Moments before worship, a pastor was handed a note to share during the announcements. He read it, saying, “It says here I should announce that today there will be no B.S.” He tucked the piece of paper in his pocket and added, “I’m hoping they mean ‘Bible Study.’”
It probably did mean “Bible Study”, but my guess is everyone in that worship service secretly wanted it to mean otherwise. This is true for the church, and I’d be willing to bet, for all religions. But here’s a funny thing about the religions of the world: They often don’t resemble their founders. Islam and Muhammad. Buddhism and Buddha. Christianity and Jesus. The dots don’t always connect. Religions don’t always resemble their founders.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof observes that “Muhammad raised the status of women in his time, yet today some Islamic clerics bar women from even driving. Buddha would probably be horrified by the racial segregation that Buddhists in Myanmar impose on minority Muslims. And although Jesus was a radical who challenged the establishment, Christianity has been so successful that in many parts of the world it has actually become the establishment.”
The dots don’t always connect. Religions don’t always resemble their founders.
Former pastor Brian McLaren would agree, and actually takes this even further in his book “The Great Spiritual Migration.” McLaren writes “Our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for. The question becomes then, why is this? After all, founders of religions, and revered voices of them, are usually bold and charismatic visionaries. They inspire people with their fresh insights and their moral imaginations. But over time, their teachings are preserved by religions that are run by risk-averse bureaucracies.”
McLaren speaks truth, and often, as a result of this truth, instead of being bold and visionary, religions become obsessed with money and power—which is what many people today feel and believe has happened with Christianity—that the Church no longer reflects the ways of Jesus, that it has disconnected from him and his teachings and instead is only interested in money and power. And because Christianity has become disconnected from Jesus, many people are sick and tired of the Church. They are sick and tired of the Church’s B.S.—and I don’t mean Bible Study.
McLaren further says, “A just and generous way of life rooted in contemplation and expressed in actions of compassion and welcome—that is the kind of religion Jesus founded. And that is the kind of church Jesus wants us to be.”
We are called to be a spiritually mature body, rooted in prayer, filled with thanksgiving and gratitude for the one from whom all blessings flow, and is outwardly focused on alleviating suffering through actions of compassion and welcome. We, as the Church, must always be looking at how we conduct ourselves to make sure we are still true to the ways of Christ and working to be this kind of church.
The question becomes then—How do we do this? How do we, the Church, be church in the way Christ calls us? This is a hard question, but it has a very simply answer. We do this by remembering what Jesus taught and remembering how Jesus conducted himself.
There are numerous ways to be church, but three stand out from our text for today. First, it is a life that is not attached to material things.
A pastor greeted a church member at the door after worship and commented on the great tie the man was wearing. The man smiled, thanked the Pastor and immediately took off the tie and gave it to him. Everyone was shocked by such a radical act of generosity. Later the associate pastor, who was impressed by the gift, couldn’t resist asking the pastor: Why didn’t you compliment the man on his car?!
Jesus wants to be part of a church that is generous and is not attached to material things. A church of this kind existed in Jerusalem, where members “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Such congregations today put church mission above all else. They give generously to programs that feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, welcome strangers, rescue vulnerable children and visit people in prison. They are not reluctant to practice extravagant generosity.
A second practice on how to be church is to offer a loving way of life that is open and receptive to others. Jesus is a model of receptivity, and he challenges us to be open to the needs of others. And a church in Jerusalem met this challenge and the result was, “awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.”
It is as Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
In a time and place of oppression and struggle, the signs and wonders of the Apostles made people feel good again. It filled them with hope and meaning and value. Everything people long to feel and know today.
Jesus shows us that the power of God is seen clearly in a life of openness and receptivity to the needs of others. The Apostles cared for people around them, and as a result they had “the goodwill of all the people.” When the Church cares for the people around us—not just its members—the result is the good will of the people.
And a third practice on how to be church is to live a loving way of life that is marked by spiritual maturity. In the Jerusalem church, the members “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”
The church made sure they were nourished by teaching and preaching, communion and prayer; knowing that spiritual feeding was needed before church members could go out and feed the hungry around them. Through worship and fellowship we are strengthened as followers of Christ. These things change our behavior and make us into those who live and love and act as Christ showed us.
I want to go back and consider again what former pastor Brian McLaren said to us a little earlier when talking about founders and leaders of religions, saying about them, “They inspire people with their fresh insights and their moral imaginations. But over time, their teachings are preserved by religions that are run by risk-averse bureaucracies.”
If we scoff at such a statement, and think there is no truth in his belief, then I invite you to ask yourself… Would you want Jesus sitting on any of our leadership teams? Would you want him as an Elder? A Youth Leader? As your Pastor? But before you give the obvious answer so quickly, remember…The gospels seem to suggest that Jesus wasn’t the easiest person in the world to get along with.
Jesus criticized how people prayed. Matthew 6. Jesus was critical of certain traditions. Matthew 15. Jesus often called people hypocrites and other name calling. Matthew 23. Jesus once got violent in the church foyer. Mark 11. Jesus was always calling for those with money to give away their possessions. Luke 18. And Jesus was often seen with cheats, prostitutes and others who were considered lowlifes—seen throughout the Gospels.
Jesus loved speaking truth to power, challenging beliefs and traditions, irritating religious leaders and their known institutional associates—which would be me… and you. Put in such a perspective, would you like Jesus to be your pastor—even though he is exactly the kind of pastor the Church needs?
People want and need a church that is true to Jesus, aligned with his ministry and mission. So we have to ask ourselves, as McLaren does in his aforementioned book, “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith? What would it mean for us to rediscover Christianity as ‘a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in actions of compassion and welcome?’”
For this to happen, McLaren says in his book we need to “migrate”—which is why the book is called “The Great Spiritual Migration.” Migrating, of course, means moving from one way of life to another, and therefore we are challenged to be more like the church of Acts, moving from expressing our faith only as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life.
How we be church is by a migration away from religious bureaucracy and back to the vision of our founder, Jesus Christ. It’s a migration away from pointing fingers in condemnation to opening our hands to alleviate human suffering through actions of compassion and welcome. It’s a migration from only looking at ourselves inside our comfortable building, to spending time making disciples outside our building. That is being church like the first Christians did as described in today’s text and throughout Acts. That is being church the way Jesus intended.
It is critical to keep in mind that Jesus wants us to be a church that is a spiritually mature body, rooted in prayer, filled with thanksgiving and gratitude for the one from whom all blessings flow, and that is outwardly focused on alleviating suffering through actions of compassion and welcome.
The fruits of such a community are acts of generosity that disregards material possessions; generating the goodwill of the people by offering them hope, value and worth; as well as spiritual maturity that reveals a faithful model and representation of Jesus.
Jesus wants us to be this kind of church— one marked by a lack of attachment to material things, is spiritually mature, and has an openness and receptivity to others. He wants us to build a community of justice and generosity, one that is rooted in contemplation and committed to acts of compassion and welcome. For when we do—when we are church in this way— we can be certain we will resemble our founder, that the dots will always connect, and that no one will ever get sick and tired of us. That is how to be Church. Amen.