Monday, May 12, 2014

4th Sunday of Easter: Keeping it real

Acts 2:42-47
John 10:1-10

“Appearance is something absolute, but reality is not that way.  Everything is interdependent, not absolute.”  Dalai Lama

This is to say, I stand here at the pulpit as the preacher, the pastor of the church.  This appearance alone is "absolute"; I am appointed as the pastor.  Yet I cannot - I must not - forget I did not get here alone.  The reality of my presence is "interdependent" on many others who made this "appearance" possible.

And so to make the Good News of the Lord real to those who do not believe in or care for the mission and ministry of the Church is the greatest internal challenge we face.  We who are present will likely be present in the Church until our time ends on this earth.  Whether the Church is present in us as we go into the world, however, is the question we must answer for ourselves before we try to speak to the reality of our Lord's presence in and among the Church.

"You need to get saved."  "You need to be baptized."  "Your children need to be in church and Sunday school."  "You must partake of the Lord's Supper."  "You must go to confession."  "You must cite (and believe) the Apostles' Creed."  All these practices and so many more are visible components of the life of the Church, and each of these things challenge us to look more deeply within.  Yet it often is that as much as we partake of these things, we sometimes come to worship these things as the ends themselves rather than use them faithfully as means to the End which is, of course, the Lord Himself. 

The Church is not quite as fashionable as it once was and there are many reasons why this is so; there is no single thing or person who can shoulder all the blame for the Church falling out of favor with the communities we are called to reach out to and serve - falling out of favor to the point of irrelevance. 

Some turn to the TV to find religious broadcasting suitable to them, but even one of the most prolific TV preachers has said, "You can be committed to Church but not to Christ, but you cannot be committed to Christ without the Church."  One might suspect such a quote from a pope or one of the Church fathers, but this quote is actually attributed to Joel Osteen!

Though there are many who would insist this is not correct, the sentiment that Christ and the Church cannot be separated one from the other, has undeniable merit if we understand who the Church is and what the Church is called forth to be and commissioned to do.  This is not to suggest we cannot have an encounter with the Lord outside of the Church (in fact, these are the encounters that drive us toward worship attendance); but we must understand that if the Church is not talking about the Lord and proclaiming the Gospel as we are commissioned to, it is highly unlikely anyone else will be - unless there is money to be made.     

I think, however, even the Church has in some measure lost its sense of the Gospel.  The Church has busied itself with the task of "social police" in telling people what is wrong and what things must not be done.  This is all well and good to an extent because we do have moral obligations, but simply criticizing something or finding fault with anything without offering a viable alternative is offering actually nothing at all. 

As is so often said, any fool can criticize or find fault; but it takes a devoted disciple (not a "devout" Methodist or Baptist or Catholic) to see that the solution to our social ills is The Word of the Lord.  And this Word is much more than a profession of faith or claiming Jesus as "personal Lord and Savior".  The Word is our lifeblood.  The Word is our livelihood.  The Word itself IS our Confession AND our way of life.  And The Word is still as much the same Word on Tuesday as it is on Sunday.

So when Jesus claims to be the "Gate" through which all must enter, we have to get closer in order to understand exactly what He means beyond "no one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6) - while remembering that even those disciples who were with Jesus when He taught this lesson "did not understand what He was saying to them" (John 10:6). 

Strangely enough, however, those who were written of in Acts 2 seemed to get it; those who "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers ... those who were together and had all things in common ... who sold their possessions and distributed to all, as any had need ... who spent much time together in the temple AND broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts".

It was real to them, not incidental.  Faith to the early Church was as innate as breathing.  Christ Himself was as real to them as the neighbor sitting next to them!  Not to downplay the role of the Holy Spirit during this critical time in the life of the newly born Church, but we must understand that it was as much the witness of those who were convicted that made the whole experience for new converts and those who were seeking as real as the sandals on their feet.  Faith was not a mere concept, and theology as an applied science was not yet thought of.  The Word became very real through all these things these new disciples were experiencing for themselves and sharing.  "And day by day the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved."

It is fair to say not many got "saved" but then went about their personal business as if nothing had happened.  They - like we - were saved from something as much as they were called into something ... that is, the Body of Christ, the Church, the community of believers who cared for one another!  Everything changed.  Nothing remained as it once was because this new experience was very real to them - real in a very tangible way. 

Think of this.  When you last sat for a meal and said your prayer of thanksgiving, were you doing so with "glad and generous hearts"?  Or were you simply going through the motions?  I freely admit I have a standard prayer (as many do) that I often don't give much thought to.  Reciting the Lord's Prayer as we do each Sunday has in many cases become a little too mechanical.  Oh, we pray it because Jesus taught us to; but when was the last time we earnestly reflected on its meaning?

When faith becomes routine - and for far too many it has - the "Gate" through which we must enter can simply be operated by remote control.  We have come to believe we can mindlessly press a button and expect the Gate will open - at our command; remotely ... that is, from a distance, alone, and substantially disconnected from others, from the Church.  It is this point at which our witness becomes a lie - and our faith becomes self-serving, completely antithetical to the Church. 

Then the real struggle begins.

The one thing we must remember is that thing Jesus is pointing out.  The "thieves and bandits" who came before Him either made discipleship to look exceedingly easy and self-serving (as the condemnation of the shepherds in Ezekiel 34; "You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock ... they were scattered ... and no one was seeking or searching for them") or they made discipleship excessively burdensome (like the Pharisees) with easy-to-follow but hard-to-understand rules.

Jesus came to break through all these lies, but in His purpose He deliberately uses the term "sheep" - meaning "flock", a "people".  And the name by which He called them: the Church, HIS Body.  If you want to believe by names He meant "Cindy" or "Jimmy", so be it; but we must not forget Jesus was no lone ranger nor was He calling for a bunch of individuals.  He was (and still is) calling and leading The Church, His "flock", His people, His very Body! 

But the Church our Lord gave life to is not an "institution" or a building on a street corner.  As surely as our Lord was resurrected and we sing "He Lives", so must the Church also rise from its complacent grave and truly live!  And when people see life among and in the Church ... they will come.  And they will come with "glad and generous hearts" - when they experience "glad and generous hearts"!

Let's keep it real.  Our Lord commands it, and our neighbors desperately need it!  And so do we.  Amen.   

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