ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH NOVEMBER 4, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
(Deuteronomy 6: 1 – 9); 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 27; Mark 12:28 – 34
After worship, the new minister greeted the members. Most people were supportive, telling her they liked her message. One man however, said, “The sermon was dull and boring.” A bit later, the same man appeared and said, “I don’t think you did much preparation.” Later, the same man bluntly said, “You blew it. You didn’t have a thing to say.” Finally, the minister went to an elder and inquired about the man. “Oh, don’t let him bother you,” said the elder. “He often goes around repeating what other people say.”
There are many reasons people don’t go to church. One is poor preaching. Another is hypocrisy: While going over the church finances, a treasurer found a receipt from a paint store signed by someone named “Christian”. Unaware of anyone buying paint, he called the store. The manager checked his records and insisted the invoice was right, “The receipt is signed by Christian and the billing address is your church. The treasurer was adamant, “I’m sorry. That can’t be right, we don’t have any “Christians” in our Church.” We’re all aware of the other reasons: Christians are judgemental. Christians aren’t welcoming. Church is boring. Christian leaders abuse their power. The Church is irrelevant. Christians don’t have fun. This leads us to ask: Is the church important?
Before we explore that, we need to ask: what or whom “the Church” is. Most people, including some Christians, mistake the Church for the building in which the Church gathers, worships, fellowships and reaches out. The Church isn’t a building, the Church is people who profess faith in Jesus Christ. The Church is all Christians of every time and place, including the future. Ironically, even though all those people (like us) are sinners, we also call them saints. The term “saints”, naturally, applies to the great saints of history: Peter, Stephen, Augustine, Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila, as well as many others. It also includes less celebrated saints like your great grandpa, Aunt Betty, your favorite Sunday School teacher, Rev All-too-human and you, and me. What makes us saints are not our goodness or the miracles we perform. It’s the grace of God in Jesus Christ, alone, which makes us saints. Today is “All Saints” Sunday, a day to acknowledge and give thanks for the Church “visible and invisible”, dead and alive, those who were and are and are to come. We believe we have an on-going connection with some who have died because those who died in Christ, live eternally. We are one with them – united in Christ. So, they chose this time of the year to remember and celebrate all the Saints of the Church. The church is both the invisible, Holy, fully sanctified society of the truly faithful and she’s the visible, earthly imperfect organization of professing Christians. So we too are all saints, the person next to you whom you love, the people with whom you serve, the one who gets under your skin, those who can and cannot sing, from the oldest to the youngest. All saints.
People often ask, “Why do we need the Church? Can’t I be just as good a Christian without it?” If we understand what the Church is, the answer is no. In 1 Corinthians, Paul describes the Church as the body of Christ with Christ being our head. Like a human body, the Church is made up of many parts and all the parts need one another to function and be healthy. If I severe my finger from my body, it will live for a short time, but if it’s not re-connected, it will soon die. The same is true of us, if we cut ourselves off from the Church, it doesn’t take long before our spirits start to die and our practices, like worship, prayer, charity and witnessing, shrivel up. We may think we’re not missing anything, but we’re missing something essential: our life-blood, our muscles that allow us to move, our bones which hold us together and most of all our head. The body is not complete if some part is missing; we may get along, put it’s not the same. Simply put, we need each other. Paul wrote, “Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”? (vs. 21). The writer of Hebrews encourages us, “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on…” (10:25) Yet, many people have short memories. Three pastors got together because all their churches had bat-infestation problems. One said, “I took a shotgun and fired at them. It made holes in the ceiling but did nothing to the bats.” “I tried trapping them alive,” said the second. “Then I drove 50 miles before releasing them, but they beat me back to the church.” “I haven’t had any more problems,” said the third. “I simply baptized and confirmed them. I haven’t seen them since.” No one can fulfill what it means to be a Christian apart from the church, membership is the indispensable mark of salvation.
