November 19, 2017
One of the teachers of religious law came and heard Jesus debating with the Pharisees and supporters of King Herod. Seeing how well Jesus answered them, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Jesus answered, “The most important one is this:
‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
The second is this:
‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.
Then the scribe said to him, “Well said, Teacher; you are right in saying that ‘God is one, and beside him there is no other’; and ‘to love God with all my heart, and with all my understanding, and with all of my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself’ - this is much more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.
When Jesus saw that he answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Acts 2:37-39, 41-47
When the crowd heard Peter preaching, they were cut to the heart and said to him and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives. Be baptized - every one of you - in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away - as many as the Lord our God calls.”
Those who accepted his message were baptized, about three thousand people came in to the community that day. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, to breaking bread, and to prayer.
A deep sense of awe came upon everyone at the many wonders and signs being done by the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything; they would sell property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to those who had need. Every day they would meet in the temple and share meals in their homes, with glad and generous hearts. They praised God, and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. Day by day, the Lord added to the community those who were being saved.
* * * * *
Whenever new members join a church, it is a special joy. We don’t typically have 3,000 – how would you even manage all that? Even getting all their data into the system? But welcoming 13 is a great day. I hope you will get to know these brothers and sisters in Christ and welcome them into our community.
It is a great day when new members join. It is no secret that mainline denominations are shrinking. Fewer and fewer people find it necessary or meaningful to join a church. At least that’s true in the U.S. It’s not quite as extreme here as it is in Europe, where church attendance is the exception rather than the rule. Of course, in the Southern hemisphere congregations are growing. But here in the U.S., the church is in decline. It’s not just true of mainlines any more - even Evangelical churches are beginning to see a decline.
As a pastor, I could find that depressing. And there have been times in my ministry that I have. Pastors tend to beat themselves up, that it’s our fault, our personal failing that people aren’t flocking into church. There’s no doubt an incompetent or uninspiring pastor can wreak havoc on a congregation’s health. But trends are trends; the change is a lot bigger than we are. That beautiful image of the church in the Book of Acts where “day by day the Lord added to the community” – that almost seems like a fairy tale.
A pastor could really get depressed by all this. But not me, not any more. My thinking has changed. I don’t worry so much why people don’t come. Nowadays I wonder why they do. We have thirteen people joining our congregation today. It’s not a given anyone will do that. So why do they? I find myself curious. Why do we do this thing we call church? What brings you here today, and Sunday after Sunday?
One of our new members joining is Tom Murray. Tom and Brenda have been coming here for seven or eight years – Brenda says seven and Tom says eight and it’s a standing joke between them who is right. This year they decided to make it official, to make the commitment, and join the church. Stand up and answer the questions of commitment and make the promises we ask people to make.
A couple of weeks ago Tom sent me an email on his reflections on this change of heart…
As Tom puts it,
“I grew up Christian. I refer to myself as being a Christian…. I have never been more settled in my religious beliefs than I am now… I have a solid connection with the Bible message…. I… want to be a member of this church. I can’t explain why… it just seems like the right thing to do now…
But then he does offer an explanation. He says,
When I die I want to be remembered as a person who lived a good moral life thankful that when I sinned I was forgiven. That’s why I live life as I do… But I can’t do it alone. I need direction.
He doesn’t believe that being Christian is his only choice. As he writes,
I choose to behave according to the law of God as I know God and found God in my Christian upbringing. I am sure there are other sources of direction and I do not pretend to believe living a Christian life is the only way to go. I have too many great life-long friends who are ‘non-believers’ who live by their own creed. They are good people and many have played a large role in getting me where I am today. I respect them and have no interest in questioning their faith. However, Christianity has worked well for me all my life. Given that, I think I can take the pledge in good conscience.
Whether your experience is like Tom’s or different, I think it’s a challenge worth taking, asking yourself why you’re here. Reflecting on this thing we call “being Christian,” and what it means for you personally.
I found myself asking myself that question as I was preparing for today. I mean, I’m paid to be here, but that’s a terrible reason! I know pastors who’ve lost their heart for ministry, and some who have even lost their faith. Going through the motions will not cut it. That doesn’t mean pastors never have doubts or questions or struggles. But if a pastor’s faith isn’t real, it’s the worst kind of hypocrisy.
So why am I here? I picked our two scripture readings today because they help answer that question for me.
