How many of you know this finger-rhyme? If you do, join in with me:
“Here is the church, here is the steeple; Open the doors and see all the people.”
That’s what I learned as a child; Lucas recently showed me a second part:
“Close the doors and hear them pray; Open the doors and they all go away.”
I enjoyed that finger-rhyme as a child, but now that I’m an adult and a pastor, it raises questions for me. For one thing, what does it teach us about the church? Is the church a building with a steeple? A place with doors, where people gather inside? Well, yes—that’s often how we use the word “church” in our culture. But these days, steepled buildings like ours, constructed in an era quite different from the present, can seem antiquated to younger generations, who seldom walk through the doors, let alone check out what might be happening inside. If the church is a building, it’s much too easy to go away and leave it behind when a different kind of building seems more relevant or fashionable.
But is the church a building? Not in the book of Acts. Actuallly, this finger-rhyme can only have come to us after the beginning of Christendom, when Christianity became an official state religion, and the church began to own property and establish buildings reserved for their gatherings. There’s no talk of buildings at all in Acts. The “church” in Acts is always the people.
But I like the second part of the finger rhyme. Reading Acts, two vital things the church does are praying and going-away. In fact, going away turns out to be one of the most essential things the church does to be church.
But let’s be clear: when church people go away in Acts, they never just leave a building to go back to their regular, week-a-day lives. They aren’t leaving one building to enter another.There’s no building, so they take the church with them wherever they go. They proclaim Jesus wherever they go.
That’s what happens in today’s reading. We finally hear what happened to some disciples who went away from the “mother church” in Jerusalem during the persecution following the stoning of Stephen. Some of them traveled north along the Mediterranean, to Phoenicia (what is now Lebanon) and the island of Cyprus. Others went to the third largest city in the Roman Empire, the city of Antioch, located in what is today Turkey.
Of course, there is “going away” and there is going away. Most of these folks “went away” from Jerusalem, but wherever they traveled, they remained among Jews. They stayed within their own culture, and spoke only to people like themselves. But some disciples who arrived in Antioch went much further: they made the leap across an ancient and hostile divide and began telling Gentiles about Jesus.
And don’t you just love how nonchalant the Bible is sometimes? Luke, the author of Acts, is marvelously low-key in narrating what is truly quite an enormous event for Christian faith.
“But some men of Cyprus and Cyrene, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.” That word “Hellenists” is a little unclear to us today—it refers to people who spoke Greek and followed Greek cultural norms. Sometimes Luke uses it to talk about Jews who natively spoke Greek, but in this case, most scholars agree that Luke is talking about Greek Greeks—full-on Gentiles—considered ritually impure by strict Jews, who would not socialize with them to avoid contamination.
But some of the disciples in Antioch found the courage to make the great leap over this cultural norm, sharing the gospel with Gentiles, and we will never know their names. I think that’s telling. They were probably not charismatic leaders, just regular people who were naturally sharing news, like sharing gossip with next-door neighbors. And there’s no plotting and planning from the mother church’s centralized evangelism committee, just little conversations here and there on the margins. Yet “the hand of the Lord was with them and a great number turned to the Lord.” And that’s how a church comes into being.
If we want to know what “church” is, we could do little better than to peer through the window Luke has given us to Antioch, the church which will eventually take Jerusalem’s place as the “center of gravity” for Christianity.[i] Indeed, Antioch is the place Jesus’ disciples are first given the name “Christians,” the first place where Jews and Gentiles together are called by the same name, identified not by their differences, but by the crucified and resurrected Messiah they together believe in and follow.
So what do we see happening at Antioch? We see that God gathers this church as the Holy Spirit moves people across social divides, sharing the good news that any and all who had been deemed “unclean” could now be “redeemed;” the good news that in Jesus Christ, forgiveness of sin is available to everyone, and people are empowered to turn from old, destructive ways to a new life of peace.
Then, as people respond to this message in great numbers, we see God working through the connectional church, as Barnabas, the “son of encouragement,” is sent up from Jerusalem. What a gift, for Barnabas is a man who knows the Holy Spirit well. Rejoicing in the new church, and recognizing the need for differently-gifted leaders, he brings Paul to Antioch. Thus we see God calling teachers, who dedicate themselves to forming others in the ways of faith and life in Christ.
