Recognizing Jesus in Life Abundant

Lakshmi Mandala of Wealth and Abundance
Lakshmi Mandala of Wealth and Abundance

John 10:1-10; Acts 2:42-47
May 15, 2011 — Jerusalem UCC

Remember Easter?

Merely three weeks ago, we gathered here to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

Remember Easter?

Easter was a great celebration of the resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  Easter is more than a celebration of what happened to Jesus.  Yes, Christ is risen; he is risen, indeed.  But to paraphrase the old riddle about the tree falling in the forest:  If a Savior is risen and no one sees the Savior / no one recognizes the Savior / then IS he risen indeed?  Is the Savior alive if he’s not alive with us?  In other words, what difference does it really make what happens to Jesus, unless something happens to us, too?

Radical conversion is not the preferred style of Pennsylvania German Reformed Christians.  The style in this corner of the world is the way of the ancestors who settled this territory and of the old country from whence they came:  You are born into the faith; your parents were Reformed or Lutheran, or your mom was Reformed, your dad was Lutheran (or vice versa) and you were baptized into the faith (I’ve heard) of the same sex parent and then confirmed into that same faith when the time came.  A radical conversion experience is not required, nor is it expected.

Sometimes … sometimes … you might run across someone who is not born into the faith but who begins following Christ later in life. One such man began his Christ following at mid-life.  He was a successful businessman.  As a successful businessman, he picked as his church the flashiest church, the one that seemed most successful in his town.  He had a fancy car that he parked with all the other fancy cars in the lot on Sunday.  He fit right in and thought that this would be the right place for him. He figured these fine upstanding folk would help him to follow Jesus more and more.

And then some months later, this man went through some economic hard times. That’s not hard to imagine in our world today, is it?  This man lost everything, including his fancy car.

So, he started walking to church.  He was wearing the same clothes week after week.  He was no longer like the others in the congregation; he stood out as different from them.  

Pretty soon, two of the church elders asked to come and visit him in his home.  They arrived to find a home that had been emptied by the Sheriff and the debt collectors.  He was asked — nicely — please — to find another church community because he “no longer witnessed to the abundant life” that members of the church were called to live! [This story came from the blog “I Am Listening” by Peter Woods; blog post “Jesus the Gate, and Paddy Plenty” May 9, 2011]

Sounds pretty awful doesn’t it?  We would never judge someone for not having a fancy car — we would never notice that someone is wearing the same clothes over and over again — we surely aren’t the kind who would say that the abundant life of Jesus is absent when someone doesn’t have a TV or even if they don’t have furniture.  I hope we might suspect that Jesus is calling us to an abundant life not measured by fancy things — yours or mine.

In that way, there’s no real difference between us Jesus-people and any decent person who is prejudiced against another.  Any good person certainly can treat another person with respect and care apart from any grounding in church life, apart from being a disciple of Jesus.  You don’t have to be a disciple of Jesus to be a decent human being, to welcome people who are different from you, to work for equality for all people; you don’t have to have been baptized or confirmed to value the things that cannot be bought by silver or gold.

And … it’s also quite possible to be in church every single week and know your Bible and then sincerely come to a similar conclusion as the elders in the story: that is, because we know there are certain demands of discipleship and standards of faith , we can become convinced that faith commands us to act as God’s agent of a kind of … sorting … of those who are in the flock.  To paraphrase George Orwell: All people are equal, but some people are more equal than others.

So, who is right and who is wrong? The good person who does the right thing and never comes to church and doesn’t know Jesus — or — the church people who sort the “others” into who is in and who is out because they sincerely want to do what God would do — OR — what about the person who knows Jesus and manages to be welcoming and caring and non-judgmental?  Who is good and who is bad?  Who gets the Jesus seal of approval?

This is what we have our Bible for. And this is what we misuse our Bibles for.  Like the elders in the story, it is possible to even use the words of Jesus to make it OK to dismiss another.  Not that you or I would ever do that.  We would never use the Bible to make our point that someone else is not worthy … that they are wrong.  

