Anthony Robinson, one of the premier writers about church transformation for today, has a book titled Called to Be Church: the Book of Acts for a New Day. The season of Easter, in which we find ourselves, invites us to explore the Biblical book of Acts which tells us about God’s people being formed for a new way of being in light of the resurrection.
Robinson has an entire chapter of his book focused on the second chapter of Acts, most of which was our lesson for today. Now, the lectionary suggests the latter part of what I chose to use. I expanded the lesson because there are dangers whenever we take or hear a portion of the scripture and don’t consider its entire context. Numerous scholars noted the consequences in hearing Peter’s declaration: “Therefore, let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him (Jesus) both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified,” out of context. That assignment of blame has permeated much of Christian history. “The Jews crucified Jesus.” I remember hearing the story of a young Jewish girl who came home crying and asked her mother, “Who is Jesus and why did we kill him?”
It’s always tempting to assign blame somewhere else. “You sure told them, pastor!” is a reflection I and other ministers have heard after a Sunday service. “You sure told them!” In some ways, it might sound like Peter is “telling them!” But we have to remember who Peter is. Peter is the disciple who promised Jesus that he would be there every step of the way – even if that meant he would have to die with Jesus. Yet, he abandoned him. He denied him. I know that I begin to miss the mark when I’m looking at preaching to others and forget to preach to myself – to find the challenge that confronts me, convicts me, and invites me to a new way of living as God’s disciple. Calvin said that “judgment always begins with the house and people of God.” Judgment begins with us. God’s people are the ones who have some sense of what God’s intent for the world and its inhabitants is. Yet, God’s people, part of the world, always fall short. The Israelites were the keepers of the stories of God. Yet, when the Messiah came into their midst, they chose the broken ways of the world instead of receiving God’s presence through Jesus of Nazareth.
So, Peter is not preaching to assign blame or even to condemn. What sounds harsh – and, perhaps is harsh, is only the first step. He himself is included in the judgment that found the people of God failing to accept the Christ. Peter’s sermon invited them to hear the story – the ancient story – in a new way. Robinson described the sermon as Jewish Midrash, a commentary on the scripture that connected the ancient stories to the life of Jesus and his resurrection. They were to hear that story not to wallow in God’s condemnation, but to acknowledge their failure and to hear and accept and to live into God’s gift of forgiveness. It was, to borrow a title from another book I pulled off my shelf, a culture shift. Peter invited them to rehear the ancient texts, to acknowledge the ways in which they had failed to live according to those texts, to receive, accept and rejoice in God’s forgiveness – and then, to move on toward the new life God’s forgiveness offers.
There are things to hear in Peter’s sermon – timely words for us, God’s people, in this day and age. Robinson pointed out that the gift of the Spirit is not a private gift – for one’s personal salvation and assurance. The Spirit of God is not private property. It is a gift to the community that is public. The crowds heard the Spirit’s coming and the sound of the believers speaking in different languages. They saw these Galileans pour forth into the streets and speak of God’s work. Peter’s message is that the future has come – and the people of Israel are called to continue what Jesus had started. The one who was forgiven for his betrayal proclaimed the grace he had known and called his sisters and brother to receive that same grace and join in Jesus’ continuing work.
Robinson critiqued the way the modern church has often approached faith. He complained about worship services that focus on “friendly ideas, good advice, cheerful platitudes and encouragement to participate in useful projects or activities.” He asked if our focus is how to adjust to the world that is, or is it, as Peter preached, an invitation to seek out an entirely new world? Garrison Keillor said, “I’ve heard a lot of sermons in the past ten years or so that make me want to get up and walk out. They’re secular, psychological, self-help sermons. Friendly, but of no use. They didn’t make you want to straighten up. They didn’t give you anything hard. At some point and in some way, a sermon has to direct people toward the death of Christ and to the campaign God has waged over the centuries to get our attention.” The Spirit, given on that Day of Pentecost, didn’t come as a gentle breeze, but as a fiery, impelling and compelling tornado – disrupting and challenging all who encountered it directly or through the believers.
I mentioned the book Culture Shift. It’s full title is Culture Shift: Transforming Your Congregation from the Inside Out. In a sense, that’s what Peter did in his sermon. He reframed the ancient stories so that the Israelites could see Jesus’ life, ministry and death in a new way. Many who have looked at church renewal and transformation have suggested that a congregation look back and find out what’s in its DNA – why it was established. I’m not sure that Presbyterians have always articulated that well. You look back through the records and see careful attention to membership, building issues, and financial issues. Somehow, the how and why of the church’s mission didn’t or doesn’t get recorded. We are too often bogged down by the institutional demands. Sometimes its almost impossible to get to the church’s DNA.
