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The Church at its Best
August 21, 2022

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto

ACTS 2:42-47

As I begin this short-term pastorate, I decided to go back in history and preach again the last sermon I preached In 1993, ending a ten-year appointment as Senior Pastor. For that last sermon, 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—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 languages, Peter's vivid sermon, and the conversion and baptism of 3,000 people. It leaves us breathless! 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 immediately took on a new form--that of the body of Christ, the Christian community, the church. Jesus is the head and we are members of his body.

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. 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. The church at its best is based on the model described by Luke in Acts 2:42-47. Let’s look at a few of the characteristics of a church at its best.

First: The church at its best, where Jesus Christ is the head, is a fellowshipping community, an eating community, a good Methodist tradition. We have visitors this morning from Wesley Church in San Jose where I served as Interim Pastor for 18 months. The church membership is primarily of Japanese heritage and do they know how to throw a potluck! 

The 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 eating together has been sacramentalized for us in Holy Communion. 

Two: The church at its best, where Jesus Christ is the the head, 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 where we look beneath the struggles, differences of opinion, attacks and realize that everyone has a story, and some with cigar burns on their arms. Look at people beneath the surface and share our lives with one another.

Three: The church at its best, where Jesus Christ is the head, 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 they not only shared, 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 where people care and carry one another?

Four: The church at its best, where Jesus Christ is the head, 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 church is obviously growing and newcomers are welcomed with open arms. 

The church at its best is where God is working in people's lives. Jean began bringing Mary to our church. 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.

One Sunday we "remembered our baptism?" The ministers passed among the congregation sprinkling everyone 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 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. The next CT 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!

Will you pray that the First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto may become even more the church at its best—a fellowshipping community, a sharing community, a carrying community, a community where the Lord is working wonders!

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© 2022 Douglas I. Norris