Lessons for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year A: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
I think part of the human condition means loving a good origin story. We do it with all of our autobiographies and church saints and, particularly, our superhero movies. Batman Begins, X-Men Origins. I feel like a primary need of the human heart is to rifle back to the past to find out the place and the time that something or someone big started off. We just really want to know what Bruce Wayne was like before he was Batman. This is just a fundamental drive for genealogy.
My oldest cousin is seriously interested in genealogy and figuring out who came from what
country and when and how everyone is related to each other and really the story of him as he sees it going back in our family’s true history.
I think the Book of Acts is the church’s equivalent of a genealogy. We go all the way back and find out how we started, the first days of the church, what happened at the very, very beginning of it all for us as Christians. And this is some unbelievably amazing action that we see in the Book of Acts! The revival that happens right before this passage, the first ever “Gospel revival,” is described in these big, wild words–there is a wind that blows through, there is imagery of fire, the Spirit is tangible and touchable. People are bewildered and amazed and perplexed, and the crowds think that it’s a huge, open-air drinking party because it’s so loud and so large and so out of control. Then Peter stands up and gives the kind of sermon that most of us as preachers can only dream of giving. He weaves in the Hebrew Scriptures with Jesus’ life, and he is yelling–the text says he is pleading with them–and three thousand people join the young Christian community. This is wild stuff.
But it doesn’t end with a mad, emotional revival. The passage we read this morning describes the Christian community as it begins, and oh my goodness, it is beautiful. They are doing theology, they are living together, they are eating together, they are praying together–this is a kind of community that most church leaders would give their left foot for. And while this part of the story is not as noisy as the revival from earlier, it has its own reckless beauty–the new Christians are literally giving everything away that they have so that no one will be hungry or homeless and doing it all in awe and with gladness and joy–and the community just keeps growing every single day.
This story of the beginning of the Church is just glorious. This is the Church alive. This is the Church on the move. This is the Church as the bride of Christ.
But I’m going to take a minute to be really honest. This is not how I have experienced the Church. And when I look around to my brothers and sisters who have been cut out or left behind or excluded from the church, I can see that they haven’t had that experience either. When we think about the Church on the move, we don’t usually think about good news proclaimed to the poor or giving away all that we have. Historically, we look back at a church that has committed systematic genocide against people groups–participated in power struggles with other nations–that has wrapped itself up in the power of the state and used that power for oppression and injustice in the name of God.
And for many of us, it’s more personal than that. Maybe it happened in our individual church community–the moment that the pastor said that we could do children’s ministry or women’s ministry but not preach. Or the day that the new worship leader is asked to step down, in a letter full of code words about the worship music, like “repetitive” and “showy” and “too ethnic.” Or the time the congregation chose sides and fought their sisters and brothers using the Bible as a weapon until one day half of them took their toys and went home–left–gave up on the community and called it a day. We have been part of churches full of corruption, greed, abuses of power, and abuses of people, churches full of gossip and backbiting, churches that have told us they loved us and then silenced our voices because of our gender or race or sexual orientation. If we are the bride of Christ, we are not wearing white.
The Church is supposed to be the answer to our woundedness; but instead, many of us sit here and the Church is the reason we are wounded.
I think that the word “wounded” is apt here. A wound is ordinarily a physical problem–a cut, a bruise, a breakage. Paul says that the Church is a body–the Body of Christ. We the individuals in the church are the eyes and ears and hands of Christ on earth. Our diversity of roles and personalities and gifts and problems work together, moving in one direction, towards exhibiting Christ. We are one body, many parts. We are diverse, but we can be united. And we are called to be united; we are called to enter into intimate, interdependent relationships with people who are ridiculously different from us–a hand and a liver, a kneecap and the lungs. And this also means that when the Church fails to live into that unity, when she excludes or eliminates or hurts individual people, the whole body is wounded, just like breaking an arm or having open heart surgery. One part does not suffer without the whole body suffering.
And the bad news is that we have failed at living into that unity and will continue to fail–every single one of us. Someone will enter our church, and they will be messy in a way that we cannot cope with–or maybe beautiful in a way that our ugly and our messy can’t handle. Every single one of us will come face to face with the person that we will refuse to love. We will be excluded from communities, yes, and we will also be part of communities that exclude.
But the news does not end with the bad news, friends. It never ends with Good Friday. The Good News is that it is not up to us. We do not need to be perfect for God to work in the Church. We do not need to have our stuff together before God starts to move in our midst. God is still working. The Church is God’s Beloved, and God is not done working with her, either in the structures and institutions or in the individual people that together make up this Body of Christ. The Spirit is at work when other people fail us and when we fail other people.
Because here’s the thing. We go back to that beautiful, inspiring passage from Acts. And then we step back and look at the whole story in Acts of the early church. And yeah–it is exciting and it is a wild ride of a young Church just leaping off into the world empowered by the Spirit and loving people and preaching the Good News of Jesus–but it’s also full of stories of embezzlement, church conflict, racial exclusion, leadership failures, congregational self-destruction, and infighting.
And yet. And yet. Here we are today. We are still moving. The Church is still moving. The Spirit is still moving. The horrible, heartbreaking failures of the early Church didn’t stop the Spirit from continuing to move and spread the Good News that “the blind see and the lame walk” for nearly two thousand years. Our current heartbreaking failures cannot stop the grace of Jesus Christ from continuing to move in us and between us. Because the main character in the book of Acts is not Peter, even with his fantastic preaching, and it is not Paul, even with his radical missionary work, and it is not even the Church with her radical expansion. The main character of the Book of Acts is the Holy Spirit and the way that the Spirit sweeps through our lives, whether we want it to or not, and sweeps through our churches even when we can’t see a way that things can be made new, and the gates of hell cannot stop it.
And so our good news is tremendous news, it is the best news of all, that Christ cannot be stopped by our sin and our failures, whether those sins are communal or individual. And the good news is that we are all welcome in all our messiness and diversity. This is us. This is the Church. One body, different parts. And while we mourn the pain the Church has caused us and others, here we are again, through Christ and in the Spirit creating a place for others and ourselves that we can serve and love in all our beautiful messiness.
And as if that is not good news enough, there is good news for tomorrow, too, because although today we look at the Church and see her brokenness, she is and we are the Bride of Christ, and one day we will have the craziest wedding feast and be together the unified Body that we only ever had glimpses of this side of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is not done with us, even when we feel like the Church is done with us or feel like we are done with the Church. He is at work in the Church, transforming it today and moving us towards a new heaven and a new earth where we will be for the first time a truly Beloved Community as the Bride of Christ. Because “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”