“We do not think ourselves into a new way of living, but we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.” -Richard Rohr
"Metanoia, Jesus’ first message upon beginning his ministry (Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17), is unfortunately translated with the moralistic word repent. Metanoia literally means change or even more precisely “Change your mind!” So it is strange that the religion founded in Jesus’ name has been resistant to change and has tended to love and protect the past and the status quo much more than the positive and hopeful futures that could be brought about by people open to change. Maybe that is why our earth is so depleted and our politics are so pathetic. We have not taught a spirituality of actual change or growth, which is what an alternative orthodoxy always asks of us."
from Richard Rohr, daily meditation sent to my email which I occasionally get around to reading.
What does "church" look like to you? Is church a structure? An organization? A thing you avoid at all cost?
When you hear the word "church" do you only think "religion?" Or does it make you think of something unmentionable?
Do you have fond memories of a church or it's service? Do you harbor bad memories caused by a bad experience? What feelings do you have when people invite you to join them in church?
I want to know.
I'm not sure if I can offer anything to really define or classify what church is, and perhaps it's been written about to death to defend a structure that perhaps should die so it can be resurrected again. This might not be the most politically correct thing to say about the profession that I have chosen to be a part of, but perhaps we've been holding onto a concept of church that isn't what Jesus had in mind.
I've given a small series of sermons on a softer version of this question: what is church. My only sound conclusion is church is us, the people who gather to not simply hear a nice sermon, sing a few songs, and give a few bucks over to keep it open for next week. It's a place where we are supposed to offer up the radical hospitality that Jesus taught. This is more than taking a passive role in some "religious service."
Church is about walking to the front lines; loving those who hate, forgiving the unforgivable, feeding, nursing, dressing, and listening to the cries of the voiceless, the jobless, the homeless, the faithless, the worthless. Even if it means it might cost you a couple of bucks, or your life, to do so.
And here I still wonder why people are afraid to join me when I invite them.
I suck at church. But I try every day. I practice and participate. I fail, I fall, and I frequently scream some pretty "un-church-like" words at God. And still, as I sit in my tears, or in my filth, God, who sent his Son to be with me, gives me the Holy Spirit to be within me. So when I want to throw my hands up and quit...I move onward. And go one more day.
Join me, and many madmen like myself, to not simply play church, but to be church. God knows the world needs a little more love.
Today our gathered community may look different than that one in 1st Century Jerusalem, but the mission and the Spirit are still the same.
The Last of a small series of sermons on how to "church" by looking at Acts 2:42-47
On Thursday, the Christian church celebrated Ascension Day and I think it’s safe to say that you probably didn’t even notice. Ascension Day is just one of those events the early church considered to be every bit as holy as Easter, for it marks the day Jesus officially leaves us to return to God. Today, it’s about as novel as any other Thursday.
I imagine as Jesus ascends towards the heavens, his Apostles look up and wonder, “Now what?” This is a feeling I get at the end of an episode of 24 or Game of Thrones. The drama of Jesus’ incarnation does not end here with the Apostles scratching heir heads, although there will be more of that to come. But this episode does conclude with a classic cliffhanger. Jesus sending his followers onto the world stage to perform acts of God’s love to an audience clapping and clambering for more. As Jesus moves upward, we move onward.
Whether you are here in person or watching online, we come together for a reason. I believe it’s because we desire to worship God and get our fill of some spiritual nourishment. However, I like to think we naturally gravitate to each other simply because we belong to something greater than ourselves. We belong to a universal power that draws us together by the very Spirit Jesus Christ. I call this powerful life source God, who made us in God’s image, and calls us to be one with him. In doing so we will never be truly alone or left out of life’s blessings.
There are hints of this in verse 44. It reads, “All who believed were together, and they had all things in common.” We’ve spent a few weeks now looking at six verses, and for the first time, this particular verse spoke to me. As I read, and reread it, one particular word lit up: “Together.” They gather together; in one house, in one city, and for one purpose. Together, they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Just as God sent the Son to be with us, God sent the Spirit to be within us. It’s this Spirit that draws us to one another and moves us away from where we are. Like a personal trainer or coach, the Spirit strengthens and empowers us; it pushes us and stretches us; takes us out of comfort zone, kicks on the grass, and basically carries us onward to advance God’s love out into the world.
Today our gathered community may look different than that one in 1st Century Jerusalem, but the mission and the Spirit are still the same.
