science have changed how we think about church as much as they have changed how we think about yeast.
Making value judgments about that reality won’t do much for us as we strive to be faithful to God in the 21st century.
That’s my summary of last Sunday for those of you who weren’t here or didn’t catch the sermon.
And so this morning I want to continue along those lines.
I want to look at Acts 5:12-16, which was read right before I got up here to preach this morning.
It talks about the Apostles—the Apostles were the original fellowship of disciples who walked and talked closely with Jesus while he was among us. After Jesus ascended to heaven, the Apostles were the ones who carried on the revolution. They were the ones who continued to nurture this wild yeast that God had started among them.
The scripture for this morning says how they did many miraculous signs and wonders among the people, to the point that people would bring the sick and lame out to the streets so that just maybe Peter’s shadow might touch them as he passed by.
If that’s not a picture of hope for the hopeless, I don’t know what is.
It talks about how the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade—which was something like a big porch attached to the temple in Jerusalem.
It was kind of like a village square—a social center where people would mill around and hang out to hear different ideas being presented or to ask questions of different teachers that might be teaching there.
Solomon’s porch was kind of like the internet before electricity—it was the place people went to interact around ideas and thoughts. It was the place to go to hold arguments and look for answers.
But the verses I really wanted to look at this morning and challenge all of us with are verses 13 and 14 of Acts chapter 5.
Keep in mind the previous passage talks about Ananias and Saphira—two believers who held back part of what had been dedicated to God and were struck down for it.
So it makes sense that there was a sense of holy fear about what was going on in this group of people. There were healings, people were cared for—there were no needy among them, and the members freely gave what they had—either all or nothing.
Mysterious things were happening.
And so the NIV says “No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” !!! ???
“No one else DARED to join them,” it says.
…When was the last time you DARED someone to come to church?
…Aren’t we more in the habit of PLEADING with people to join the church?
As I read this account of the early church, I can’t help but wonder what happened. How did this revolutionary movement that Jesus started—how did it go from being something that people didn’t dare to join…and yet people were coming to it left and right…how did it go from having that kind of potency, and turn into something we do once a week…and even then only if nothing better comes up?
Is Acts 5 a model for ministry in the 21st century, or should we join with those who say the Spirit just worked differently…more powerfully…back then?
I think it’s a model for us.
Somehow this movement that Jesus started—this revolution—this radical new way of living that burst out into the streets, that overflowed into the public places and engaged people right where they were—somehow that daring movement has turned into something like a declining social club that feels the need to recruit some fresh blood if it wants to continue.
The truth is that this is the reality we’ve lived with for a good long time; but it’s only recently that we’ve been forced to face it.
I’d like to issue a call this morning and suggest that the time we spend devising new and improved programs or methods of bringing people in and convincing them to stay is time poorly spent.
That mindset is built on the premise that we want and need to attract people into this place, onto our turf.
When we start with that premise; then we convince ourselves that we need to hire professional staff who supposedly know what they’re talking about.
It then follows that we need to really polish what happens ‘in here’ on a Sunday morning.
This whole way of thinking is that we who are ‘in here’ have something that those people ‘out there’ need…not unlike commercial yeast that’s neatly packaged—isolated from contamination and from it’s host until just the right time.
And so we unwittingly continue to feed a mindset that says church is first of all a place you go, and if you don’t find what you need at one, you can just go to another one down the street.
And so, eventually the church that puts all the ingredients together just right and offers what none of the other churches do—that way of doing church becomes the recipe to follow.
The leaders in those churches write cookbooks filled with recipes for everyone else to try.
And I’m trying not to make value judgments this morning. That method of doing ministry is maybe neither good nor bad…or maybe it’s both good and bad.
The point I’m trying to make is that I’m not convinced that the whole model we’ve been using is how we ought to be.
At our conference’s annual assembly this year, Jim Amstutz, who’s a pastor in Akron Pennsylvania, challenged this way of being the church in mission. He offered Luke 10 as an example to follow.
Luke 10 is where Jesus sends out 72 of his disciples, with no purse, bag, or sandals.
He sends them out to enter towns and villages, to depend on the hospitality of those places to sustain them. He sends them out as guests, to offer the peace of God to their hosts, the peace of God which transcends all understanding.
And here in Acts chapter 5, I would argue, we’re seeing the earliest church doing just that–continuing this tradition of going out as guests, allowing the wild yeast of the kingdom to do its work among them.
It’s not a 7, 12, or 40 step strategy for church growth, and it’s not a polished presentation designed to attract the masses.
It was just an attempt to be faithful to the work that God was already doing.
And so by now maybe you’re asking what’s so different between then and now. You could argue with me (and you’d be right), that the church is still striving to be faithful to God. There are still congregations of people who gather and are filled with people truly seeking after the will of God, just like in the early church.
I think that’s right.
But at some point, in the fourth century, this vibrant community that depended on its hosting community for its life and growth, this missional community that engaged its culture and transformed it from the inside out…at some point it stopped existing for the world it was in and it started existing for itself.
And it’s no mystery when that started to happen. It was around the year 313, during the rein of a Roman emperor named Constantine.
It was he who put an end to the persecution of Christianity. It was he who put Christianity right in the center stage of the world arena—a place Jesus never intended it to be.
Constantine endorsed Christianity and built cathedrals for the Christians to use.
This movement that had it’s greatest power only in weakness suddenly inherited an empire.
On the one hand, the persecution and the fear could finally stop! What great news!
But on the other hand, instead of the revolution that noone dared to join, Church became a tool to be used by the empire to keep it all together.
And slowly but surely, over the next while, people stopped daring to join this movement.
They were asked to join or they were told to join.
And eventually, they were given very few options—join or die. Crowds of people were driven through rivers like cattle, being baptized into the ‘faith’ whether they wanted it or not.
And so, just a few hundred years after the resurrection of Christ, Christians had transitioned from being persecuted and on the fringes, to being the persecutors in center stage.
And that’s kind of how it was until around the 16th century, during the reformation.
Suddenly people could begin to read the Bible for themselves, which has been a tremendous mixed blessing for the church.
I say mixed blessing, because on the one hand it became easier to read the Bible and scripture became more accessible to a higher number of people. That’s great!
But on the other hand our sacred scriptures became a source of ammunition to pile around ourselves as we defend one position or another. The reading and the study of scripture became something to do on our own time, in our private worlds.
The Bible became something to reach logical conclusions about in our own heads, with little to no interaction with others who share our beliefs, our commitments, or our neighborhoods.
What was once a life or death decision to join this movement was watered down until it means today little more than a personal choice made in the privacy of our homes.
The revolutionary Faith of Jesus has been kidnapped by politics, because what was meant to be lived out on the front porch of the empire as a radical alternative has become a kind of head game, moved from there into our living rooms and reserved places of worship.
…Friends, Church ain’t a place you go.
It’s a people that you belong to. It’s a way of life that defines us as nomads and as wild yeast, in need of a host.
So, for the next week I’ll give you this question to think about.
Are we welcome in Millersburg? How will we know if we’re welcome in Millersburg? How might we become more welcome, a movement well respected by all and one that people hardly dare to join?
Are you willing to enter a season of listening? Of changing your posture from that of host to that of guest? Are you willing to learn something from everyone you meet, regardless of what they do or don’t believe? Are you willing to be hosted, and in accepting that hospitality, extend the gift of friendship—the only gift that has any potential to host the kingdom of God among us?