The Forging of Unity (Living as Resurrection People)

In Sermons Kyndall by Covenant Baptist

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Living as Resurrection People: The Forging of Unity
Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:3, 6-7
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Eastertide
April 15, 2012
Kyndall Renfro

 

Very few people these days have ever experienced church in the rosy, picturesque way it is described in Acts chapter 4: “They were of one heart and soul. God’s grace was powerfully at work among them. There was not a needy person among them.” Of course, the rest of Acts will paint a more realistic portrayal, complete with persecutions, church disputes, and everyday setbacks. But even still, shouldn’t the church of today live up to the ideal in Acts chapter 4 at least partway or some of the time?

Instead, it is more common for people go to church and experience burn-out or manipulation or bullying or judgment or bickering or just plain boredom, and as result it is becoming a trend in my generation to leave the church behind altogether. My peers aren’t necessarily losing faith or abandoning God, but they are exiting the church doors by the herds and most are not coming back. While spirituality remains in vogue, the church itself has been too big of a disappointment to stomach. These days God is easier to spot among the trees than he is to find beneath any steeples, and my generation isn’t afraid to say so out loud and head to the forest, without glancing back at the pews.

Eugene Peterson tells the story of being a young pastor leading a building campaign for his church. The campaign was energizing and effective . . . but after the building was completed, people stopped coming to church! An advisor told Peterson the church needed a new challenge, a new goal, something to achieve in order to keep people engaged. He told Peterson, “Start another building fund, even if you don’t intend to build a building.”[1]

Does that advise feel “off” to you? Tricking people to get involved in a project that isn’t going anywhere? Is the goal of the church to get people in the doors or to form people into real disciples of Jesus Christ? But then again, how do you form disciples if no one shows up?

An important question is where did people get the idea that they could be stay-at-home Christians, private Christians, closet Christians? Biblically-speaking, there is no such thing. As Eugene Peterson writes, “Whether we like it or not, the moment we become a Christian, we are at the same time a member of the Christian church . . . we become brothers and sisters in faith. No Christian is an only child . . .”[2]

And yet, Christians are showing up at the church to start with but then leaving, deeply wounded and afraid to show their face again. If not deeply wounded, at least genuinely disappointed and disillusioned. Can they be blamed for wanting to bail, for feeling they have no other choice but to pursue a healthier spirituality on their own?

We must admit the Church has done some ugly things—some of them outright horrendous, some of them more subtly harmful. People have been hurt, at times, even killed in the name of the Church, and for all the atrocities of the Church, we are both deeply sorry and unequivocally adamant that Jesus Christ himself is against all hatred, abuse, and exploitation.

That being said, we turn to the lesser abuses—the everyday frustrations, the grumpy attitudes, the gossiping tongues, the plain, sinful, sometimes dramatic, sometimes dull people who make up the church. The aggravating stuff with which of all us are probably all too familiar. Sometimes the normal, daily soap opera of church is enough to scare people away as it is.

As Peterson puts it, “the fact that we are family does not mean we are one big happy family.”[3] He says it’s like sibling rivalry, being in the church, like children, so full of their own needs that a brother or sister becomes a competitor.[4] The Psalms tell us it is joyful and pleasant when kindred live together in unity . . . but if you’ve been a part of the church or even been a part of a human family, you know that such pleasant unity is hard to come by. How did the church in Acts do it? Have one heart and one soul?

The rest of Acts will demonstrate that even this community was not without its problems. There was external pressure and internal conflict, unresolved questions and regular ole’ people. Their one and only “secret” ingredient was the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which they continued to proclaim all their days. It is not as if unity magically occurred because everything was in order or because just the right kind of people found each other. Unity happens in the middle of a mess, as people learn how to love another, share with one another, and put their trust in the resurrection reality that can make all things new. This doesn’t come easy, but as Peterson says, “If God is my Father, then this is my family.”[5] And all families take effort.

The people of God are going to sweat a bit, but most church buildings I’ve been in have the AC cranked high, disguising the fact this is about to get uncomfortable. We don’t want people to know it’s going to be hard, because then they might not stay. We want them to feel happy and pleased and comfortable, but I wonder if that’s as dishonest as starting a building campaign when you aren’t going to build anything at all.

Nate and I were confiding in a friend about a low point in our young marriage and he reminded us that while it’s a great thing when your marriage is happy, marriage is not meant to make you happy. Marriage is to make you holy, he said, and that hit our unhappy hearts like a dagger, but it hit like the truth too. There’s nothing like marriage to make you confront your dark side. You could very well nurse your darkness if you were alone, but marriage drags your crap out into light and asks you straight, “Are you going to keep feeding the mess inside of you forever or are you going to let that part die, so that you can live more fully?”

