A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Easter 5 – Acts 2:42-47
Why are you here? Of all the places you could have chosen to be today, why did you choose this place? I’m going to assume you came willingly, that nobody dragged you here or bribed you to come. You’re here because for you this place has value for some reason. Why? Why are you here?
A few decades ago some of the reasons may have been quite different. Back in the day being in church was socially required. It was your duty to come. If you weren’t in church the neighbours noticed. Holding office in a church council or committee gave you status and respect in the community. None of those reasons hold true today. Nobody comes to church anymore to advance their career or because it’s a community norm. In fact, pretty much the opposite is true. Telling people you attend church now is likely to get you a raised Mr. Spock eyebrow and a dismissive “oh, isn’t that quaint.”
So why are you here?
Often when I ask this question people tell me about how nice and friendly church people are, and that their church helps a lot of people through charitable giving, and that the church takes important stands on justice issues, and that the church community is so supportive. Those are all wonderfully lovely things – but you can get all those things at Tim Horton’s or a service club. So why are you here?
Why do we need things called churches, or communities of faith?
Why do we need gatherings like this one?
Why do we need people like me doing the job I do?
Why do we have special rituals and furniture?
Why do we sing songs?
Why do we use unique language?
What do you get here that you can’t get anywhere else?
The answer is related to what we talked about last week. As a recap, and in case you weren’t here, we’re in the middle of a three week sermon series exploring the kinds of questions that people wrestle with in confirmation classes. Or at least the questions I think we should be wrestling with. Becoming a member of a church, or making a profession of faith, or getting confirmed (which are all really the same thing, it’s just whatever language floats your boat) are all concerned with three core questions.
The first is ‘Why am I a Christian and not something else?’ (How would I describe the God I know, the Jesus I know, the Holy Spirit I know? What is my language?) – that was last week. The second question is ‘Why church?’ (Why am I here? What purpose does this place serve?) – that’s this week. And the third question is ‘Why are we part of this denomination and not another? Why are we United?’ That’s next week.
Confirmation or membership is not about knowing the right answers to these questions, or having enough information about spiritual things, it’s about wrestling with the questions and in the wrestling you grow deeper in personally knowing God, Jesus, and the Spirit – and that journey of ever-deepening growth is what it’s all about.
So, having wrestled last week with the “how do you describe the God/Christ/Spirit you know” question, we turn to why we need a place like this to do that wrestling in.
Let me start by saying that we don’t really need “churches” at all. There is nothing about the edifice, the structure, the architecture of churches that is uniquely required for anything. This building, on its own, is no more or less holy or sacred than any other building. So we don’t need churches, but we absolutely do need communities of faith where people who seek to be followers of Jesus’ Way can be together.
God’s people have always congregated. Followers of Jesus have always had places where they got together. Over time those places may take on a spiritual significance, and any place that resembles them shares that significance by association – so all churches seem holy because we associate the sacred with them, but they’re not inherently special. We don’t need churches but God’s people do need a place to be together – and churches fit the bill.
The main benefit of church buildings is that ideally they’re crafted with features that promote and facilitate the real answer to my second question.
Why do we need churches? Because they help us grow ever-deeper in the Way of Jesus.
We have special buildings for all sorts of things – hockey rinks, concert halls, schools – not because those are the only places it’s possible to skate, hear music, or learn but because the specially equipped building enhances the depth and effectiveness of the experience in many significant ways.
This place is designed to help us do the four fundamental things that churches are supposed to do.
What are those four things! I’m glad you asked!
These four things have been present since the very first ever Christian church. It was in Jerusalem. It started right after the day of Pentecost (which we’ll celebrate and discuss in a few weeks). For now we just need to know that for 50 days after Jesus died and was first experienced as being risen, his disciples were laying low and not knowing how to go forward.
Then they have a powerful collective experience of the Holy Spirit and it propels them into action. Peter preaches a sermon and 3000 people are baptized. And then the story picks up with our reading from today from Acts 2:42-47.
