The Early Church All Over Again – Belong, Behave, Believe

Steve Lindsley
(Acts 2: 1-21)

This week, Grace and I are beginning a six-week sermon series titled, The Early Church All Over Again.  Here’s the gist of it: the church as we know it is changing.  This is not news.  Truth be told, it’s been changing for the better part of half a century now.  We’ve just recently begun feeling it. 

Now this change is part of a larger cultural change that has unsettled other long-standing institutions like government, education, business, commerce; and the church is wrapped up in that.  And don’t think it’s just the mainlines – even mega-evangelical churches are feeling the change.

Here’s the thing: while the church may be changing, the mission of church is not.  The mission of church – to share the love of Jesus with the world, to work diligently to build the kingdom of God, to, as our Trinity slogan states, “grow together and welcome all” – that has not changed for the past 2000 years.  The way we accomplish that, though, has to change, because things are different. 

It’s hard to know from our vantage point what the church is becoming.  It’s even harder to discern what our role in it is.  But perhaps we can take some cues from the very beginning, when that small community of Jesus-followers first started gathering together.  So for the next six weeks, we’re going to take a look at the early church through the lens of the book of Acts – see how they were church then, so that we might see anew how we can be church today.  And we begin with the beginning of it all – the story of Pentecost, and the dawn of this thing that would later be called “church.”  The second chapter of Acts, verses 1-21.  My friends, listen to this:

SCRIPTURE

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This morning I want to ask you this: do you recall, do you remember the moment when you chose to be part of this church, Trinity Presbyterian?  Do you remember?

I wonder what compelled you to chose this church  – was that it seemed like the right place for you and your family.  I wonder if you were drawn to this beautiful sanctuary and all that fills it in worship – the music, the preaching, the liturgy. I wonder if if was because of the people – maybe they’re the reason you’ve grown roots in this place.  I wonder if you were baptized here, cannot remember not being here, and at some point claimed it as your own.  I wonder if you grew up Presbyterian; or I wonder if that had nothing to do with your choice.  I wonder if you chose this church because of our Weekday School, or our mission work, or our Friday night food trucks.

I wonder if it’s a little of all of those things, kind of like it was for me, actually, when I was sensing a new call five years ago this spring and felt led to this church – the worship, the mission, the people, the place.  All of it – that’s what led me here.  How about you?  Do you recall, do you remember the moment you chose to be part of this church?

Noted speaker and writer Diana Butler Bass, who spoke here at Trinity at a NEXT Church conference a few years ago, delves into this question in her seminal work, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church And the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.  Bass takes that fundamental question and fleshes it out into three specific questions that, at some level, she suggests, we all ask ourselves when it comes to what kind of faith community we are part of, or if we are part of a faith community at all.  Those three questions:

What do I believe? – the word literally meaning, “what do I put my trust in?”

How should I behave? – behave not meaning “good behavior” but more “how should I act out what I believe?

And Where do I belong?

Believe, behave, belong.  Bass makes the case – and I would agree – that this has been the predominant sequence of how people came to church for the better part of the 20th century in North America.  It begins with belief – doctrines, creeds, that which we profess, that which we put our trust in.  That’s the traditional starting point.  From there, we learn how to “behave” – how to live out our belief.  Everything from when to stand and sit in worship to the ways we choose to serve our church to how we live out our faith outside these four walls.  After which we belong – we are part of a family of faith, a tribe.  We have a place in this world.

Believe.  Behave.   Belong.  This is the way North American Christians, by and large, have been choosing to be part of church for the vast majority of our lifetimes.

But is that changing?  Or better yet – was it never really meant to be that way?

On this day years ago, this day that we drag out the red paraments and stoles, on this Pentecost Sunday we celebrate the beginnings of church – even though it would be years before it would be called that.  On this day years ago, Pentecost – this was where something new got started.  This was where something changed. 

It was the Spirit fault, stirring things up like that; giving some the ability to speak words they didn’t already know; others the ability to hear in ways they’d never heard before.  It was the Spirit that caused some to look upon them all as drunk on “new wine.”  The Greek word there, gleukos, appearing just this one time in the entire New Testament, meaning “sweet new wine,” both the sugar and alcohol content off the charts – only something like that could lead to something like this.  And it was the Spirit which inspired one to preach a sermon; Peter quoting the prophet Joel prophesying how God would “pour out God’s spirit upon all flesh,” how young people would see visions and old ones dream dreams.

What was it, if not sweet new wine, that caused this happen? I find it telling that the text describes the impetus behind it all like a wind – a violent wind.  This past Tuesday at our spring presbytery meeting, Denise Anderson, Co-Moderator of the denomination (for a few more weeks at least) was preaching at the installation service for Jan Edminston, the other co-moderator and now general presbyter of Charlotte Presbytery – and in her Pentecost sermon she described the spirit as “terrifying, unruly, out of control and totally awesome.”

