April 26 we're in it together
Unfortunately, in my usual fashion, I have forgotten where or from whom I recently heard this story of a young child. Desperate to get the full attention of her distracted mother, who she could clearly tell had “tuned out” based on her rhythmic and monotone “um-hm”s, the child walked over to where her mother was seated and placed both of her chubby little hands on the mother’s cheeks. Then, guiding her mother’s face so it lined up with her own, the child looked her mother in the eyes and said with slow deliberateness, “Pay attention.” Today we find ourselves in a culture where multi-tasking is considered an art. As we rush to get the most out of every minute of the day, the gift of presence, still and reverent attention, has become a rare treasure.
This morning I’m continuing a sermon series on the membership vows we take as United Methodists when we join a local congregation. Those Methodist vows are very much rooted in the practices of the early Church, although they may take a somewhat different shape in our contemporary culture. The membership promises we make are reflective of the core tenets that New Testament scriptures reveal to us about how church is done. Last week I spoke on the vow of supporting the church with our prayers. Looking at a story from Acts I addressed how, when the early Church faced persecution or challenges, they did not pray for the challenges to go away but, rather, their common prayer was that God would make them bold in the face of those challenges.
Today I’ll be talking about the vow of presence. Now, my guess would be that, when we hear that statement about supporting the church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness, we interpret presence as “showing up.” In other words, we equate presence with good attendance. I remember during my freshman year of high school we had a sled-riding party that probably should have been cancelled due to a very low wind chill temperature. As it turned out, a young man who was a senior in the group suffered a bad case of frostbite. Steve had a perfect attendance record all the way through high school. As it turned out, school was cancelled the next day due to the weather. Otherwise that unfortunate event would have ruined Steve’s chances of receiving a perfect attendance award at graduation. I don’t even know if schools give out perfect attendance awards anymore. Nowadays, we are not a very attendance driven culture. A few years back, I had a receptionist who asked me if she could work from home. There are church leadership blogs a plenty addressing the widespread decline not only in church membership; but a significant drop in the number of Sundays per year the average worshipper attends church. Now, while I want to encourage strong church attendance and participation, that little opening story I told about the child and her mother make clear that presence has to be about more than attendance. For our physical bodies to be collectively gathered in one space does not, by itself, guarantee that we are present to one another; or that we are together in the New Testament sense of the term.
That Greek word for “together” that we heard in our scripture reading from Acts is a frequent word in Acts, but is only found in one other place in our whole New Testament. It was also used in my scripture from last Sunday in Acts, chapter 3. When Peter and John were released from prison and returned to tell the other disciples what had happened to them, Luke tells us that “when [the other disciples] heard it, they raised their voices together to God.”
The early Church, my friends, prayed together, they worshipped together, they learned together, and they just plain hung out together. Now that Greek word for “together” was used often in a political context in the first century Roman dominated world. It refers to those who are united not so much through a mutual affection as it does to those who develop a common affection because they share a common belief and a common interest. Together, they share a like-minded trust and hope. I loved one commentator I read this week who said of this early Church “togetherness” that it was “not based upon a similarity of inclination or disposition but upon an event which comes [up]on a group from without and provokes a common reaction.1 [repeat]
That event, my friends, was the Christ event: the life, death, resurrection, and ministry commission of Jesus Christ. The 1st century Christians shared a common trust in Jesus; they shared a common concern in proclaiming and exhibiting the good news of Jesus, their Lord and Savior. In other words, our relationships with one another aren’t simply about warm, chummy feelings. We don’t – or at least we shouldn’t – pick a church because we judge its members to be the most like us; or the wittiest or the most charming. Instead, the drawing power of a church ought to be about how well the gospel message becomes incarnate among us. [repeat]
Now there is a big theological sentence for you.
