How to Be Church (April 26, 2015)

Rev. Rick MixonA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon,
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA,

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Texts: Acts 2:41-47; 1 Corinthians 14:26-33a; Colossians 3:12-17

Jesus never intended to start a church. It’s a curious thing that those of us who claim to follow him, all these many years after he walked this earth, are so focused on the church. It is the way we have come to bear witness to what we understand of his ministry among his people 2000 years ago. It’s pretty certain that he would not recognize what we have made of that ministry. More than one wag has opined that Jesus would not be welcomed in many churches today, if he even bothered to pay them a visit.

Still, Brian McLaren has tried to help us see, in this Eastertide, that Jesus’ ministry promised, or threatened, a “global uprising” in his time. McLaren is also challenging us to recapture that same sense of the urgent need for transformation on this planet today. Could we see our way to committing ourselves to such radical activity? to the kind of discipleship we considered last week? and, if we did, what would it look like?

By the time the record began to be written something called the church was beginning to emerge from the practices of those earliest followers of our faith tradition. Luke and Paul write about the early church as well as to its first congregations in various parts of the ancient near east. In today’s texts, each tells us something about how to be church. What they suggest comes closer to what Jesus taught and practiced than what the church generally engages in today.

The sub-theme for this week is “Alive…in the Uprising of Worship.” As we studied these texts on Tuesday, it struck me that they covered much more than worship. In these texts we get a substantial picture of what the church, at its best,  might be. The problem, of course, is that these images and guidelines provide a significant challenge to how we do church today. What we see here is a way of being and doing church that comes much closer to the radical gospel that Jesus preached in the Galilean countryside and the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem, or at least this is how Luke and Paul see the Jesus’ Way.

I ruminated on these texts as I made my way to Berkeley after Bible study. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that here was a recipe for pastoral and congregational care, which is the focus of my classes at both the American Baptist Seminary of the West and Pacific School of Religion. So much of pastoral care and counseling, as I was taught and have taught it, focuses on problems. What’s wrong? What needs to be taken care of? What needs to be fixed? These are legitimate concerns and appropriate foci for the discipline. Surely the world is full of folk who suffer, struggle, hurt, wonder, wander, despair, need help, comfort, compassion, concern and care. What has changed since I last taught these courses, a number of years ago, is a bigger focus on congregational life and care.

When I was working on my doctorate and first teaching seminarians as a teaching assistant in pastoral care and counseling classes, we were eager to instruct the students in all the amazing and wonderful things we were learning about the human psyche and counseling technique. However, we soon discovered that much of this advanced training was only tangentially relevant to people who were training for the pastorate, for work in the church. The vast majority of them would rarely, if ever, sit down with parishioners to do formal counseling. Pastoral care and counseling would be done more “on the run,” around services and meetings and the everyday routines of life in a congregation. We found ourselves quickly adapting our teaching and role plays to situations that would have practical meaning for practicing pastors.

What is interesting to me today is how this trend has developed over the years. The concerns, the material for role plays, the topics for research and presentation are much more oriented to congregational life than they are toward individuals and their concerns. Not that these are ignored but the more integrated focus on what happens in churches is instructive to me as well my students. In the course of this semester, as we have considered the breadth of possibilities for pastoral and congregational care, it seems clear to me that a focus on what is or could be good, positive, affirming, blessing about both pastoral and congregational care would be worth considering. That is, in the vein of appreciative inquiry, what could we say and do that was enriching, enlivening, empowering about church life? As David Bartlett asks in the title of his book on the gospels, “What’s good about this news?”  What is there to affirm and celebrate in Jesus’ radical word?

So this digression is to set the stage for how I taught my ABSW class last Tuesday night. We read each of these texts in turn and attempted to glean from them something about how to be church, something that would be valuable to us as pastoral caregivers and to our congregations as they engage in congregational care. We filled the chalk board up, down, across and around the edges. It was an inspiring exercise to consider the positive elements of care contained in these ancient words.

Since we didn’t have special music today, we’ve taken the time to read all three of these marvelous texts ourselves. So let us take a few minutes to see what we find here to teach us how to be church. Let’s begin with Acts 2, which some consider the original description of the first church. What do you see here that might help us be church in new, exciting, even radical ways?

They were “devoted to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer.”

They practiced “wonders and signs” (though we’re not too big on that.)

They “held everything in common.” (Sounds like a commune.)

They shared “from each according to their means to each according to their need.” (That sounds downright Communist. What do right-winged, fundamentalist literalists do with this text, I wonder?)

They spent “time in the temple.” (Sounds like regular worship to me.)

They practiced, no they lived out their faith with “glad and generous hearts.” (There’s genuine joy in the church alive and well!)

They had the “goodwill of the people.” (Oh my, today young people are turning their backs in droves because the church is so tied to narrow-minded bigotry, injustice, hypocrisy and abuse! Seems like we’ve used up whatever good will they had banked for us.)

Now let’s look at Corinthians. We know what a fragmented and contentious bunch they were. Paul was determined to teach them something about how to be church, bonded together in one body, the Body of Christ. What do you see in these instructions on how to be church?

First, “each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue or an  interpretation.” (That is, everyone has something to share. We each have our gifts. We need to make room for one another.)

“Let all things be done for building up” each other and the community. (Underline this one at least three times.)

Practice setting “limits, taking turns, listening, silence.” (Since, we don’t do a lot with tongues or prophecy these days, could we find other areas in which to apply these disciplines?)

“God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” (Can those caught up in contention that leads to chaos learn to get along in the spirit of God’s ineffable peace?)

The Colossians were a different congregation. Paul here is not as determined to teach these folks a lesson as to affirm his love and care for them. What does he say to them, and to us, about how to be church?

I start with “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” and “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” (That is, fill yourselves full of peace, shalom, the well-being God gives so generously along with a large portion of that radically transforming good news so that it all radiates from every pore of your being.)

Remember you’re “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.”

Then, once you’re glowing from the inside out, “clothe yourself in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

Oh! and don’t forget, “above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Well how can you beat that outfit for good taste and beauty!?)

Then, practice “forbearance and forgiveness, be thankful, teach, share wisdom, and sing with glad hearts.”

How to be church…friends this is quite a list, daunting perhaps. But what if it comes closer to Christ’s vision of the Beloved Community of God than anything we’ve ever known or practiced? There are lots of things about the radical good news that overwhelm us, that baffle us, that frighten us. Granted, but surely we know how to listen, to take turns, forgive and give thanks. Surely we could practice compassion and kindness, humility, meekness and patience. We know how to share and care and forbear, don’t we? Study, prayer, worship, fellowship, breaking bread – we’ve visited all those places, more than once. Building up one another and the community, working for peace, well-being, wisdom, the good-will of the people – haven’t we at least longed for these to be elements of our life together?

How to be church – well, there it is, a lot to think about and work on and yet all so eminently doable if we give ourselves to it. It may take discipline but we can practice this way of being and doing church, of giving congregational care, of living out Christ’s radical vision of God’s Beloved Community, without an advanced degree. Oh! and don’t forget that cloak of love, which binds everything – even us, church – together in perfect harmony. Amen.