Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, January 24, 2022
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Fixing Church 4: Fellowship

John 15:1-8 and Acts 8:26-40

Why do you bother coming here on Sunday mornings? Why don’t you stay home? You have a Bible at home, right?

Okay maybe you want to hear something more than just the Bible, you want someone to explain what the Bible means, right? Well, I’m sure you could pick up a book that would explain the Bible better than I can. Max Lucado, N. T. Wright, Francis Chan, Adam Hamilton, Rick Warren, Philip Yancey, David Jeremiah, the list just goes on. I’m sure any one of them could explain the Bible to you better than I could.

You want music? Buy a CD.

Oh, you want preaching? Well, there’s television, of course. And there are plenty of services on the interwebs. You won’t have a hard time finding a better preacher than me.

Would not your Christian life be easier and more comfortable and more peaceful in the privacy of your own home? Why are you bothering to come here and worship with this crowd? It’s not like they’re perfect Christians. Sorry to break it to you. Why should you bother to belong to a local congregation? Why not just be a Christian on your own?

The answer is because Jesus meant for the life of discipleship, the life of following him, to be a congregational life. We come together as the people of God because relationship breeds discipleship. We learn best and we grow best when we learn and grow together. We grow closer to Jesus as we grow in community with each other.

Look at the pictures used in the Bible to describe the Church:

Jesus used a grapevine to describe the Church. Each grape draws its life from being connected to the vine, which is Jesus. But in case you’ve never noticed this about grapes, they grow in bunches.

Jesus used a flock of sheep and a shepherd to describe the Church. While there is only one Good Shepherd, sheep are always found in flocks. Have you ever driven by a farm field and saw one sheep? You’d feel pretty bad for that sheep, wouldn’t you? They are herd animals. They don’t like being alone. In Jesus’ parable in Luke 15, the one sheep that is off by itself is the sheep that’s in trouble. Perhaps that’s instructive for us:

When we become a solitary sheep, we’re in trouble. We need the accountability and the encouragement that come from being “herd animals.”

Paul used different pictures of the Church, but again, there was an emphasis on the Church as a community. One of his pictures was that the Church is a Body, with Christ as the head. Each part in the body has its own unique gifts, and each part is important. The body can’t function to its full capacity without every part being present.

Another picture Paul used was the Church as a building. Christ is the foundation, and each member is a block in the building. The building can’t rise to its full potential without each member being present.

In every case, the idea is there that the Christian life should be lived out in community with other believers. The Church is never used in the New Testament to describe a building where believers meet. It’s never used to describe a set of programs. It’s never used to describe a “private club.” It’s always used to describe a community, a group of people united in one common purpose.

The Greek word for Church is EKKLESIA, from which we get the English word “ecclesial,” meaning “related to the Church.” EKKLESIA basically means “assembly,” but the more literal meaning of the word is “Those who are called out.” We are a called out people, a holy assembly, a people devoted to God.

The Church is a sacred people. The book of the Revelation is addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor, Turkey today. It describes how a candle burns before the throne of God for each of those seven churches. I think that should change our perception of what we do here. A candle burns before the throne of God for the church in Seward. That’s a pretty awesome thought.

The point I’m trying to get at here is that there is no hint in the New Testament that you should go it alone, or even that you can go it alone, in your walk with Jesus. There’s no such thing as a healthy solo Christianity.

Some people have said, “Well, the church has nothing to offer to me.” First of all, that’s not true. We all benefit from the accountability and encouragement we get from being part of a covenant community. And secondly, even if it were true, it’s not all about you. Being part of a church is not just what it gives you; it’s also about you give others through the gifts that God has entrusted to you. God has gifted you to serve, nurture, and encourage other Christians.

The picture of Christ is incomplete without each member. Several years ago, our Annual Conference did a photo directory of all the clergy and laity attending at Grove City. After the directory was done, one of the things they did was to create a photo mosaic of all those photos. If you stood right next to it, you would see all the little individual photos of pastors and lay members. But if you stood back a few feet, you would see that they came together to make the face of Christ. And that’s a good picture of the Church as well. We are the Body of Christ, the physical manifestation of his presence on the earth. But we only make up the Body of Christ together.

We often talk about how the church is a family. Here’s the thing about families; they can healthy, or they can be dysfunctional. But a dysfunctional family is still a family. It might be robbed of its full potential by dysfunction, but it’s still a family. A dysfunctional church family isn’t living up to its potential, but it’s still a church family

In his novel Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy observed that, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Healthy churches are “all alike” in that they love God and neighbor. Dysfunctional churches fail in one way or both. Dysfunctional churches need to learn how to be healthy again. One thing that needs to happen is there needs to be a commitment to listening to each other. What are people really feeling and experiencing in a dysfunctional church?

Also, churches need to develop healthy ways of making decisions. Often, the process of making the decision is more important than the actual decision. Healthy people can live with a decision with which they disagree if they know their voice was heard and appreciated in the decision-making process.

Before we fight, we need to ask ourselves honestly, “Is this worth fighting about?” Dysfunctional churches tend to fight over trivial things. There are churches out there that have split over the color of carpet or paint in the sanctuary. Why? Because they weren’t really fighting about the color of anything. They were fighting about how decisions were made and who got to make them.

Churches should seek after diversity and seek input from those who don’t have “a seat at the table.” That’s what Jesus did. Jesus intentionally sought out those who were not welcome at the table: Women, Gentiles, Samaritans, tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, and the disabled.

Most churches are like French bread. We are soft on the inside, but hard and crusty on the outside. It’s hard to “get in” to most churches. But the people on the inside don’t see that. For us, it’s soft. We need to be intentional about seeking out those on the outside, or they won’t come in here.

Our other text for today is from Acts 8, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian.

Philip was one of the first deacons of the Church. He was respected for his wisdom and being in touch with the Holy Spirit. He was the first person we know of to preach the gospel to those who were not already Jewish. He went to Samaria, and a revival broke out. In the middle of the revival, God tested his faith by telling him to leave a revival and go to a road through the desert.

There he meets an Ethiopian eunuch. Actually, Bible scholars point out that this man is not what we would call Ethiopian. The modern nation of Ethiopia was called Abyssinia. This man belonged to the Nubian people of the Sudan. These people were dark skinned, so they looked different than the Mediterranean Jews. And this guy has another strike against him. He’s a eunuch. He has been castrated, which was actually a very common practice for court officials in the ancient Near East (to keep them away from the king’s wives, most likely). And according to the Old Testament Law, a eunuch could not enter the sacred assembly.

But he hears the gospel, and he asks, “Why can’t I be baptized?” What would exclude him from the Church? Philip figures that if it was the Holy Spirit who sent him here, then the answer must be nothing.

What would exclude someone from joining the fellowship of this church? Being from a different race or ethnicity? Looking different? Being from a different economic class? Having different opinions on politics or social issues?

The real question is not, “What would exclude?” The real question is, “What would include?” And the answer is faith in Jesus Christ. That is the one and only criteria that should matter to us when we consider if a person belongs in our community of faith.

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