Saturday, April 29, 2006

“Signs Of Life”[1]

Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31

The United Church of Christ has a commercial on TV. It shows a worship service in a beautiful stained-glass cathedral. It focuses on a nice, clean-cut, upper-middle class (white) family coming in and finding their place in a pew. Then it shifts to a young black (single?) mother holding a crying baby. All of a sudden, you see a thumb press a red button, and she is literally ejected from her seat! Over and over again, people who are “different” are ejected from the service—including a handicapped man, and a homeless woman. The scene fades with the message, “God doesn’t reject people. Neither do we.”

I don’t want to argue with you about some of the issues raised by this commercial—but it does raise the question of what defines “church” in a dramatic way. Since the days of John Calvin, the reformed tradition has defined the church as the place where the Word is preached truly and the sacraments are administered rightly.[2] Of course, this definition was directly related to the situation of the reformed churches of that day— they were struggling to define their identity over against the Roman Catholic Church.

While Word and sacrament are still important, I doubt that we’d want to put that in a commercial—we’re the Presbyterians, we insist that the Word is preached truly and the sacraments are rightly administered! I imagine most people would respond with a shrug of their shoulders. So how would we define ourselves as “church”?

In Acts, what defined the church was the fact that they were united, that they shared their possessions to meet needs, and that they proclaimed the resurrection with power. But if you think about how they were huddled in fear in the Gospel text, would you say they fit that description? What did the frightened disciples in the upper room have in common with the apostles who boldly proclaimed the gospel in Acts (besides the fact that they were the same people)? It was the presence of the risen Lord Jesus![3]

I think that what makes us a church is the presence of the risen Lord Jesus. If we want to testify to the resurrection of Jesus with great power as they did, it has to start with the realization that we must demonstrate in every aspect of our lives the presence of the risen Lord Jesus. It’s not the “perfect” preacher that does it. It’s not the perfect location. It’s not the perfect building. It’s not the perfect worship style. What attracts people to church is the presence of the risen Lord.

Most people would define the church in the US by many things. Their political stands—the church is against abortion, and for the death penalty (go figure!?!). Their social status—the church is getting more and more wealthy and less and less compassionate. And if you asked anyone aged 16-30, it would get worse—the church is out of touch, rigid, excluding, unsympathetic, unaccepting of any “square pegs” that don’t fit nicely into their round holes. Sounds like they see us as cowering in fear behind locked doors!

The question for us today is, how do we get from where we are to being known again by the presence of the risen Lord Jesus? The answer is one that we may not want to hear: we have to die! The Apostle Paul made it clear that the only way in which the life of the risen Lord Jesus would become evident in and through people like us is if the dying of the crucified Christ also becomes evident in us (2 Cor. 4:10).[4] He also said that we have to share the sufferings of Christ and “become like him in his death” in order to know “the power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3:10).

What does that life look like? What does it look like to live in a way that we die to our selves and demonstrate the presence of the risen Christ?[5]

•Freedom from compulsions, oppression, fears;

•Service to one another, to the least, to the left out;

•Love for one another and for the unlovely and “unlovable”;

•Giving all that we have and all that we are to the one who made the ultimate sacrifice;

•Openness to embrace and show compassion on all, even those who are different, even those we hate!

It means being willing to give up privileges, rights, and advantages for the sake of those who have no privileges, rights, or advantages, just like Jesus did. It means being a disciple of Jesus the Christ; living what one scholar calls “the messianic life.”[6]

Then we will know the powerful presence of the risen Lord Jesus in our midst. Then people will be drawn to us because of the grace evident among us. May it be so. Amen

[1] A sermon preached 4/23/06 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV:1.9; see also Scots Confession 3.18, 2nd Helvetic Confession 5.134-135; Westminster Confession 6.143

[3] William Willimon, “You Call This A Church?”, a sermon preached on 4/6/1997, accessed at

[4] cf. Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 93

[5] See Moltmann, Church in the Power, 98-99, 104, 106-7, 166-196; see also H. Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being a Christian, 285-86; 297-312.

[6] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 192-93.

No comments: