Sermon from St Edward’s 24th April 2022, as we begin our vision process.
Readings: Acts 2:37-37 and Matthew 16:13-20
As I have been preparing and praying about this vision process I have been thinking about where to start for this first sermon of the vision series. And to be honest there was only one place I could start, in a church that values scripture, sacrament and spirit it had to be Acts 2 – the birth of the church after an explosion of the Holy Spirit and we read about what things were important to them in the early church.
So today we are thinking about ‘What is church?’ what we learn from the early church and what that might mean for us. Now it might seem basic to be asking the question: what is church but I can pretty much guarantee that if I asked you all to give me a few words, you’d say something different! And at the start of this process I want us to find points of commonality, of unity. I think that’s an important place to start.
So, Acts 2.
If you don’t know, the book of Acts covers the story of the birth of the Christian church. We see the Holy Spirit falling in an amazing way after Jesus has ascended into heaven, there are signs and wonders all over the place – I mean people even got healed by Peter’s shadow! There are people coming to faith in the thousands, the explosion of growth of the early church and especially after Paul’s dramatic conversion as he travels around sharing the gospel.
And throughout Acts and particularly this passage we’re looking at today, we get a kind of blue print for the key facets of church life. And it’s these facets that, though they may be practised in different ways, have pretty much stood the same for the last 2000 years or so.
Throughout Acts, and most of Paul’s writings actually, we see the use of a word for church ekklesia in the Greek, and I just want to take us on a short detour into Matthew 16 which is the first time we see the use of this word for church and it’s when Jesus introduces the word in this context.
Now you may know, that ekklesia is translated as ‘church’ but it literally means a gathering, an assembly – ie: the people. And the first time we see this word is in Matthew 16:8 – when Jesus says to Peter, Peter you are the rock and on this rock I will build my church – I will build my ekklesia.
Now this word ekklesia was not a Christian word, it didn’t mean church as we mean it today. Ekklesia for the Greeks was a public gathering place of the assembly. A gathering that met almost weekly in almost all Greek cities, of male citizens (of course it was) over 18, and it had been this way for hundreds of years before Jesus was even born. In this assembly, they decided policy, appeals, elections, it was a place where citizens could speak their mind, influence one another and more. So it was a key defining part of the culture.
So people hearing Jesus’s words saying that Peter would be the foundation of this church, would know what an ekklesia was. But when Jesus said, I will build my ekklesia – the Greek literally says, ‘of me…’ .
He was completely redefining this way of Greek life – turning it on its head. This is a different way of doing ekklesia, of gathering to determine a way of life. He was saying this – this new way – is going to be a gathering of people, with me at the heart of it.
And this was, and is, Jesus’ plan or the furthering of the gospel.
And so when he says of Peter, I will build my ekklesia on you, in Matthew’s gospel – we actually see that statement coming to fruition, here in Acts 2 – there gathered are thousands of people from all over, an ekklesia of sorts and it is to this crowd that Peter speaks.
And we see Peter, filled with the boldness of the Holy Spirit as he speaks to the crowd, he declares who Jesus is, and the people’s response as we heard is that they were cut to the heart. And they asked ‘what should we do’?
> Repent, be baptised and receive forgiveness and the infilling of the Spirit – and many many of them did and we see the birth of the Jesus shaped ekklesia, built on Peter the rock.
It is from that very point that every Christian church on earth has grown, our heritage is from that moment. So as we meet here today, gathered as a people, we are ekklesia, we are the gathered people. The people gathered in Jesus’ name, transforming the culture, in Jesus name.
So without us there would be no church. This, is still Jesus’ plan – the church is the bride of Christ. We are the bride of Christ.
And just as Jesus named it, we should still be a Jesus shaped version of a gathered people.
Different to the gathered culture.
In fact we should be defining culture in Jesus name, right?
We, as the ekklesia, need to be a Jesus shaped presence in our community, whatever that looks like. That is a calling for all of us as individuals and together as church family.
