41Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
I spent the last three days in Raleigh, NC. And if you think it was hot here, you ain’t even seen hot! Virginia Mennonite Conference met at North Carolina State University for our annual conference and it was smoking. And we heard a number of times from the leaders of local congregations in NC that they wanted to extend to us their “warmest” welcome.
It was fun being back on a college campus, though it is noticeably different when you are there with a 5-month-old child. I like to think of myself as not being too old, but you start to feel like you might not belong among the youngsters as you push a baby stroller around campus.
We stayed in the dorms, which was a bit of an experience. Sonya, Paxton, and I were in one room with two single beds which were lofted to about 5 feet high. And we shared a bathroom with another couple. Living in such close quarters with other people, we were very cautious about making sure that Paxton would not make too much noise at night and wake the neighbors. So any noise out of Paxton, and we were getting out of bed to offer him a pacifier.
Let me be perhaps the first person to ever tell you that getting in and out of a lofted bed at 2am to tend to a baby is a little scary. I usually try to have the attitude that I need to get out of bed as quickly as possible so that I can get back in. However, it can be a challenge to remember at that time that you are about five feet off the ground. I am glad to report that there were no serious injuries over the weekend.
I realize now as I reflect on the weekend that it would have been exponentially more difficult with the baby if we did not have the help of others. From eating in the cafeteria to walking around with a fussy baby during worship times, the people at that conference made life a lot easier for us. We were glad for the people that made up our church these last few days.
When I use the word church, I am not referring to a building, or a service, but I am referring to the people that voluntarily enter into a community where God is worshipped and the neighbor is loved. So with my recent “church” experience, it seems appropriate to me that we look at core conviction #5 from Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist today, as Murray focuses on what he believes that the Anabaptist approach toward the church has to offer the rest of the world. Core conviction #5 is:
Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability, and multi-voiced worship. As we eat together, sharing bread and wine, we sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender, and baptism is for believers.
Our scripture for today comes from Acts chapter two where we read about some of what is going on in the 1st century church. It seems to me that we often make the 1st century church out to be the ideal church, and sometimes we do that for good reasons. But if we were to read through books of the Bible like 1 Corinthians, we can find that the 1st century church was anything but perfect. Issues of sexual immorality, greed, and power are just a few that Paul addresses. But in spite of all of its imperfections, we also find a lot of good things going on in the early church. We find things like discipleship, fellowship, community, mutual aid, and worship.
Anabaptists have long believed that their churches should resemble the 1st century church, or at least have some of the same characteristics and not some of the one’s that Paul critiques. So what I would like to do today is to look at a couple of the highlights that Murray lifts out as essential aspects of the Anabaptist church, see how these might relate to the church we find in the Bible, and how we might be more faithful to our calling to be the church today.
The first is that the church today is to be a place of discipleship and mission. As we look at the early church, the church focused both on the individual growing closer to God, looking more and more like Jesus, as well as being Jesus to the rest of the world; discipleship and mission. Too often the church today is about “knowing” Jesus. That is something that happens in our heads, or if you want to be a little more poetic, it happens in our hearts. The 1st century church and the early Anabaptists would have understood that Jesus wasn’t just someone that they were called to believe in. We can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. But I don’t know of anyone that has committed their life to following Santa Claus. That’s why the Anabaptist emphasis on discipleship is so important. It differentiates between Jesus and Santa.
Discipleship requires that we believe that Jesus is really who he says he is, which is Lord and God. So I don’t mean to say that there is no value in believing in Jesus. I simply mean to say that it doesn’t stop there. When the first disciples were called by Jesus to be his disciples, they first believed that this man was something special. And that believing led to them following him, learning from him and from each other, and eventually taking on disciples of their own, people that would learn from the original disciples. Then those disciples would go out and they would make disciples. And then those disciples would go out and they would make disciples. This is mission. The church is a place where disciples make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples.
The second aspect of church that Murray lifts out as being a characteristic of the church is that the church is to be a place of friendship and mutual accountability. We all know what friends are, right? Friends are the people that we can share our joys and struggles with. Friends are people that we want to spend time with. Friends are people that we like. But here is an aspect of friendship that we don’t often think about. Friends are people that will give us a good kick in the pants when we need it.
If you have a friend that is walking toward the edge of a cliff, and you see that he is going to fall off, you would say something to him, right? “Hey, Johnny. You’re heading toward a cliff.” “Thanks, Kevin!”
