So, last week we walked the road to Emmaus. We ended up talking about “My Church”, how to lay claim to this experience of a Jesus who appears to meet us now in the midst of conversation.
One way to start that conversation, according to Pastor Rob Moss, is to get used to talking about “My Church.” Of course, a few of you might have felt a little uneasy about the “My Church” thing and for good reason. Getting too possessive about something usually also opens up the possibility for comparison, and conflict.”
In fact, that is a pretty good lead into the reading for today, because what the Acts story of Stephen reveals to us is that there seems to be built into this thing called “church” the potential for conflict and division.
Here we have this rather uncomfortable story about political intrigue in the first century church!
The Jerusalem church is flourishing we are told, adding members day by day in that cosmopolitan stewpot of Jerusalem in the first century. All kinds of different cultures, allegiences and histories are mixing and melding together and sorting out their identity, and do you know what happens when you do that?
So you have all these Greek speaking cultures flooding into Jerusalem like immigrants, the Hellenists as they are called, and they are trying to find or claim their place amongst the established Hebrew indigenous cultures.
What begins as a functional problem, how to distribute food among the poor, escalates into a theological problem.
We are not told exactly what Stephen preached, only the allegations against him, and the intrigue that follows where he is falsely accused on trumped up charges, and brought to the temple authorities.
He delivers an impassioned defense, judged over by the High Priest in the Temple. Now, if you know the story of Jesus, you know that the High Priest and the Council haven’t exactly had a track record of choosing the wisest course of action.
It is no surprise therefore, that their judgment is one that prefers that one man die for the sake of keeping the peace
You or I might have wanted to sweep the unpleasant stories about the church under the rug, wouldn’t we?
That is ever our temptation, to make the church some kind of ideal community, a utopia on earth where all find comfort, refuge, shelter, love, and nothing else. We want to put a steeple on the Magic Kingdom. The church is supposed to be like this all the time. A place where dreams come true, hurts are healed, and the broken are mended.
Surely that is a part of what the church is about. Stephen and his teaching, the feeding of the widows, the earnest attempt to address the complaints, all those are signs of Church wanting to aspire to its Lord.
But things don’t always turn out the way we expect them to, even in the conversation with and over Jesus!
Here’s the thing about Jesus being in conversation with us and with this world. It doesn’t always go as expected!.
The conversation does not go well for Stephen, even though Luke is clear that he is blameless, the rocks still fly, and there are those who are willing and not innocent bystanders to the event. Saul of Tarsus watches it all and serves as coat keeper, without lifting a finger from his position of authority as Pharisee and keeper of the law.
It is a curious thing, that the religious leaders in Jerusalem who had no law by which they could put the blasphemer Jesus to death, now finds a provision for stoning Stephen.
How can this be? We shake our heads in dismay.
Sometimes we do the same thing when the church disappoints us. We shake our heads and say, “this isn’t the way it should be! If we were all Christians, we wouldn’t be fighting over things, would we?”
I think Luke is trying to make a compelling argument that part and parcel of living with a resurrected Lord who is in conversation with us is that there will be disagreements! Look it happened all the way back there. It happened on the road to Emmaus as they disagreed with each other and Jesus about the events in Jerusalem.
It happened in Jerusalem, even when the church was doing really good and important ministry, there were disagreements about theology, and the nuts and bolts of administration, and about the course of action and who should have authority and the final say in things. There was jealously, and envy, and intrigue and outright lies, and in the end an uncertain outcome for the accused that did not go out as we might have expected for a “good Christian” story!
Which bring us back now again to this phrase “My Church.”
Pastor Moss’ next direction to his congregation is that after you get used to just saying “My Church” you bump it up a notch, by completing a simple sentence. A Really simple sentence like, “My Church is_____.” Fill in the blank.
I’m pretty sure what we would want to put in the blank is all the positive stuff, right? My church is involved in a food pantry. My church is feeding the homeless. My church has a great choir. My church is a great place to worship. Etc., etc. etc.
But I wonder if we would dare to fill in that blank just a bit differently, and include more than just the positives? My church is involved in a food pantry, and I’m not sure what all they do there or how to get involved? My church is feeding the homeless, but we sure have a hard time getting people to sign up to do that! My church has a great choir but it’s getting older and shrinking. My church is a great place to worship but we sure are split about how we worship.
My church is contentious, we have strong personalities that vie for resources, control, and influence. My church is opinionated. My church is …….well you get the picture.
If what we were interested in was presenting a pretty picture, we would leave those comments off.
But it looks to me like Luke is telling us to do something different, for the sake of the church itself.
The story of Stephen has to be told. This is who we are, this is what we are capable of doing when the voice of Jesus is forgotten, or shut out, or actively resisted.
Luke you see is not much interested in a Disneyland version of church. He insists on a “real” church for really good reasons.
It is in this “real” church that Jesus engages in conversations with us that matter.
It is in this church that contains the best and the worst of us, that God continues to work, laying the groundwork for lives that will unfold in unexpected ways.
No one laying their coats on the ground at the feet of Saul would have expected what God would do with that scalawag and threat-breather.
This is why we have to include all the “My Church Is…” possibilities. God is not in the habit of working with plaster saints or phonies.
God is in the habit of engaging in real conversations over things that matter intensely to you and to me, and helping us work though them, and even when we are dead wrong and make mistakes that cost lives still chooses to work with and through us.
That’s the nature of this world, and of this church that is in this world and in a continuing conversation with Jesus.
So let’s get used to this “next step in the “My Church” exercise.
My church is after all, if you have been reading the headlines, a church where a Bishop can preside wonderfully over the Eucharist, work diligently for immigration reform, to address the needs of the poor, and still end up killing the innocent because of his own drunken driving.
My church is a church where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the needs of all are considered, and where the needs of others are sometimes forgotten, ignored or belittled. We surprise and disappoint all the time.
Yes, I’m sorry to have to tell you that my church is a real church.
It is a church of, as Luther used to put it, Simul, Justis et Peccator… filled with wonderful saint who are at the same time wretched sinners.
Or, rather, I am not sorry to tell you that. Because from the book of Acts forward it is clear that what this resurrected Lord does is work in such churches, and in such churches plaster saints are not what you will find, but rather real people, and that means there is room for you and for me as well.
My Church is not a perfect place.
It is a place where Grace has the final say, and where forgiveness is freely offered, sometimes to the least deserving, because that is what the conversation with Jesus presses you toward, and makes you proclaim.
It is a real church. Amen