A Graceful Church
In his book Wisdom Chaser, Nathan Foster, son of pastor and author and professor Richard Foster, shares a conversation he had with his dad about the church. Honestly, he was afraid to share his real thoughts about God and his disillusionment with the church, especially with a father who had given his life to serve God and the church. But one day as Nathan shared a ride with his dad on a ski lift, he blurted out, “I hate going to church. It’s nothing against God; I just don’t see the point.” Richard Foster quietly said, “Sadly, many churches today are simply organized ways of keeping people from God.” Surprised by his dad’s response, Nathan launched into what he calls “a well-rehearsed, cynical rant” about the church:
“Okay, so since Jesus paid such great attention to the poor and disenfranchised, why isn’t the church the world’s epicenter for racial, social and economic justice? I’ve found more grace and love in worn-out folks at the local bar than those in the pew … And instead of allowing our pastors to be real human beings with real problems, we prefer some sort of overworked rock stars.” His dad smiled and said, “Good questions, Nate. Overworked rock stars: that’s funny. You’ve obviously put some thought into this.”
This was obviously not one of Michigan’s ski lifts, because this conversation is too long for that. They must have been in Colorado or Utah or something. So Nathan was again surprised that his rant didn’t faze his dad. “He didn’t blow me off or put me down.” From that point on Nathan actually looked forward to conversations with his dad. It also proved to be a turning point in his spiritual life. By the end of the winter, Nathan was willing to admit this: Somewhere on that ski lift, I decided that if I’m not willing to be an agent of change in the church, my critique is a waste. Regardless of how people define “church”, I was learning that the church was simply a collection of broken people recklessly loved by God. And encouraged by his dad’s acceptance and honesty and by his own spiritual growth, he has continued to ask honest questions, but he has also started to love and change the church, rather than just criticize it.
If you have a Bible with you today, turn to Acts 2. If you don’t, you can follow along on the screen or use a Bible app on your phone, whatever works for you. Acts is actually the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, and Luke, a traveling and missionary companion of Paul, wrote both. He even opens Acts by saying “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach …” And then he picks up the story by going back to Christ’s commission to his disciples to spread the message of his love “from Jerusalem, to Judea & Samaria, & to the ends of the earth.” He then introduces the explosive growth of the body of Christ from 120 on the day of Pentecost, to the coming of the Holy Spirit, to the rapid expansion of Christianity from Jerusalem to the known world. We encounter the early church on the day of Pentecost and the days following, just after the sending of the Holy Spirit as a permanent presence with the church.
We see them living out the biblical mandate to BE the people of God in the world. That’s an interesting thought, “BE the people of God. BE the church.” We usually think of the church as a building. We GO to church, we DO church, but Christ wants us to BE his people, to BE the church. You may have noticed that on Sunday mornings, or any other time for that matter, I’ve never welcomed people TO Christ Church. I always welcome Christ Church. You and I together are the church. This building is just a pile of bricks and mortar and steel and glass that facilitates our ministry, and we need to take care of it so that it can continue with the heavy use it’s seen throughout its life. But we together are the church. Not this pile of clay.
We’ve spent this fall talking about grace. In its simplest form, grace is simply God giving himself for us and to us. Grace is the undeserved, unearned, extravagant love of God, a love made visible in the life, and the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God become human, dying on behalf of humanity, to restore our relationship with him. We’ve looked at what grace is, and how it impacts how we live. And today we’re going to close that series by looking at the impact of grace on the church, the people of God. What does it look like when we are a grace-full community, a graceful church?
There are four images of the church that are common today, and each one is a distorted image of what it means to be the people of God. The first is the church as a gas station. For some people today, the church is a place where you fill up your spiritual gas tank when you’re running low. Get a good sermon, and it will keep you going for the week.
The second is the church as a movie theater. For many people, the church is a place that offers entertainment. Go for an hour of escape, hopefully in comfortable seats. Leave your problems at the door and come out smiling and feeling better than when you went in.
