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Living As a Believer: In Community

thomasActs 4: 32-35
John 20: 19-31

Introduction to the reading
The women had come to the tomb early that Sunday morning – the Sunday we have come to call Easter – to the place where the body of Jesus had been laid temporarily.  They couldn’t do the proper burial rituals until after the Sabbath.

We know what they found when they got there:  no Jesus.  Instead – as we heard last Sunday from the Gospel of Mark – a young man in white told them that Jesus had been raised from the dead just as he had said would happen.  “But go,” he said, “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him..."

But the women didn’t do that.  Terror and amazement had seized them; they were so afraid that they fled and didn’t tell anyone about their experience.

This was not a satisfactory ending for some later scribes who wrote down the stories about Jesus that were going around, so they added two post-resurrection accounts to what Mark had said.  The other three Gospels each have post-resurrection appearance stories, too, like what you heard earlier from the Gospel of John.

But the fact remains that Jesus is no longer with them in the flesh as he was before.  So... who was there to carry on the proclamation, to witness to the faith?  It depended upon the apostles, the ones sent, and it depends upon us, the ones so many centuries later who have not seen and yet believe.

What we will read from the book of Acts today, and in the coming weeks during April, is late 1st century writing.  Through a series of episodes in the life of the apostles, Luke, who wrote the book, The Acts of the Apostles, tells the story of how the Christian church had its beginnings and how the faith spread.  It should be informative for us as we struggle to live as believers today. 

How many of you are on Facebook?  What do you use it for?  Reconnecting with old friends and relatives.  Staying in constant touch with new “friends.”  Blogging – sort of a running diary with pictures.  Hearing opinions and points of view on everything from politics to how to care for a puppy.  Facebook can become addictive if you’re not careful about managing your time online.

Mark Zuckerberg founded his Facebook company in 2004 while he was a college sophomore at Harvard.  But I remember that when my children, Beth and Tim, started at Bucknell – in 1992 and 1999, respectively - they had something called the Freshman Photo Directory, simply called among the students The Face Book.  I guess most universities had something like this, which is where Zuckerberg came up with the name.  The original idea was to help the new students get to know one another, make new friends and feel at home in the college community.

But Zuckerberg’s innovation was to make the world into a virtual community.  What was originally a chance to connect and reconnect with new and old “friends” you might never meet in person has morphed into this global phenomenon that supposedly shrinks the distance between people and gives them the opportunity to interact and share themselves with one another.  Of course, as I’m sure you’ve heard, Facebook is in some trouble now, tacitly permitting the sharing of personal data for all sorts of nefarious purposes.  Not to mention all the ads; Facebook is a platform for consumerism.  

It’s interesting, however, that in a speech last June, Zuckerberg likened Facebook to a postmodern, post-traditional form of church.  He noted that for decades, membership in small groups - people meeting together, actually face-to-face - has declined.  But people still need something, some place to belong - to give their lives purpose, where they can find support in difficult times, and through which they can volunteer time and money to help others.  In short, people need community. (Homiletics 46)

Alas, however, this virtual church falls woefully short, for it lacks the Holy Spirit and therefore, true Christian community.  This is so in two fundamental ways (and probably more).
First, from the very beginning – Acts, Chapter 2, which we will read on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit whooshed into the gathering of apostles – we see that God created the community called the church.  The very premise of church is that God had come into the world in the real person of Jesus Christ to heal its brokenness, to forgive our sinfulness.  Jesus would form a new community and train them to interact with others in order to bring about God’s kingdom of peace, justice, mercy, grace and love.  Their strength and energy would come from the Holy Spirit in their midst.

The central narrative of the early church was the apostles’ testimony about the resurrection of Jesus and its significance for every human life.  The story of Jesus became the motivating and unifying factor in the church community’s life and work – indeed, it is what made them a “church” in the first place.

Facebook has no narrative, just a successful, lucrative, technology-based business model that indeed, has tapped into a basic human need.

Second, the church was to be a community where people would focus on others more than themselves.  We’re all in the same situation – sinners in need of grace and salvation.  They were of one heart and soul, we heard in Verse 32 of today’s reading, completely focused on what God had done for them in Jesus.  They modeled their lives after his, voluntarily and sacrificially caring for others.  They were compelled to be generous with one another, as God had been so generous with them, believing that their lives were part of something much bigger than themselves.  The early church’s social platform was driven by this generosity developed out of a sense of gratitude to God.

Contrast this community with Facebook, whose central focus is the human desire for self-elevation.  A Facebook profile can be real or concocted but is precisely what that person wants you to see and no more. So, who is the real human being?   Facebook is driven by advertising but has tapped into assuaging human guilt by giving “feel good” opportunities to click on “give” to some charity or other.

Now it’s pretty clear that Christian communities in the 21st century cannot operate in the same way as they did in the 1st.  Sell all our possessions?  Hold everything in common?  No…  but we do have to ask what the church community offers that Facebook and other online “communities” do not. And why would someone want to belong to a church community?

Certainly the challenges and difficulties of being church in the Northeast in 2018 are multiple.  You have heard it before and you know it well, all the ways people are drawn away from coming to worship, participating in mission and fellowship, giving generously.  We have so much else to do; the church community just doesn’t have the draw that it used to.  The Consistory wrings its hands over this issue.  The recent congregational survey made clear that many of you would love to see a return to earlier times when being part of the church was important.  

You are now engaged in the process of searching for new pastor, as I will retire as of August 1.  I am not directly involved in the search process, but I have heard that the search team has been urged to look for someone who will bring the people in, reach out into the community, grow the church, make people give more.  

Who will do this for you?  No one… no one but you yourselves.  The first apostles had no pastor to do the work of proclamation for them.  Jesus had sent them out – "Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he said in the reading from John that you heard.

And Jesus sends you out.

The early church spread by word of mouth; there was no other way, except letters, like those we have from Paul.  Real people talking to other real people. Real people inviting other real people to come to the gathering.
The original motivating factors were that the community of faithful believers was created by God and energized by the Holy Spirit; that their lives were part of something bigger than themselves; and that in that community, people focused outward, more on others than on themselves.

What motivated the original apostles is – or should be – what motivates church congregations two millennia later.

And what most successfully moves people to become a part of such a community as this, as we have here?

First, others see and know what you do.  Why was it that only seven people from Peapack came to the Maundy Thursday communion service in Fellowship Hall?  And that only four people came in on Good Friday to hear the Passion story, to pray, to meditate?  Why is it that our weekly attendance and offerings are down?

Second, invite someone else to come.  Look at the Spire Points newsletter for April (has anyone noticed that it’s now called the In-Spire?) and see all these opportunities to be the church and to invite friends to join in:  the pasta dinner on April 28; cook and serve at the Bound Brook soup kitchen; help out at God’s Co-op Pantry; visit our homebound, elderly or ill members.  It’s a long list.  What will you be doing?

At the end of today’s Gospel passage, John writes:  
Now [the risen] Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples.  
But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah,
the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Other manuscripts read the phrase “that you may come to believe” as “that you may continue to believe”.  A footnote in my study Bible suggests that this latter may better reflect the purpose of the Gospel of John, that is, to strengthen the faith of an existing Christian community.

May the readings and interpretation of Holy Scripture serve to strengthen you as well.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Facebook Church”. Homiletics 30:2: 46-50.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
April 8, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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