The following is a sermon I wrote for seminary this semester to be shared with the church I am now serving at.
We are the Church
A Sermon based on Acts 2:37-47
Presented by Vicar Chuck Copps
Greetings my siblings in Christ. Please take a moment to look around at those gathered here today. Familiar faces for the most part, I can safely assume. Now please close your eyes and in your mind’s eye see the church. Thanks.
Hopefully the pictures in your mind of church consisted of many of the faces you looked at a moment ago, for that is the church. Let’s define church this way: It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel (Augsburg Confession; VII, p. 42, paragraph 1).
Now what if asked how you got here today? Motor vehicle would be one correct response. But for the purposes of our time together this morning, please consider another equally correct answer to that question:
We are brought to church, according to Luther’s Large Catechism, 3rd Article of the Creed (Book of Concord, p. 435) by the Holy Spirit. In fact, it is the Holy Spirit that leads us to the community of faith and places us in the lap of the church as he was fond of saying. The Holy Spirit then, working through the proclaimed Word of God and the sacraments, teaches us about God’s undying love as evidenced through the forgiveness of our sins. Presented with God’s love in this way, the Spirit pours into us the gift of faith by which we come to understand that God has redeemed and renewed us.
To sum up, the church is made up in and by the hearts of the faithful. To be clear, the church welcomes everyone in regardless of where they may be in their journey. There is no ‘heart monitor’ prior to coming through the doors!
Next let’s consider the example of the growing church we just heard about in our reading from the Book of Acts to see how we might deepen our own ideas about church, our place and purpose in it, and how our faith plays a role in all of this.
We, as the body of Christ, operate on a level playing field. There is no hierarchy of power. We as individuals are called to different vocations, and because of this we all bring something of value to the assembly. Of great blessing to this gathering of the faithful is Pastor Hannah. Because she is called to be our pastor, she is in a position of leadership and guidance for this assembly, not because she is a super-spiritual or an otherwise special recipient of God’s blessings. We are all the recipients of God’s grace as individuals but as a church we do not mediate this grace. Grace is a pure gift of God, given only by God to us through the means of the sacraments and proclaimed Word as the Holy Spirit works through them.
If this brief description of what the church, do these facts apply to the church we read about in Acts earlier? Here’s the short answer: Yes! Let’s review the activities of the Acts church to discover how this is true.
Those first members of that faith community had heard the Word of God proclaimed to them as Peter spoke. As they listened, the Holy Spirit moved in them in such a way that they received this gift, repented of their sins and were baptized and the church, as we defined above, was born! I am sure many of them then thought, “This is wonderful but what is next?
Our text gives the answer: They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers. It should be easy to see the similarities between then and now. We have gathered to pray, to hear the teaching of the gospel, the sharing of the communion meal and fellowship. Of these features, it is safe to assume that the teaching uses different examples and analogies now than it did then, but the pure gospel is still proclaimed here as it was then. Likewise, our prayers our different and certainly the time of fellowship would have many differences. Can you imagine a fellowship time without coffee?
Please note, however, that the breaking of bread would essentially be the same. Both the early church and we remember what Christ has done for all humankind as we share the bread and wine at his table. We are aware, as the first church was, that Jesus is present in this meal and by partaking of it, our spirits are nourished and our souls comforted as we remember again what the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus as gained for us all.
Our text tells us that those who received God’s forgiveness that day were then baptized. Obviously, those mentioned in Acts were adults. Why do we baptize infants then? An excellent question that deserves to be answered.
In the Lutheran Church, we believe baptism to be a divine action by God. The use of water, with the proclaimed Word of God is how we receive the gift of faith. As with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, the water is a material means by which the Holy Spirit imparts faith to us. We baptize infants then not only to have this gift poured into them early in life, but also a sign to the community of faith of God at work. As a person grows in faith, he or she becomes aware of their shortcomings. At the same time, that gift of faith poured into the person at Baptism continues to bring comfort as it brings to mind that we are renewed and redeemed by God.
This all sound good, but does it mean that we, as Lutherans, have the inside track to God? Of course not. Other churches and other denominations can be seen as ‘different flavors’, if you will. As long as the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are properly administered, the format of worship or the type of songs that are sung can vary significantly. The point to remember when looking at other Christian faith communities is this: Those things that are commanded by God are necessary for worship; traditions placed by humans, so long as they do not detract from what God decrees, are acceptable, though they be different from what we practice.
For example think about fasting. The giving up of food for a period of time may well be a valuable spiritual discipline for some, but the act itself has no bearing on our salvation. Hence, one church may practice fasting while another does not. Doing so does not make one community holier or closer to God, it is merely a practice that one group chooses to follow.
The preaching in the church today should be recognizable as similar to what was preached in the early church. Salvation is from God to us made possible by the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. As we gather to worship God, we are reminded of God’s grace as we hear the gospel explained. The early church eagerly sought this teaching and God blessed them by growing them in numbers. We would do well to anticipate God moving likewise in this gathering should we digest the gospel message as first church goers did.
Concluding thoughts: It is my hope that during this time together we have developed a deeper understanding of what the church truly is. Simply put, church is a state of mind, not a destination. Although a well-kept building and fine trimmed lawn is appealing to the eye, it is when the church is seen in the hearts of the faithful that God’s message of hope is spread.
As I’ve said, the church exists in each of our hearts, as it did in the hearts of those in the Acts church. God has put the same call in our hearts that was put into theirs all the centuries ago: We are sent into the world to proclaim and live out God’s justification of us through Jesus Christ.
As the Holy Spirit guided those folks in Acts to gather for worship, teaching and fellowship, so too are we to express God’s love to others as we do the same.
We can do this in confidence because we see the evidence of God’s love here in the Word and Sacrament. Through these God has initiated trust in our hearts. We know therefore, as the first church did, that salvation comes only from God. We play no active part, it is purely God’s gift to all. As the Holy Spirit works in us, both individually and as a church, we are transformed more and more into God’s likeness in order that we can better share this Good News with others, regardless of our personal vocation.
The passage we read from Acts Chapter 2 ended on a very encouraging note after describing the life and activities of that early church: And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (V. 47b NRSV)
As much as I would like to tell you that the same will happen here if we all truly embrace the idea that the church is made up within us. However, I’m just not privy to God’s plans.
I can make several informed opinions if we do though. First, God will bless us with increased faith as we more fully grasp what the church is to be and that we all have a part, or function, in its growth. I believe that we will grow in our trust of God as we take to heart the things that make up a vibrant church.
Although I cannot say that God will add to our numbers on a daily basis, I am confident in the Almighty’s plan to deepen the faith of all of us and that as we come to trust the promises of God with greater certainty, each of us will grow in our love of God and our willingness to share that love with all the world around us. Amen.