And while it is great when the church makes you happy, the church is not meant to make you happy. The church is meant to make you holy. There’s nothing like the church to make you confront your dark side. So there will be days where you are frustrated or discouraged, even angry, be it the universal Church, or your own local congregation. But you don’t give up, because this is the roadway to holiness. Even when everything is rubbing you the wrong way, don’t run off. It may be rubbing your sins right off.

This is probably harder for me to believe than it is for you to believe. It is a well-known fault of most pastors that we are addicted to trying to keep everyone happy, which is mostly impossible, which is why a good number of us end up burning out along the way. So maybe you could help me out? Come tell me when I must be doing something wrong because you are just so darn happy at Covenant. I need to loosen up and quit pleasing you so much. Remind me that on occasion the liturgy needs to make you uncomfortable, that if I don’t make sense in my sermon or we didn’t sing your favorite hymn, that’s actually what you need if the church is going to prod your growth. Every once in awhile, you need the church to shake you up a bit, because if everyone’s always pleased as peach, then something’s gone terribly wrong around here.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this in his classic work, Life Together: “The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. We must surely be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. Visionary dreaming makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. 

Because God has bound us together in one body in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds up together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.”[6]

When someone advised Eugene Peterson to start a building campaign in order to revitalize his church, Peterson did nothing instead. He slowed down and waited, and he said later, “By doing nothing, I think I was slowly being cured. I learned to live a life that was contemplative, not competitive.”[7]

I asked earlier where people got the idea you could be a stay-at-home Christian, and I think this is fueled by a renewed hunger for authenticity, a hunger so strong people are fed up with churches that are not sincere or true to the love of Christ, and that fire is a good thing and an important voice for the church to hear. But underneath the good desires seems to be a lack of willingness to weather through disappointment—which is ultimately a community-breaker, a family-breaker, a friendship-breaker. You all have chosen both authenticity and the bravery to weather disappointment, which is why you stick around here, and that is a beautiful thing.

Part of growing as a Christian or growing as a church or just growing as a person for that matter is learning to sit with our discontent. To stop being driven by the need for immediate satisfaction, to live with our unhappiness and anxiety and see what they have to teach us. Some of our discontent will turn out to be ill-founded and will surprisingly melt away when we least expect it. Some of our discontent will resolve itself because our patience will grant needed grace to sticky situations. Then again, some of our discontent will follow us around like a ghost, whispering in our ear, never letting us alone, but even these ghosts will become less important to us than the real people standing at our side, offering us their faltering but beautiful expressions of love.

The Psalmist says it is pleasant and good when kindred live together in unity, like oil running down the beard of Aaron. Which is a weird metaphor unless you know that oil signified the anointing of a priest. Thus, Peterson says, “Living together means seeing the oil flow over the head, down the face, through the beard, onto the shoulders of another—and when I see that I know that my brother, my sister, is my priest. When we see the other as God’s anointed, our relationships are profoundly affected.”[8] The Psalmist tells us this is the blessing the Lord wants for us, and he calls it “life evermore.” In other words, heaven itself is like a good party, where relationships are warm, and companionship is joyful, and priests are abundant.

But we’ve got to stay honest about our little piece of heaven here on earth, which we call Covenant Baptist Church. We’ve got to be honest that this family isn’t going to make it because we are all so alike or because our worship runs smoothly or because our building is beautiful. The only real unifying factor is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the power of that single story to change us and bind us together. We have to die a little to self—all of us—in order to rise up in love. We must accept that the person across the room so different from me is my priest, and God set it up so that we would need each other. We must face the death of our wish-dreams and our illusions of community for the real community of Christ to thrive.

This place won’t be the fellowship you want, but it will be the fellowship you need, if you stay put, if you see the oil running over the beard of your otherwise exasperating neighbor, if you keep the resurrection story tucked in your heart and water it like a seed that will sprout just when you thought it was dying, if you learn to share with others and to accept the gifts offered to you, if you relax your hold on your wishes and dreams and open your hands to receive grace just as it comes. Though there will be obstacles and frustrations a plenty, you’ll be tickled pink to look back and realize how good and how pleasant it was when kindred lived together in unity, like a party of laid-back priests, offering the sacraments of grace to one another, like a piece of heaven on earth, like a layer of dew in a dry place, like the very body of Christ filled with the life-giving power of the Spirit. Amen.

 


[1] Cathleen Falsani, “Doing Nothing for Lent,” Sojourners. http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/03/08/doing-nothing-lent

[2] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 175.

[3] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 175.

[4] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 179.

[5] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 176.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 26-29.

[7] Cathleen Falsani, “Doing Nothing for Lent,” Sojourners. http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/03/08/doing-nothing-lent

[8] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 181.