Listen to what the very first ever Christian church was like:
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Doesn’t that sound great? And doesn’t it sound a lot like how we still do church today? I think it does!
Did you catch the four fundamental things? Here they are:
Everything else that happens, all the good things they did, even the very existence and survival of the entire concept of the Christian church, is grounded in this single verse. If you think you want to have a Christian church, then if nothing else you’d better fundamentally and primarily be about these four things: teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. (We’re going to talk about each one.)
Teaching comes in a variety of forms, but primarily it comes through sermons, bible studies, learning events, workshops, and discussion groups. The teaching of the apostles’ means that the first church members were devoted and persistent and committed to the idea of learning from their leaders.
This is one of the primary reasons why I’m here – so you, my confirmation class, can learn core things like…the 3 Cs, for example:
Of all the teaching that Jesus did – of all the acts, and stories, and parables what are the most important things in the New Testament? What did he say was essential? We believe it’s what he called “commandments”.
According to the Bible Jesus gave us 3 commandments. A commandment is not a suggestion – it’s an imperative. What are the “thou shalts” for followers of the Way of Jesus?
Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. (Mark 12:29-30)
Love your neighbour as you love yourself. (Mark 12:31)
Love one another as Jesus loved his disciples. (John 13:34-35)
And to simplify that even more we summarize it in three powerful words – Communion – love God, Compassion – love others, and Connection – love one another.
And to simplify that even more the common word is love. We are commanded to love, love, love!
(Learning foundational spiritual stuff like that is one of the best reasons for “Why church?”)
The second pillar of the earliest church was fellowship.
Fellowship in Greek is koinonia which primarily means partnership, and in other uses it means to contribute to – so the fellowship of the earliest church was more than just socializing at coffee hour, it was about partnering together, working together, contributing to one another’s well-being, supporting one another.
The breaking of bread had two meanings for them. There was the remembrance of the last supper or the Emmaus road breaking of the bread – what we’d call communion. But it was also more than that – for them it was more in the context of a shared community meal than a separate ritualized re-enactment of those events.
And the final pillar of the earliest church is the prayers. It really is “the” prayers. The “the” matters! By saying “the” prayers they’re telling us that there were intentional and communal worship elements that they did together. Worship – just like we’re doing right now!
So the first Christian church was built on the pillars of teaching, support, sacraments, and worship. And every good church since then has been built on the same thing. Why Church? Because God’s people, followers of the Way of Jesus, need a place where they can gather for teaching, support, sacraments, and worship! And those four core elements help us grow ever-deeper.
I hope you’ll remember all this the next time someone asks you “why church?” I hope you’ll go beyond the impulse to say that you do church because of the nice people who do nice things for others. I hope that you’ll passionately reply that you do church because it’s an ideal place to learn spiritual things, to support and be supported, to participate in sacraments, and to worship.
These are the reasons why we need things called churches, or communities of faith – why we need gatherings like this one – why we need people like me doing the job I do – why we have special rituals and furniture – why we sing songs – why we use unique language. Spiritual learning, support, sacraments, and worship are not on the menu at Timmie’s. These are the things you get here that you can’t get anywhere else.
And they’re also things that you can’t do exclusively on your own.
There are no solo Christians. Period.
A Christian who isn’t in relationship with other Christians, learning, supporting, sacrament-ing, and worshipping is not really a Christian. They can’t be. From the very first iteration of church the followers of Jesus’ Way have always been in close community together. You can’t “one another” yourself!
Why are you here?
Look around you. All this is why you’re here.
Spiritual learning, mutual support, sacraments, and worship. And built on these foundational pillars, and fuelled by our persistent, committed, devoted participation in them, are the myriad ways our spiritual deepening finds expression through our many, many outreach ministries and justice initiatives.
From our spiritual depth flows our spiritual response – to love.
These things are the purpose of a church building and a community of faith.
What’s in it for me?