5th Sunday of Easter (A)
Acts 6, I Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
May 10, 2020
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
A common refrain I’ve heard the last almost two months, is that people miss church. I can’t deny that even though I’m here every Sunday, I miss it too. When we say we miss church, what are we missing? The word church can refer to our Sunday services, to the building, to the religious organization known as Emmanuel. When the word church is used with a capital “C”, it refers to the community of believers, all Christians of all times and in all places, what’s called the “invisible church.” So, when we say we miss church, we’re probably talking about all of these, right? There’s more to a church though than a building or articles of incorporation, or even having the Divine Service. Today I want to focus on what it means for Christians, and churches, with a lowercase “c”, a church like Emmanuel, to be part of the capital “C” Church, the fellowship of all believers.
The most important characteristic of the Church is that it’s built on Christ. When Peter, speaking for the disciples, said that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, Jesus said that it was this proclamation, this rock, that He would build His Church. Our Roman Catholic brethren say that Jesus was talking about Peter, He wasn’t. He was talking about Peter’s confession about Jesus, and a true church is built on the belief that Jesus is the Son of God. If an religious organization doesn’t confess Jesus to be the one and only Savior, then they’re nothing more than a social group with religious aspects. Any organization claiming to be a Christian church or to be part of the invisible Church, must confess Jesus in the totality of how He is revealed to us in Scripture: that He’s true God and true Man, conceived by the Holy Spirit, sinless, crucified, died, and resurrected. If any of these things are changed, the group is no longer part of the Church.
This means that the truth is, as unpopular as it may be to some hearers, Mormons, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims are not and cannot be part of the church and cannot be saved. They reject Jesus as the Savior and the only Son of God. Jesus says in the Gospel, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” So even if we say that they worship the same God we do by rejecting the Son, they reject the Father. By rejecting both, they cannot be saved. There is no other name under Heaven by which we are saved.
If the Church wasn’t built on Christ, it never would’ve survived two thousand years. Think about all the ways the Church as been attacked over the millennia: tortured by Caesars, driven underground by Muslims, persecuted by Jews, Nazis, and Communists, and despised by many atheists and scientists. I love the comment by Gamaliel in Acts 5. He says, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these [disciples]…I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” The Church will not be overthrown because it is of God. It will stand regardless of whatever attacks Satan throws at it and regardless of how many times man tries to destroy it. It will stand because it’s built on Christ, the Word of the Lord which endures forever.
Since we are built on Christ and built on the faithful confession of who Jesus is, what He has done, and what He continues to do, it only makes sense that the true Church proclaims Christ. We tell everyone, whether they want to hear or not, about Jesus. The book of Acts is one big example of sharing Jesus. Starting with Pentecost, the disciples told the people about Jesus and were quickly thereafter, gathering in the Temple where the Jews could hear about Jesus. Thousands were being saved by the Holy Spirit through the disciples. It’s important to see as well that the disciples didn’t beat around the bush. They clearly spoke about who Jesus was, what He did, and what it meant for all mankind.
Even when they were unjustly arrested, beaten, and commanded to stop talking about Jesus they didn’t stop, or as we hear in our first reading, stoned to death. The word martyr means witness, and as a faithful witness and spokesman for Jesus, Stephen witnessed to Jesus, even when the crown was obviously turning against him. He proclaimed Christ’s divinity even as he was being pummeled by stones. “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’”
None of us have been martyred for our faith like Christians in other parts of the world, and that means we have an advantage. We have the freedom and the ability to faithfully teach about Jesus. Unfortunately, we don’t use this freedom the way we should. Awhile back I read a powerful quote: “Persecution is an enemy the Church has met and mastered many times. Indifference could prove to be a far more dangerous foe.” I think too often we take this freedom for granted and we don’t think it’s important to share the Good News. Does a large portion of our world, our nation, not want to hear about Jesus? Do they hate what the Church has to say? Definitely! Still you are to faithfully teach others about Jesus, consequences be damned. And really, what’s the greatest consequence any of us currently faces? Not being liked. Being ignored. Being mocked. Big deal! Why are we so afraid of offending people? We cannot and should not apologize for speaking the true Word of God. The true Church speaks the whole counsel of God, not just the parts that are acceptable to itchy ears. We call sin, sin. We call people to repentance so they will hear the words of forgiveness.
This is also the true church does, it speaks forgiveness. It does you no good, spiritually, to attend a church or an organization that doesn’t tell you that Jesus died for your sins and so you’re forgiven. There’s no comfort in being told that you’ll know God loves you and forgives you if you work harder or pray harder. There’s no joy in being told you’ll go to Heaven after spending time in purgatory. Where’s hope being told that you’ll be forgiven by God, only if He, way back when, determined that He wanted you to be saved. Sinners need the certainly of forgiveness and salvation, and you’ll only find that in the true Church. I don’t want you to ever doubt it when I tell you that you’re forgiven. Jesus told the disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” and that same promise has come down through the Church. You’re forgiven! Believe it, and as Saint Stephen entrusted Himself to God, entrust yourself to Him and be sure of your salvation and eternal life.
The forgiveness of sins that is ours through Jesus is the greatest news in the history of the world! There’s no greater gift than telling a hurting person that there is someone who will help them. There’s nothing better than to tell a broken person that the forgiveness they want and need isn’t in themselves but in the man who was nailed to a cross and raised to life for them! You are Christ’s mouthpieces to a world that needs to hear about Him. God calls you to be faithful proclaimers of the Gospel and God will use His Holy Spirit to bring people to faith. Speak His Word and don’t let anything keep your lips sealed shut. If Christians will tell their torturers and jailers and enemies about Jesus, you can tell your family, friends, neighbors, and the stranger you meet at Dollar General or Wal-mart.
In the Epistle, Peter’s first letter, he writes, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Peter is telling us that the true Church reflects Christ in all they say and do. This goes beyond telling people about Jesus, it’s about showing them the love of Jesus, and one of the ways we do that is by serving the needy. As you heard in the first reading, the Church organized itself by appointing elders to help the disciples lead the church, and to make sure physical needs were being met for everyone. The first Christians also had everything in common. They shared their wealth with the less fortunate, they sold their possessions to support the work of the church. Just to note: they weren’t practicing Socialism or Communism, this was a temporary arrangement for people experiencing something completely new.
In the years that followed, Christians began establishing orphanages and hospitals. The fed believers and unbelievers alike when famine struck. They took in the unwanted children that had been left to die. The Church has kind of gotten away from doing these kinds of things, and it’s time for the church to, once again, help our neighbors with their burdens.
By acting as Christ’s hands and feet in service to the hurting, by picking up our neighbors’ loads we are showing them the love of Jesus. Everything the early Church did, everything we do now, is done out of love. We love our neighbors by taking care of their needs and we also love our neighbors by using our interactions with them to tell them about Jesus. They will know though not that we are Christians, they’ll know why we do what we do. And most importantly, they will know Christ and His Church.
I started by asking what we mean when we say, “we miss church.” For me, it’s everything, the building, the Divine Service, and my fellow believers that I miss. What I noticed is that as we talk about the characteristics of the Church, it sounds more like a who than a what. We can say not just what the Church is, but who is the Church, and the answer is you. You are the Church because you are part of the body of Christ; You’re His hands when you serve others and you’re His mouth when you tell about His death for all people. You are His people, living stones, in the undefeated, always enduring, always active, Church of Christ.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen