FIRST LESSON: John 16:12-15
SECOND LESSON Ephesians 1:1-23
SERMON: “Living Resurrection - Grace”
A man who lived in Detroit decided to write a book about churches around the country. He started by flying to San Francisco and started working east to zigzag across the states from there. He went to a very large church and began taking pictures. He spotted a golden telephone on a wall and was intrigued by a sign that read: "$5,000 a minute." Seeking out the pastor he asked about the phone and the sign. The pastor answered that this golden phone was, in fact, a direct line to Heaven and if he were to pay the price he could talk directly to God. He thanked the pastor and continued on his way.
Visiting churches in Seattle, Boise, Denver, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, New York, and other places, he found more phones with the same sign. From each pastor he received the same answer.
Finally, he arrived back in Michigan. Upon entering a church, low and behold, he saw the usual golden telephone, but this time the sign read: "Calls: 35 cents."
Fascinated, he asked of the pastor, "Reverend, I have been in cities all across the country and in each church I have found this very same golden telephone, and I have been told it is a direct line to Heaven, and that I could talk to God. However, in the other churches, the cost was $5,000 a minute. Your sign reads 35 cents per call. Why is that?" The pastor, smiling benignly, replied: "Son, you're in Michigan now. It's a local call."
This thing called church. Last week we celebrated the birthday of the church on Pentecost Sunday, the day that God sent the Holy Spirit as comforter, teacher, guidance counselor, and cheer leader for the disciples. Almost two thousand years later we’re still figuring out what Church is meant to be and do.
In the introduction to his book Practice Resurrection Eugene Peterson (Presbyterian pastor, seminary professor and the scholar who gave us the Message – the Bible in contemporary language) tells about a friend he met when she was about 40 years old. After they had known each other for a while she told him that she had grown up in poverty in a harsh fundamentalist atmosphere in abusive circumstances. When she was 18 she became pregnant and was ecstatic. She said she had never felt more “herself.” Although she was not religious in any traditional way, she was absolutely convinced that God had given her this life that was within her.
Things didn’t go so well for her. She knew nothing about life or what to do and started drinking. She became an alcoholic and went on to using cocaine and became an addict. It wasn’t long before she was a prostitute. She spent 20 years on the streets of San Francisco trying to keep herself and her child alive. Then one day she wandered into a church, and she didn’t know exactly how it happened, but she became a Christian. She knew she was going to stop living hand-to-mouth and quit using alcohol and drugs. None of that was what she found most difficult. What she found most difficult was American churches. She was welcomed, all right, but she discovered that while American churches seemed to know about being born in Jesus’ name, they seemed neither interested nor competent in matter of growing up (maturing) in Christ. There were lots of doctrine and Bible studies, lots of moral and ethical concern, lots of projects, but the people were doing everything religious except following Jesus. It took her a while, but fortunately she eventually found a teacher, a pastor and companions with whom she could grow into Christian maturity.
Peterson comments, “We cannot overemphasize bringing men and women to new birth in Christ. Evangelism is essential, critically essential. (Can we forget the Great Commission?) But is it not obvious that growth in Christ is equally essential? . . . We turn matters of growing up over to Sunday school teachers, specialists in Christian education, committees to revise curricula, retreat centers and deeper life conferences. . . When we practice resurrection (a phrase Peterson says he got from author Wendell Berry) we keep company with Jesus, alive and present.”1
We get excited when we get new members in a church, but then what? I took at least three theology courses with Dr. John Burkhart at McCormick, and there are a handful of things he taught us that I will never forget. One of those was that in the early church those who wanted to become disciples were required to take three years of training before they could become a member of the church. Then, when the church needed someone in a leadership position, all they did was to look around, notice the person with the best leadership skills and ordain them in a matter of minutes. Today we do just the opposite. We welcome into membership anyone who says they want to join and when we need leadership we send them off to 3 years of training at a seminary. Dr. Burkhart was always making a case for us to consider getting back to the ways they did things in the early church.
We hear a lot of talk about the early (first century) church as something we should get back to. We read the accounts in Acts of the birth of the church and its initial development. But then again, suggests Peterson, maybe not – “These churches were a mess and Paul wrote his letters to them to try to clean up the mess.” (p. 16) There are fifteen churches named in the New Testament. All but two (Antioch and Jerusalem) had letters addressed to them. The Ephesian letter is unique in that it is the only one that is not provoked by some problem, either of behavior or of belief. Rather than trying to emulate those early churches perhaps we should simply heed Paul’s instructions and advice.
Why church? Because for whatever reason, it is the vehicle God chose to establish a right relationship between people and between people and God. Lest you think conflict in churches is something unique or new, read through the letters to the church at Thessalonica where some of the people believed Jesus was coming for them so soon that they quit working and spent their time debating what kind of cloud he would come on, leaving the work of the community for others to do. The Corinthians were a cantankerous lot, arguing over behavior having to do with diet and sex and worship. The Galatians were regressing into some tired old legalisms and the Romans were a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles who found it difficult to find common ground.
Even with their squabbles and troubles, the church remained, and remains to this day God’s chosen instrument for disciple-making and discipleship development. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that a person cannot come to Christ outside of the church. And a great many people do a great deal of important Christian work without the help of or official sanction of the church.
Someone told me many years ago that the reason the children of Israel became God’s chosen people was not that God loved them more than other earthlings, but that God established his covenant with them so that others would see how good it was to be in a right relationship with God and would want to become a part of the Hebrew people. The same is said to be the hope for the Church, that people would know we are Christians by our love, and would see the good and kind, the loving and healing things that we do and would want to be a part of what we have. When they saw how our faith strengthens us and how we are helpful and kind and doing all kinds of good, they would want to join us. For a multitude of reasons it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. In today’s world people are not flocking to church doors to get in.
To practice resurrection, we do need to recapture some of what the early church had. Not the squabbles or cantankerous divisions, but the clear Good News message that Paul wrote:
Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.
11-12 It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he
is working out in everything and everyone.
This is grace – God’s sacrificial gift in Christ not because we are good, but because God is good. And what’s more there is plenty of grace to go around. Practicing resurrection, among other things means practicing grace – receiving and enjoying God’s favor, and extending grace to others.
First, if you were to choose one or two things this church could do, should do, to practice resurrection grace, what would that be? Second, what are you willing to do to make that happen?
Writing on the Alban Institute Web site, Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon, authors of Pathway to Renewal: Practical Steps for Congregations (Alban Institute, 2008), make this important observation: “Your congregation is what it is today not because of what a bad pastor did to it, or because the neighborhood has changed or because our culture is going to hell in a handbasket. Although those occurrences and many others have had an impact, your congregation is what it is today because of how it responded, or failed to respond, to the realities it faced. What your congregation will be in the future is up to you and the other members and how you work together to create something new from the realities you face. What you do or don’t do now will make the difference. Your actions will either reinforce the patterns that have become established in your congregation or start to counter and shift them. The leadership provided by your pastor can help or hinder, but it cannot make your congregation succeed or keep it from ultimately achieving the goals you set for yourselves.”
What kind of church does God want North Kent to be? The kind Peterson’s friend found so many of that were doing everything religious except following Jesus? Or do you hear God calling us to be the kind of church that daily practices resurrection, helping people to grow in grace?
1Peterson, Eugene H., Practice Resurrection, William B Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 2010.