What does it mean to be the church in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of the post-Christian era, in a global community, but a highly divided and polarized country? What does it mean to be the Church today?
We get three glimpses this morning of what it meant to be the church two thousand years ago. I would like to see if we can look at these passages and draw from them some meaning for us today.
Our gospel story this morning is one of the many places where we see Jesus as the image of the Good Shepherd, but I want to focus on the sheep. Jesus says, “the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4). As Christians we are called to 1) be able to distinguish the voice of Christ from all the cacophony of noises around us. 2) We need to be aware of and acknowledge that the voice of Christ is the voice of the one who cares for and provides for us. 3) We need to trust that voice to the extent that we are willing to follow that voice and that voice only.
The greatest challenges to hearing and following Christ is the information overload we all currently experience and at least for me, this has gotten worse not better, as we have been “sheltering in place.” While I am not discouraging you from listening to the voices of others concerning their experience of faith, that is exactly what you are doing listening to this sermon, I would remind you that we must check all interpretations against the original, the Holy Scriptures and we can only do that if we intentionally and consistently study them. I am not just talking about a cursory reading during our daily devotional time, hoping that something will jump out at us, which by the grace of God does happen, but systematic reading, reading of multiple commentaries for cultural clues and looking for the places of agreement and disagreement between them, and most importantly reading the passage into the larger story of scripture to see where and how it fits.
The other way we learn to distinguish the voice of Christ is learning to be aware of how God is working in our lives. My cat knows what time I get up in the morning and is eagerly waiting for me to feed her. When I walk into a room, she will interrupt her nap and come running to be near me. We need to be so aware of God, that we recognize that all that we have comes from God and we should so desire to be in God’s presence, especially though the person of Christ, that when we sense his presence we are willing to interrupt what we are doing to be close to him.
Lastly from this passage, we need to trust the voice of Christ to the extent that we are willing to follow that voice and that voice alone. There are so many voices out there: our friends and family whom we want to please, political voices that try to convince us that they have all the answers and that anyone who thinks differently is an idiot. Academic voices that do the exact same thing. Marketing voices that know how to manipulate you into believing you will be richer, better looking, smarter, and happier if you buy into their product, and this is not just clothes, toys, etc. but lifestyles that require you to purchase one product over another. We all need the necessities of life, and I would argue an occasionally luxury is good for the soul, but we also need to approach life as though it was Jesus’ checkbook we were managing. We need to ask ourselves who are we helping and who are we hurting by our choices.
In our reading from Acts, Luke gives us a quick status check of the first group of Christians after the day of Pentecost. It is a bit Utopian and even Luke quickly lets us see that human sin finds its way into the community very quickly, but he lists four things that are significant of this group of people after they have been filled with the Holy Spirit: 1) they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching 2)to fellowship, 3) to the breaking of bread and 4) to prayers.
“To the apostle’s teaching” was more than likely the retelling of the stories of Jesus. I have already spoken at length about the necessity for intentional Bible study. For the earliest Christians, this was a natural response to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Many of them already studied the Torah and the prophets, what we call the Old Testament. We know this because they remained attached to the synagogue in the early days of the church and that is where the apostles began telling the stories of Jesus. Jesus, himself, used the Old Testament to illustrate what God was doing in him. I can’t emphasis this enough, because this is where I see the church has become the most complacent in our age. A great many Christians are Biblically illiterate. How can you recognize the voice of God if you ignore His phone calls?
To Fellowship – This of course has been one of the challenges during the pandemic. How does one socialize and “shelter in place” and practice “social distancing?” I think we make use of the technology we have been given and keep contact with one another. I intentionally chose to have services via ZOOM rather than broadcast either live or pre-recorded services because I wanted you to have the opportunity to see and hear one another. Once we are able to reconvene, I hope we fully appreciate the physical presence of one another, but I would add a word of caution. Part of loving our neighbor is honoring their need for personal space. Loving our neighbor does not mean I feel good when I give you a hug and so I am going to hug you whether you want a hug or not. Loving our neighbor means I want you to know your presence is valued and I will do that by watching your body language for clues and by asking “what can I do for you today.?”.
“In the breaking of the bread” – one of the most difficult things for me, and I know for many of you, that this pandemic has disrupted is our ability to come together around the altar for Eucharist and around the dinner table to share a meal, and I think Luke means both. There is something deeply intimate about sharing a meal together. Jesus recognized this and chose to make this one of the ways he reveals himself to us. Last week we heard that the travelers on the road to Emmaus only recognized Jesus as he was breaking bread with them. But I think, despite all this, there is a way we can continue to break bread with one another and with Christ. That is be being aware every time we eat how interconnected we are with other people, with God’s creation, and with God by this very act. Probably more so now than most times in human history. I have a good friend who is a bi-vocational priest in England and the occupation that helps her financially be able to do ministry is that of milk maid. She posted something on Facebook that was eye opening to me. One of the drawbacks of the giant processing centers is their inability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances. There have been times this year, and I suspect some places there still is, a shortage of milk on the shelves at the grocery store. It was not because the cows had quit producing milk, or that there was no one to milk the cows, but the way it is processed and packaged for restaurants is different than the way it is done for individual consumption. When the restaurant consumption dropped and the retail consumption increased, the producers were not able to change their methods quick enough to meet the changing demands and everyone suffered. We are no longer sustenance farmers as was once the norm.
To prayers – Prayers connect us to God. It helps us to recognize our dependence upon God, it helps us to acknowledge our human failings and to experience the mercy of God. Intercessory prayer connects us with one another. It takes us out of the “all about me” mindset and is a way of loving our neighbor.
The Holy Spirit in the lives of these first Christians drove these actions and these actions produced signs and wonders that caused people to be in awe of God. Their response to God brought glory to God.
Lastly, Peter talks about the suffering endured by the early Christians. He is not talking about domestic violence or unsafe workplaces. He is talking about persecution for holding on to the truth and refusing to compromise our faith even in the face of torture or death. We are extremely fortunate in this country. Most of us have never known persecution of this kind and while I would never wish it on anyone nor do I believe we should actively seek it for itself, these early Christians did not have the luxury of being lukewarm Christians. It was a life or death matter. I recently read a book, and I forget the title, about two young women from Waco who went to Afghanistan shortly before 9/11 for the purpose of giving aid to the people there who had been suffering during a long civil war, and who committed that they would honestly share what Jesus meant to them if asked. It was at that time, and may still be, against the law to attempt to convert locals to Christianity. These women would warn people that if they committed themselves to Christ, they could be putting themselves and their families at risk, but for them it was a risk they were willing to take. They were arrested and imprisoned for several months, along with several locals who had close associations with them. They were brought to trial and were potentially facing a death sentence, all because they shared with others what Jesus had meant to them. They were rescued when military powers in the area changed, but this is what Peter is talking about. Being so passionate about what Jesus means to you that you cannot help but tell others. Jeremiah called his call to prophecy “like a fire in his bones.”
Is the Holy Spirit “like a fire in [your] bones”? As we move through this pandemic and as you are moving into a new phase of your life as a congregation I would encourage you to train your ears to hear the shepherd’s voice, join with the earliest Christians responding in what ever ways are open to you at this moment to the voice of Christ, to the workings of the Holy Spirit within you, and then go forth without fear in the name of Christ.