First off, the Bible teaches me that the most essential thing about being human is that I love God with every ounce of my being, and that I love others as myself. It is a lifetime path to try to live out that Gospel imperative. My identity, my very existence, comes from the God who loved me into being, in whose image I am made. The more fully I can pour my soul into loving that God, the more complete and whole and healthy I will be.
The more I am able to love others as myself, the more I am acting out the way God intended, the more fully I am living into my best self, and the more I am living as a blessing to myself and others. These commandments aren’t “shoulds” and “oughts,” they’re an invitation and a calling.
But living them out requires things of me. The first is that I take responsibility for my own spiritual path. No one can do this for me.
I’ve been reading an intriguing book for my Doctor of Ministry project. It’s called Move, and it’s based on research that was started by Willow Creek Community Church. The leadership was asking a really important question: “Is our church really helping people to become devoted followers of Christ, or are we just giving them a nice place to go to church?” They wanted to know whether people were growing in love of God and love of neighbor, and if so, what was helping them grow.[i]
As it turned out, one of the key factors was whether or not people took ultimate responsibility for their own spiritual growth. If they expected the church to provide everything they needed to grow spiritually, they would inevitably get stuck, and actually become dissatisfied with their church. When churches encouraged the assumption that they could provide everything people needed to grow, they were doing their members a disservice. [ii]
I have to tell you, I found that amazing. And a little frightening, to tell you the truth. I had never really thought about it before. Do we encourage people to take responsibility for the deepening of their relationship with God? Do we set up the illusion that somehow we’ve got everything people need to make that happen? Is our only expectation for people who join is that they show up, or volunteer, or pledge? I confess to you I had never asked those questions.
For us to be healthy, for us to be church – the body of Christ – each part needs to pay attention to its own health, exercise our gifts, commit to getting stronger.
It’s like what’s described in the Book of Acts, after the people were baptized: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, to breaking bread, and to prayer.” They devoted themselves. They weren’t just participants; they were devoted to this new life.
But there’s a corollary here. It’s not an individual endeavor: we need each other to grow. Christian faith is not a solitary journey, a practice we can do on our own.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it this way,
Ultimately our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others… It’s how we are made. I mean we’re wired to be compassionate. We are wired to be caring for the other and generous to one another. We shrivel when we are not able to interact…. We depend on the other for us to be fully who we are… A person is a person through other persons…. We belong in this delicate network… We are bound up and can be human only together. [iii]
That’s what we promise when be baptize someone. That’s what we promise when people join the church. That we’ll be there for each other, with each other. We’ll walk alongside each other.
That’s what I love about the reading from the Book of Acts. When the new church was being born, the people discovered something new and beautiful, what it meant to be disciples of Jesus. And they shared that joy with each other so fully and completely. They couldn’t be Christians by themselves; they met together, they took care of each other, they shared meals together. They praised God, and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.
That’s what we promise each other, isn’t? That we’ll help each other become the people God intended us to be? Not just for our own growth, but so the world can become the place God intended it to be.
I think church membership is different than any other commitment we make. We’re not so much promising to be faithful to a group of people or responsible to an institution or to belong to a place, though all those things are elements of membership. At the heart of it all is our promise to grow as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, knowing it is God to whom we belong. It’s not something we can do on our own; we need each other!
I know you have helped me grow. When I was young, devoted Sunday school teachers taught me the stories of faith, and my church choir directors taught me to sing the faith; I still remember those stories and songs. As I got older, leaders called me to use my gifts for service, to teach Sunday school, to do mission, to be an elder. Throughout my life, people have shared their own journeys with me, and I have learned and learned and learned from what you know about God, about struggle, about hope, about what matters, and how to live well. You call me to be my best self. When I am tempted to be self-righteous, you show me what real righteousness looks like. When I am exhausted, you care for me, and I know you have my back. When I am sick or grieving, you pray with me and for me. And when we connect, it is deep and powerful. I cannot ‘do’ this thing called faith alone. I just can’t.
What belonging to a church means to me is that I have a community who will help me learn to love the Lord my God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, and practice loving my neighbor as myself. I don’t know about you, but for me that will take a lifetime. It’s the biggest commitment I will ever make. Thank you for being with me on the journey.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church
[i] Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 9.
[ii] Move, 40.
[iii] The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, (New York: Avery, 2016), 59-60.