What is it about being “Together.” And more importantly, “How can we be together as a faith community, if we are located from different places?” This is a question New Church has been struggling to define, especially as our online worship continues to grow.
It wasn’t until last week, when I preached in Greenville, MI that the folks here in Sherman Oaks got to see how different (and perhaps difficult) this new form of worshiping could be. There are challenges for sure. But there are also blessings. So we are learning how to deal with both. We’ve discovered there is so much more we can do.
Just as we invite you to practice your faith with us, we invite you to also participate with us. Clicking the “Like” button is an easy step in the right direction. But more importantly, we really need your feedback, suggestions, and input to help us shape what this could be. Basically, we need your Spirit to guide us.
These early Christians have already given us some wonderful insights. In these six verses alone, we learn that they did fellowship (a verb) at the same time they were a fellowship (a noun) …sharing with one another both the joys and pains of a common life together. Worshiping, eating, praying, confessing their sins, forgiving one another, working side-by-side, and supporting each other physically, spiritually, and financially. They faithfully followed the teachings of Jesus passed on by the very Apostles who were there when Jesus vowed, “where two or three are gathered in my name I will be there with you.”
Does this same promise ring true today if we are gathered here, and there, and everywhere? What if we are not watching live with us on Sunday, but watching a recording of it on Tuesday, alone when you finally have some quiet time?
I’d like to think the Spirit of God is there always. After all, I haven’t known God to be anything less than honest and true to his word. And that Word, which became flesh, sent his Spirit so that we might be enlightened and understand…and do God’s will.
I take Jesus at his word when he tells us the Spirit “blows where it pleases.” Just like wind or breath, the ru-ach of God transcends time and, no matter how hard we try, God cannot be restrained by human limits (The Resurrection is a great example). God’s Spirit moves freely, penetrating hearts however, wherever, and whenever it wants. No matter where or how we gather, God is with us because God is within us.
So how can we do it? How can the Spirit move through us in fellowship?
Stemming from many conversations I had last week when I gathered with beloved friends in Greenville, I realized what we do here at our house can be done in any house, or park, or restaurant or bar. It’s pretty simple (although there are times I beg to differ). Just invite a small group of people to participate in worship with you. It could be your immediate family or a few friends. But remember, participation takes practice.
Dedicate a specific time to watch the service, whether live or a time that is more convenient. And stick to it. Work your other events around it. Make it a priority to practice church like the first Christians. Hear a lesson, read scripture, pray. And if you’re so inclined, share a wonderful meal and discuss how the week’s message is relevant to you.
This isn’t the only way, but it’s a start. A way to help you feed one another the spiritual food and receive the fuel you need to get you through the week.
If you are to remember anything about Ascension Day it’s this: Christ is not dead or absent in some far away cosmic realm. He is alive and universalized through you and me, and by what we do here, there, and everywhere. We are his body, and within us is his Spirit. As such we have endless opportunities to define and redefine it for ourselves.
Jesus leaves us with a “sky’s the limit” ministry that allows us to: reach those who are homebound; be there for those who hate the church but love of Jesus; to be there and share our resources for a common good, be it our personal possessions, like time and money, or our private possessions, like our sins and burdens. We’ve been filled with the Spirit of love, mercy, and forgiveness, which God has given to us all. Now we must go and give it away.
To quote Pope John-Paul II, "Nobody is so poor that he/she has nothing to give, and nobody is so rich that he/she has nothing to receive." These words offer a powerful reminder of who Jesus is and what he did, as well as what he has called us to be and do; both receivers of his love, and givers of his love, everywhere we go. And anywhere we gather.
By this simple action the threads of our separate private lives be woven together into a fabric of true fellowship in which Christ makes all things new. As the first Christian’s understood, such a blessing is worth everything we have and are.
This is the good news. Take it out into the world, using words if necessary. Amen.
Bible. Acts 2:42-47 (NRSV).
Byassee, Jason. "Living in the Word: To all the world" Sojourners, May 2017: 44.
Moore, Charles. Called To Community. Walden: Plough Publishing House, 2016.
The editorial staff of Sojourner magazine posted this question, "What would Jesus Cut?" This is in reference to the new budget proposed from the Trump White House. I could write a million words on this, but instead I will allow Henri Nouwen to speak for me. Even though thisbdear man has been dead for 2 decades his words seem to sum up my anger in a more positive light.