Some number of years ago, on a family trip to Pittsburgh, my oldest, all of three at the time, was flying a kite with me at Point State Park, this beautiful large green space where the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers all meet.  Running against the wind, we held on to the kite until just the right moment. And at the instant we let it go, the wind began pulling it up; and so we steadily let the string out, just enough so that the tension in the twine would catapult the kite up.  And with each inch of string the kite rose higher and higher, until Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber of VeggieTales fame were smiling down on the residents of downtown Pittsburgh. I let Connor hold on to the end for a bit and just watched the wonder and joy of a three-year old flying his kite.

Even though it wasn’t really him flying it.  I didn’t tell him that.  It’s the wind, always the wind doing the flying.  That’s the thing.  And the wind, as Jesus says in the gospel of John, the wind blows where chooses.  It blows where it chooses, not where we choose – whether it’s a kite, or branches of a tree, or the sail of a sailboat, or God’s terrifying, unruly, out of control and totally awesome Spirit.  It blows where it chooses, not where we choose. 

God’s Spirit blew into all who were gathered there that day, words spoken from unknowing lips, ears understanding them.  Later it blew outside the holy land to places with strange names like Corinth and Ephesus and Philippi and Rome.  No one ever thought it would blow there, but it wasn’t up to them.  The wind blows where it chooses. 

From there the wind blew to new lands, to this land.  And it would blow among us for a spell.  But the wind blows where it chooses.  And so now it is blowing in places we are not, places like Africa and Asia and Latin America, where the church of Jesus Christ is growing the fastest.  From 1970 to 1985 over 4000 people were leaving the Church in North America and Europe on a daily basis, while in that same period over 16,000 were converting to Christianity each day in Africa alone.[1]   The wind blows where it chooses. 

So, people of God, what is it that binds us to this terrifying, unruly, out of control and totally awesome wind?  What does church look like for us if the church is not something we choose, but something that chooses us?

It can’t really begin with believing, can it?  For believing is a choice we make, our initiative.  And yet, we think of Jesus’ words to his disciples: “You did not choose me, I chose you.”  We don’t choose first.  We’ve already been chosen. 

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. What brought them together, we don’t know.  What common creed they shared, if they shared one at all, it doesn’t say.  All we know is “they” were “all together,” “in one place.”  Don’t you see?  From the very beginning, they already belonged.

And then, they began to speak “as the Spirit gave them ability.”  They learned how to live out this new belonging.  They learned, as Bishop Michael Curry proclaimed yesterday in his glorious royal wedding homily, that there is power “when love is the way.”[2]  They gathered in each other’s homes and worshipped together, a testimony to this terrifying, unruly, out of control and totally awesome wind.  They learned how to behave and be the people God was calling them to be.

Belong.  Behave.  And then?  They began to create thoughts and ideas and dreams of God, Jesus, community, salvation.  A few put them in writing – in letters to other churches, in doctrines and creeds.  Words to unpack who they already were.  Words to believe in.

Belong.  Behave.  Believe.  The exact reverse of what most of us have known; the way church has traditionally been. This is what it means to be church today.  Do we understand that?

I mean, think how powerful it is for someone visiting our church – to know that the second they walk through those doors, they already belong.  That it’s not about what they believe or don’t believe, nor is it about whether they know when to stand or sit or if they know what a “Gilchrist Sunday” is (how we church people love our insider language) – what if they knew they already belonged because we made it that way?

And think how powerful it is, upon knowing they belong, to learn with others how to live when love is the way.  How to do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.  And how the way things are is not the way they’re supposed to be.  The school shooting at Santa Fe this past week, in a long line of school shootings plaguing our country; and, as a Washington Post article shared over the weekend, how more people have been killed at schools this year than have been killed while serving in the military.[3]  Sit with that for a minute.  And then think how powerful it is to belong to a community that is not hesitant in the least to call that sin, and call and act for change.  To behave as the family of faith we belong to.

And then, then think how powerful it is to bring all that together and come to new understandings about God and Jesus and the Spirit and the kingdom of God, and fashion them into beliefs, things you put your trust in – doctrines and creeds not simply etched on paper but engrafted into our very hearts.

Belong.  Behave.  Believe.  Church, are we ready to embrace what already is? Because the Wind is wondering.  And it blows where it chooses.  May it choose to forever blow among us.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: University Press, 2002), 2ff.
[2] https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/19/europe/michael-curry-royal-wedding-sermon-full-text-intl/index.html, visited on 5.19.2018.
[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/05/18/2018-has-been-deadlier-for-schoolchildren-than-service-members/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b1f08de54a6e, visited on 5.19.2018.