By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Acts 6:1-6
I am glad to be back in worship with all of you this morning. Some of you are aware that last week, during the week, I was at Benedict Inn south of Indy for a silent spiritual retreat, the conclusion of my training in spiritual direction. Last weekend I was in Goshen for the wedding of a Trinity couple. I felt blessed by the opportunity to preside over Eric and Isabel’s wedding ceremony not only because of their relationship with me and this congregation, but because of their thoughtfulness in crafting a marriage ceremony that celebrated their love for one another and their love for God. They wrote their own vows – which nearly made me cry. But as I mentioned to Eric and Isabel – and to all couples I marry – those vows recited during the ceremony are beautiful and romantic (and can feel magical). But the substance of a marriage isn’t about that brief moment in time when we speak those vows. The substance of a marriage is revealed over the course of decades as we strive to live out those vows in our daily lives.
Church membership vows are much the same. Membership matters… certainly. Various conference online forms have fields to track current membership metrics and trends; grant applications require a church’s membership statistics. But, as warm and fuzzy as it makes us all feel when someone stands at the front of the church and recites their membership vows, that does not reveal the essence of church belonging. True membership is revealed day by day year after year by how we live out those membership vows; vows which – generally speaking – reflect the lifestyle of the early apostolic Church. When we join the United Methodist Church, we promise to support it with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness. And likewise the book of Acts reveals what it meant to belong to the early Christian Church. Acts, chapter 2, summarizes with these words:
Acts 2:41 So those who welcomed [the apostles’] message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added [to the Church]. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.[i]
So you can see that our current United Methodist membership vows are grounded in that early apostolic Church experience:[ii]
The early Church wasn’t about buildings; they had no real estate holdings. As the children’s hymn goes, “the church is not a building; the church is a people.”[iii] Church is an experience of belonging and all of us, as human creatures, have an inherent longing for belonging.
Research reveals how important it is for us to have a sense of belonging. Much study has been done in recent years regarding school shooters and it indicates that social isolation is the key factor in the development of that particular psychopathy. While sometimes related to early childhood trauma or abuse or a mental health condition, it all boils down to a feeling of being a “stranger in a strange land – the loss of a sense of belonging.”[iv] We are born into this world with an innate longing for belonging.
So how do we acquire – how do we establish – this sense of belonging. Now, wise parents reveal an inherent understanding (which is also a key learning for leaders): belonging is cultivated through participation and contribution. So, parents give their children chores not only to teach them responsibility; but to give them a sense of belonging. How often do we hear eager preschoolers proclaim “I want to help” (getting underfoot in the yard or the kitchen). I know I’ve shared the story of visiting my nephew and great nephew last summer. My nephew, Dan, will invite his son, Rhys (even as a toddler), to engage in a chore or task and when Rhys carries out that task, Dan affirms him with these words: “Thank you; that was helpful.” As I watch this play out, I can see the wheels kind of turn in 3-year old Rhys’ head as he processes this exchange. His contribution – however small it might be – solidifies his sense of belonging, his recognition of who he is and his role within his family, his primary place of belonging.
This morning’s scripture from the Book of Acts is a key story about Church as a place of belonging. As I’ve already shared, the early Church was to be a place where no one was to be in need. The mission and values – which reflected the teaching of Jesus – were that no one who belonged should ever find themselves in need because others would naturally respond to meet that need. But, we see in this morning’s story that there’s been a bump in the road. The early Church is growing quickly and it’s becoming more diverse. Jesus and his earliest followers were Jewish. But, the birthday of Church took place on Pentecost, a religious holiday when Jews from all over the Roman Empire would travel on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.[v] Coming from such a vast area, they had different cultural customs and even spoke different languages. And undoubtedly, some – after being converted to Christianity – remained in Jerusalem. But this circumstance of rapid growth and diversity presented some challenges: one of the Church’s core values (mutual care) was not playing out impartially. Whether intentional or not, there appears to be a bias, an inequality. And so this inequality, this problem of partiality and preference, is brought to the attention of the Jewish apostles, the church leaders. Wisely, they recognize that they can’t solve this on their own. This is a problem and one that must be addressed but they do not have enough time to do so. So they call a church-wide meeting – what today among Methodists we refer to as a Church Conference or a town hall meeting – so that all church members can have a voice, can be a part of the solution. They recommend that the Church members select from among themselves those who will be commissioned for the ministry of serving these widows who are not being adequately cared for; whose needs are not being properly addressed. Now, these widows apparently spoke Greek as a first language and those who are selected for this ministry have Greek names, meaning they also, likely, speak Greek as a first language. So, the fact that they share a common language is going to be very helpful. But notice also, what the apostles list as being most critical: these must be men – now in English it says “of good standing.” But, in the Greek of the New Testament, the word – the very first word defining criteria for selecting these men – is the Greek word “martureo”; a Greek word that translates “witness” and is the origin of our English word “martyr” and, in fact, the first man named in this list – Stephen – will become the first Christian martyr; the first follower of Jesus to die for his faith.
