Scripture: Acts 2:42-47
A while back, before I was the pastor here at Arlington Temple, I went to a training event for people who wanted to be church planters (to start their own churches.) It took me about 15 minutes into this training to realize you should probably be an extrovert to be a church planter, and that I did not in fact want to be one. But every once in a while I think about the question: if I were going to start a new church, what would it look like?
It’s not about wanting to be in a different church than this one. For me, this is a vision question. Starting from scratch, peeling everything else away, what are the essential things that make a church a church? Coming back to that question sometimes helps me focus on where I sense God calling me and us in the time ahead. What are the important things, and what can be let go?
You may remember that we discussed a version of this question a few weeks ago on Pentecost. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit shows up to the disciples after Jesus’ ascension into heaven in the form of a great wind and tongues of fire, and they all speak different languages to tell people gathered in Jerusalem from all over the world the story of Jesus, of his life and death and resurrection. And when all the excitement has settled down, a church is born. People gather and they praise God and they pray and they share what they have and they eat together, and people see what they are doing and they want to be a part of it too. On Pentecost we read this passage from Acts 2 and I asked you what you heard in there – what does this first, post-Pentecost church do, and what picture does that paint for us about the essential aspects of being church in any time and place?
Here’s my list, aided by our conversation that day: Worship. Worship is an essential part of what it means to be the church. Learning and growth. Prayer. Communion or fellowship. Sharing of resources – generosity and justice. And witness, living and telling the story in such a way that people want to join in. For the next six weeks or so we’re going to talk about each one of these essential aspects of church. Each week, as I talk, I invite you to respond with your thoughts and reactions and ideas in the chat, so this can be a conversation we have together. I won’t see those comments in real time – I’m not that good at multitasking – but I will see them at the end. Phone people, you are always welcome to respond however else you want to get a hold of me later.
I also asked you another question back on Pentecost: what do each of these essential aspects look like for us now, specifically in this new season of life and ministry? Back in March when stay-at-home orders were issued and we started worshiping online, I think a lot of us thought, OK, we’ll do this for a few weeks. Three plus months later, it’s clear nothing is going back to normal for a while – even as things open up again, they are not back to normal. And so I find myself coming back to this question of what church looks like now, now that we’re not just filling a gap in time but moving into a new season. We have an opportunity in front of us to reimagine and envision and focus in on what church is and what it can be. Some of this I think we’ve figured out pretty well as we’ve gone. Some of it may take some vision and discernment on our part still.
I want to start with worship today – worship as an essential part of what it means to be the church – because it’s probably the most obvious one on the list. It’s the main thing we do, the thing we all do together. And yet in Acts 2 it never explicitly says the early church gathered for a worship service. It does say they spent time together in the Temple, devoted themselves to prayers, probably publicly and together; and that awe came upon all of them as they saw God at work. All of that is to say, it sounds like worship to me. It sounds, in fact, like worship is such an ingrained and basic part of this Spirit-formed community that it is assumed. The life of this gathered group begins in awe and praise of God; everything else is an extension of that.
Why is worship essential to being the church? Not, I’m pretty sure, because God needs our flattery – but rather because we are a people formed by awe of God and what we see God doing, and who commit to living our lives as praise in response.
Because worship is the most obvious thing we do, it’s also the one we made sure we were doing as soon as things changed, and so here we are. We’ve figured this part out; we continue to be a worshiping community in our new virtual space. I think many of us have found things to love about this new way of gathering, the way we can see each other’s faces and sometimes homes and pets – I love when pets come to worship; the way it is inclusive of people in different places or with different needs who otherwise wouldn’t be able to physically join us. It has its drawbacks, too. Singing along to a hymn by yourself is no match for being surrounded by the singing of a congregation. And inclusivity has its limits – there are those who don’t have access to the technology to join us, maybe even the people who need community most right now.
There are upsides and downsides, but I think one thing we’ve learned over these past few months is that we don’t need a building for worship to happen. A building helps in lots of ways, don’t get me wrong, and I will be glad when we can safely use ours again! But a building doesn’t define our worship. In fact, maybe the changes of this season have been a good reminder to us that there’s not just one way to worship. Worship can happen in lots of different ways – on our long walks, and in our quiet alone time, maybe even in the midst of chaos if that’s where our lives are right now. The post-Pentecost church worshiped in the Temple, but also in their homes. All of these places can be our sanctuaries. Perhaps this new season brings with it the chance to remember that worship isn’t just something we do for one hour on a Sunday morning, it’s something we do with our whole lives, in our work, in our caring for one another, in our protest and our honest self-reflection and our work for change, in our sharing what we have – if those things are done as praise to God.
I remain convinced, though, that we remember this best when we remember it together.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t always feel an overwhelming sense of awe on a Sunday morning. Sometimes I’ve just barely made it out of the house – you don’t even have to do that, which may make it easier or harder for you to show up! Sometimes I’m already overwhelmed by the week to come. Sometimes I’m afraid my sermon is all wrong. But then I’m here, and I hear a joy lifted during prayer time about how God is working in someone’s life. And I remember this sacred burden we bear as we pray for each other. And sometimes a line of a hymn will hit me in just the right way; and because I am here, I remember that God is good. I remember who God is and who I am in relation to God. And then, hopefully, I can live the next six days in light of that truth.
My hope during this time is that because what worship means for us has already been upended, the concept will be opened up and shaken up in new ways too. We can worship in a building or worship on Zoom. We can worship wherever we are – from Arlington to Algeria. We can worship in our homes. We can worship in our PJs (well, not me.) And if we can do that, we can worship in every moment of our lives, as we live them for the glory of God.
Thanks be to God for the opportunity to remember – that God is still with us, that God is still among us, that God works in new ways, and that our job is to live our lives in awe and praise. We are the church, and everything else comes out of that.