With the headlines continually dominated by criticisms of unpopular candidates, terrorist attacks around the world, racial tensions and mass killings at home, it is difficult to focus on the good. It was difficult in the first century, too. Paul was in prison when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. From what he says to them it is clear that they were facing their share of trials and tribulations as Christians in the Roman world. Yet this letter is marked by two characteristics, noted by every serious reader through the years: joy and gratitude. And the words I read a moment ago come as he is wrapping up his letter. Listen to them one more time and let them sink in: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Focus on the good. That doesn’t sell, does it? If you listen carefully to sports commentators, political pundits, those who review movies and books and food and music, it is as though you haven’t earned your pay if you can’t find critical things to say. Why, the ones who review theater performances are even called theater critics!
The same thing happens when people start looking at churches. It’s a piece of cake to find something to be critical about. It’s too big or too small; the music was too loud or not loud enough or too modern or too archaic; there’s not enough parking, too many steps, the bathroom isn’t convenient; nobody spoke to me or everybody badgered me and put me on the spot; and on and on and on. So, as with everything else in this imperfect world, the challenge is to focus on what is good and find a church where the good things are the most important things and not worry about those other things so much.
In a book called What’s Right With the Church, William Willimon starts out with an analogy or maybe even a parable. “There was once a man in Iowa who got married. He had long been enamored of the idea of marriage, so when he met the woman of his dreams, he proposed to her. Things went well at first. He told his friends that his new wife was all he ever hoped for in a woman. She was beautiful, intelligent, witty. His friends observed that theirs was a marriage made in heaven.
Unfortunately, this initial bliss was not to last. Gradually in day-to-day living he began to notice certain imperfections in his new wife. She was beautiful, but not always. Sometimes, say, before nine in the morning, she was downright unattractive. She could look stunning for great parties and social occasions, but marriage meant that he had to look at her before she got her makeup on in the morning, and he couldn’t help thinking of that more than her beauty. Yes, she was intelligent, you couldn’t take that from her, but there were gaps in her knowledge, rather large gaps. She knew a great deal about a few matters, but there were many areas of interest about which she was as ignorant as the day she was born. This displeased him greatly. He knew there would be a time when she would embarrass him by making some ill-considered statement in public, thus revealing to the whole world her intellectual imperfections. This bothered him.
Slowly, but surely, he found himself growing cool to this woman. Marriage had proved to be different than he had thought. It had been fun to be with her on a Saturday evening, to dance with her into the wee hours of the morning at a society ball. But marriage wasn’t like that at all. Marriage was cornflakes for breakfast, and someone sleeping beside you with large curlers in her hair; it was disagreements over finances, and visits from her Oklahoma relatives, and that grotesque lamp that she had selected for the living room. That was marriage.
He still believed in love more than ever. He still longed for the perfect partner. He continued to cling to the idea of marriage. The idea was fine; it was the particular experience of marriage that bothered him. The man who marries the girl of his dreams, the woman who marries Mister Right – each will discover that the particular experience of this person is quite different from the ideal.” (pp. 1-2)
Willimon says this is very similar to the way many people feel about being part of a church. They have in their mind that following Christ is a good thing and that the idea of the church is a good thing. But when they start looking carefully at particular churches and particular Christians they are horrified at the imperfections they see. Some are too judgmental, some aren’t judgmental enough. Some seem holier than thou, some act in ways that seem totally antithetical to Christianity. Willimon quotes the poet Southey, who said, “I could believe in Christ if he did not drag behind him his leprous bride, the Church.” (p. 3) Willimon concludes, “Jesus has many admirers who feel that he married beneath his station. They love Christ but are unable to love those whom he has loved… Jesus is fine. It’s those people of Jesus, that contentious crowd at Saint John’s of the Expressway, that bother them.” (pp. 3-4)
You know exactly what he’s talking about. This is why there are so many people who just seem to drift from church to church to church, looking for the ideal body of Christ which will get it all right all the time. And it doesn’t exist. This is also why there are many people sitting at home this morning, or on the lake or on the golf course, who never intend to enter a church again because they have been disappointed at what they find at church.