The third is the church as a drug store. For other people, church is the place where you can fill the prescription that will deal with your pain. For many the church is therapeutic.
And the fourth is the church as a big box retailer. Other people see the church as the place that offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family. The church offers great service at a low price – all in one stop. For many people, the church is a producer of programs for children and young people.
But that isn’t the image of a grace-full church that Luke paints in Acts. He paints a very different picture. A graceful church is first of all a devoted church. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” and they did so in the temple courts and in their homes. And the word translated as “devoted” here means “continually devoted.” It indicates an ongoing rather than a one-time or completed activity. So when we’re devoted, we’re always devoted to someTHING or someONE, right? So to what and to whom were these earliest followers of Christ devoted?
Well, they were devoted to the apostles’ teaching. And what were the apostles teaching? The stuff we now have as the Gospels, and the letters written by Paul, and Peter, and James, and John. They were continually devoted to seeking the instruction of the disciples. They were steadfast & focused on the Word of God. They craved the teaching of God’s Word. They couldn’t get enough of it.
Have you ever watched professional golfers and been in awe of their ability to land a shot from two hundred yards away just a few yards from the hole? Or closer? You wonder how they can judge the distance to the hole with such precision. Do they have an internal GPS system that enables them to guess the distances on the course with uncanny accuracy? Not really. What they have is a yardage book. A yardage book is a map of each hole on the course that gives distances from various landmarks on the hole to the green. Decades ago Arnold Palmer and his caddy began drawing rough yardage charts with little pictures of trees, fairways, greens, sand traps and such of the various holes on all the courses they played. Jack Nicklaus was the pro who really made yardage books popular. Today along with the maps many pro golfers will keep what essentially is a personal journal of how they have played each hole of the course, what clubs they have used from various distances, what the wind was doing, and so on, and what happened to their shots. Golfers swear by their yardage books.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have yardage books for the tough decisions we make in life? Should I date this person or not? Should I go to this or that school? Should we buy this house? In our technological age, we want specifics. We want everything mapped out. We want to remove all the uncertainties from life. We want to be able to use our past experiences to predict exactly what will happen in the future. But God hasn’t chosen to work with us in that way. He has given us an essential book of guidance that we can’t do without, but we still have to use judgment in how to apply what it teaches. Most important, we need to be walking with God in prayer and trust.
And they were devoted to one another. They were devoted to the fellowship. Fellowship is a translation of the Greek word “Koinonia” and it gets at what we share in together. Not what we share together, but what we share IN together. As followers of Christ, we share together in Christ. We are together adopted into the family of God. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. And we share in life together, loving together and serving together. We share what we have with those in need and we share in what others are experiencing. As Paul says in Galatians 1:6: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
There has been much written and much studied in recent years about the evolution of friendship in the age of Facebook, in the age of social media. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education examines the new forms of friendship that have emerged in the age of Facebook. While social media has allowed us the opportunity to be connected to everyone, it more often than not comes at the expense of deep, meaningful, shaping friendship. The author writes: [Concerning] the moral content of classical friendship, its commitment to virtue and mutual improvement, that … has been lost. We have ceased to believe that a friend’s highest purpose is to summon us to the good by offering moral advice and correction.
We practice, instead, the nonjudgmental friendship of unconditional acceptance and support – “therapeutic” friendship. We seem to be terribly fragile now. A friend fulfills her duty, we suppose, by taking our side – validating our feelings, supporting our decisions, helping us to feel good about ourselves. We’re busy people; we want our friendships fun and friction-free. Facebook’s very premise – and promise – is that it makes our friendship circles visible. There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they’re not in the same place, or, rather, they’re not my friends. They’re a [superficial likeness or semblance] of my friends – little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets … the author concludes: “Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling – from something people share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves.”