Every time we gather as the Church, we witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. Martin Luther believed, “Anyone who is to find Christ must first find the church. How could anyone know where Christ is or what faith is unless he knows where his believers are?” In other words, Christ lives among his people. He lives in our worship, in our interactions, in our service and in our love for one another. If you want to find Christ, you need to go where Christ lives. As we come together, we provide a place for others to discover Christ. When we’re united in our faith and loving towards each other, our life together becomes a model and witness for others.
As the Church, we grow together. Calvin saw the Church as our mother, “I shall start, then, with the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his children, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry so long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature. For those to whom God is Father, the Church may also be Mother”. Like a mother, we have a great responsibility to be a place where people are safe and spiritually nourished. We are also to tenderly guide each other. Within the Church, we help each other grow. We do our studies in groups and in community because everyone has something to offer and add to our discussions which benefits others. We listen to each other. We search the scriptures together. We seek God’s will in an atmosphere of love and support.
The Church works as a team. We each bring our own unique gifts and abilities. We compliment each other. “Many hands make light work.” Together we do great things. Phillip Yancy writes, “Together we impact the world for Good. I too read church history and see stories about strife and fighting for power. That’s true of Islamic history, Buddhist history, Communist history, and every other human history I know of. Christianity does not solve all the problems of human nature. It’s a faith that assumes those problems and traces them back to the Fall. At the same time, …much of what we admire in the world today—charity, health care, education, democracy, literacy, human rights—trace directly back to Christian sources. There have been many bright spots…I go to Church to meet God in the presence of other Jesus-followers. I go to be reminded and challenged of the radical nature of Jesus’ call. I go to find a place to exercise my gifts within the body. And I go to learn from people who represent a diversity of age, gender, social class, and race.” Within our own congregation, things are accomplished by teams – one group sets up tables, another cooks. One group bakes, others show up to sell. One group does a “needs assessment”, another group investigates the possibilities, we make decisions together. I may usually lead worship but not without Joan and the choir, our tech people, our coffee makers, our ushers and greeters and all the people gathered as a team with one heart and one mind.
The Church cares for each other. Many who have been through a crisis or tragedy knows the love and support of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul observes, “The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part…If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.” This is essential to our life together. Many in St. Stephen’s can attest to this experience. Yet, there may be some – newer members, people on the margins – who haven’t experienced the love and support of our congregation. I can only encourage you to never hold back in picking up the phone and asking someone if they’re ok or if there’s something you can do or just telling them, “I’m praying for you.” We also need to rejoice with one another in every aspect of our lives that is good – wholesome achievements in the secular realm are important milestones for those involved, and one more witness to others of how things can be done differently.
While the church benefits each of us and shows God’s love to the world, the primary reason Christians come together is to worship God. We gather each week to remember the Triune God. We give glory to our Creator. We celebrate the resurrection of Christ – every Sunday is a little Easter. We offer praise for the Holy Spirit within us. In worship we breathe, sing and love as one entity. In worship God is lifted up in our hearts and enthroned on our praises. People who are bored or indifferent to worship are not ready for heaven. N.T. Wright said, “The closer you get to the truth, the clearer the beauty and you will find worship welling up within you.”
We celebrate All Saints Day because we remember those who have blazed the way before us and we rejoice in those who share this journey with us. It’s awe-inspiring to know we’re all united. We are like the vibrations of a bell ringing through time. When asked by a scribe, “which is most important of all the commandments” (Mark 12: 28). Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!” and Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself.” 1500 years later, Jesus upheld it as central to the gospel. And here we are, 2000 years later, still reading it and hearing it. For 3500 years, this one passage has molded God’s people. Generations of saints had it taught to them and strived to live and breathe it. Another 5000 or 10,000 years from now, people will still be heeding it’s call. When we get to heaven we’ll continue to uphold it with the saints who are already there. In its essence this directive tells us we’re the Church so we’ll go into the world “Loving God and Loving People.”