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“Concerning the Church”
The Third Sunday of Eastertide, Mentor Sunday
Acts 2:14, 36-42
“Those who welcomed Peter’s message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. And they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.”
With those words, today’s lesson, from the book of Acts, gives us the Bible’s description of the birthing of the church, which happened, according to Acts chapter two, when Jews from near and far had come to Jerusalem, as they did every year, to keep the festival of Pentecost. But, this year, while the crowds were in Jerusalem on their annual Pentecost pilgrimage, the Spirit of God came in a way so new and different that some asked Peter what they should do, to which Peter replied that they should open their lives to the Holy Spirit, repent and be baptized.
And, according to today’s lesson, about three thousand of them did, after which they began to meet together and eat together; pray, study, learn and grow together; the birthing, and beginning, of what we now know as the church; at first, a frequently persecuted, mostly poor, largely powerless, fringe group; until the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity a government tolerated religion, and, then, a government endorsed religion, which some Christians celebrated because it gave the church political influence and economic power, but which other Christians did not welcome because they knew that every time Jesus had the opportunity to say “Yes” to that kind of power, he said “No” to that kind of power. They knew that Jesus was not about that kind of power; so they separated themselves from the powerful post-Constantinian church, choosing to follow Jesus from the edges of the church; groups of believers on the margins of institutional Christianity, saying that the way of the church had strayed too far from the way of Jesus; a tension which became a constant within the Christian church across the Christian centuries.
Including, of course, our century; the seventeenth, when one of those radical marginal groups in England, called Separatists, (because they had separated themselves from the powerful institutional church) stumbled across a group of Mennonites in Europe, joined forces with them long enough to hold a baptismal service in a horse trough, and, then, returned to England in 1611 to birth what we now know as “the Baptist church.”
Several years later, some of them boarded a ship for New England, where they quickly got in new trouble for their radical religious views, whereupon they headed north to Maine, and, then, south, to Charleston, where they started the first Baptist church in the south in 1699, after which some of them eventually wandered west to Mississippi, where, a couple of centuries later, a handful of them were standing on a street corner in downtown Jackson, talking about the possibility of starting a new church, and, quicker than you can say, “fifty years later,” Owen Carter, Keagan Croom, Lucy Elfert, William Seymour, Roger Stribling, William Walker and Ivey Yelverton are leading, in worship, the same church that was being imagined, on that downtown street corner, fifty years ago.
And it all started back there in this morning’s lesson from the book of Acts, when a group of people, still wet from the water of their baptism, started eating and praying, learning and growing together, on the original birthday of the church.
I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I never know how closely what the church has become, two thousand years later, resembles what Jesus had in mind, two thousand years ago. Careful speech requires me to say that I struggle with all that, a lot.
The truth, as Barbara Brown Taylor once said, is that, “The work of God gets done in the world both because of, and in spite of, the church.” Or, as I once heard one of my friends say, “The same church which can be the source of our greatest joys can also be the source of our deepest disappointments;” what the poet Mary Oliver once called, “The strange, difficult, beautiful church.”
But, while all churches, this one included, are less than perfect, each with its own blind spots, limits, failures and flaws, the church is, also, in my experience, the place where our lives are most profoundly shaped and formed for God and the gospel.
There is something mystical, and wonderful, about the way the Spirit of God is embodied in the people of God in a congregation; the way the people we know at church call forth that which is deepest and best in us, the way they mentor us without even meaning to; making the rest of us want to be better, just by being exactly who they are; shaping, lifting, coloring, stretching, and, little by little, transforming our lives.
It happens in church; our anchor and our sail; the anchor which centers us within these walls, and the sail which sends us beyond these walls; the strange, difficult, beautiful church, for which all of us can only say, “Thanks be to God.”