A year of intensive study and learning passes, and then we see the Antioch church welcoming traveling prophets. Now, prophets always tend to bring disturbing news, but the Antioch church responds immediately to the news of famine, sending aid to people in need. Later we see the church worshipping, fasting, and praying; and then they are sending people out, laying hands on Paul and Barnabas, commissioning them to their Spirit-given task. Ultimately we see another “going away,” as Paul and Barnabas leave Antioch to preach and teach in Jesus’ name wherever God might lead them.
To sum up, at Antioch, we see the Holy Spirit calling out people from all walks of life to form a community, in which they learn and practice ways which cultivate them in being awake, open, and responsive to the purpose, presence and power of God. This is what it means to be “church.”
Did you know that the Greek word for “church,” ekklesia, literally means “called out?” Theologian Shirley Guthrie writes, “The church is a community of people who (along with the community of Israel) are called out of the world to be God’s people. The purpose of their coming together is twofold. First, it is to receive God’s judging, forgiving, renewing grace. Second, it is to be sent out again to be agents of God’s judgment, forgiveness, reconciliation, and renewal in the world.” [ii]
So I wonder, if at Antioch we see a Spirit-filled church of that time and place, how does our church, here and now in La Grande, Oregon, compare? Where do we see the Holy Spirit’s gifts and power in our midst? Where do we long for the Spirit’s renewing graces? How do we go about the practices and disciplines which cultivate our availability to the calling of the Holy Spirit? Are we teaching and learning, worshipping, praying and fasting, and ultimately sending disciples of Jesus Christ into the world as agents of God’s amazing grace?
Rereading this passage, we are immediately faced with something I’d honestly rather skip over. It’s this little word that I believe in our time draws the focus of Christians in disproportionate ways. It’s the word “numbers,” as in: “great numbers of people became believers and turned to the Lord.” In this passage, that a great number of people are responsive to the message of Jesus is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s movement.
But we live in a culture in which numbers become the bedrock measure of success or failure. Churches in our time are constantly assessing our numbers, numbers of “members” and “pledging units” as well as our budget. And frankly, these numbers are critical for keeping our institutions viable as well as measuring the impact of our ministry. I’m not suggesting we ditch the numbers.
But the church is not numbers any more than it is just a building. The church is people. That’s why quantitative measurements of Christian ministry go awry if they are not also accompanied by qualitative awareness. What I mean is, what kind of numbers are we looking at? Are we looking at event attendance and becoming discouraged because we don’t see what we consider enough of some kind of demographic? That might be important, but only if we are also looking around naming and knowing the persons with whom each of us here is involved in vital relationships, relationships in which we share communion in the ways and name of Jesus Christ.
Further, Acts tells us that great numbers of people were entering into relationship with Jesus Christ because people were sharing Jesus with others, outside their normal social groups. The numbers were not a measure of how the church was bringing people “in here” so much as they tell us about people being reached “out there,” though those connections certainly brought together a community in which disciples could be more deeply formed. So, are we measuring numbers and telling stories of the people we are collectively touching with Jesus’ love out in our community and the world?
So numbers are important, but we need good numbers. And we need the depth of stories to help us understand what we measure in numbers. We will be working on developing a deeper awareness of our congregation as “church” over the next year. Our Session has initiated a process of Missional Discernment and is in the process of gathering a Guiding Team. The Guiding Team will be comprised of 8 or so folks not already serving as elders or deacons, who will gather for study and conversation, and eventually they will engage in a series of interviews with other congregants. The purpose of their work will be to help us all become more aware of what the Holy Spirit has done in this church, what the Spirit is continuing to do, and what the Spirit might be calling us out to do in the future. How is the Holy Spirit calling us to share Christ in the world?
Ultimately, Missional Discernment is about our congregation gaining a renewed vision of what it means to be a Spirit-filled people, open and responsive to the Spirit’s sending. I ask you to join your prayers to this purpose, that First Presbyterian Church, like that church so many years ago at Antioch, might continue for many generations onward in the Spirit-filled history of faithful people sent out to share the good news of new life in Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] The Interpreter’s Bible, p. 146.
[ii] Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994, 351-352.