Friends are people that will tell you if they think you are doing something destructive in your life, even if it might jeopardize your relationship. If you have a married friend and you see him spending a lot of time with another woman, as a friend, you should say something to that friend. Not to another friend, that’s gossip. But to the friend that is getting too close to the woman that is not his wife. A real friend is willing to risk their relationship with you if it will help to salvage your relationship with another person.
In the church we put a fancy name on it and call it mutual accountability. I am accountable to you and you are accountable to me. The mutual part of this is that it goes both ways. It isn’t about telling someone else how to live their lives. But when we become members of a church, we invite other people to help us live the life that we believe will best glorify God.
When we receive new members here at Staunton Mennonite, I always have a line in the vows that asks the question, “Are you willing to give and receive counsel?” When I do a baby dedication, I invite the entire congregation to be a part of it because all of the people in the church are called to help in the raising of this child.
I know that this can be scary to a lot of people. We all want to tell other people how to live, I mean make suggestions in their life choices. But we don’t like people to meddle in our business. But that’s just it. It isn’t just your business. When you live in a close community like the church, your decisions aren’t just your own. They affect us all, and they affect your relationship with God.
I want to lump a couple of the other characteristics of the church that Murray notes together. He talks about the church being multi-voiced, a place where leadership is consultative, and leadership is not divided up by age or gender. In some churches you will find what I call a CEO model of leadership. There might be a board that helps make the decisions, but really there is one person who is the clear boss. That boss is the one who does the preaching on Sundays. That boss is the one that decides where the offering will be spent. That boss is in control of the congregation and the worship services.
When you walk into our church, you will find a number of people in leadership positions. Different people teach Sunday school, different people lead worship and music. Young(ish) and older people, male and female are invited, not only to sit and listen, but to participate in the worship service. Often times we open up our prayer time for anyone that wants to to pray.
But it isn’t just the worship aspect of the church that is open to everyone to participate in. Everyone is invited to help make the “business” decisions of the church. Our main governing body at Staunton Mennonite is our Church Council. Our Church Council is open to anyone that is an active part of this congregation to attend. And when it comes time to vote, you get an equal share of the say as anyone else. I don’t get five votes as the pastor and you get one as a non-member. No, we each get one vote.
I like to use the metaphor of a paddle boat when I think of the church. Maybe something like a big canoe. When you are in a canoe, if you want to move the canoe forward, you paddle or hope for a big current. But when you want to navigate from side to side in the river, maybe to avoid a tree or another canoe, how do you steer? The same people that are paddling the boat then become the ones that steer the boat.
In the church, there are a lot of people that want to steer, but few people want to actually do the paddling. Many people want to choose what happens in the church, but they don’t want to be the ones that actually do the work.
This is a principle that I like to use when I think about church leadership: If you are willing to paddle the boat, you are allowed to help steer. Young, old, male, female, it doesn’t matter. If you are willing to paddle, you can help steer.
Now I know that the gender issue in the church can be a stumbling block. On more than one occasion the apostle Paul writes that women are to remain silent in the church. That is why many churches don’t have women in pastoral roles.
We could debate back and forth all day what Paul was talking about when he said the things that he said, but I think that it is safe to say that the church has done a disservice to women by taking these passages out of context.
For instance, like I said earlier, this past Thursday through Saturday, we were at Virginia Mennonite’s Annual Conference in Raleigh, NC. This year VMC is celebrating 175 years since the first official meeting of churches that now make up the conference. 175 years is a long time. Early on the conference set up a system, not of power, but of guidance, for their annual conference and other meetings. There is a moderator and an assistant moderator that help guide the meetings along.
As I said, this system has been in place for a long time. But there has never been a woman moderator until a woman moderator was affirmed this year. Now I understand that churches might be uncomfortable with women pastors. But where in the Bible does it say that a woman cannot facilitate a business meeting?
I think the point that Murray is trying to make here is that regardless of whether you are young, old, male, female, pastor, or lay person, we all have been given a voice, we all have been given gifts. And when we seek to fill needs within the church, like Paul says, there is no longer male nor female, Jew or Greek, slave or free person. We are all one in the Lord.
The last aspect of the church that Murray lifts up is the one that I want to spend the most time on this morning. The church is to be a place of sustained hope as we wait for God’s kingdom.
