[Sorry, no special music audio today – outdoor service with no choir]

Sermon – The Church Is Not in the Bible

Isaiah 42:1-10; Matthew 28:16-20

Farmville Presbyterian Church

May 19, 2024

– Being a Called-Out People


[Finger game] Here is the church; here is the steeple; open the doors…and there are all the people.  Did you ever learn that when you were little?  There are also plenty of songs that talk about church.  Here is one you might have learned as a child, “I am the church; you are the church; we are the church together; all who follow Jesus all around the world; yes, we’re the church together.”  This is also the one day of the church year when we are supposed to stand outside the church building and see it and appreciate that we are the living embodiment of Farmville Presbyterian Church.  Whether you are a member or visitor or just sharing in worship from wherever you are, we are sharing in the love of God right now as part of this church.

The only problem with our modern notion of a church, though, is it not in the Bible.  I hope that is not too shocking.  No one here has more of an investment in the modern church as I do.  Serving this church is my occupation and the security of my family both now and for the future.  I have given a great part of my life to working in a church and becoming a more useful part of church life.  As a child, I loved church, and as a teen, it was my favorite place to be.  Still, I am forced to admit that Jesus did not have our modern church in mind.  Paul did not have our modern church in mind.  What WE have created as a church is not in the Bible, but that is OK.  Today, we are going to talk about this.  On the day of the Christian year when we most tend to celebrate the birthday of the church (Pentecost Sunday), I am going to walk through some of what this “church” idea is all about.

Jesus did not mention the word we translate as “church” in the Gospels except in two verses and one of those was not really about church per se.  Paul was writing to people in a world when the expression of Christian religion was illegal or at least unconventional and unaccepted.  Early followers of Jesus met in synagogues for together time because they were also Jews.  Synagogues back then were more like community centers instead of churches as we know today, though they did do some kinds of worshipful things there.  Later, followers of Jesus met where they could avoid persecution or ridicule.  Some met in homes.  Others met wherever it suited.  Did I confuse you, yet?  I’m not trying to, but I think you are getting a sense of the times when nothing was settled or established.

And it is still not settled.  Even today, what we call church differs widely across countries and cultures.  A Greek Orthodox service is very different from a Roman Catholic service which is very different from a Quaker service which is very different from a Pentecostal service which is very different from a mainline Protestant service like ours.  And the list goes on.  All of these have different expressions, different buildings, different styles, different customs, different decorations, and different interpretations.  So what did Jesus have in mind?  He had in mind what he created: groups of people who followed what he said and did.  Throughout the Old Testament, the emphasis is on the people as a whole.  God’s work is among the people.  They encounter God wherever they are whether out on the road, out in the pasture, in a building, on a mountain, or wherever.  You can imagine some of David’s greatest worship being while out watching the sheep.  Jacob’s biggest worshipful experience was in a dream.  Moses encountered God so significantly on a mountain for 40 days that he glowed the rest of his life.  People were not going to the Temple every week for worship like we might expect.  Some never made it there over the course of their entire lives.  Only certain people could enter the outer court or the inner court, let alone the Holy of Holies or the most inner room.  There was no Temple until after King Solomon.  There was not even a synagogue until Moses’ time.  What we call church is something different from all of this that we created for our benefit.  Why?

To begin, you need to understand what that word for church means in the Bible.  It literally means “those who are called out.”  It is not a building, an organization, an agency, or an institution.  It is not a belief system, a club, or a service group.  It is about people who are in the world but who are summoned or called or claimed for something greater, something different.  You can see why we might keep the Sacrament of Baptism in our shared life.  John the Baptizer was doing the same thing – calling people to do something different, to prepare by washing for the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God.  When Jesus sent out the disciples to the ends of the known world, he was commanding them to call out to fellow people to enter a new way of life with different commitments and different values like loving your enemy and doing away with empty ideas of God.  He was looking for followers from every nation to join together in a community that reached across the world.  It is hard to imagine reaching out like that to sisters and brothers all over even today, let alone back then.

We are called by the Spirit of God to be together in ways that are not possible without God.  The ways we embrace the other do not happen in the world without God’s love – Seriously, love our neighbor as ourselves?  Our very existence is in finding connections that reach out in impossible ways.  Our work together is also not the world’s work but forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion, and godly joy.  This is true love, what it looks like and how we share in it.  If you are stirred by any of that, you are called out, also.  Congratulations!  You are church.

How we create church can be very different, however.  Honestly, there are three reasons why we persist in churches today.  We are either circling the wagons, looking for Christian country club, or creating space for the Holy Spirit to do new things in our midst.

Some churches are about building walls or making fortresses.  We have to keep certain people out to protect ourselves or to maintain our purity.  We have to keep those who are different or who do not share our convictions out of our fellowship.  It might be a fear of what is seen as evil.  Our identity as this church is more about who is in or out than about our called identity in following Jesus.  There are always things that are unlovable out there, and throughout history, there have always been people marked as unworthy (of course, who is not unworthy?).  I cannot help but be suspicious of any group that requires more than an authentic love of Jesus to be accepted or approved for fellowship.  There is a lot of judgment in those churches as they claim to love a Lord who himself loved eating with the despised and said, “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone.”

Some churches are about finding a group in which to fit.  This is the country club church that is about doing things to celebrate its own existence over the gospel.  These churches are about status and belonging, and the people who attend brag about how often they go or how much they do.  These are often big, fancy, wildly popular churches.  They love a show and can dazzle with how well they do things.  We are people who like a good club, especially clubs that are dedicated to doing good, civic-minded things.  These churches can get sucked into this way of thinking and can busy themselves doing what they see as the best things.  It just might not be what Jesus wants us to do.

Then, there are what I would call authentic churches that exist to show the world our best selves, what people do who give all they have to invite God’s Kingdom.  This is not to say they always succeed or always get everything right, but they work with each other in beauty and understanding to bring something better in the world.  This kind of church is not tied as much to a place but to a way of life.  This kind of church happens when people join in what the Spirit is already doing.  The church is a people who are called and follow.  They listen to the voice of God’s Spirit and go where the Spirit leads.  This church will follow Jesus our King even to the very gates of hell without fear knowing that hell will not prevail.  That is the church Jesus describes in Matthew 16.

No one person can be a church.  It has to be a group who feels called together to live differently, so differently that the world will not recognize them.  It might happen in a fancy building or it might not.  What’s important is what this group is committed to doing and what it actually does.  How it carries out its life will be different from place to place or time to time.  What is constant is people – people who are called to be different.   They do not live under the shadow of fear or punishment but in the joy of service.  “Church” in this sense lives for the love of their neighbor, even the enemy.  The world will never get this but Jesus will.  This church understands what Jesus did for us all and they look forward to the completion of God’s work in this world.

We do not live in fear or suspicion.  We do not live in pride or self-love.  We live in the grace of Jesus and at the call of God’s Spirit.  This makes us church when we embrace this call.  We can never go back once we have heard that voice.  We must always move forward to where the Spirit is leading.  This is our community in Christ.  This is our church in Christ.  To God be the glory.  Amen.