He said, "Jesus, the Blessed Son of God, hungers and thirsts for uprightness. He abhors injustice. He resists those who try to gather wealth and influence by oppression and exploitation. His whole being yearns for people to treat one another as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the same God.
What is fair? What is just? What do we cut? And who do we sacrifice?
I reckon how we see God and how we love Jesus will determine our answers as well as our actions.
More Christians spend more time on Facebook than they do in church. And for some of us that’s a good thing, because some social communities are kinder, gentler, and more welcoming than some churches these days.
Part of a small sermon series on "church" as inspired from Acts 2:42-47 (Given in a home just outside Greenville, Michigan).
Once again it is such a joy to be among you all, and to worship with you in this new way. But as we just learn from our reading, gathering in someone’s home for church service was the norm. As the disciples took the gospel out into the world, the Holy Spirit does its thing, and without much else the body of Christ is formed.
Luke gives us front row seat as the infant church begins to take shape. These few verses give us a glimpse of what it means to be a church community. At New Church Sherman Oaks (or as Hollie calls it…California Church), it’s imperative for us to return to these six verses to understand how and why we are called to gather together. Like Kathleen pointed out last week, this passage teaches us how share our meals and our concerns with one another, read scripture, pray together and hopefully listen to some wise teachings.
If you’ve been a churchgoer your whole life, most of this stuff might seem like second nature. If you’ve been away from the church for a while, it should be familiar enough to jump right in to. However, as some of you have discovered, watching online can take some getting used to. But like with anything new, the more you practice and participation seems to be the keys of success; especially for the early church. So for those who choose to watch at home in your Superman pajamas, we have to figure out ways to eat, drink, pray, and sing together across state lines and even continents.
Raise your hand if you’re on Facebook right now. A few years ago I would have been upset if someone were on the phone during worship service. But thanks to the same Spirit that came upon the early church, we have been given technology that allows us to do exactly what Jesus taught; go to where the people are.
Statistically speaking, Christians spend more time on Facebook than they do in church. And for some of us that’s a good thing, because some social communities are kinder, gentler, and more welcoming than some churches these days.
Don’t get me wrong I like the church. In fact, most of us probably love church. But somehow we’ve forgot how to practice what we preach. I’ve said it before, but when Kathleen and I were discerning our call to be a church plant she said she didn’t want to be “the church” but instead simply be “church.” It made me ask the question, “Where did we go wrong?” What happened?
We want to be good, and do well, right? We want to serve God and help our community. But when was the last time we spent all our time together in awe? Or drunk with wonder? (Noticed I said drunk “with wonder,” Bo…) And when was the last time we really amaze our neighbors? Or saw the Lord “day by day adding to our number those being saved”?
Instead of going to where the people where, we built buildings and demanded that people come to us. And something began to change.
There’s difference between playing “church” and being “church.”
These few verses in Acts 2 are an idyllic reminder of what being a church is all about, or what Nadia Bolz-Weber calls our “10 minute hippy phase.” It was sort of like a utopian commune where believers sold all their stuff and pooled all the resources so there was not a single person in need.
Well, like Woodstock and Flower Power, this communal Spirit was short lived. We eventually locked ourselves away behind walls. And instead of giving our money away to those in need, we invested in 401k’s and IRA’s to ensure our own needs are met later down the road. Is this what God meant by being good stewards of our resources?
Think about it. God had so much confidence in the twelve disciples (and in us) that he left the entire organization in their hands. And the only blueprint or instruction manual they were given was to follow Jesus’ example. We are the body of Christ, and as that body we are called to be one with Jesus in the way we love and care for each other.
But somewhere along the way this body got lazy and unfocused. Like theological engineers, we began to monkey with God’s plans and schematics to fit the particular challenges we face. As a result, we became less like Christ and more like the people who killed him. What happened? Where did we go wrong?
In his book, Organic Church, Neal Cole describes the church as suffering from a bad case of memory loss; “like the slow decay of someone with Alzheimer’s disease.” Cole argues the church has forgotten “who they are and what their lives are all about. Either they don’t even realize it or have simply forgotten something is wrong.” We must turn to the master physician to be healed.
Jesus sees “The church is a living organism, not a building, a dogma, or static institution.” He describes us as living seeds and living stones; yeast that is active and alive; salt that is full of flavor; light that awakens the world.
