Whose Church Is It Anyways?

A Message by Rev. Scott W. Cousineau

Acts 2:42-47

 

            Do you remember when the phrase, “What would Jesus do?” became popular? It was the 1990s, and suddenly WWJD bracelets and T-shirts were everywhere. The words were a reminder for youth groups and other Christians to consider a walk in Jesus’ steps as we travel our own faith journeys.

 

            Of course, there were other variants that popped up. One author changed the phrase to “What Jesus Meant” in which he examined what Jesus would really do in any given situation.

 

            Another change of the phrase realized that it was impossible to ask people to do what Jesus did, so they changed it to “What Would Jesus Have ME Do?” It recognized our inability to achieve perfection as Jesus is perfect, and asked people to consider what Jesus’ expectations are for us.

 

            As I thought about the message for this morning, I would like to introduce a new variation ... WCWJGT ... “What Church Would Jesus Go To?” It rolls right off the tongue, does it not?

 

            Of course, most faithful church-goers take pride in their home churches, and believe that Jesus would choose their church. “Jesus would love it here! We are wonderful, caring disciples of Christ!”

 

            However, there is a funny thing about the religions of the world: They often do not resemble their founders.

            Former pastor Brian McLaren takes this even farther. In his book The Great Spiritual Migration, he writes that “our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for.”

            Why is this? The founders of religions 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. Instead of being bold and visionary, religions become obsessed with the accumulation and protection of money and power. That is why there was a popular video produced a few years ago called, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” That is also why people are so prone to call the church a bunch of hypocrites.

            Because Christianity has become disconnected from Jesus, many people are getting sick of the church. Before a recent worship service in Iowa, the pastor read aloud a note that had been handed to him a few moments earlier. “It says here that I should announce that there will be no B.S.”

            He tucked the piece of paper in his pocket and added, “I am hoping they mean ‘Bible Study.’”

            People want an authentic church that is true to Jesus, aligned with his ministry and mission. For this to happen, McLaren says that we need to migrate, moving from one way of life to another. In particular, he challenges us to move from expressing our faith only as a system of beliefs “to expressing it as a loving way of life.” This is a migration away from religious bureaucracy and back to the vision of our founder, Jesus Christ. It is a move away from pointing fingers in condemnation to opening our hands to alleviate human suffering. It is a migration from going in debt for a building program to spending time making disciples – that is, living like the first Christians did as described in Acts and today’s text.

            A just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion. That is the kind of religion that Jesus founded. And it is the answer to the question: Whose church is this anyways? Is it ours? Or his?

            In Acts 1, Jesus told his followers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (1:8). Then he disappeared.

            His words become true according to the account in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit came upon them – Acts tells us that “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (v. 4)

            Immediately, the followers of Jesus become witnesses. They begin to speak about “God’s deeds of power” in languages that are clear to the international crowd that is gathered in Jerusalem. (v. 11) But the power of the Christian message was communicated not only by words, but also by deeds. Acts tells us that the members of the church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (v. 42) They shared everything – in fact, “they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (v. 45)

            Because of this just and generous way of life, rooted in prayer and expressed in compassion, the church had “the goodwill of all the people.” It continued to grow, day by day, as “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (v. 47)

            Clearly, this is the kind of religion that resembles its founder. It is precisely the kind of church that Jesus would want to belong to – one defined by a loving way of life. So what does such a life look like?

First, it is a life that is not attached to material things.

 

A pastor was met by a church member at the door after worship. The pastor commented on the great tie the man was wearing. The man smiled, thanked him and immediately – right there at the door – took it off and gave it to the pastor. Everyone seemed shocked and a little embarrassed by such a radical act of public generosity.

            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.” (v. 45) Such congregations today put church mission ahead of church maintenance, and 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.

Second, 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. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus got out of a boat and immediately received a request from a leader of the synagogue to come and heal his daughter. As Jesus was going to her, he was interrupted by a woman with a bleeding problem. Instead of being annoyed or irritated that his agenda had been interrupted, Jesus attended to her. And then after Jesus had healed the woman, he made it to the leader’s house, only to find that the little girl was dead. But Jesus was not discouraged – he told the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” And then he raised the little girl from the dead. (Mark 5:21-43)

            Jesus shows us that the power of God is seen clearly in a life of openness and receptivity to the needs of others. In Jerusalem, “awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” (v. 43) They cared for people around them, and as a result they had “the goodwill of all the people.” (v. 47)

Third, 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.” (v. 42) They made sure that they were nourished by teaching and preaching, communion and prayer. Spiritual feeding was needed before church members could go out and feed the hungry around them.

            Acts tells us that “as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” (v. 46) Their worship and fellowship strengthened them as followers of Christ, changing their behavior and making them more interested in the fruits of the Spirit than in the works of the flesh.
 
            Jesus wants to be part of a church that is spiritually mature, rooted in prayer and contemplation. The fruits of such a community are acts of compassion and generosity. Such a life is described well by the apostle Paul in his first letter to Timothy, where he challenges his fellow Christians to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share.” (6:18) The result, says Paul, is “the life that really is life.” (v. 19).

            Jesus wants us to enjoy this kind of life – one marked by a lack of attachment to material things, by openness and receptivity to others and by spiritual maturity. He wants us to build a community of justice and generosity, one that is rooted in contemplation and committed to acts of compassion. Jesus wants us to be a community that is led by his heart, rather than by the passions of our hearts.

            When we do, the Christian church will not be hated by the world. Instead, it will receive the goodwill of the people.

 

            WCWJGT? ... What church would Jesus go to? A church after his own heart ... a church that prays together, breaks bread together, and serves together without reservation or judgment. That is Jesus’ church. Amen.