Sermon: What do other people see in us?
There’s probably little doubt the Christian church today faces a credibility crisis. Whether we think of the universal church or individual congregations like our own, I/m sure we all have our own list of why people don’t bother with church, or listen to it, or want to be part of it.
Yet, here we are still. And people do still come and want to be part of it. We all know churches that are growing, and next week we also have the privilege of welcoming Bernice Stroud and Mel Robertson into full membership. So why is that?
I know when it comes to our church, one thing that gets mentioned a lot is how honestly friendly the people of this congregation are – how warm and welcoming we can be.
Some come for the Sunday school, where their children or grand-children learn about God and Jesus and the kingdom of God.
Others are drawn by the number of things this congregation does and cares about. Back in February when little Japhia and Sam – our grand-children, were baptized into this church, some of the other family members were here, including Japhia’s first husband and his wife who are active in a church of their own and know about church and ministry and mission. And when they sat in our worship, felt your embrace, and even saw and heard our announcements that day – I think it probably included something about CityKidz Miracle Sunday, the local food bank, The Observer subscription renewal drive (which included powerpoint images of about a dozen recent Observer covers and the variety of issues the magazine highlights from a faith perspective), the Dominican mission trip that John VanDuzer was leading later that month, the after-worship sessions on exploring the sacred in death and grief, and the community Quilt Club – one of their first comments after worship was, “Wow. Your church does a lot. And I can see it’s a good place for you guys to be.”
So there are lots of reasons for people to care about the church, and to want to be part of it – but is it enough?
The first Christian church – the gathering of believers in Jerusalem around the disciples of Jesus right after his death and resurrection and ascension, also had credibility problems and we’ve read about them in The Book of Acts.
For one thing, there’s the matter of who they are following. It’s Jesus and they say he’s the Son of God and the messiah the world is looking for. But he is also the one who was killed as a dangerous criminal by the imperial authorities in Jerusalem. And how do you sell someone like that as the one you ask people to follow? Even now, Jesus can be a tough sell whenever we focus on how radically counter-cultural he can be.
Then there’s the scandal of Judas Iscariot, one of the first twelve disciples group around Jesus. He betrayed Jesus and helped the authorities arrest him, and now he has died himself very tragically, maybe by suicide. How will the remaining community handle that credibility nightmare, because why would anyone want to join a movement with leaders like that?
And that raises the matter of numbers. With Judas there had been twelve disciples –a number that mimicked the number of tribes in Israel, and that helped the Jesus movement present themselves as the new Israel promised by the ancient prophets. But now there are only eleven; the circle is broken; the community is incomplete. It hasn’t lived up to its calling and self-image, and how does that make them look to outsiders?
With their credibility as a community as full of holes as that, why would anyone want to join?
It’s interesting what they do in that position.
First, they pray. That happens in the verses just before where our reading begins this morning. Maybe we should have read those verses as well, to remind ourselves of the importance of really praying together for direction as a church. But be that as it may, they pray.
And then they do three things.
First, they face up to the fact of Judas Iscariot, his terrible betrayal and his tragic death. They deal with what’s happened as openly and honestly as they know how, and they let what has happened – as awful and upsetting as it is, be part of their story.
Second, they focus on their calling and their mission for the world. They renew their commitment to being the new Israel for the good of the world in the name of Jesus, by choosing a new twelfth apostle. Come hell or high water, come the worst of sin and imperfection into their own fellowship, they count their mission from God and from Jesus as the one thing they need to stay true to.
And third, they set a basic requirement for leadership and apostleship in the community. They decide that in choosing a twelfth apostle, he or she must be someone who like the others has really known Jesus through the whole of his ministry, and who like them is a witness to the resurrection.
When I think about that as the two basic requirements for being an apostle of Jesus, I think it’s safe to say – I hope it’s safe to say, we know Jesus and the whole of his ministry. We know his teaching and his healing, the kind of community he creates, his practice of forgiveness as the basis of life, his vision of the kingdom of God being real in the world, and the way it’s made real through sacrificial love. We know Jesus as much as anyone.
But then there’s that other bit: to be a witness to the resurrection. Does that still apply? Is that still a requirement for us to be real messengers of Jesus in the world today?
Among the first disciples in The Book of Acts, it meant that someone had actually seen Jesus risen between the time of his crucifixion and burial, and his ascension to the right hand of God forty days later. But now, two thousand years later, what does it mean to be a witness to the resurrection?
Does it mean that like people who claim to see Elvis, that we need to be able to see Jesus at the local Timmy’s, and tell people about it? Or driving down the highway? Or at least in a dream or in a vision in the sky?
Or does it mean we have to be able to prove his resurrection? Debate the facts and the fictions of the story, and have all the arguments at hand as to why people need to believe it as it’s told?
Or does it mean something else – maybe what the sermon of I John seems to be getting at, 60 or 70 years after the events of The Book of Acts? Now does it have something to do with followers and believers of Jesus living in their own life, the way of life he came to show us and invite us into? Does it mean living the way of God’s kingdom, as he did, because this is what he still helps us do? Does it mean that people see in us, what they saw in him – real human beings living life – all of life, in the way God intended from the beginning, still intends, and always will intend, because it’s the way that really is best for us, for others, and for all the world?
It’s not just a question of how friendly, how good, how charitable, and how well-intentioned we are as a congregation. We are all these things, and people see that we are. And these things are important of course. But we also know – as the first Christians knew of themselves, that there are also always limits to the friendship we feel and practice, to the goodness we can muster and live out, to the charity we extend, to the goodness and purity of our intentions in different situations.
And that’s when it becomes important to remember it’s not just about us, and not just us that people need to see in our living and in our ways of being church.
Our reason for being, and the reason for others being here with us is that in our own lives, in the way we see and treat one another, in the ways we reach out to the world – especially to the poor and the vulnerable, the alien and stranger, the “other” and the ones all too easily identified in our time as “the threat” – that we bear witness not just to ourselves, but to the life and spirit of Jesus above and within us; that Jesus somehow be alive and at work in our lives; and that when others are with us they also somehow know themselves to be in his presence.
I wonder how that happens, and how we grow into that calling.