“WiiChurch – Gotta Serve Somebody”
Bible Text: Acts 15:12-19 | Preacher: Rev. Mike Putnam | [WHAT FOLLOWS IS THE FULL PRINTED TEXT OF TODAY’S SERMON. TO LISTEN TO AN AUDIO RECORDING, CLICK THE LITTLE BLACK ARROW ABOVE THE WORD “WHAT.”]
Back in my business school days, when I was studying marketing, we learned about something called “friction.”
In marketing terms, friction is anything that might prevent prospective customers from becoming actual customers.
Are there grumpy customer service representatives? That might cause some friction. Is there lots of paperwork to be filled out before making a purchase? Does the purchase take a lot of time or energy? Do they accept credit and debit, or only cash? All these things can encumber the customer and increases the risk of losing a sale.
In business school, we were taught how successful businesses reduce the friction in their purchase process by re-engineering their process. Top businesses today like Amazon, Facebook or eBay are success stories because they managed, in ways no one else imagined possible, to reduce friction. They saw a possibility and made it a reality.
So, this morning we have heard the story of a defining moment in the early church. The incident is known as the Jerusalem Council, which took place about twenty years after Jesus’ resurrection. And at its heart, the issue was friction.
At this gathering, the early church found itself wrestling with questions of participation and salvation. Specifically, the question being debated was what is actually required to become a full-fledged follower of Jesus?
According to Luke, the church was off to a good start. On opening day, thousands of Jews embraced Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. But before long, the message of Jesus started to overflow into non-Jewish regions. Gentiles heard and believed. And once they believed they wanted to belong.
But this presented a problem. The Jewish Christians weren’t quite ready for that. After all, Jesus was their Messiah. And they had been waiting a long time for him. They’d paid their dues – they had kept the old old story alive, even during the 400 years of Divine silence that preceded Jesus’ arrival. And now, their story had been fulfilled – and they weren’t quite ready to share.
And so, the leaders of the early church gathered in Jerusalem to figure out what to do about these “Johnnie-come -lately’s” (the Gentiles).
The Chairman called the meeting to order. The question on the table this morning, “What exactly are these new converts converting to?”
Because, in the minds of the Gentiles, they were leaving their pagan beliefs to become “followers of Jesus.” Full stop. But in the minds of the Jewish Christians, they had some really important traditions that they wanted preserved. It was all well and good that they had found Jesus – but what about the rest of it?
After all, this is the way things had always been. Their traditional practices, were, well, tradition!
And besides, these newcomers did some strange things that were downright offensive to traditional Jews. Their eating habits, for example. Gentiles ate anything you put in front of them! The way they dressed was down right “loosy goosy!” They didn’t keep Sabbath, they didn’t have any ceremonial cleansing rituals, or any of the other traditions that made a good Jew a good Jew!
So, they concluded there was only one logical solution. The Gentile Christians should first become Jewish. Just give ‘em a list. They can come back when they’ve got it worked out. And, we’ll welcome them then.
Now, if becoming a convert to Judaism was as simple as being schooled in the Jewish scriptures and Hebrew traditions, it probably wouldn’t have been such a big deal. But unfortunately, for the guys, it meant more than that. Because, becoming Jewish required surgery!
Bottom line? The “Church new members classes” were full of women and children – while the husbands waited in the car!
And yet, the good news of Jesus Christ was irresistible. The converts just kept coming. Something had to be done!
And so, the early church did what churches always do. They called a meeting. Someone made a motion. “I move that the Gentile Christians become proper Jews before they become Jesus followers.” “Do I have a seconder?” And then came the discussion…
Almost everyone in the room agreed. It was time for these new converts to learn some manners. “We don’t mind that they want to come to our church,” but they better start acting a little more like us,” someone says. Mutters of agreement could be heard around the room.
Finally, the apostle Peter steps up to the microphone. A hush falls over the crowd. When Peter speaks, people listen. “I’d like to remind you of my own experience with Gentiles and the gospel,” he says. “God made it abundantly clear to me that salvation was to be offered to everyone on the same terms: faith in Christ alone.”
Peter reasons, “He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. My Jewish friends, who are we kidding? We don’t even keep the law of Moses all that well. Why burden the Gentiles with it?” That was a pretty compelling argument!
Now it was James’ turn to say a few words. James came to faith in Jesus rather late in the game, but then who can blame him? Who of you would be quick to proclaim your own brother to be your “personal Lord and Saviour?” After quoting a little scripture he delivers a line that I think should be a whole lot more familiar to the modern church than it is!
James says, “It is my judgement, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” And then he drops the mic and walks away. The meeting is all but over.
That’s quite a statement. “…We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” Those words would change the whole trajectory of the Christian church forever…and yet, chances are, you’ve never paid them much attention to them.
The Christian church would fulfill God’s promise to Abraham – to be a blessing to all people – probably only because of James’ words that Spirit-filled day in Jerusalem. The Christian church would spread to the ends of the earth because of this decision.
I’d like to make James’ statement an addendum to our Pastoral Charge mission statement. I think that one sentence should be the benchmark by which all decisions are made in the church.
