July 15 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
SCRIPTURE READINGS: Acts 2:42-47 and John 10:1-10
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds[j] to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home[k] and ate their food with glad and generous[l] hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Last week I shared a few statistics with you about the growing number of people in our communities who are either nonreligious or only nominally religious. Over 40% of people in the U.S. today say they do not believe in God of the Bible , and over 60% of people in any given community today are either unchurched, or de-churched . So the questions that Pastor Adam Hamilton poses, “Why do people need Jesus Christ? Why do people need the church? and Why do people need this church?”  take on much significance for us as disciples of Jesus who are called to join Christ in the work of seeking and saving the lost. Today we’ll wrestle with the second question, “Why do people need the church?”
A member of a certain church, who previously had been attending services regularly, stopped going. After a few weeks, the pastor decided to visit him. It was a chilly evening. The pastor found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire.
Guessing the reason for his pastor’s visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a big chair near the fireplace and waited. The pastor made himself comfortable but said nothing. In the grave silence, he contemplated the play of the flames around the burning logs.
After some minutes, the pastor took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone. Then he sat back in his chair, still silent. The host watched all this in quiet fascination.
As the one lone ember’s flame diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more. Soon it was cold and “dead as a doornail.”
Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting.
Just before the pastor was ready to leave, he picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire. Immediately it began to glow once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it.
As the pastor reached the door to leave, his host said, “Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fiery sermon. I shall be back in church next Sunday.” [source unknown]
Now those of us who have been in the habit of attending church can easily grasp the implications here – that without the church, our faith can become weak; our love for God and neighbor can become diminished; and we know from our own experiences that without these, life becomes much harder to navigate. But what about those who have never experienced this? Or what about those who have been hurt or harmed in some way from the very institution they believed was meant to be a source of healing and acceptance? As I give you a moment of silence, I want you to think about a time in your life when a group of Christians offered you something life-giving; something that brought comfort or peace or encouragement in a way no other group did. Think about that for a moment, and then I’ll lead us in a prayer.
Here in this place new light is streaming,
Now is the darkness vanished away,
See in this space our fears and our dreamings,
Brought here to you in the light of this day.
Gather us in – the lost and forsaken,
Gather us in – the blind and the lame;
Call to us now, and we shall awaken,
We shall arise at the sound of our name.
[“Gather Us In” – TFWS #2236, verse 1]
I’ve shared a little about my childhood and college years, how I had experienced disillusion with church and religion and had rejected it for a time. But when I experienced a call back to God, I found myself in need of a community to help me put my life back together and to figure out how to live a different, and better way. I was blessed to be welcomed by a faith community who accepted me where I was, and for who I was. And so you’ll understand a little of what that means, at that time in my life, I was one year on the other side of a history of substance abuse and a long-term abusive relationship. And I still remember the associate pastor there talking about how for some people, the church must be a place of sanctuary – a place of refuge and safety. And that’s exactly what I found there.
Last week we talked about how throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus notices those whom society and religion had marginalized – the sick, the malformed, the unclean, those with mental and physical anguish, and those whose behaviors, practices and lifestyles – the sinners and tax collectors – were shunned by the religious community. And when Jesus notices them, he has compassion on them, and engages them in acts of healing, wholeness, and hospitality – which angered the Pharisees and others in the community. But you see, I’m convinced that if I had been living in the days when Jesus walked the earth, I would have been characterized right along with those outcasts. I was lost. But, remember that Jesus says he is like the shepherd who would leave the 99 sheep in the wilderness to go and find the one that is lost. In today’s passage from the gospel of John, Jesus again compares himself to a shepherd. In this parable, we see an intimate relationship between the shepherd and his sheep – one where the sheep hear and know the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name, and leads them to pastures of safety, and bounty and rest. This story of sheep & shepherd touches on our deepest longings as humans, to be known and cared for by the Divine, and to be led into times and situations of peace, safety, abundance. And it teaches us that Jesus is not only a voice in our lives, but the way that leads to fertile ground, and abundant life.
When I was found by Jesus, he led me to a faith community that opened its doors to me, and invited me in to pastures of safety and rest. This church embodied the healing, restoring and welcoming love of Christ to me. So, why do people need the Church? – because the Church is now the body of Christ in the world; the place where Jesus’ voice can be heard, and where his ways can be learned and followed.
Luke basically extends his gospel by writing the Acts of the Apostles. The book of Acts begins with the resurrection of Jesus, and then tells the story of how Jesus, working through the movement of the Holy Spirit, continues to be present in our world.
Scripture tells us that on the day of Pentecost, the spirit came upon both men and women, and that hearers in the crowd had come from every known country in that part of the world. From this crowd, the Spirit gives birth to the church, the body of Christ. This diverse group of people which included all ages, genders, ethnicities and socio-economic classes becomes the new way that Jesus’ love is experienced and shared in the world.
