It is in those moments you come to know what matters most. You go back to what you know, what or who you can count on. You declutter the inbox on your mind. You unpack the excess baggage of the heart. You let go of the little things - insignificant things, and focus on what is most important.
That is what I am going to ask you to do today, church. Today and for the next few weeks, I want to invite you to go back to what you know - to what is important about following Jesus and what matters most about being church.
“When that happens,” Professor Fitch says, “when things get chaotic, and no longer seem to make sense, we must go back to the what and why. We must ask all over again: what are we doing here when we gather as the church and why are we doing it?” (12) What is the church?
Why is it so important? How do we live as the church in our own time and place? Those are the questions we will explore and seek to answer over the next few weeks. Nothing to it, right? By God’s grace and with the Holy Spirit as our guide, may we have the courage to try.
Following Pentecost, the Apostle Peter preached perhaps the greatest sermon ever and at the end of it, he gave the greatest altar call of all time (Acts 2). And there was laid the foundation of the early church. With a handful of fisherman turned apostles, the band of followers who stuck it out with them, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and a few thousand of their closest friends. All founded on what? The divine plan of God, the love and example of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
And what did the early church do? This newly formed band of believers - a new team Jesus? What makes any good team? Practice. Where do they start? Fundamentals! They practiced being church. They practiced living out the truths taught by Jesus’ example. They practiced living in harmony, pooling their resources, and being a community. It was a faith lived out (not just talked about, read about, or preached about) - lived out; practiced alongside others doing the same - trying to live a Jesus centered life. These were people from all over the known world. They weren’t cookie cutter believers. They weren’t like minded individuals gathering for a cause. They weren’t all from the same side of the tracks. They didn’t all come from the same socio-economic background, have the same educational level, or access to the same training, opportunities, or lifestyle.
In fact, about the only thing they did have in common was their faith and belief in Jesus - and that was enough. They were committed to practicing a living faith that others would see what love, justice, peace, compassion and a kingdom community looked like and that it was possible.
I am sure it wasn’t easy. I am confident it wasn’t always pretty. I am certain different people at different times wanted to quit and walk away. (otherwise Paul wouldn’t have had so much to write about!) But church, even in the chaos and uncertainty, they stayed the course because Jesus was their center, and when they got off course, they trusted God and each other to find a way. Theologian Ephraim Radner proposed that we should not see unity as an ideal of perfect harmony in all relations that churches reach, but instead as an understanding that the church by nature is always in process of sorting out its disagreements; this sorting is a part of a way of life and in fact it is our conflicts and the way we practice reconciliation in the midst of them that gives witness to our unity in Christ. He calls this process a “brutal unity.” (19).
Church might look different now but it’s definition and purpose is the same - church is a community of practices - those activities and ways of living that reflect the life of Jesus; church is the joining of people together in their commitment to and faith in Jesus as Lord (15).
Practice makes perfect. Just ask any olympic athlete returning home from Japan. Practice makes perfect. Whether you are an elite athlete, pro ball player, professional dancer, esteemed chef, or renowned author, speaker, and preacher. Practice makes perfect. The same applies to doing and being church. And what we practice is what we perfect.
May God’s Spirit guide each of us, together, into a true understanding of what it means to be the church. Amen.
Pastor Jenothy Irvine