But it’s really pretty simple. While church is the place where we should hear about, learn about, talk about the good news of Jesus our Lord and Savior; church must – even more importantly – be the place where we experience the love and the saving grace of Jesus through one another. Let me put it this way. Church is a place where we must hear the story of Jesus. We are drawn to the good news of Jesus Christ. And yet, it’s not enough for us to tell the story; we have to be the story. And to be the story, we have to know the story. In other words, Church is a place where we find ourselves caught up in this wonderful, spectacular cycle in which we hear Jesus proclaimed; then we behave in a certain way in response to that proclamation. And then, as we reflect, or live out, that message toward one another, we learn even more. Our ideas and behaviors are shaped not only by what we hear from the preacher and bible study teachers and church leaders; but they are also shaped by how we respond to what we see in the preacher, the teachers and church leaders.
As we are present with one another – through bible studies and mission work and fellowship over meals – as we are present with one another, what we do and say, how we behave toward one another becomes an active, living, contextual expression of the gospel of Jesus. Our presence, our togetherness with one another, proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ. Our presence presents the Jesus of our gospels.
Friends, we do need to show up at church; not only in worship but in all the other church contexts that communicate the gospel to us (so, small group studies, serving those in need, praying together, just spending time hanging out with each other). All of those activities work together as a living expression of the gospel of Jesus. And we truly need them all. We experience the gospel message differently in those different contexts of study and worship and service and fellowship. So, we need to show up for all those things. We need to present ourselves so that we can celebrate the presence of Jesus among us.
But it must go deeper than our physical presence; a mere “showing up.” We need to pay attention. We don’t come to church to put in our time or just carry out a duty. We show up ready and expecting to be engaged. We pay attention so we can truly enter into the presence of Jesus, experienced through one another.
Over the years I have heard people say that they believe in God; they just don’t believe in the church. They don’t think it’s necessary. Well, I do think someone can believe in God’s existence without going to church. But believing in God’s existence, even believing in Jesus’ existence, is not the same as being a disciple of Jesus. Being a disciple requires being in a relationship not only with Jesus, but also with a church because church is the place where we learn and grow together; church is the place where we present Jesus to one another. Now again, church may not always look like our experience of traditional church. It can be experienced in different ways among different people. But you can’t take the people out of discipleship. Our growing in our relationship with Jesus can’t happen if we are not doing the “together” things that the early Christians did – if we are not praying together, and learning God’s Word together, and serving those in need together, worshipping together and just having fun together. To pay attention to Jesus, we have to pay attention to one another.
And friends, here’s the last thing. Although I have another Sunday in this series devoted to witness, sometimes presence is the most powerful witness we can bring. Perhaps you’ve heard the cliché that people need to know that you care before they can care about what you know. Beginning this Saturday, May 2, for three Saturdays in a row, we’re going to walk around our Centennial neighborhood to get to know our neighbors. We’ve been encouraged to engage in this ministry both by our church consultant, Dan Bonner, and also by what we have learned about Broadway UMC in Indy. Broadway actually has an individual in their congregation who is designated as their roving listener. Folks we live in a world where someone is always talking at us – on TV, on the radio, online through blogs and social media, in workshops and training sessions. And for some of us, we feel like that little girl in my opening story. We may feel like even those closest to us – our family, our friends, our co-workers – are still talking at us. But what we all long for, what we all crave, is someone who will listen to us; someone who will push aside distractions, turn off their TV, put down their phone and be present with us. God loved us so much that he sent his Son. Perhaps there is no simpler way of explaining the incarnation than to say that in Jesus, God came to be present with us. If we are disciples of Jesus, if the Spirit of the risen Christ lives within us, then our presence can present Jesus to others.
This morning, I want to leave you with a challenge. I hope as many of you as possible will come out and walk around the neighborhood with us on Saturday. But if you can’t do that, then I want to challenge you to have at least one interaction this week in which you are fully present to someone else. Maybe there is a friend or family member that you realize you’ve been doing more “talking at” than “listening to;” maybe it’s that annoying neighbor that always wants to chat when you’re trying to get somewhere on time; maybe it’s that gossipy co-worker… in which listening is definitely a better choice than talking; or maybe it’s that parent behind you in the checkout line who’s struggling to keep the kid in the cart and the candy out of the cart. Whoever it is, give to them your presence. All you really need to do is pay attention.
 Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 186.
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