Third in Easter:“The Community That the World Needs Now”

One of my latest-completed sermons, clocking in at Saturday 11 pm!

Acts 9:1-6 ;Corinthians 1:3-13

I’ve called on us to devote the time between Easter and Pentecost to discerning and imagining what kind of church we want to become—or better, what kind of church God is calling us to become. We’ll talk in two weeks about what kind of service we want to offer in our community, and then about how we want to actively resist the forces in our culture that deaden the spirit rather than quicken it, and how we can create an alternative culture here.

But of the three questions I posed at the end of last week’s sermon, I decided to begin with this one: How could our Easter Joy translate into an energized, tightly-bound society of disciples here and now? After the drama and mystery of God unfolding in Christ, we can now begin with our eyes on the living source of our community: God’s new life offered in Christ, and ask: what could and should the presence of the living Christ in our midst look like? And specifically, how can we be a thriving community of the risen Christ? Because if we do not enjoy a thriving community here, we won’t get far with the other two questions I posed: how to serve our neighbors effectively, or how to resist the corrosive forces in our culture.

“Grace.” This for Paul is always the first word, what drives his every message to the churches: “Grace to you and peace from God.” In Lent we talked about the forces we are up against; but now after Easter, we can appreciate that the true beginning is not with the challenges we face, but with God’s grace. Not with a burden, an onus, a task list. We begin with grace, and peace, and thanksgiving for what is already done: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.” We have been given the grace of God. What’s that? you might ask. And if we received it, what did we do with it? Is it here in the sanctuary? Or did we deposit it in one of our many accounts? Or is grace just supposed to be “in my heart,” because frankly I’m just not feeling it right now.

Hear it again: “the grace that has been given you in Christ Jesus.” Paul is not thankful just because you and I happen to be here this morning in church. Because we are a kind of mixed bag, right? We have been “called to be saints [or “holy”],” which is how Paul addresses the Corinthians. We’re not really holy yet; we’re not yet that much to see. We would have a tough go of it if we called ourselves “The Gathering in Granby” and tried to draw people based on what a tremendous collection of stellar and congenial persons we are! Come visit and you’ll see how graced we all are! And of course you’ll want to join us, if, that is, we decide you are up to our standards.

The grace that God has given us is in us, primarily—it is in Christ Jesus. We’ve been recalled to that fact by Easter: perfect partnership between God and humanity was established and sealed in Jesus Christ. He showed us God’s mercy, and showed us true human faithfulness. He confronted and took to task the false powers that distorted true religion and oppressed the people of God, with no fear—because being God’s agent was all that mattered to Jesus. He gathered friends around him to be a true community of God, although they were clearly flawed in their faith in a way he was not. /The forces that he opposed loved their own power more than the call of God, and so he let them kill him—for he loved their humanity too much to oppose them with violence. And then God vindicated Jesus, by demonstrating that he was not defeated by death. (Now, it’s ok if you are not completely on board with what I’m saying about Jesus. I can say much the same thing without mentioning Jesus: There is a true ideal of human life oriented to God and to love of neighbor; and this ideal cannot be defeated by anything. That’s pretty much our faith.) So we can put our trust in Jesus Christ, or at least in the ideal of humanity in union with God, what we can call “faith.”

Either way, God’s work is kind of done. All is not lost for humanity; the ideal of humanity in union with God has been vindicated. We here in this room are not going to save the human race; luckily, we don’t have to. God is content with what Jesus Christ achieved: faithfulness even unto death. And we are here because we acknowledge that ideal: That is the grace we have in Christ Jesus. Because some people just don’t notice the grace in Christ; or some people just are not captivated by the ideal of human life lived in union with God. That’s ok. That doesn’t diminish God’s victory in Christ at all.