When the disciples were in awe of the magnificent buildings that surrounded the temple, Jesus proclaims that he would tear down those massive structures and rebuild it in three days. I don’t think he meant a bigger, fancier Mega-church in a more affluent neighborhood with ample parking. Instead, the temple he was referring to was us…you and me…together with the saints and all believers we are the living body of Christ.
The first disciples followed Jesus’ lead. They gathered in small groups, outside and inside the homes of other believers. Early church life was “nourished through normal family and home life. And “it was fed through groups of people who met together and shared Jesus’ teachings…both by example and by word of mouth.”
Just as Jesus had gathered with his twelve, we come together in the name of Jesus Christ; living, learning, praying, and practicing the mercy and grace of a living God. It is by this practice that God adds to our numbers day-by-day, state-by-state, country-by-country. (Snyder)
This way of worship has nothing to do with a building or a religious language or specific dogma. It can be practiced anywhere and in many ways. But it begins by seeing “church” in a new way. A new church, if you will.
Jesus is not calling us to be a religion, but to be his living presence in the world; to proclaim the gospel with our words and deeds. In keeping in line with our teacher, our highest priority must be social justice, communal unity and social harmony. Our real power doesn’t reside in the number of people sitting on pews; our real power comes from the number of people we reach with our love.
These few verses in Acts 2 teach us that the way we share a meal with one another is more important than some sanctimonious liturgy or unbendable traditions. The way we build a living, loving, thriving church community begins in the way we:
Live in harmony with one another; wait for one another; have the same care for one another; serve one another; bear each other’s burdens; comfort one another and build one another up; the way we be at peace with one another; put up with one another in love; be kind and compassionate to one another; submit to one another; confess your sins to one another and pray for one another; forgive one another; love one another from the heart, be hospitable and humble. The list goes on and on.
An authentic church is not a building any more than it is a liturgy, or specific traditions we hold onto. It’s an ethic, an economy and a culture that welcomes friends and strangers alike.
What our structures or service looks like is second to who we are called to be like… Jesus…the Master carpenter who constructs in us a new life – a life to be lived more abundantly, and shared freely – whether we are worshipping in a backyard in Southern California or a the living room in Western Michigan, or live streaming in Northern Ireland or somewhere in the Middle East.
Jesus calls us to go out into the world to be his living body… and put into practice the steadfast love and everlasting grace of God.
This is the good news given to you, go out and proclaim it…using words if necessary. Amen.
Bible. Acts 2:42-47 (NRSV).
Byassee, Jason. "Living in the Word: Scared Sheep?" Sojourners, May 2017: 44.
Cole, Neal. ORganic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.
Snyder, Howard. Called To Community. Edited by Charles E. Moore. Walden: Plough Publishing House, 2016.
In John's Gospel Jesus sits with his closest friends and speaks these intimate words to them. As you read them, imagine hearing Jesus say them to you. And picture the relationship he is inviting you to share with him.
“If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”
John 15:10-17 NIV
we must be willing to “Help one person at a time, starting with the person nearest you.” - St. Teresa of Calcutta
Journalist Anthony Burgess wrote, “If God is like Jesus, then God is worth believing in.”
What does this tell you about Jesus? And more importantly, what does it tell you about yourself? Despite any questions over his divinity and humanity, Jesus lives his life in a way that God desires all of us to live, that is to say with justice, compassion, and mercy.
Last week God revealed a bit of himself when Moses asks, "Who are you?" God responded by identifying himself with Israel’s ancestors, and the promise he made to them as their God. Today Jesus asks the questions. And it’s his disciples who give their answers with people from Israel’s past.
When Jesus asks the first question, “Who do people say that I am?” there are different responses. Some see him as John the Baptist while others believe he is a prophet. The confusion stems from the fact that Jesus doesn’t quite fit the mold of those historical figures.
There is something unique about the way he testifies to the kingdom of God. His interpretation of the law is captivating. And his teachings of love and acceptance draw people in. This makes it hard to define him by ordinary standards. What they know is Jesus is not ordinary.
He shifts the discussion by asking his disciples, “Who do say that I am?” With great enthusiasm Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ” (The Messiah). In what seems like a wild guess, Peter is quick to identify Jesus with the One that Israel has longed for over the centuries; the Messiah that would rescue them from their captivity. What did Peter see that the others could not?
