Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bringing the church back to the table

Genesis 22:15-18; Luke 10:1-9; Acts 2:41-47

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I don’t know why God decided to do it this way, but God did.

God decided to put his agenda of saving a fallen world
into the hands of the likes of us,
a motley crew of people who
believe in God most of the time . . . kind of . . .
who try to live the way Jesus asked them to
some of the time . . . sort of . . .
and pretty often make a mess of very simple things.

God could have programmed this whole “salvation of the world” thing
in a way that made a lot more sense, don’t you think?
I mean, God has been working at this salvation business for a long time,
without a whole lot of progress, it would seem . . .
if we look at the world around us—
what with people killing one another and destroying creation
at an alarming rate.

God has the power to stop it.
This same God did some pretty innovative things in the past
to get people’s attention and put things right—
like flooding the whole earth, and saving the faithful . . .
(oh, but God said he wouldn’t do that again, so scratch that option)
or speaking to the people from a mountain, with fire and smoke,
or parting the waters of the sea,
or sending a heavenly choir to shepherds to announce salvation.
God could try those things again.

But you know,
if you look more closely at those great salvation stories,
you’ll see God was doing all that with motley crews just like us.
After being saved from the flood,
Noah and his sons blew it,
started doing unspeakable things.
God delivered the people from 400 years of slavery,
and the day after crossing the Red Sea,
they started complaining about water quality.
God spoke to the people from the smoke and the fire,
and soon after they made a golden calf to worship.
And it only got worse.

God—who wants more than anything else
to see this good and beautiful creation restored to wholeness,
to have wars cease,
to see the lion and wolf and calf and lamb and toddler,
all lie down together in the meadow to rest—
has trusted the likes of us to help God get it done.
In this massive project,
we are invited as bona-fide partners with God.
God invites ordinary people who gather together regularly,
in faith, in hope, in trust,
and in mutual covenant with each other and God.
God collaborates, for the salvation of the world,
with these earthy communities of human beings,
the church.

But if you look at the way the church of Jesus Christ
actually behaved over the centuries,
you get a different picture.
You’d think God really wants to save the world
with a program, not a people.
You’d think God was looking for the best organized church,
with the greatest attendance,
and largest missions program,
and slickest marketing tools,
and fattest budget,
and best superstar preachers.

But no.
God entrusted the salvation of the world,
to a divine partnership
between the Holy Spirit of God,
and real-life communities of seriously flawed human beings.

Beginning with God’s first covenant with a people group
(which we heard about in today’s reading from Genesis)
and continuing through the company of prophets,
the twelve apostles,
the seventy disciples,
the network of house churches around the Mediterranean . . .
God has always and continually
sought out a relationship with a group of people,
and asked them to collaborate in God’s mission.

When the church first took root, that’s exactly what happened.
Read the book of Acts.
Individuals were being drawn into community,
the powers of the world were being shaken,
God’s salvation was sweeping through families, towns, and cities.

But over time things changed.
For a while,
these living and breathing communities of God’s collaborators
were small enough to meet in each other’s homes,
and break bread together daily,
and share their resources with each other generously.
For a while,
they could deal with conflict
by speaking with each other face-to-face,
because they knew each other’s stories deeply.
For a while,
they could wrestle with huge moral and theological questions
without coming apart at the seams.
Like building a family with Jews and Gentiles, long-time enemies.
For a while,
they were nimble enough, as an organic body,
to change patterns of leadership when that was needed.
For a while,
they could actually open their doors,
and strangers would feel fully welcomed and at home,
without being confused by foreign rituals
and strange symbols and language.
For a while,
they were doing exactly what Jesus commissioned them to do
in today’s reading from Luke 10.
They not only talked, but demonstrated,
what life under God’s reign looked like day in and day out.

But time passed.
The Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire.
Christianity became the official religion of the Empire.
And the church happily became a fixture in society.
It enjoyed stability.
But it also suffered from a profound lack of openness
to anything new God wanted to do among them.
The Gospel message no longer needed to be shared,
because they all had it already,
they owned it.
Conflicts were no longer dealt with in Spirit-filled
face-to-face conversations with each other.
Instead, conflicts were put down, swiftly, with the sword.
Heretics were burned or drowned.
And the establishment was protected.
And the stage was set for the church to become
a rigid, self-protective, powerful religious institution,
that used its power to maintain order,
to preserve its role in society,
and to keep out undesirable elements.

You know . . . a whole lot of people still see the church that way.

So here we are. Today.
In a congregation much larger than any envisioned in the Bible.
With a lot more to protect.
With a tradition to honor.
A structure to maintain.
Bills to pay.
People to make happy.

Does God love the church we have become?
Oh, of course, God loves this church, and others like it.
Is there a place in the mission of God
for a church that has a lot to protect
and is not likely to take big risks?
Yes, there has to be.
Can God do good things through large, complex,
and institutional churches?
Of course, God can.
If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here.

But would I also say,
that the institutional church—
like Park View and most any other well-established church—
was not really envisioned in the New Testament.
Church as institution developed much later,
during a time when the church
was deeply aligned with the Empire.