But, there’s a deeper DNA – a more compelling DNA – and we find that DNA is the Biblical witness that calls us to engaged response to God’s presence revealed in the stories of God’s people, and, most particularly, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. We find our DNA in the emergence of the earliest faith communities that found the courage to speak of and work for the world to which Jesus pointed.
A member of the Commission on Church Vitality had a conversation with a non-denominational church planter (in the area). The pastor said that a small group of folks volunteered to be involved in the community – in fact, they became the “go to” people. They made connections with others. Then, they chose a mission and invited people to get involved. And their church was born – and grew!
That story made me think about the way Presbyterians have been involved in our nation – striving to make it a better place. I thought we’ve done that. We do that. But maybe we don’t articulate that – even to ourselves. One, John Witherspoon, was actively involved in the birth of this nation. He was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Think about the way our nation’s government is structured. There is a strong connection with our “representative” form of government in this denomination. Some historians note Witherspoon’s influence. Presbyterians have taken their faith into the civic realm in many, many ways—working for the good of their communities, their states, the nation and the world.
Maybe what we’ve forgotten to do is to connect our service to our faith. I had a colleague who, every month, named what the people in his congregation were doing in and for the community. He would list service such as delivering for Meals on Wheels, volunteering in a hospital, nursing home, or school, serving in public office, and people in the military. He connected their faith to their service. It was a reminder to those who served and to the entire congregation that we are called beyond ourselves. One of the authors of Culture Shift wrote, “Your church, whatever its size or age, has billion-dollar potential. Yes, your church, and every church where the Spirit of God lives…God’s children are heirs to things so precious that no amount of money can buy them.” One of the culture shifts they wrote about was moving from the mentality that we, as a church, have to fill slots of leadership to a mentality that says this is where dreams of what could be take shape and are given the wind of the Spirit that fills their sails. One couple dreamed of a desire to provide mentors for junior high students. They developed a program that became statewide. They made a difference. The church hired a receptionist who needed a job and discovered an artistic talent. She became the head of that growing church’s media department.
Culture Shift, like Peter in his sermon, says we need to challenge ourselves to see things differently. The book says all the quick fix programs we look for ultimately fail because the transformation starts with us.
Whatever our history might say – or not say—about who we are, our ultimate identity is that we are God’s children, beloved, forgiven, empowered and sent – sent into the world with God’s vision of what the world – beloved by God—could and should be. Particular congregations have particular calls. And, perhaps, those calls change with the times. Gulfport is not the same city it was 20, 25, 50 or even 100 years ago. Speaking of which, 100 years ago, in 1917, this church was founded – first as an independent church which in 1947 became Presbyterian. Now, I would guess that the church was founded because people saw a need for a Christian community and witness in Gulfport. But the Gulfport of 100 years ago is not the Gulfport of today. So, what does it mean to for us to be a Christian community and witness in today’s Gulfport?
One of the things I loved about the Culture Shift stories was that God’s call was varied and that it emerged from and through people’s passion. It’s also one of the things I liked about that colleague’s approach to identifying and celebrating ministry. It’s never a one-size-fits-all approach. Different people have different gifts. At time those gifts come together in powerful ways. The couple that started the mentoring program found others who embraced and committed themselves to their vision. The receptionist’s talents stayed more in-house. Others were connected and empowered by her gifts. But, the ministry was smaller in scale – and that’s OK.
How can your passion and your gifts be connected more powerfully with God’s call to make this world a better place? As most of your know, I’ve found an outlet for music that has given me great joy. However, sometimes I’ve wondered if it is taking too much of my time. It’s an “outside” thing that I do – not connected to my faith. Or – I wondered – is it? What if I began to look at what I do in a new way, a different way? I realized that the orchestra concerts provide music for those who might not be able to afford Florida Orchestra tickets. The small group has played for fundraisers – an Episcopal Feeding Ministry, a Wounded Warriors benefit, this congregation’s Elementary School ministry. We’ve played for community events. We’ve played for some church services. And we’ve played at retirement and nursing homes – bringing music to those who can’t get out. What if I saw it not only as a way of indulging in a passion to make music, but also as a ministry that is worthwhile?
Marilyn and Maureen make prayer shawls. Taryn serves in ROTC. Mary has made quilts to beautify our space and quilts to benefit others. Yvonne served as mayor of Gulfport. Lavon cares for and about those she works with and her customers. Mark Spence was (is?) involved in a surfing ministry. Gail and Jerry, in their trucking careers, connected with school children across the country. Barbara, for years, has welcomed refugees in Newfoundland. Vilia plays music for the residents of the nursing home where her mother is. I hate making such lists because I know that I leave out many people, many ministries. So, I challenge you to share with us what you are doing. And, I challenge all of us to explore more fully the ways God is calling us to live our faith in this world – seeking to proclaim the world God intends.