But, to be a martyr isn’t – at least in the Greek understanding of the word – primarily about dying. It is about living in such a way that our lives proclaim the gospel: not only what we say; but what we do, how we live; how we engage with others is a testimony to Jesus; like that old cliché: “preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”[vi]
Friends: the Church is not a building; the Church is a people. Church is not a place you visit or a building you come to on Sunday. Church is a community of belonging through contributing and participating. Reciting membership vows doesn’t make a member in the true sense. We “join the church” not by reciting membership vows but by living them out on an ongoing basis… just like couples live out their marriage vows. Not all of us are called to preach; but all of us are called to serve Christ and others. All of us have a ministry. For some, like me and Pastor Linda and Trinity’s Sunday School teachers and small group leaders, it may very well be a ministry of preaching or teaching the Word of God. But for some it is – as Bob Lilly has often put it – simply “carrying chairs.” We find our sense of belonging not based in the task itself; but in our willingness, our commitment, to use our time, talents and treasure to serve in ways that proclaim our witness to the gospel of Christ. You can be just as powerful of a witness carrying a chair as you can preaching a sermon if you do so with wisdom, compassion and humility; if you do so because that is what God’s Spirit is stirring you to do. Notice those are the other two criteria for these men; they must be filled with the Holy Spirit and with wisdom. Wisdom comes from God and wisdom is revealed through mercy, compassion and humility.[vii]
Friends: we fulfill our longing for belonging through relationships with Christ and with others. That’s why Trinity’s vision statement is “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.” The early apostles were called to serve God’s Word. Stephen and those other guys were called to serve food.[viii] They were all witnesses; they were all in ministry; they all belonged. We fulfill our own inward longing for belonging as we live out our membership vows; belonging is about what we bring to the table. All of us have a gift to share and, without our gift, this church – like the apostolic church – could not fulfill its mission.
Brothers and sisters, we aren’t church members or constituents because of a box checked on a form or a category in a database. It’s about what we each bring to the table. We belong because we have answered the call to serve one another, to be a witness for Jesus by the way we live, to make the vision of Trinity United Methodist Church our personal vision: growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.
[ii] Cokesbury (the United Methodist publishing house) publishes a brochure that provides more details about the five membership vows or promises: https://www.cokesbury.com/product/9781501853043/prayers-presence-gifts-service-witness-membership-brochure-pkg-of-10/
[iii] See the hymn We Are the Church, #558 in the United Methodist Hymnal (United Methodist Publishing House, 1989); written by Avery and Marsh.
[iv] http://www.sanluisobispo.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article183050306.html Online article: “How Can We Prevent More Mass Shootings?” by Steve Kadin and James Statler; November 6, 2017
[v] See Acts, chapter 2. For more on Pentecost (or the Jewish Festival of Weeks), see Exodus 34:22 and Numbers 28:26-31.
[vi] This quotation is often erroneously attributed to St Francis of Assisi… although it certainly does reflect the theology of St Francis
[vii] Jesus “Sermon on the Mount” of Matthew’s gospel (chapter 5-7) reveals Jesus as a “wisdom teacher.” His teaching on the Jewish law reveals what lies at the heart of its intent.
[viii] In this passage from Acts, the same word is used to refer to the apostles’ “service” of the word and the serving of tables. This Greek word is the origin of our English word “deacon.” It also translates our English word “ministry.”
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