And Acts 2 gives us some key pointers, the basic practices of the early church: if we look at verses 42-47:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.Acts 2:42-47
1 Firstly they were together – a gathered ekklesia. Supporting one another, helping one another grow in faith, listening to the teaching. Devoted to it, discussing it, sharing thoughts and ideas and experiences. Praying together. Praising God together. They needed each other.
2 They shared all that they had – looking out for those in need. I mean that was radical. Christians were known for the good they did, that they would go to sick people and outcasts that no one else would. And they did so with abundant generosity. They would sell all they had to help others, those in need.
3 They broke bread – they were sacramental – they shared food together as Jesus taught at the last supper. Being thankful. Remembering why they were gathered, what Jesus taught them, what Jesus did for them.
They were thankful, eating with glad and generous hearts.
And awe came upon the people – when was the last time we were awe-struck at who God is and what God has done for us?
4 And finally then there is this little line at the end at that passage in v 47:
Praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
They were overt about who they were, not ashamed of their faith, of Jesus, of who they believed in. AND they had the goodwill of all the people. They were known, loved, appreciated by the community. They were seen in the temple, seen giving in generosity, seen sharing of all they had, and it was attractive.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could say of our church that it has the goodwill of all the people in our parish?
If people here said, wow we love St Edward’s. We have such goodwill towards it.
So the early church was gathered community, sacramental, worshiping, praising, supportive, generous.
As a good evangelical at heart I like a bit of alliteration so we could say:
We are a people of Scripture, Spirit, Sacrament, and all that is Shared
Scripture, Spirit, Sacrament, Shared
And that still feels like a good blueprint for us today doesn’t it?
Now, I know that for some of us the idea of going through a vision process is going to make us anxious. We might be wondering what is going to change, how is our church going to be different? How will we find it? Is it going to feel different? And all that is really valid and I want to acknowledge that.
It might be hard for you to trust me, after all I’ve only been here 5 minutes, many of you have been here for years, a few from the very beginning. And if we’re honest you’ll probably be here long after I have moved on, that’s the way it works for vicars.
But I want you to know that I feel as passionate about Christ’s church as any of you, perhaps as much as Peter. I too feel called to lead within it, to shape the bride of Christ in the best way I can, and I feel with my whole heart that God has called me here to St Edward’s do that.
And most of you know this is not the tradition in which I have the most experience! I have had to make sacrifices, to learn new things, there have been challenges and sometimes things have felt uncomfortable but at every step I have known God’s guiding hand and a reminder this is exactly where I am supposed to be.
But it isn’t just about me, it is about us as ekklesia seeking God together. Last week I likened us to a bunch of misfits, as the disciples and just to clarify I wasn’t singling anyone out, I was wanting to highlight our diversity, that we are a mixed bunch of people, but we are united in our love for Jesus and for his church.
So together I want us all to be excited about what God might do here. And I can sense that in some of you already. So many of you have talked about wanting to see this church full, with kids running around, the café buzzing, people coming to know Jesus. And I totally believe that is what God wants to do here.
Sometimes it might be uncomfortable for us all, sometimes there might be challenges or new things to learn but we’re in good company – I mean you only have to read some of Paul’s letters to the early churches to know they didn’t get it right all the time, there were disagreements and frustrations! but like them, we have the Spirit to guide us and we can do this together, here.
You know in the season our world is in, emerging from Covid restrictions, people reflecting on life changes, we have a huge opportunity to impact our community here, let’s not waste it.
We are the church in this bit of ‘The Hill’ – us – so it is up to us to build on the heritage of the ekklesia named by Jesus, fuelled by the HS, built up from Peter and the apostles, and those early converts, from Paul and on through the last 2000 years, here.
It is up to us to continue that heritage, to share the good news of Jesus, bringing others into this gathering of believers, here.
And I think we need to be asking, like those first converts we read about in v37 – when they were cut to the heart –
what can we do?
What can we do in response to the gospel, here?
And that is exactly what we are going to be asking in this vision process, together as church family, as we break bread together, as we reflect on Jesus’ teachings, as we pray together, as we continue to be people of Scripture, Spirit, sacrament, shared. And as we ‘honour the past, navigate the present (together), to build for the future’ with Jesus in our hearts.