They were devoted to one another, to being together. Not just worshipping together, but being together. But yes, they were devoted to gathering together for worship too. They were devoted “to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” What does breaking of bread have to do with worship? Well, breaking bread here refers not to any ordinary meal but to the special meal followers of Christ engage in on a regular basis to be reminded of the sacrifice Christ has made for us and the new covenant, the new relationship between God and human made possible by that sacrifice. It refers to the Lord’s Supper. To communion. In the beginning, communion wasn’t a brief rite observed near the end of a worship service or a rite observed in a worship service at all, it was an actual meal shared together by the people of God in which the body and blood of Christ were remembered in the sharing of the bread and the cup.
They were devoted to gathering together regularly to worship God. Worship is not a solitary act, something we engage in only in our own hearts and minds. Worship CAN be a solitary act, but it shouldn’t ONLY be a solitary act. They were committed to gathering together for worship.
In his book The Unquenchable Worshipper, British worship leader Matt Redmond relates this story about Fanny Crosby. It is told in her own words: When about 6 weeks old I was taken sick & my eyes grew very weak & those who had charge of me poultice my eyes. Their lack of knowledge & skill destroyed my sight forever. As I grew older they told me I should never see the faces of my friends, the flowers of the field, the blue of the skies, or the golden beauty of the stars … Soon I learned what other children possessed, but I made up my mind to store away a little jewel in my mind called “Content.” At eight years of age, Fanny Crosby wrote this song: “O what a happy soul am I! Although I cannot see, I am resolved that in this world contented I will be. How many blessings I enjoy, that other people don’t. To weep & sigh because I’m blind, I cannot & I won’t. She went on to write around 8,000 hymns of praise to God.
Not only is a graceful church a devoted church, it is a generous, giving church. Look at V. 45. Some have taught that in the early church, the possession of property or having any possession at all was forbidden. But that simply isn’t true. Some still had homes, because they met in them. A graceful church is one in which the people do what is necessary to meet the needs around them, regardless of the cost. Their resources, great or small, were brought to bear to ease the suffering of others. They gave of their time, their talent, their treasure to humbly serve one another and those around them.
And what was their impact on the culture around them? Look at V. 43 … and then down in V. 47. The picture that is painted is of a people who, because of their devotion to Christ, are devoted to one another. But it isn’t an exclusive group. They’re out in the community where people can see their love for one another and for their community. There’s always room for someone new. Gordon MacDonald shares the following story about visiting a small group of men and women affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous. MacDonald said that he visited the group because he has friends who are recovering alcoholics and he wanted to see for himself what they were talking about. Here’s what he found:
One morning Kathy – I guessed her age at 35 – joined us for the first time. One look at her face caused me to conclude that she must have been Hollywood-beautiful at 21. Now her face was swollen, her eyes red, her teeth rotting. Her hair looked unwashed, uncombed for who knows how long. “I’ve been in five states in the past month,” she said. “I’ve slept under bridges on several nights. Been arrested. Raped. Robbed (now weeping). I don’t know what to do. I … don’t … want … to … be … homeless … any more. But (sob) I can’t stop drinking (sob). I can’t stop (sob). I can’t …” Next to Kathy was a rather large woman, Marilyn, sober for more than a dozen years. She reached with both arms toward Kathy and pulled her close, so close that Kathy’s face was pressed to Marilyn’s chest.
I was close enough to hear Marilyn speak quietly into Kathy’s ear, “Honey, you’re going to be OK. You’re with us now. We can deal with this together. All you have to do is keep coming. Hear me? Keep on coming.” And then Marilyn kissed the top of Kathy’s head. I was awestruck. The simple words, the affection, the tenderness. How Jesus-like. Sadly, how often un-Church-like. I couldn’t avoid a troubling question that morning. Could this have happened in the places where I have worshiped? Would there have been a space in the program for Kathy to tell her story? Would there have been a Marilyn to respond in this way?[i] Is there? Let us pray.
[i] Gordon MacDonald, “My Small Group, Anonymous,” Leadership Journal (Winter 2014)