"A STATE-OF-THE-UNION ADDRESS"
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, February 28, 1999
Text: Acts 2:42-27
A young boy named Johnny received a letter from an Uncle and Aunt who lived in South Africa informing Johnny that they were to visit him soon and he took great delight in this news. Whenever his Uncle and Aunt visited him in Canada they always brought magnificent and glorious gifts. He waited with great expectation for their arrival. On the arrival day he went to the back garden shed where there was a little pen in which he kept his Bantams, tiny chicks and from these Bantams came little eggs. He fed them and came inside, bathed and dressed and with his parents went to the airport to greet his Uncle and Aunt. Such excitement when they arrived! They were ecstatic to see him and he was thrilled to see them. He said, "Have you got a gift for me?" The Uncle and Aunt said, "Oh yes we do Johnny. You can't open it now because it might break on the way home in the car and we want to make sure that it's safe."
All the way back home he was thinking about what could it be. Finally they sat down at the kitchen table and the lad could not constrain himself any more and the gift was presented. It was a huge square box. He opened it and inside there was a huge ostrich egg. Johnny had never seen anything like this in his life. (I had never seen anything like it either until a few years ago in a place called Outshoorn in South Africa where there is an ostrich farm and the eggs are huge.) For the rest of the day, Johnny was nowhere to be found. When they called for lunch - no Johnny. When they called for supper - still no Johnny. In the back garden they heard banging and hammering and crashing and the Uncle and Aunt thought "we've come all this way from South Africa to see Johnny, what on earth is going on?" They went to the back garden and there he was just completing the erecting of something in the pen. There at the end where all the little Bantam chicks could see it was a little shelf he'd built with the ostrich egg on it. Underneath he had put a little caption: "Keep your eyes on this and do the best you can!"
I can't help but think that our text says exactly the same thing to the twentieth century church. This passage has Paul writing to Theophilus to convey the wonder and glory of the early church and the ministry of Jesus Christ amongst his people. It is as a mirror for the early Christians to look at and for us to look at as well. A mirror whereby we examine ourselves and keep our eyes on this and do the best we can.
When Luke wrote this great passage, he did so to convey the wonder and message of the early church. While this early church is separated from us by two thousand years, and there is no way that we can emulate in every sense the nature of the early church, nevertheless the unique qualities that made it so powerful and vibrant right after Pentecost are none the less still an inspiration for us, still the mirror that we should hold up and examine.
There have been some recently who suggest that the early church was not really unique, that there were other bodies and groups around Israel at that time that had similar distinctive qualities. Particularly with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essene community who lived in the area called The Qumran on the West Coast of the Dead Sea, there have been some who have suggested that the Christian community was not unique, that the Essenes were very similar. But that community, when you look at it closely, had similarities but it had profound differences too. One was that the Essene community was a separatist community wanting to stay away from the world, apart from society and create a state within a state. It was driven by a spirit of asceticism and it called on most of its people to practice celibacy which suggests that it probably wouldn't have lasted as a community for long! It was also built on a profound distrust of the Synagogue and in no way would the Essenes go near or worship in the Synagogue itself. It followed the teachings of a man called 'The Teacher of Righteousness.' This teacher encouraged an internal journey and a spiritual world away from the world that existed outside. While it was egalitarian it nevertheless kept away from society as a whole. This Essene community, while having similarities to the early church, also had these profound differences.
The early church community was not a separatist movement but rather one that wanted to go from the experience of the community into the world with the power and message of the Gospel. It believed in righteousness and holiness and purity and justice. It was not ascetic; it did not believe that the flesh was evil or that the flesh needed to be put to one side but needed to be used to the glory of God. The Teacher of Righteousness in Christianity, Jesus Christ, didn't just teach an interior life but preached an interior life that manifested itself in good deeds and justice in the world. This community, though while strong within itself and rooted in a sense of deep fellowship, nevertheless was warm and inviting and wanted others to join it. So the Christian community was unique. What happened at Pentecost was not just a cultural phenomenon of the Jewish sect, it was rooted in something that God was doing uniquely amongst God's people and that's what makes the story of the Book of Acts so wonderful.
I want to look at that as this congregation is examining our past and future. I think it is a wonderful opportunity to hold up a mirror. So I thought I would title my address today as "A State-of-the-Union Address," looking at the state of our union and our church in the light of that. Do not misunderstand me; I have no pretensions of being a President! I will be running for no office, even if Hillary Clinton runs in the State of New York! The one thing that I do like about the state-of-the-union address is that it examines where it is going in the light of its goals. I think the goals we should have are those of the early Christian community and I have selected three of them from our passage in the Book of Acts. To help us remember them I have chosen three all beginning with "W"; we are people of the Word, we are people of Worship, and we are people who should be Winsome.
We are people of the Word. Luke goes to great lengths in writing this passage to show that the first thing that the people of God did when they gathered was to listen to the teachings of the Apostles. Why was that so? The Apostles were the means of transmitting the gospel from the time of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus who was alive on earth, to the early Christian community which was formed at the end of Pentecost. The continuity of the ministry of Jesus Christ was through these Apostles and it was their teaching and example and eyewitness accounts which gave the strength, guidance and leadership for the early Christian community in the way in which it developed.
Professor David Demson at Emmanuel College has written a book entitled Hans Frei and Karl Barth. In it he makes the case that the apostolic succession and ministry becomes the foundation for the creation for the New Testament and the New Testament people. Without the intermediary proclamation and teaching of the Apostles the whole continuity from the life of Jesus to the life with the church would have broken down. That is why the formers of the Christian cannon did everything in their power to try and find apostolic foundations for it. So the people of God came together in Jerusalem after the power of the Holy Spirit had descended upon them to be rooted and grounded in the word of God.
That was then and I believe that it is just as important now. This congregation at Timothy Eaton has been rooted and grounded in a sincere and strong proclamation over the years. I, in my ministry, do not want to reinvent the wheel; I'm here merely to continue the proclamation of the gospel that has gone forth from this pulpit in the past. We have a rich legacy. Not all preachers are the same. Not all have the same charisma and scholarship. Not all of them are as irreverent or funny. We're all very different human beings. The continuation of the proclamation of the Word is an essential ingredient in the life of any church. If you take away the Word of God based primarily on the scriptures, the apostolic teaching, then you lose the continuity. In the world in which we're moving into the next millennium I believe the message of that continuity is all the more important. It speaks with vibrance and power to the world in which we live.
So too does the teaching of the Word. We are blessed in this congregation with people who are dedicated to passing on the Word to the children and young people, that through the ministry of the Christian Education Committee under the leadership of Reverend Harries there is a passion for young people. This congregation, if we're going to be rooted in the Word, if we're going to go into the future, must continue that and support it with our finances and enthusiasm and joy.
Jurgen Moltmann the great German theologian in his book Theology Today said that we now have a unique opportunity today in the Christian church. We are at the end of what he calls the Corpus Christianum - the end of the period where the culture of the western world and the Christian faith went hand in hand, when it was assumed that if you were western you were Christian and visa versa. He says that we are now at a point where we are breaking away from the moorings of that constraint of culture. We are now in a position where we can ask ourselves what it means to be authentically Christian and not just to be culturally Christian.
This is exciting because we can go back to the Book of Acts and we can say, 'this is our root, this is our foundation. These are people who are rooted in the Word and so must we be. Not just in the word of culture or word of the west.' It's a liberating thing and we have great opportunities. I also believe it's a wonderful opportunity for the church of Jesus Christ to go back again to its roots to address and be part of and engage the ideas of our time. It's a wonderful moment in the Church's history to engage once again the Academy, the Universities, the Colleges and wherever people are thinking and reasoning together. The Christian church must not withdraw from that engagement. We must be in the forefront of discussions not only in technology and where the world is going, but why we do what we do. For whom do we do it? For whose benefit do we do it? In obedience to Almighty God that when we think and reason together we do so in a godly way. That is why I am pleased to announce this morning that in the year 2000 the Toronto School of Theology and Emmanuel College and Timothy Eaton Memorial Church jointly are going to sponsor a Conference of Great Preachers in this city. The reason I believe this is important is that the academy and the church must work together to promote the cause of truth and righteousness. We must not withdraw from the challenges of our day but embrace them with the word of God, just as the early Christian community did.
We are also people who are a Worshipping people. The former Moderator of the United Church of Canada, Dr. Angus McQueen, once wrote a very moving piece in which he said that at the heart of all religion is not just faith and morals but worship. For Angus McQueen, everything stems from the gathered community of God in worship and praise of Christ's name. The early Christians received their early power together when they were in an Upper Room when there was that bond of fellowship. There were some characteristics of their worship which I think are timeless. One is that they went into the Temple, unlike the Essenes they didn't withdraw from the community they became part of it, an integral part of it. They broke bread and shared in communion and remembered Christ and prayed fervently and constantly. How those virtues of worship need to be in our churches today.
One of the exciting things about the ministry at TEMC for me is how over the years we have developed a strong relationship with the Jewish community that surrounds us. How we have had bonds of fellowship. Within the last couple of weeks two rabbis have already taken me out to lunch and have been so gracious and I thank them publicly. I think it is important for us to have strong relationships with our Jewish brothers and sisters. There will always be a point of disagreement. There will be a point at which we do not agree, that we believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah and on that messianic hope we base our foundation. They will probably never embrace that in this time. But the relationship must be strong. That is why the last few Sundays I've been preaching from Isaiah and Jeremiah, why in our Bible Studies we've gone right back to the roots of Abraham and Sarah. This is our foundation. Yahweh is our God and we worship this God through Jesus Christ.
This is also another sign of the early church. Not only do they go into the Temple and try to preserve their roots in the Jewish Community they were also a joyful people. That is one of the things that keep arising out of the text time and time again - and their joy was infectious. Henry Ward Beecher says, "Joy is more divine than sorrow, for joy is bread and sorrow is but medicine." And it is. The joy of the Lord comes from the Holy Spirit. Where the Holy Spirit is there is joy. Where there is joy there is the power of the Holy Spirit. Churches soon disintegrate and fall apart when the joy of the spirit of the Lord leaves them.