I am not one of those religious people that just thinks that the world that we live in is a terrible God-forsaken place. I don’t walk out my front door in the morning and assume that the world is doomed and going to hell in a hand basket. I think that there is a lot of good in the world. I believe the world is as we choose to see it. If you want to see the good, you will see the good. If you want to see the bad, you will see the bad.
But I also think that I have a realistic view of the world. I know that there are terrible things that happen in this good world. Earthquakes, oil spills, cancer, car accidents. There are times when it can get pretty hard to see the good in the world. There are times when we look around and say, “God, where are you? Are you even out there? Do you even exist?” These are the times when you just don’t want to go to church, when you just can’t go to worship. I would say that it is times like this when we need the church the most.
When you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning because something has gone wrong, that is when you need the church the most. Ask someone like Florence, who went through and intense series of chemo therapy treatments after numerous operations to treat her cancer what got her through that time, and she will tell you that it was the church. Not this building, not even just the people that gather here on a Sunday morning. Florence would say that what got her through her most difficult times was the prayers of the people of God around the world.
We come together on a Sunday morning for a number of reasons. We come together to worship the living God. But the truth is, we all know that we could worship God in any location. I have felt the clearest connection with God as I was in the mountains and witnessing the wonder of his creation. We don’t need to come to church to worship God.
We come together on a Sunday morning to learn. You all sit through about twenty five minutes of preaching a week. My intention is to equip you to know more about God and to know God more. But we are living in the information age where anything is available to you at the click of a mouse. You don’t need to come to church to learn. You can do that at home in your PJ’s with your feet up on the coffee table. So why even come to church?
Many of you have had the opportunity to experience the fun and excitement that comes from a game that originated in Latin America. I am referring to the piñata. It is a fun game where children are blindfolded, given a stick, and spun around until they are dizzy and told to go whack at something hanging from a tree limb. Which really sounds like a safe game to me. Blindfold someone, get them dizzy, give them a stick, and tell them to swing away!
But when the child (or adult) finally does hit the piñata, and they crack it open, something wonderful happens. Because inside that piñata are handfuls, bags, maybe even pounds of candy. When the kid breaks open the piñata, the candy goes flying, falling to the ground. Then all of the kids come running in and they grab whatever they can. They fill their hands, they fill their pockets. They get as much of the good stuff as they can.
Unfortunately, many Christians today see the church as a piñata. Here is this place that we can go and it is filled with goodness. And I am going to run in there on a Sunday morning and I am going to fill my hands and fill my pockets up with that goodness and I am going to take it home with me and I will feed off it all week until next Sunday when we have another piñata party and I can get filled up with all of that good stuff again.
Where is that model lacking? Well yes, there is a lot of good at the church that we need and that we should take home with us. But the piñata model of church is all about me. What can I get for myself? How much candy can I grab, how much can I be fed spiritually for the week ahead? There is never a question about how much I can give.
That is a part of our consumeristic society. I need this, give me that. I’ll take more, please. But, and I hate to burst anyone’s bubble here, the church isn’t all about you. It is about worshipping our God and loving our neighbors.
In the New Testament, the words one and another are found 103 times back to back, such as in John 13:35, where Jesus says, “By this they will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
I believe that we as the church are to oneanother. I know that isn’t a word, but I am going to make it a word today. It will serve as a verb, as in “We as the church are called to oneanother.”
Oneanothering is the antidote to the consumerism and individualism that we see in the world and that we see creeping into our churches. The church is to look different than the rest of the world. Where the world is individualistic, we oneanother. Where the world asks “How are you today?” and really doesn’t expect a real answer, we oneanother. Where the world says that one person’s voice is more important than another’s, we oneanother. Where the world is depressing and most see it as slipping further and further into an abysmal existence, we oneanother. Where the world ceases to value you and your opinion when you are too young or too old, we oneanother.
We are not called to be a piñata church where people come in and fill their pockets with good things that will get them by until the next week. We are to be good things to one another. We bring to the church, and we take back with us as a result of what we bring. We bring love and love comes home with us. It is in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup that we gain the strength to endure the struggles of this world. It is in the sharing of prayers, the delivering of a casserole, the held hands, the gentle smiles that we find the sustaining strength to go on.
Why do you go to church? Is it because you want to? That’s good, but it isn’t always the case. Is it because you need to? That’s probably more like it. Is it because the church needs you? That, my friends, is the point.