The scripture for this sermon is Acts 4:32-5:11.
Jesus is risen! Alleluia! Now what? As unpopular as the answer might be today, scripture is pretty clear that the command is to go forth and build a church. By church, scripture isn’t referring to a building or a denomination. They mean a community with a hierarchical structure, internal expectations and a guiding mission. All of which is unpopular because people today don’t seem to have a lot of trust in the church. The cover of Newsweek last week was a picture of Jesus with the headline that read, “Forget the Church, Just Follow Jesus”. A hot viral video last year was a posting by a guy titled, “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus”. For many, the church represents a wrong turn in their relationship with God not the natural next step after encountering the risen Lord.
It is not hard for us to list the reasons that people dismiss or dislike the church today. They dismiss it because it is largely ineffective. Our churches tend to look more like poorly run clubs than radical expressions of the gospel. They fight among themselves and lack unity splitting over issues at the local and national level. Their pastors lack passion, leading worship of God that lacks effort. Their outreach is hard to notice in the pews or in the streets.
Many aren’t just dismissive but dislike the church. They are responding to the scandals that make headlines: sexual scandals with pastors praying on children or trusting members, financial scandals where money given generously as a response to God’s grace is used greedily, illegally or just foolishly by leadership, scandals of hypocrisy like the prominent Colorado pastor who led a crusade against homosexuality while secretly carrying out a homosexual affair. When the churches do make the news it is so negative that one poll found that the majority of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of people who attend church.
Jesus is Risen! Alleluia! Now what? The scripture witness is to build a church, but not like the churches we have today. In the lesson from John, Jesus confronts his disciples as they are asking what now. His answer was to breathe on them. An action that should remind us of God breathing in Adam’s lungs at the moment of creation that brought him to life. Jesus’ breath would give them the Spirit and the authority to gather people in his name. Creating a community that would share his breath, his Spirit with the rest of creation. Jesus’ breath was a gift for the disciples intended to be shared and multiplied in the world. Jesus is Risen! Alleluia! Now what? Take my Spirit and share it by the communities created in my name.
In our lesson from the book of Acts we see what that early church looked like. If you grew up in the Cold War as I did, you might be uncomfortable to find out it looks a lot like communism. People are selling all of their goods, giving up their property then laying it at the feet of their church leaders so that it could be shared with other members of the church in need. Isn’t that what Lenin did in Russia in 1917? The early church was not just a radical place then, it would be a radical looking place today, too.
Just this one practice speaks clearly God’s expectation of the church. Jesus expected communities gathered in his name to share their wealth as a radical expression of grace. Whether those in need deserve it or will use it wisely is never asked. Undeserved acts of love should be the dominant action of a church who follows a God who shares his love with us though we do not deserve it. People in the early church were to do this because with Jesus’ breath, they had the heart of God, who is offended by poverty. God created our world with abundance, and people in need means that the world is not as God intended. The early church members did this great act of love voluntarily, too, not to earn prestige in the community or the love of God in heaven. They did it because they had Jesus’ breath, the Spirit, and they were called to create a church. A church where grace is freely shared in tangible ways, just like Jesus freely shared in a very tangible way on the cross.
Barnabas is an example of someone who did this well, for all the right reasons. Ananias and Saphira are an example of someone who did this for all the wrong reasons. They lied and misrepresented their gift to Peter, the leader of the church. They didn’t have the best interest of the poor in their church in mind, but their own best interest. They trusted themselves, over trusting God’s grace. The verdict on someone who would do such a thing in God’s church is harsh. God struck them dead. It takes our breath away that God would care this much by how God’s people act in his name. It reminds us that Church in God’s eyes is serious business. It is God’s hope for transformation, reconciliation of the creation.
Jesus is Risen! Alleluia! Now what? We are to build a church but not one that can be dismissed as ineffectual or disliked because it looks nothing like Jesus. We are to build a church where God’s radical grace is acted upon by the sacrifices her members make and not just preached or given lip service. A church that is offended by hypocritical acts of her members so much that if God struck them dead in front of us we would understand. A church that cares for each other not just by words, but in ways that actually puts food on their tables or keep their lights on.
Jesus is Risen! Alleluia! Now what? We create a radical church that is focused on one thing and one thing only, being a picture of what God hopes all the communities of the world will look like one day. This kind of church might still receive scorn in our world, but it would be a beacon of hope for all.