Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit... And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
Back in 2017 I posted these questions: What does "church" look like to you? Is it a building? An organization? Or a thing you try to avoid at all costs? The answers varied, of course, depending on one’s personal experience.
When we started New Church Sherman Oaks, we wanted to be a place where all people felt at home - whether it was here in our house, or watching at their own. Then covid hit, and things began to change.
One of the good things about this pandemic is that it has forced organizations to rethink the way they reach people. The church is no exception. We face the difficult challenge of reimagining who we are as set out to rebuild our faith community.
For example, we’ve omitted the word church in our new name. We did that, sadly, because it has become a toxic word. One that has been hijacked and politically weaponized by some whose gospel seems to be counter to that of the Jesus I know from the Bible.
To be fair, I don’t know of any church that is like the way Jesus lived...or like the first church that is described in Acts. I fear we’ve all become more like business and institutions and less like sanctuaries and places of refuge. We’ve kept some ancient rituals but not much else.
Here’s what we need to remember: the church is not a building, it’s us. It’s not so much about where we are but who we are. More precisely, how we identify and testify to the name of Jesus Christ.
You see, the church is not about taking a passive role in some "religious service." It’s about taking an active role in the space between us as living examples of Christ himself. Being a place made holy by radical hospitality and inclusion; where we love those, who hate us and forgive those who hurt us; a place where we pray for our enemies, feed the hungry, nurse the sick, and listen to the cries of those who have been made to feel worthless.
It’s about being a place whose voice speaks up against injustice; whose heart beats for equality; and whose hands give away all that it has so that no one goes without. And we wonder why our pews are empty and people are not stammering to get in.
watch the message here
Such a place might sound impossible to achieve, but it’s not. Take a look at Peter, a simple fisherman who often frustrated Jesus by his lack of faith, launched one of the largest and by far the longest running organization in the world.
It began long before Pentecost, back to when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They tell him what they’ve heard – that he’s either John the Baptist or Elijah or some other ancient prophet. It seems people were having trouble identifying Jesus by ordinary standards because Jesus is not ordinary. There’s a way about how he lives his life that’s unlike anything people have witness, especially from their religious leaders.
But more importantly, Jesus wants to know who his disciples think that he is. And it’s Peter who blurts out, “You are the Christ.” Despite his inability to grasp much of what Jesus says, Peter is quick to identify Israel’s promised Messiah.
His historic confession not only becomes one of the greatest affirmations, but it is also one of the most rewarding in that Jesus blesses Peter by giving him the keys to the kingdom of heaven!
That’s good news for us. Because if Peter can do it, so can we! As we move forward as a church, we must never lose sight of who Jesus is. We are a part of his body. It’s in the way we identify him that people will be able to identify us.
You might be aware that in the last year or so, how we self-identify is becoming a part of our every day vernacular. This might be a good thing because it speaks to who we are. It gives us a sense of social belonging, and point of view to live by.
Recently I was asked to introduce myself to a group and to let people know which pronouns I identify with. For example, I am Ian and I identify as he and him. But I’m more than just pronouns. As my wife likes to remind me, how I act invites others to identify me as someone they should either trust or avoid.
I remember a teacher who came into class all flustered because she had an altercation with another driver on the road. What caused her to be angry wasn’t the person’s actions as much as what was on his back window: a Fuller Seminary parking sticker. One little sticker, she reminded us, can say a lot. This one in particular had the power to define Christianity to someone either positively or negatively.
The way Peter and the others identify with Jesus moves them to live like him. So much so that when people see their community, they want to be a part of it. By self-identifying with Jesus, they were able to testify to God’s love and grace like he did.
Which takes me to my second point. Being a follower of Christ is more than just knowing who he is. It’s about testifying to what he is all about - redeeming people back to God.
Filled with the Holy Spirit Peter stands before the crowd and proclaims Jesus’ message of repentance. He uses the same Greek the word Jesus used, metanoia, which unfortunately is translated as repent. But actually, it means “change” or more precisely, “change your mind.”
Our old priest Fr. Barber told a story about the time he was waiting for his plane to board, when a man approached him to tell him about Jesus. Mind you, he’s wearing his priest collar which should have been a dead giveaway that he might have already known who Jesus was. But it didn’t stop the man from preaching to a preacher. In telling the story Fr. Barber made a great point. We can’t beat or berate people into heaven. Lord knows the church has tried. No, he said, “We have to show them the way.”
If we want to change people’s minds, or show them a new way of living, we must first be willing to live that way ourselves. It didn’t take long for Peter and the gang to see just how powerful such a testimony can be. As our reading reveals, on one single day three thousand people join their community because of how they identified and testified to Christ.
Talk about a plan for church growth. It seems like a no brainer. Just build a community in Jesus’ name where God’s love is always present and visible, and people will come. If only it were that easy.
But here’s the thing, by our faith Jesus has given us the keys to the kingdom of heaven. We cannot just shove it in our pockets and purses. We gotta use them to unlock the divine love that is already in us. We need to open the doors of our hearts and share the gospel in that wide open space between us and one another.
Samuel Coleridge said, “Christianity is not a theory or a speculation...it's a life. And it's not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." We who boldly gather in Christ’s name are called to imitate him by living and caring like him. It’s that simple. And yes, it’s that difficult if only because the way of Christ is counter cultural to the way of the world.
But it’s in this space between heaven and earth, between us and them, and you and me, the Holy Spirit comes to meet us, empowering us to keep Jesus’ ministry going. Which is what we do every time we love God, love others and serve both.
This is how we identify and testify to Christ Jesus. This is the way we define ourselves and set ourselves apart from the world while thriving in the world. It’s here, in anamesa, we are the heart and hands of Christ who embraced life with such radical love that every person he came in contact with saw the light of God radiate in his body and were forever changed.
May we never forget that we are the very body of Christ, blessed and broken, to be a living testimony to the love of God as it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be, 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.
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.”