So it is in the bond between minister and congregations if there is no joy that breaks down the relationship. To show just how caustic both ministers and congregations can be when there is no joy in their midst, I heard a story of a church that was dying. This church was without joy and couldn't stand its minister who was boring. The minister couldn't stand the people and never visited them. It was just a standoff. The Elders got together in their miserable way and decided to send a message to the minister that maybe it was time for the minister to move on and they thought, "How can we do this subtly? We could write him a letter and we will send him a nudge." They wrote, "We have done a thorough inspection of the church, Reverend, and have come to the conclusion that there is a serious problem of dry rot in the pulpit." The minister ignored this and the next week received another letter. "We are now absolutely convinced after further inspection, that there is dry rot in the pulpit." So the minister had a building inspection done and the next Sunday he appeared and said, "Ladies and gentlemen I have heard that there is dry rot in the pulpit. I am here to tell you after further inspection that there are worms in the pews!"
When you lose your joy, when you lose the foundation in the faith and power of the Holy Spirit that's when these things creep into a church. Dry rot and worms in pews are not physical things; they're spiritual things. They come from people who are not rooted and grounded in the true worship of God. But the worship of God is also important for the place. For the early Christian community, wherever they gathered or went, the place was important. Whether it was in their homes or the Temple or Synagogue, the place meant something.
Here at TEMC we have a magnificent place in which to worship God. We have been the inheritors of a great and glorious sanctuary and the way in which it is maintained and looked after, the way in which the Sanctuary Guild preserves the traditions of this church are an inspiration to us. Far from being idolatrous they are a means of preserving a glorious place to worship a glorious God. When you look over my shoulder behind the pulpit and you see Jesus Christ holding the lantern and knocking on the door of our lives, every Sunday as I come down the aisle, I am reminded that that is there and before whom I am accountable as a preacher in this place. It reminds me that the glory of the light should shine around us. The place is important. Not just for the place but for the worship of God in the glory of holiness.
Finally, the Christian community that was there in Jerusalem was Winsome. That is an old English word; winsome simply means attractive, drawing others in. One of the features that Luke stresses was that people were added to them daily and that they had the favour of all people. Not that they sought favour from people, not that they craved the acceptance of others, on the contrary; because the fervent nature of their fellowship drew other people in because they wanted to be part of the Christian community.
I want to be part of that in my own life! That's what I want. There are two words that are used in Greek to describe that community. They are the words Koinonia and Diaconia, the fellowship of the people and the service of the people. Diaconia stems from the root of the word to be a waiter or to be a server. The early Christians understood themselves to be waiters and servers of the world. They did so because Jesus, their Lord, who had died for them, was none other than a waiter himself. That Christ laid down his life; this is the Christ who was baptised by John himself to show us the way. This is the same Christ who bathed the feet of his disciples and who bore a cross. Therefore the founder of our faith, if he is to be a waiter, how much more do we his followers have to be waiters and servers in the world? It is from that spirit of servanthood that people come to know and understand the power of the Christian faith.
In the world in which we live and the society in which we practice our ministry there will be people who will not comprehend the nature of our dogma and doctrine and Word but they hopefully will come to that by seeing in us the seeds of diaconia and fellowship, koinonia, practising in our midst. Whenever there was one of those Christians who was in need, and wherever there was need in the world they could rest assured that the Christians would sell what they had to make sure that a person in need would be cared for.
Here at Timothy Eaton we do a great deal of that. Without blowing our own trumpet there is so much that people do not know that we do. So much pastoral care that Jean Hunnisett and the elders give to people, so much care to the poor in the community, working with other churches in the food bank and so many other things that we support in this city that go unheralded and unmentioned. I say this to bring to your attention these things that we might continue to be inspired to see that from the roots of the Word and from the manifestation of God in the spirit in our worship should arise as service to the world.
There was one final characteristic of the early Christian community that made it winsome: whenever they gathered together they ate and had a meal. Have you noticed here at TEMC that we can't make a decision unless we have food in our stomachs! Everything we go to and everything we do is preceded or followed by food. Last Tuesday for the Pancake Supper you'd realise that we do that as fastidiously as anybody. I tell you now that there is nothing wrong with that because the earliest Christian community, when they broke bread and invited people to sit down at the table with them, did so from the position of sharing what they had been given with others. It was a sign of the fellowship of the spirit, not just the breaking of the bread and drinking of the wine but the sharing of the meal with others to show them that they are loved and accepted and are one with them. May we continue in that spirit of fellowship, not out of a sense of gluttony but of a sense of service and communion.
Timothy Eaton is a strong church, it will be an even stronger church if we hold up to ourselves the mirror of the early church, if we're rooted in the word, if we concentrate on worship and if we are winsome in service to the world by giving of ourselves. Then and only then will we walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ our Lord, the Light of the world. Amen.