In other words, churches should bend over backwards to help outsiders become insiders. Churches, after all, are in the conversion business – we are all about helping people to turn their lives in God’s direction. And according to Luke’s account, removing unnecessary friction from the process was a major determinate in the church’s ultimate success.
But I wonder, what does that look like today? Today, the issue probably isn’t whether church visitors should obey the 613 commands of the Law of Moses. But maybe, today we have a different kind of friction. Maybe the friction today is a way of being church that doesn’t meet the needs of the current or next generation. A way of being church that seems odd or quaint to those who are dipping their toe in faith.
One of the roles of a minister is to be a “curator of stories.” People tell me their stories, and I just carry them with me. They inform my work. They equip me for my task. They challenge my assumptions.
Early on in my ministry at Selby Pastoral Charge, I was told a story. This story so troubled me, that it actually set my ministry in a whole new direction. Many of the innovations we’ve introduced over the years, have been my direct response to this story lingering in my mind.
So here it is. (The names and details in this story have been altered to protect the innocent). Not long before my arrival here, on an ordinary Sunday morning, a young family came to church for the very first time.
I’m sure they were appropriately welcomed, handed a bulletin. They found a seat and no doubt waited awkwardly for the service to start. They probably struggled to keep their little one quiet and well-behaved.
Back then, some of you will remember, there were no screens, no special jobs for the kids during worship, and it was a pretty traditional worship experience.
The service started as it usually did. The small group of children (in those days there were five or six kids on an average Sunday) headed downstairs for their one-room Sunday school lesson. There was a choir anthem, a bunch of long scripture readings. Usual stuff!
After the sermon, the mother of the visiting family deeked out of the service to check on her kid. She, no doubt, found him dutifully colouring his lesson sheet – downloaded for free from an online database that was used in lieu of an actual Sunday school curriculum that would have cost money. The mother approached the Sunday school teacher, and without elaboration simply asked, “Is it always like this?”
Well, what did that mean? We don’t exactly know. But we can imagine, can’t we? Boring? Dry? Irrelevant? Unengaging? That family left that Sunday and they never returned. As they say, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”
I don’t know what they were hoping for when they came to church that day. Perhaps they didn’t know either. But the friction they encountered – for whatever reason – prevented them from coming again. The Bible says, “All of heaven rejoices when a person comes to God.” I wonder how heaven responded that day?
And in my view, here’s what’s even worse. That family never went anywhere else, to give church a second try. They decided, based on what they experienced that day at Selby Church, that church wasn’t for them.
I agree with Howard Hendricks, a Professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, when he said, “It is a sin to bore a child with the Word of God.” I’d say, “It’s a sin to make church boring in general.” It’s a sin to present God and His story (the greatest story ever told) in an unengaging manner.
Because when we offer up an unimaginative version of church, we’re actually communicating something about God. We have an incarnational faith – it’s not just up in our heads, but we experience God in the flesh. And when we fail to engage mind, body and soul in worship, we are teaching people something about God. Lesson #1 – Church is boring. Lesson #2 – Faith is boring. Lesson #3 – God is irrelevant. And sadly, these are three lessons already well learned by our culture. They’re pretty sure they know exactly what church is all about, and they’re not interested.
Now, here’s the thing. We are not the same church we were even just a few years ago. Thanks be to God; the Spirit of God has been taking us in some amazing directions. We have been very intentional about creating environments that are more welcoming and engaging. And, you have been very tolerant in letting me and others, mess with your well-ordered church. But in light of our Bible story this morning, maybe we’re not done. Maybe, we’ll never be done.
Maybe, what it means to be faithful community is to be a group of people called together for the purpose of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ (last week’s sermon). And in order to do that effectively, we need to be a community of people who are always saying, “What friction exists for people who might join us, and how can we neutralize it?”
I want to be part of a church that intentionally decides, like First Church Jerusalem that, “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” And then, to make it our unwavering mission to roll out the red carpet and serve somebody.
Here’s a question that I think gets at the crux of the matter. “What is the faith of the next generation worth?” What is the faith of our kids, grandkids and great-grandkids worth? What is the faith of the family down the road, who think they might come to church some time, but aren’t really sure it will be for them? For me, the answer is “Everything.” The faith of the next generation is worth everything.
Everything else we do here hinges on our ability to pass on a living and vibrant faith to the next generation. Otherwise, it is all for not. What is the faith of the next generation worth? Everything.
It’s why Tricia and I are spending next weekend with 50 teens at a retreat in Bancroft. Not because we can’t think of anything else to do with our weekend. But because it is just that important!
Today, we are in week two of our WiiChurch sermon series, where we are spending four weeks thinking about what it means to be faithful community in the 21st century. And my bottom-line today is simply this: A church that lives out the ministry of Jesus Christ is a church that actively rolls out the red carpet for somebody outside the church. When the church is at its best, it is saying “Who can we serve, who can we reach and who can we bless in the name of Jesus?”
The answer to that question will take a thousand different forms, and a thousand different combinations. It will take a whole church culture, totally committed to capturing Jesus’ vision for His church.
And then rolling out the red carpet, because it’s what the church, when it was at its best, has always done. It’s our “tradition!”
Thanks be to God. Amen.