So I think it’s fair to ask . . . and imagine together . . .
How might Park View Mennonite, or other churches like us,
be more faithful to the vision of church in scripture?
Could a church like ours be described
like the first believers were
in the reading we heard from Acts 2?
Could we be a people
who “devote themselves daily to teaching and fellowship,
to breaking of bread and the prayers,”
who cause neighbors to look on in wonder,
at the signs of God’s work among us,
who sell possessions and goods
in order to care for others in need,
who “day by day” spend time together, and in the public square,
“praising God and having the goodwill of all,”
who are growing,
not because an attractive program draws in church people,
but because “the Lord is adding numbers daily,
of those who are being saved.”

If this is going to happen,
we need to bring the church back to the table.
If all we are is a fine church with an exciting program,
and growing attendance,
and great worship and music,
with something for all ages . . .
If we are not breaking bread together, face-to-face,
in table-sized groups,
with glad and generous hearts,
and if we do not know, in the deepest way,
the stories of others at our table,
and if we are not praying, worshiping,
studying scripture, and seeking God’s face,
at tables, so to speak,
then we are missing an essential part
of what church is meant to be.

Jesus modeled a small-scale communal and missional life
with his own disciples.
And he expected them to replicate it,
when they went out on their own.
We just listened to the story in Luke 10.
What a stark contrast
between the way churches operate today,
and what the disciples were told to do in Luke 10!
What would you think about a church development effort,
that involved believers going out in pairs,
and not carrying with them any money, food, or extra clothes?
Just looking for a town, and a household, that would take them in,
and show them hospitality?
And then just move in and stay put,
eating whatever they bring you,
just building a relationship.
And then, after you show yourself vulnerable,
once you prove to your hosts that you need them,
then you share the Gospel, “the Kingdom of God is near you.”
Then you heal, and deliver, and minister God’s grace.

That’s not what we call “doing evangelism” or “doing missions.”
That’s called “forming missional communities.”
Luke 10 is about church at the table, both literally and figuratively.
The table-based communities of believers that formed
did not try to protect an institution or promote a religion.
They embodied . . . they gave voice to . . .
the reign of God among them.
They welcomed the stranger,
shared bread, shared resources,
shared good news with each other,
listened, learned, taught, healed, and delivered.

It seems to me that if we, as a large, complex,
and fairly institutional church,
are going to be faithful to the mission of God,
we need to learn how to help this larger entity, called PVMC,
become a catalyst for forming these smaller entities
where church happens at the table.
We need to have a structure that
empowers and enables the church to function at the table.
We need to see the church not as an institution,
but as a community of communities.
We need to see ourselves less as preservers of the institution,
and more as entrepreneurs, as risk-takers for God’s kingdom.
We need to structure ourselves in a way
that helps table-sized church to happen,
all over the place, seven days a week.
While still valuing what we can do as a large gathering once a week,
and in some programs we run for the larger whole.

I’m not promoting any one model
for what “church at the table” looks like.
Tables have many different sizes and styles and functions.
And we already have lots of table-church going on here, praise God!
Many Sunday School classes function this way, at least in part.
So do many small groups.
So do many informal groups of two, three, seven, or more.

When I say “church at the table”
I mean a group of people, small enough to fit around a table,
who very deliberately enter into a covenant with each other,
with Jesus at the center.
They agree to meet together often,
to enter into each other’s lives more deeply,
to “be church” together, in every sense of the word.

When I think of all the essential elements of being church—
gathering in worship,
disciple-making and evangelism,
interpreting and applying the scriptures,
discerning and decision-making,
forming faith through the lifespan,
practicing mutual aid,
practicing stewardship,
practicing mutual accountability,
building fellowship,
embodying the reign of God—
I am hard-pressed to think of any of these
that a table-sized group can’t do
much more effectively than a gathering of hundreds.

Of course, as a gathering of hundreds
we can add significantly to what table groups do,
we can add momentum, vision, excellence,
we can enjoy the strength of numbers
that make certain programs and ministries possible.
But we cannot, nor can we ever,
be a substitute for the essential function of church
that is really meant to happen at tables,
with Jesus at the center.

What I have said this morning, is not new to many of you.
You’ve heard me talk like this before.
And some of you know that we pastors and elders
recently articulated this vision of Park View church
as “a community of communities engaged in God’s mission.”
We came to Sunday School classes, commissions,
and other groups,
and engaged you in conversation around these things.
We intend to keep the conversation going.

I am putting together a series of sermons for October and November
that will continue the conversation.
We’ll be looking at specifics of how “church-at-the-table”
does worship, discernment, biblical interpretation,
evangelism, faith formation, accountability, and the like.
And I invite your responses, as individuals,
and as groups who might want to go deeper in your life together,
and start seeing yourselves more as church.

The church exists for one purpose—
to glorify and exalt God and God’s purpose among the nations.
God trusts this congregation of believers
to be about that purpose.
And God calls each one of us individually to stand,
not alone, but in the congregation,
and join in this collective praise and worship and work.
Let’s rejoice in God’s call as we sing,
#113 in Sing the Story, the purple book. #113.

—Phil Kniss, September 13, 2009

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