The church is God’s church, Christ’s body, but it is made up of human beings, so it embodies the same kinds of failings and weaknesses that we human beings have in every other area of our lives. The devil’s work is ridiculously easy because of the fact that churches are made up of people instead of angels. I’m thinking the words are going to ring pretty hollow, though, when we get to the end of life and are asked why we weren’t active participants in Christ’s body and the best we have to offer is, “Well, they were all hypocrites.”
Using the passage David read earlier from the book of Acts, I’d like to lift up four positive characteristics of the earliest Christian community. It’s not an exhaustive list, by any stretch of the imagination, but it keeps away from the nitpicking and faultfinding that is so common and attempts to find the big, good things that happen at church.
First, it says the early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” They understood that if their community centered around Jesus, then it was important for them to learn about Jesus and his teachings and his actions, and to attempt to follow in his steps. This church has many who are engaged in this enterprise of studying the Bible in Sunday School, in worship, in circle meetings, in Bible studies, in children’s and youth meetings. In addition, many study on their own, reading the Bible at home as well as books about faith.
Second, the early Christians “devoted themselves to fellowship.” This is essential to building a family, a community of faith. Simply being together, getting to know each other, laughing and crying, working and playing together are ways in which Christian fellowship is nurtured. “We just got together and hung out,” is not an unsuccessful activity for a church group. Coming together for fun and relationship building times builds bonds of friendship and caring, creates the feeling that this is my home and these are members of my family, in a way that coming and sitting in a pew on Sunday morning can never accomplish. Both things are very important. For those who, like the early Christians, devote themselves to enjoying and building the fellowship of our community, they are richly rewarded with the feeling of being part of a loving family.
Third, the early Christians “devoted themselves to the breaking of bread.” One of the most basic things people do together is share a meal, in families and with friends. When you meet someone new, one of the best ways to begin to get to know each other is to have a meal together. Our church could never be criticized for not wanting to eat when we are together! It was a mark of the early church, though, and it is certainly one of the things that brings us together as family. For the church, sharing a meal has a double meaning, the second being sacramental. It reminds us of the Lord’s Supper, it reminds us of supper at Emmaus where the disciples’ eyes were opened and they recognized the Lord, it reminds us of breakfast on the beach after the resurrection when Jesus ate fish and offered forgiveness and commissioned disciples.
The passage goes on to say, “Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts…” Willimon suggests, “Perhaps every meal for the church was experienced as an anticipation of the Messianic banquet, a foretaste of Jesus’ promise that his followers would eat and drink at his table in his kingdom. In their eating and drinking the resurrection community is already a partial fulfillment of that promise, enjoying now what shall soon be consummated in the kingdom of God.” (Interpretation, Acts, p. 41)
Fourth, the early Christians “devoted themselves to prayer.” They understood that “more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of,” as Tennyson wrote, and they practiced it. One of the things a church is called to be is a place of prayer. That must, in fact, be one of the distinctive features of a church, that we truly realize our dependence upon God and our need for God to be active in our lives and in our world. Prayer is practiced and lifted up regularly here, including with our email prayer ministry. If you are not a part of that and would like to be, Sandy in the church office would be happy to add you.
So if we are to focus on the good, what is right with the church? Christ is preached and taught and shared here. There are abundant opportunities for fellowship with kindred souls, people who are desiring to live the Christian life. Meals are shared regularly, holy times to give thanks, break bread, share fellowship, and anticipate the table in God’s kingdom. Prayer binds us to God and to one another as we pray for and with each other. Musicians lift voices and instruments to lead all of us in harmony and praise to God. Mission minded people lead us in serving God in the community and world in many ways.
Let’s celebrate all that is right and good. Let’s be a part of solutions rather than problems. Let’s be thankful people, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in word and in deed. “And finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
August 21, 2016
Central Presbyterian, Anderson