Peter’s historic confession not only becomes one of the greatest affirmations of God in Christ Jesus, but it is also one of the most rewarding. Because of his answer Jesus blesses Peter by giving him the keys to the kingdom of heaven!
Now I have a daughter who can’t wait to learn how to drive. I’ll admit I’m terrified to give her the keys to a vehicle I cannot afford to replace. I can’t help but wonder, “Can I trust her? Does she have the maturity to handle such a big responsibility?” I can imagine Jesus having the same thought. After all, Peter is given the keys to a very powerful machine. Crashing it is not an option.
What you need to know about Peter is this, he’s a lot like your average sixteen-year-old boy; quick to answer; acts like he knows it all; constantly bumbling and stumbling; runs from responsibility, and almost always misses the point. In the following verses Jesus will go as far as rebuking him, calling him “Satan” for setting his mind on human things instead of divine. So what then inspires Jesus to hand over the keys to the kingdom of heaven to such an irresponsible buffoon? Surely there were better choices.
I believe Jesus rewards him not for his rightness or righteousness, but instead for his confession, that is to say the way he identifies with Jesus. This is important to us because we, the gathered church, are called to testify to Jesus and identify with him by acting accordingly. For better or worst, it’s in the way we testify to God at work in us, that people will come to know who Jesus is.
Self identify, with individuals as well as groups, is important to who we are and who we will become. It not only builds up people but societies as well. It gives us a sense of social belonging, as well as a particular image or point of view to live by. And allows people to know if they can trust us, or if they should avoid us. Our jobs, our families and friends, our civic and religious involvement, and even our taste in music say a lot about who we are.
A teacher at my seminary had an altercation with a driver on the road. While this was upsetting on its own, she really didn’t let it bother her until she saw Fuller Seminary parking sticker on the back of the car. One little sticker, she reminded us, can say a lot. And this one in particular had the power to define Christianity (and Christians) either positively or negatively.
Historically this text has been used to justify human authority of the church. But I see it differently. I believe this passage teaches us how to define Jesus’ authority, and our call to submit to by being a living testimony to God at work in the world. And believe me, we all have a testimony to give.
Years ago, I was at a party when a neighbor asked if I’d go to church with him. He had recently joined AA and didn’t want to go alone. As we were walking to church, I couldn’t help but to ask him, “Why me?” His response was life changing. He said I was the only one he knew who ever talked about God without adding damn after it. That one little confession, his simple testimony, allowed me to see God at work in my life. Little did I know that it would change my life.
Jesus gives us the keys of the kingdom to open the door to a new life. We cannot just shove them in our pocket or purses. Instead we must use them. We must testify to God at work in our life by being the heart and hands of God who comes to us where we are, and loves us just as we are. It’s up to us to proclaim God’s love by being more like Jesus, full of justice, compassion, and mercy.
So what does this means for us today? Jesus is asking us to be a living testimony to God’s love in the world. He’s calling us to cross over to the wrong side of the tracks, across picket lines, religious lines and even political party lines, to be there for the lost, the forgotten, and the thrown away. And let’s face it, there is a lot of pain and hurt in our world and in our social groups.
As Mother Teresa understood it, we must be willing to “Help one person at a time, starting with the person nearest you.”
Your challenge this week is to go out into the world and proclaim the name of Jesus with your heart and your hands. Embrace life with such radical love and forgiveness that every person you come in contact with will see the light and love of God in you.
This is important because, as Jason Byassee writes “God desires a people of mercy who adore the poor, who treasure creation, who notice the dignity in every single human face. Not because it’s nice. But because God has a human face.” As you now know, that face has a name. And he’s curious how you will answer when he asks, “So who do you say that I am?”
This is the Good News that I give to you. Go now and share it with the world. Use words only if you have to. Amen.
Byassee, Jason. "What Are We Baptized For?" Sojourners, May 2017: 44.
Kim, Jin S. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3. Edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
That is all it said on the little girl’s t-shirt.
Two words painted over a childlike rainbow graphic
and a few dirt smudges for good measure.
A tattooed mom,
too old to be looking that hip, followed her like a shadow.
The pair making an impact
Simply by wearing it out in broad daylight
I’d like to think the shirt was handed down,
recycled as most toddler togs often are. It was a perfect fit.
Two small words for two different girls.
With tussled blonde hair,
wild as the look in her eyes, the world erupted in her smile
She was love in its simplest form;
touching my spirit in a place that longed for
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”