May 28, 2000
"The Living Church"
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
5th Sunday of Easter
Memorial Day Sunday
Please note: Because I do not use notes when I preach, the text in the written sermon may vary slightly from the spoken sermon. My prayer is that in both my writing and my speaking the Holy Spirit works to make this message worthy of God's purpose.
Scripture: Acts 10:44-48
News reached Washington, D.C. that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered. People began to gather at the front door of the White House. They were happy that it the war was finally coming to an end. And they clamored for President Lincoln to come out and answer their question, "What will you do to the traitors who fought against us?" Lincoln came out and this was his response. "This is not a time for anger, but for celebration. Our nation is one. We may be bloodied, but we are unbowed. It is time to beat our swords into plow shares." And he asked a waiting band to play "Dixie". It was a powerful invitation to reconciliation.
Peter, empowered by the Holy Spirit, brought the good news that Jesus Christ had reconciled the world to God. His belief was so certain and his word rang so true that those who heard, Jews and non-Jews alike, came to believe and asked to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. In the early days of the church, in the years after Jesus walked this earth, the Spirit moved among the people and the numbers of faithful grew and grew.
The scripture we have this morning comes from the Book of Acts of the Apostles. Biblical scholars consider Acts a continuation of the Gospel of Luke, written by the same author. Today we tend to think of the church as well established, but the early church was not made up of buildings or layers of bureaucracy, it was a group of people passionate about how the living Christ had changed their lives. It was a group of people who could have been inspiration for Lincoln's words of reconciliation. They were working out what it meant to live in charity with one another and to be ambassadors for Christ.
Acts contains stories of firsts. Acts tells of the first converts after Jesus' resurrection, the first revival meetings, the first martyr, the first churches and the first church board meetings. In Acts there are stories of conversions of the most unlikely people, accounts of miracles done in Jesus' name, and a powerful call to charity and love of neighbor.
The church of Acts is the model for the church today, planted by Christ, nurtured in the Holy Spirit and bearing fruit for the reign of God. I truly believe that its generosity and love for others and its enthusiasm and passion for God can be rediscovered. It is not only our history, it is our future, as one great church universal and as a local church.
Through this summer and into the fall, I invite you to travel with me as I examine and preach from the Acts of the Apostles. Together, with God's grace, we'll discover the Holy Spirit alive and working now as it was two millennia ago.
Peter had become chief spokesperson for the faith. Jesus had told this willful and stormy fisherman named Simon that he would become Peter, Rock, and on him the church would be built. In the power of the Holy Spirit, after Jesus' resurrection and ascension, it was happening. Where ever Peter went, hundreds of people heard the gospel and came to believe. He performed healings. People would even reach out to his shadow in the hopes of healing. He and followers escaped from prison miraculously and through their guidance began to shape the new-born church. The Gospel was like a torrential rain, everything in it's path got soaked with living water. It didn't matter if the people followed Jewish custom or not. It didn't matter if they were male or female, rich or poor. They spoke all kinds of languages and came from different countries, but that was of no concern to those who told them that Jesus lived. And when they heard what Christ had done for them, they began to praise God.
Can that happen today? Can people flock to the news that there is a Savior who has defeated death and made the way for salvation for all people? Probably not, if we are relying on our own initiative and willpower for it to happen. But if we dare to believe that Christ is in our midst, that this church functions under the watch and power of the Holy Spirit, that this church is a living embodiment of God's reign, then we become God's instruments in setting the community on fire for God.
What elements fanned the flames in the account of the conversions in Acts 10? What elements will fan the flames of the Spirit today? Peter knew Jesus. He heard a call and followed. He'd walked with him. He'd heard his teachings. He'd been forgiven by him. This church can only be fully alive when each of us is committed to knowing Jesus, not just the stories of his life and the parables of his teaching, but personally, intimately. And there's no minimum or maximum age for a closer walk with our Savior.
Recently I've been reading about spirituality and aging. (Please don't ask me why!) In one study, researchers asked people who were over 65 and admitted to the hospital to talk about their religious experiences. 42% said that they had powerful spiritual experiences that changed their lives at age 50 or older. There is no time limit for getting acquainted with the Savior. If the question of whether you know Jesus makes you uncomfortable, has you yearning. It's time to know him.
Peter not only knew Jesus, but he had been empowered by the Holy Spirit. He expected that the power of God was with him, giving energy and purpose to his ministry. Indignant and threatened religious leaders and government officials asked him to stop preaching; they threw him and other followers of Jesus into jail, but it didn't work. Peter could not stop spreading the gospel.
What are our expectations for the church? That the building stay in good repair? That the choir keep singing? That the hymns aren't too new? Do we even expect that every church pew should be full? That our friends, family and neighbors who have no faith or are at best are lukewarm to it should know the blessings of salvation? Do we expect current believers to be clamoring for spiritual renewal and support? How much do we expect from and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit?
The majority of the people who live in this community are not in church this morning. Many do not even belong to a church. Children are learning about Jesus and our faith tradition through T.V. and the movies, and no other way. Many adults see churches as providers of services: feeding the hungry, hosting weddings, and burying the dead. As far as many are concerned the church, the Christian faith, is a quaint occupation that keeps some amused. And if there is a fire burning in the heart and soul of believers, it must be masked by some type of asbestos clothing, because the community just isn't getting it.
The wind of change is blowing here in Dundee. It blows over the intersection of 50 and 23, from Stohl Road over the bridge Oak Street. And as far as the faithful in this community are concerned it can be a devastating wind that takes away what's good and right and leaves the soil of this community barren, or it can be the wind of the Spirit of God. Believe in Jesus and expect the revival in the Spirit in this place.
When believers came to Jesus Christ, Peter baptized them. Their reaction? Exuberant joy. A wish to tell others. Unbounded generosity. Can the Holy Spirit create in us that same excitement? Of course it can. The more fitting question: do we expect it?
I do not serve God through the Holy Church established by Jesus Christ to maintain the status quo. Of course, I'm afraid of the work ahead if we are to follow Christ, empowered by the Spirit. It will not always be easy. But I am more afraid of ignoring a call to discipleship in Christ.
I signed on, in faith, to the living church. A place where baptismal vows are cause for celebration and those who served faithfully are remembered and honored. I am a part of a church that is alive, a place where seekers are welcome and all people can find growth and renewal. I am a part of a church that is not afraid to speak out for the poor, and those who have no voice in this world, a living church where the bottom line is not figures on an accounting page, but the firm statement, "Jesus Christ is Lord." I am part of a church that's flame was lit long ago in the presence of our living Lord and cannot be extinguished. I am part of a living church, a power, I am part of the body of Christ.
Is that your church? It was Peter and the earliest disciples and they set the world on fire. We're just working on western Monroe county!
Know Jesus. Expect the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Let us join in the prayer, Come, Spirit, Come.
Weaver, Andrew, ed. et. al. Reflections on Aging and Spiritual Growth.Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998.