Some of you may have seen a video clip floating around Facebook over the last couple of months. A British gentleman tells a group of people how he responded when someone asked him what he does for a living. It was the inevitable question from the airplane seatmate.
“Well…I work for a global enterprise,” he says. “Do you?” responds his fellow passenger. “Yes I do, we’ve got outlets in nearly every country of the world.” “Have you?” “Yes, we’ve got hospitals and hospices and homeless shelters, we do marriage work, we’ve got orphanages, we’ve got feeding programs, educational programs, all sorts of justice and reconciliation [projects]. Basically, we look after people from birth to death and deal in the area of behavioral alteration.”
“Wow…what’s it called?”
“It’s called the Church.”
British evangelist J. John is the speaker there, and I find something really appealing about his description of the Church. Because it focuses on what Christians do. On how we actually live out our faith. On where we find ourselves sent to do ministry in God’s name. And it’s true, the Church-with-a-capital-C is doing some remarkable work in our world. We have a great deal to celebrate! It’s equally important to remember that we’re all invited to be part of the good work being done in Jesus’ name around the world.
We left off last Sunday at the end of Acts chapter 2. We’re told there that the early church “spent much time together in the temple (their sanctuary), that they broke bread at home and ate food with glad and generous hearts, that they praised God and had the goodwill of all the people. (Acts 2:46-47)
There’s way too much here to read aloud in detail this morning, but if you’ll open to chapters 3 and 4 with me now, you’ll notice a dramatic shift in the plot. No longer tucked in safely at home, we now find the disciples out and about, on the move. They’re back in Jerusalem now, the city where they’d be in greatest danger actually, since Jesus had just been crucified there. In spite of that danger, we see them performing healing miracles in Jesus’ name (3:1-11), and preaching publicly about his life, death, and resurrection (rest of chapter 3), so it’s no surprise actually that they are immediately arrested for doing such things (beginning of chapter 4). No sooner are they released from prison – having been ordered not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus (4:18) – but they pray for boldness! (4:23-30) I might have prayed for safety, for an ability to carry on my work undisturbed by the authorities, but they pray for boldness – and are given it, by the Holy Spirit (4:31). We also read at the end of chapter 4 about the radical way they share all of their possessions – even the proceeds of houses and land they sell - and distribute to each as any has need.
The movement we’re watching unfold here is one of disciples (that is, followers of Jesus) becoming transformed into apostles (that is, ones sent by Jesus). The rest of the book of Acts tells stories along these same lines, stories of a Church that speaks and takes risks and teaches and heals and preaches and gets thrown into prison repeatedly … and grows! Had they remained in that comfortable upper room where they began their journey, had they even remained within the walls of the temple where they enjoyed worshiping God together, none of the rest would have been possible. They had to move from being disciples (followers) to apostles (sent ones). And as it was for them, so it’s meant to be for each of us.
It’s lovely to spend time here at church, to enjoy the company of our friends, to take advantage of wonderful Christian Education classes for our children and ourselves, to sing beautiful songs of praise together, to participate in the sacraments of baptism and communion, to enjoy those all-important coffee hours, as we mentioned last week, and opportunities to share meals together in each other’s homes, and so on.
But if that’s all we’re doing as the Church, then we are seriously falling down on the job. We have a witness to share, and work to do. The world around us is damaged, hurting, frightened, and hungry. We’re not only called together here, we are sent out there to be agents of God’s comfort and healing, deliverers of food and encouragement, distributors of friendship and clothing and shelter and peace.
We mentioned in our first sermon on the book of Acts this spring how important it was that the early church waited and prayed before they immediately started running around trying to do God’s work. We talked about the importance of stopping before you go, to listen for God’s voice, to discern where it is you are being sent, and what you are being sent to do. Heaven knows Christians can run around doing more harm than good when we’re not careful. But we’re also called to move, to put our faith into action.
There’s no shortage of places to dive in and get started. And just imagine the good we can do, collectively, if we allow ourselves to be sent by God, accepting that invitation to be not only disciples (followers) but apostles (sent ones).
What’s more, when we take our faith in Jesus seriously, and do what God calls us to do, we might just find others sitting up and taking notice. Jim Wallis, of Sojourners ministries, finds that “two things happen when people of faith actually say and do what their faith says they should say and do: First, people are surprised. Then they are attracted.” St. Catherine of Siena put it this way: “If you are what you should be, then you will set the world on fire.”
Where might God be sending you? For what do you need to pray, to make it possible for you to accept that challenge? For guidance or resources, equipment or training? For wisdom, or the support of your brothers and sisters in Christ? Or perhaps, like Peter and John in Acts 4, you simply need to pray for boldness, to take the plunge?
I have one final image I want to leave you with today, which also – coincidentally – comes from Facebook. As some of you know my daughter Rebecca has been studying in France this semester, and recently had a spring break during which she did some traveling outside of France. Most of her classmates in the program there took the same opportunity and traveled to a whole variety of different places that same week. Rebecca tells me it was really kind of incredible to be off in Italy, herself, and to watch Facebook posts coming in from friends in Spain and Germany and Ireland, Croatia and the Netherlands. Sharing stories and swapping pictures helped each one of them feel like they’d somehow been part of the whole adventure. I have this visual in mind – starting from a single point, where they’d studied together and become a unified group, and then spreading out to points all over Europe, to use the skills they’d learned together, and bring amazing stories back.
As I think about the kinds of good work I know some of you are already doing outside these church walls, in God’s name – work in missions and in shelters, in food banks and in nursing homes, in schools and in hospitals, on local playgrounds or in your own homes… As you all leave this sanctuary each week and find ways to impact the world for good, I get that same visual image. Again, from a single point where we have gathered to learn and study and train together, and build community…to an incredible range of different places where we may be sent. Don’t let the study abroad kids in Europe have all the fun. Remember how we multiply our own impact, as we spread out in all directions to minister in different ways. Let’s not forget to share our stories with each other too, so we all feel part of the adventure. For mission can certainly be done when groups of us work together all at once (as with our Operation Nightwatch homeless dinners for instance). But the Church’s mission also happens when we each find our own individual niche, serving God with our whole heart in a ministry that feels like it was designed just for us.
Frederick Buechner says “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Which means there are as many directions we could be sent as there are individuals in this room. Where does your deep gladness, and the world’s need, lead you?
Again, the key is to remember that we are not only disciples, but apostles. We are not only called to follow Jesus, we are also sent to witness and to serve in Jesus’ name.
We, too, are part of that great “global enterprise” which really does do so much good in the world. The media enjoy picking up every story they can of the weaknesses and failures of the Church. It’s within our power to tell a whole different set of stories. Stories of hope and friendship. Stories of bellies filled and hearts healed. Stories of kindness and courage and service and grace.
Think about it. Starting from a single point, here in this room, but spreading out in all directions. And not just the adults in the congregation but the children and youth we are raising here too. Imagine the potential in that crew! Where might they someday bring with them the lessons from Scripture we have taught them, the worship life we have offered them, and the examples of active faith that we have tried our best to model for them here? Where might they in fact already be doing God’s work? For I suspect there are no age limits for discipleship or apostleship. We are, all of us, trained and equipped, nurtured and encouraged, supported and sustained… but also sent to do important work in the world, in God’s name.
I hope you’ll share with us where God is sending you. Wherever it is, may God be with you there!