But we also know that the resurrection victory demonstrates that God’s power is not in vain. Christ was risen not just for God, but for us. And especially for us who have been captivated by that ideal of human life lived in union with God, by faithfulness. We have been captivated by it; we did not create the ideal, or perfect it, or show it to be possible in our world; God did. True faithfulness belongs to God first of all, and then is given to us to share in: “God is faithful;” Paul says, “by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Somehow we ended up here, dedicated to faith in God. And while we take no credit for it, that faithfulness has left its mark on us. Paul testifies that “in every way, you have been enriched by him…just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you.” God’s work was complete in Jesus; “It is finished,” said Jesus as he died. But complete in a way that it keeps on going. Indeed, Paul says, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We are not empty; and yet we await the fullness of that ideal. We continue to testify to it. And so we see ourselves not as a complete work; we are not here to celebrate “us.” But, Paul adds, God “will also strengthen you to the end,” in Greek, the telos, the goal. Because we participate in Jesus, we have both a beginning as a community, and a goal: the revealing of Jesus in the day of his fullness.

That is what we are looking at today: that goal of being the church of Christ in fullness, and asking ourselves, how do we get there? Not because all is lost if we fail. But because God has shown us in Christ that this goal is what most matters, and is pleasing to God, despite what anyone else says or does to deter us, and despite our inevitable failures. And so because we are in the wake of Easter, we strive to be a great church simply because we have been given this unspeakable opportunity to be the continuing power of Christ in the world, in union with all the churches of Christ.

But maybe that is not enough to compel us to act, to become what we confess we should be in Christ. Perhaps because we are pretty comfortable in our world. Let’s be honest: many of us like our life outside the church, our life outside of being God’s holy community. We do not seem to be perishing. And maybe what we’ve seen of churches has not been so compelling either. Church can seem rather bland, or worse: petty, bigoted, judgmental, or if not that, then just lame—not sexy and excellent like the world of celebrities and amazing athletes, rock stars, or men (mostly) who command power and wealth. We fail to throw ourselves into being the true church partly because the world is good at looking impressive apart from God; but partly because the church has so badly failed in its ideal of Jesus Christ. It’s extremely important to remember that the church is not simply the place where God is Jesus Christ is present; church is just as much the place where the lack of Christ, the failure of faithfulness, is made manifest, too. Church is where we hunger and thirst for everything Christ represents. Paul knows this too. In nine verses, Paul gave thanks for the manifestation of Christ in us; but he’s going to spend 15 chapters holding the Corinthians up to that ideal and saying: you’re not there yet. Perhaps we talk too much about the presence of God here, and not enough about the absence of God, which is to my mind equally compelling, interesting, important, and unique. You can’t get both the presence and absence of God anywhere as much as you can in church.   And, by the way, that kind of lets us off the hook: we should be relieved to confess that we are not yet the holy church we are called to be. That ideal is what should compel us to be here; not…us. I mean, we’re decent folk and all.

Well, like Paul, I won’t start with the ways we fail to live up to the ideal. But perhaps it would help all of us if we consider why our world, which can be so impressive in so many ways, still needs us to be those who treasure that ideal called Jesus Christ. Our world needs us to be a community that looks up to the high ideal of love and faithfulness set by Jesus.

I can start with a simple fact: we need a community, period. We human beings need other human beings. There is a fantasy that runs through some people’s thoughts according to which a person can be happy on her own, or a man can define his own life and find meaning strictly by looking within, especially if you make enough money—then life can be whatever you, individually, define it to be. There are strains of this fantasy running throughout American culture, from Emerson to Ayn Rand to just about every commercial we see. I take my stand with the many theologians, philosophers, and social scientists who say: this fantasy is false. Other human beings can and do make us very unhappy, but we cannot find joy in life without others. An interesting fact from the 2016 World Happiness Report: “Studies have shown that a sense of belonging to community has the same effect on life satisfaction as [tripling] household income.

But the shape of modern life makes incorporating others into our lives at times very difficult. Family bonds can be so essential, although also very trying. But for many, our economy dictates that we move away from home to go to the ‘right’ college, and then we may have to change locations several more times in pursuit of a career. I’ve moved far from my parents four times, in four different directions; to top it off, my five siblings are scattered about, too. Along the way I’ve made many close friends, friends in some ways better than relatives, but who now live in Berlin, Washington DC, Chicago, Tampa FL, or still in Pennsylvania. Inevitably we drift apart.

