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The Church At Its Best
May 2, 1993

As you might suspect, what to preach in the last sermon as a pastor of the congregation is a difficult decision for a preacher to make. I've been preaching here for ten years, about 40 sermons a year. That is 400 sermons! What is there yet to say? What parting shot do I want to make? Rather than picking a topic out of my own biases, I decided to check the lectionary suggested passages for the day, and there I found this sermon! What could be more appropriate for a last sermon than Luke's magnificent description of The Church at Its Best.

The second chapter of Acts describes the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and the church was born. Explosive, dramatic events happened in one day--tongues of fire, gales of wind, dazzling displays of language, Peter's vivid sermon, and the conversion and baptism of 3,000 people. It leaves us breathless! And yet another miracle! In one day, a handful of halting, timid believers were transformed into a whole new community of 3,000 enthusiastic, faithful Christians.

The Holy Spirit may have come in the shape of wind and fire, but the Holy Spirit immediately took on a new form--that of the body of Christ, the Christian community. In our church we are celebrating the Year of Community. It is fitting that my last sermon, dictated by the lectionary, is a call to be the church at its best, based on the model described by Luke in Acts 2:42-47.

When the passage was read, did you notice the absence of names? Peter preached the famous sermon, but when they gathered in Christian community, there were no apparent leaders. This was not a cult built around a charismatic leader like David Koresh. This was a community in which everyone had a place--some were apostles, some were teachers, some were healers, etc. Like the donkey who entered the Kentucky Derby. When asked, "You don't expect to win, do you?" the donkey replied, "Of course not. But the company's good."

The church at its best--where the company is good--is a community of faithful disciples of Jesus Christ who know they need one another to do God's work and to survive in a hostile, pagan environment. Let me highlight just a few of the characteristics of a Christian community this passage emphasizes.

1) A Christian community--the church at its best, where Jesus Christ is Lord--is an eating community, or fellowshiping if you prefer. Those early Christians ate together. Acts 2:46, "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home." A footnote in the New Revised Standard Version states the verse may have originally meant "house to house." I like that--the first progressive dinner! I suspect that anthropologists have never found a society, no matter how primitive, where people did not get together to eat. Eating together is more than a collective effort to get rid of hunger pangs. The pangs of solitude, insecurity and loneliness are lessened at the common table. The importance of breaking bread together has been sacramentalized for us in Holy Communion. Today we will eat together at the table of the Lord who gave us his body and blood for our salvation.

2) A Christian community--the church at its best, where Jesus Christ is Lord--is a sharing community. The early Christians shared resources with one another, shared their faith as they taught and learned from one another, shared their homes, shared their food, shared their hospitality, shared their prayers and concerns, shared their lives with one another.

In the movie, The Breakfast Club, five of the most dissimilar, incompatible teenagers imaginable are thrown together for an all-day detention. The club members, forced to be together, engage in verbal battles, dividing into sides, and then changing sides. With nothing in common, it's no surprise they hate each other vehemently. Then the story turns. In a moving scene, one boy displays multiple scars on his arm, burned there by the tip of his dad's cigar. Something special begins to happen as the five start talking to each other. And listening. They reveal hurts and secret dreams, big and small. They cooperate. They connect. They bond.

Wouldn't you like to be part of a church--a community of faith--where people share their lives with one another?

3) A Christian community--the church at its best, where Jesus Christ is Lord--is a carrying community; not just caring, but carrying. Carrying is caring in action. Carrying means bearing one another's burdens. In the early church of Acts they not only shared, but they carried one another to the extreme of, Acts 2:45, "selling their possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need." They just didn't care about one another, they carried one another.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the 1992 Olympics at Barcelona took place in the semifinals of the men's 400-meter race. Britain's Derek Redmond fell on the backstretch with a torn right hamstring. Despite excruciating pain, the injured runner struggled to his feet, fended off medical attendants who raced to help him, and started to hop to the finish line. When he reached the home stretch, a large man in a T-shirt emerged out of the stands, pushed aside a security guard, ran to Derek and embraced him. It was Derek's father.

"You don't have to do this," he told his weeping son. "Yes, I do," Derek shot back through his pain. "Well, then," said his father, "we're going to finish this together." And they did. Fighting off security men, the son's head sometimes buried in his father's shoulder, the two men crossed the finish line. The crowd gaped, then rose, cheered and wept!

Wouldn't you like to be part of a church--a community of faith--where people care and carry one another?

4) A Christian community--the church at its best, where Jesus Christ is Lord--is one where, Acts 2:47, "day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved." The church at its best is where the Lord is obviously working in people's lives. Last Tuesday morning, Renae asked me to meet in the sanctuary at 11:30 for prayers of praise. A few of us gathered to pray and rejoice with Mary Beckett who had just come from the doctor with tremendous news. A CAT scan revealed there were no longer any signs of cancer in her. A friend, Jean York, began bringing Mary to our church several months ago. Mary was fighting cancer, and feeling the need in her life for spiritual help. Jean had been an annual Easter worshiper with us and said, "Let me take you to a neat church." They started coming here regularly. They put in a prayer request and we prayed for Mary in our morning service.

Do you recall the Sunday a few weeks months ago when we "remembered our baptism?" The ministers passed among the congregation sprinkling you with water and saying, "Remember your baptism." A few drops of water touched Mary on her hand, and she felt them like a sting. After the service, as she was getting into her car in the parking lot, suddenly she was zapped with a bright light. It surrounded and filled her. Her friend, Jean, didn't see the light but she knew something was happening because Mary almost fell over backward. Mary came the next Sunday to our Healing service and told us of her experience. She said she felt so clean. During the Healing service, we laid our hands on Mary and prayed for her healing. Tuesday, the CAT scan revealed no sign of cancer anywhere, and she still feels the joy and wonder of that cleansing spiritual experience which occurred in our parking lot!

Wouldn't you like to be part of a church where the Lord is working among people, where the Lord is saving and healing people? Wouldn't you? You do. These things are happening right here!

May your commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord continue to deepen and expand so that the First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto may become even more a Christian community--the church at its best; a fellowshiping community, a sharing community, a carrying community, a community where the Lord is working wonders!

© 1993 Douglas I. Norris