A few weeks ago on Easter Sunday morning, a clergy friend went in to wake up her three year old daughter: “It’s Easter! Let’s rise and shine like Jesus!” The child lay there unmoving and said, “I’m dead Jesus, Mama. Bye.”
How easy it is to appropriate only the parts of the Christian story that support our self- serving goals. We’ve all done it. For me, it’s usually the Spirit who gets blamed. Emails to Lynne with late changes to the bulletin often begin with, “The Spirit has been chatty this week!”
Don’t get me wrong. I try to remain open to the moving of God’s Spirit…but only listening for the Spirit the couple days before Sunday? The Spirit has so much more to offer us than late-in-the-week tweaks to the Call to Worship. Or convenient parking spaces. Or a win for our team. Don’t you think?
This summer, we’re reflecting on how to build a stronger community here at Pilgrimage. We’ll spend three weeks each looking at four areas of our life together: spiritual, vocational, financial, and our facility.
Today is the third Sunday of looking at our spiritual life. Two weeks ago, we considered whether or not our church as a whole has a spirituality. Certainly, as individuals, each of us has a personal relationship with God, but does our community have a relationship with God? After sharing together all the times we, as a community, have experienced God’s Spirit–in healing rituals, in serving MUST lunch or Family Promise guests, in singing, in creating the mosaic cross, in last Wednesday’s Praise service–we decided that, yes. Our community does have a relationship with God; our community does experience God’s Spirit together.
Last week, we celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church at Pentecost and looked at the close relationship between ministry and administration. We considered how everything we do–down to the tiniest administrative detail–can be an opportunity to create a space where people might meet God. How do we tune in to God’s Spirit so that we can create those welcoming spaces? We pray. Sometimes with words; often in silence.
So, we are a Spirit-led community…and as a Spirit-led community, through prayer, we create spaces where people might meet God.
What might today’s lesson from Matthew add to our understanding of our community’s spiritual life? Let’s listen again…
Jesus said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of [Abba God] and of the [Only Begotten] and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Growing up in a fundamentalist tradition, I always read these verses as a command to convert every person in the world to Christianity. The impetus for doing that was a combination of compassion and terror. Compassion–for all the people in the world who would die and go to hell because they weren’t Christians. Terror–of being sent to hell myself for not saving more souls. I wouldn’t exactly call my faith-life growing up fun. Or healthy. Or sustainable.
Which is probably why I worked so hard to learn to see God in other ways. I mean, there had to be another way, right? Didn’t the Apostle John tell us over and over that “God is love?” God. Is. Love. Sending people to hell just because they’d never become a Christian—that doesn’t sound very loving to me.
So what happens when we read these verses beginning with the assumption that God is love? If it’s not about going out and saving every soul on the planet, what does it mean?
The key, I think, is one word—“Therefore.” “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus says. Go, therefore…” Jesus receives authority, it’s safe to assume, from God. And it’s not just a little authority. It’s ALL authority in heaven and on earth. And what is that authority or power? Is it not love? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” That’s how Jesus summed up faith. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that the authority or power Jesus has been given is love?
And if Jesus has been given ALL authority in heaven and on earth, and if the content of “all authority” is love, then Jesus’ disciples also are “authorized” or empowered by love. If Jesus came to teach love, then—unless he was a lousy teacher—love is what his disciples learned. They learned not only about love, but also how to love. They learned from Jesus that love extends to every person, to every circumstance on the planet. There is no person, no process on earth out of reach of God’s love. If they learned nothing else following Jesus, the disciples learned love.
“All authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to Jesus. The content of that authority is love. So, if we give Jesus authority in our lives, it logically follows that (“therefore”) we’re going to want share that love with others. And a funny thing happens when we share God’s love with others—they start sharing God’s love, too. Making disciples isn’t some complicated theological formula. It doesn’t come from putting people in classes or giving them a list of rules to follow. It’s actually very simple. We make disciples by loving people, by acting them into wellbeing in Jesus’ name.
As church life continues to be pushed to the margins of society, anxiety about shrinking attendance and dwindling membership grows. People just don’t seem to attend or give with the consistency they used to.
Those fears are real and well-founded. Even so, even in our increasingly un-churched culture, some congregations are thriving and growing. I heard about a couple this weekend at the Southeast Conference Annual Meeting. So, what’s up with that? What’s the difference between churches that thrive and churches that struggle?
Here’s what I wonder. I wonder if struggling churches focus more on numbers and not so much on mission. And maybe thriving churches—while attentive to attendance, membership, and finance numbers—focus more on living the Great Commission, these departing words of Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Maybe thriving congregations seek only and always to make disciples by loving people, by acting them into wellbeing. Maybe it’s not programming or phenomenal worship or shiny new buildings that draw people in, though those things are important. Maybe the thing that draws people to churches in our un-churched culture is living authentically as disciples of Jesus…which means, loving people for all we’re worth.
Curious about whether some of my wonderings are valid, I asked the folks who are joining today what convinced them to buck the societal trend and actually join with a church community. Here are a few of their responses.
I am joining Pilgrimage because it’s a community that welcomes you- whoever you are, there’s a spot for you. Whatever resources, time, talents and gifts you have to share are welcome and there’s no expectation of doing more than you can. That’s why I love the Pilgrimage family.
I’m so glad to be joining a faith community that gives away 700 books to children for summer reading, addresses climate change, eats hot dogs, confirms youth with intention and grace, and shows the love of God most especially in being open and affirming. Plus Steve already joined, cause he knew this, too. Victoria
I want to come to church // Without reservation.
A church that does not expect // Anything in return.
A place where I feel safe, // Safe from hate,
Away from anger, // Acceptance.
Words are my gift, // I talk easily.
Expressions might resist, // My prayer is silently.
People are who they are.
You are who you are.
I am who I am.
I want to come to church to listen, // To learn.
Listening to words // Without hesitation.
My wife took my hand,
She led the way.
Sat in church on no grandstand,
Among people sharing the Lord’s day.
Did I hear.
People are sincere.
A church for me,
Embracing my desire.
Thank you, Meggie,
You are my inspirer. (Braam DuPloy)
Within the first few minutes of stepping foot into this place, I knew there was something special here. So many people greeted me with smiles, handshakes, and genuine kindness. The worship, singing, sharing, and compassion for others expressed during service literally brought me to tears. What might have seemed like a regular old Sunday to some was a spiritual life changer for me. You all made me feel like I was already a part of a family and that I, too, am worthy of the unconditional love of Christ. I am grateful to you all for making a difference and look forward to joining you in worship and in serving those in need.
How do we grow stronger as a community? How do we make disciples? How do we continue to thrive? We love people. We love people. We love people.
Let us join together in silence to reflect on and experience once again the love of the One who is only, always love. Let us pray. [1:30 of silence]
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2017