Oh. Yes. We. Would.  And we do. It’s just too tempting. The Bible is so use-able that way. And a distraction.  The Bible becomes a distraction when we use it to justify, divide, accuse or even to let us off the hook.  Shall we forget Easter so easily? Easter was not a doctrine, it was a discovery. Easter didn’t give birth to condemnation, but to a community.

Remember Easter? The day when the horror of crucifixion was replaced by the relief and joy of recognizing the risen Christ?  Remember Easter?  Remember the story of Thomas the one who doubted and the other disciples?  Remember the story of Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus?  Whatever the topic of conversation was before the risen Christ appeared, the focus of the conversation changed radically in the presence of the risen Christ.  The talk then became all about who was with the risen Christ, how they knew him, how they recognized him, what he said, and where he was going next.  Their whole life focus shifted away from what had seemed so urgent; now they were consumed with going to where Jesus was going to show up next.  They came together over this one thing alone: They recognized the risen Christ and they oriented themselves to being in the presence of the risen Christ above all other things.  

Fast forward to the day we call Pentecost – the day of the extravagant outpouring of God’s Spirit – and among the communities that came alive at Pentecost, here is the risen Christ, very much present in true abundance [Acts 2:42-47]:

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. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. 

If ever there was a picture of abundant life, here it is.  Teaching and learning, but no memory verses and no sorting verses.  They had all things in common, but that doesn’t mean they were all alike or agreed on everything.  They were busy, a busy-ness oriented around their faith life and brothers and sisters in Christ. There was church business all right, the business of the church being breaking bread, doing mission projects, learning and teaching, worship, building community.

As a friend of mine put it this week:  “[They were] living the gospel instead of merely alluding to it now and again.”  [Liz on her blog Journalling in a blog post “Stealth Preaching” May 14, 2011]

Another respected colleague said to a group recently: “There is no recipe for church growth. If there was, someone would have written the book by now. If we had such a recipe,” he said, “we would have a lot more growing churches.

Well, I respectfully disagree with my distinguished colleague. That book has been written and here it is in Acts Chapter 2 verses 42-47: a recipe for church growth in words and word pictures we can all understand.  It’s not that we don’t have a recipe, and it’s not that it’s complicated or complex, and it’s not even that it’s impossible for normal regular people to do should they decide to get the ingredients together for this recipe and start cooking.  This recipe for church growth has been tried and proven over and over again — in every generation — it’s just that the conversation in churches is too often not this conversation — the business in church is too often not this business — the greatest imagination that a church possesses is usually reserved for buildings and buildings-to-be. The recipe for church growth and for adding disciples to the flock is a great recipe — and so we decide we can best cherish this amazing recipe by keeping it safely in the recipe box — untested and untasted. Something else about that recipe for the vital growing church: In a church our size, if 25 people –just twice the size of our Consistory — if just 25 people made a commitment to intentional regular discipleship practices together, abundance would be assured. It just works that way.

So, I invite you to begin to pay attention. Notice and celebrate what goes on already around here that reveals the risen Christ.  Get a little hungry enough to add one of the ingredients of the Acts 2 church to your life. Let’s make ways add more of those God-life ingredients to the life of our church.  What we do here with what God has given us matters.

We are Easter people all year long. Our baptism promises propel us to be a resurrection community where the agenda of Jesus becomes our agenda. Confirmation rituals mark the beginning of a lifetime passion to become faithful disciples. Church is not just a place to go; church is more than a once a week worship service; church is the God-gathered US who would dare to attempt the recipe for an Acts-chapter-2-type Miracle-Grow community. Then will our Savior be risen indeed and the risen Christ is recognized in us and among us.

Jesus the Christ — alive and well at Jerusalem United Church of Christ in Trachsville / Palmerton — that church where they don’t just talk about the things of the faith, they actually live the gospel … abundantly. Amen.

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