In Acts 2, we see that this group of believers, which knows no barriers to who is in and out, becomes the place where our human longings for God, community, and basic provisions are met. First, it’s important to note that the Spirit comes upon those men and women who were already meeting together in prayer. Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." (Matthew 18:20)
Verses 42-47 describe the early church as a model for us today:
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home[k] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
What does it mean to be devoted to something? Does it mean, “Oh, I’ll
get to that eventually?” or “That sounds nice, but I don’t really have time right now?” Devoted means dedicated, faithful, constant, steady, loyal. Meeting together was a priority for these early followers of Jesus; they made a commitment and followed through. The writer of Hebrews reminds his readers of this: "And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching." (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Being devoted to study, fellowship, worship and prayer are the marks of those who are followers of Jesus’ way – in fact, that’s how the early followers were known, as followers of the Way. But what’s important to note is not just that these were ‘gold-star attenders’ or that they set the bar really high, but that the regular practice of these spiritual disciplines in community, among men and women, Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, created a community of commonality that broke down barriers, and thrived on equity and justice! Hospitality was extended to all as they broke bread together in each others’ homes. Needs were met as resources were pooled in order to minister to without. They were characterized as having generous and glad hearts. Even the pagans noticed the transformation taking place within this group of people. Tertullian writes that they would exclaim with amazement, “See how they love one another!” 
I was at a workshop this week which highlighted three of the unique United Methodist communities of faith found right here in Central Iowa –Trinity Las Americas United Methodist Church in Des Moines, the Women at the Well United Methodist congregation formed inside the walls of Mitchellville Women’s prison, and the Simpson College Youth Academy.
Pastor Alejandro Santiz of Trinity Las Americas spoke about how his congregation, which used to be two separate worshipping bodies – one comprised primarily of English speaking Caucasians, and one comprised primarily foreign-speaking people of various ethnicities – has taken the step to merge as one worshipping body; he spoke of the conviction that all people at Trinity have of being inclusive and welcoming of all people, no matter where they are in life. But he pointed out that Trinity is not unique in its diversity – there are differences in all of our churches and communities; we are people made up of different ages, different life experiences, different levels of education, and different political opinions and worldviews. And on top of that, there may be differences in ethnicities or socio-economic backgrounds. Pastor Alejandro was very upfront about that fact that being welcoming and accepting wasn’t always easy for everyone; it’s something they have to always work on. But he said they decided that, “If we’re going to spend all of eternity together, we might as well work on getting along with each other in the here and now.”
Pastor Lee Schott shared with us how her eyes have been opened during her ministry in the prison to life experience that she was sheltered from in her previous church work. So she encouraged us as pastors to realize that there are likely people sitting in our pews already whose lives have been touched in some way by violence, abuse, addictions, and incarceration. And that if we aren’t already, we should be working to create places of welcome and safety in our churches for people such as these – spaces where we can take off our masks that hide our true selves, so that we can share honestly about the experiences that need healing and prayers. This is the way that we will form community who knows how to support one another in love and prayer.
Finally, Pastor Eric Rucker shared some of his insights about the spiritual needs of youth based on his experiences of working with United Methodist youth through the newly formed Youth Academy at Simpson College. He says that before we can offer relevant ministry to anyone in our congregations, we should first take note of those in our communities by asking, “What is happening?” What is happening with the youth in our community? What is happening in terms of jobs and wages? What is happening in terms of access to health care and education? What about crime, mental illness, care for the aging or disabled? Once we know our neighbors and the things that are impacting their life, we can better offer opportunities to meet them where they are, to respond to their needs, and to invite them to use their gifts and passions to join us in helping to transform the world around us. He reminded us that every person, including our youth, have desires from God to work toward making the world a better place – and we need what they have to offer!
Why do people need the church? Because God created us to be in relationship, with God and with others. I believe that the best place to be welcomed by God, to be encouraged when life is hard, to be held up with hope, to be nourished with fellowship, and to be truly known and loved by God is through the community of believers known as Church. The best chances for doing good that makes a difference in our world is through the power of the Holy Spirit, who works through the body of Christ on earth. And before people can experience any of this for themselves, they need to see the evidence of this transformation in the world.
If we go back to the passage from John’s gospel again, we see in verse 9 that Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Church is not something we can keep to ourselves. If those 60% of people living near us are to know anything of Christ’s saving love for them, then we must occasionally leave the pasture and go into the wilderness and search for them! Jesus says we are to go in and out – and the book of Acts is all about the work of the Holy Spirit through those who are led out into the world, to take the good news of Christ’s love to those who are lost. We can offer them a place of safety and acceptance; a realm of justice and equity and abundance; a community of peace and love that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. But only if they see how we love one another, and how that love extends to the lost, the least, and the lonely. This is the ministry of the Church – to join Christ in the seeking and saving work of the kingdom. May it be so.
 Hamilton, Adam. Leading Beyond the Walls: Developing Congregations with a Heart for the Unchurched. Abingdon Press.