I’ve been amazed how many of you have maintained your roots in or near Granby. But even so, in a modern culture that seems by design to change rapidly, maintaining shared understanding between generations in a family is often difficult. It needs to be said that this same modern life has been incredibly liberating in many other ways, freeing at least some people from oppressive family life, from racial or ethnic subjugation, from narrow and hierarchical gender relations. But freedom from oppression does not necessarily lead us to the shared humanity that makes us truly free. We are only free with other people, not from other people. And despite our supposed autonomy, people are still “plagued by a sense of powerlessness,” as David Brooks recently put it in his Op Ed piece on Covenants.

And so where do we find ourselves sharing in the humanity of others? Where in Granby? Our housing neighborhoods are simply strings of private homes with no shared public space, except for driving. Thus you have to get in a car and go somewhere to be among other human beings. There are no significant public spaces in Granby—few restaurants or cafes, no public square or plaza, no functioning commons—one rare exception is our own Dino Fest, but that’s one day out of the year. Many of our largest public spaces and events are dominated by the same forces that we found questionable in our Lenten series: the competition-drenched space of large sporting events; or the total consumerist environment of shopping malls, where you are there not to connect with people, but to identify your desires and make a transaction.

You might argue that the internet and social media ought to make it easier for me to keep up with those old friends I moved away from, or for all of us to establish new communities based on shared interests. But a community based only on shared interests—a fascination with New England cuisine, say, or snowboarding, to say nothing of whatever Kardashians are trending—can amount to a vain community, and community with people who simply mirror back at you facets of your own self, and often the most superficial facets at that. This kind of internet hook-up community seems to be contributing to our growing divisions, as people interact only with people like themselves on some one-dimensional topic. People on the left and right understand each other less and less in general, to say nothing of even more divisive figures like Donald Trump (whose campaign has been a huge ratings boon to the media, by the way; notice that the most polarizing figures become the ones we can’t stop hearing about…even in this sermon!).

The internet happens to be handy and speedy; perhaps we rely on it because we have fewer hours for community that we used to. Since our whole economy is based on increasing productivity, it is natural that the hours we spend working each week have increased 20% over the last 30 years, according to one measure, leaving less time to connect with others. After all, no one makes money from people just sharing in each others’ lives. They make money when you go shop, or consume sports, or movies or TV funded by commercials. It’s quite to be expected that our economy will slowly crowd out all profitless community, including the church—and just about all religious organizations have been on the decline.

But religious organizations are just about the only community we can put our hope in. Without communities of worship, our lives are either nearly devoid of community, or touched only by communities created around consumption or entertainment. The public may not all realize it, yet. They may be seduced into thinking that a good income, a car, a TV, and an internet connection are all I need to be fully human. But I think eventually they will wake up to understand that that kind of life, in the end, leaves you at home alone. What people need is community—a community that allows people to expose their deepest concerns and hopes, as we do in prayer, that gives people a chance to serve others in need, which studies have shown in inherently satisfying, and that connects people to matters of ultimate value and meaning. Yes, religious communities remain divided by our different traditions, but there is more than enough ecumenical goodwill among houses of worship like ours to allow to for sharing in work and fellowship.

So take heart, Church of Christ in Granby: we are, or can become, exactly what the world needs: a community of depth, welcome, transformation, and service that is not based on putting others down, but on being raised up together to God.

As we reaffirm the promise we have in Christ, we also consider together what we need to do to attain it. You have a Sermon Response sheet in your bulletin with three questions on it. Please take a minute to fill it out, or do so while we collect the offering, and leave it in the basket in the narthex on your way out. Question one asks you for the words you think describe the kind of church we should be (and if you think that we already are that word, circle it). Question two asks you to rank in importance the kind of things we should focus more on doing. And Question three asks for your suggestions about how to become what we should be and do more of what we need to do. If you want to sign it you may, and I’ll take that as an invitation to follow up with you. But you may also leave it anonymous.   We need a common vision, and this is a small step to achieve it.   And consider yourself called not just to fill out a questionnaire; pray also, this week, for discernment and power among us all to become the church that God wants us to be.

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