WHY I BELIEVE: THE CHURCH
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on October 26, 2014 (Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
I have been doing a series of sermons on “Why I Believe…,” in which I have shared some of the reasons I have come to believe in God and Jesus Christ, and to be a minister of the gospel. Although I did go to church and Sunday occasionally as a child and youth, it wasn’t a big part of my upbringing. Rather, it is something that I thought a lot about, and chose as an adult. I hope these sermons will help you to reflect on what you believe and why, so that if anyone should ask you why you are a Christian, you might have a good answer!
Today – on a day that was supposed to be the day of our fall congregational meeting, and a day that many Protestant churches observe as “Reformation Sunday,” I thought I would talk about why I believe because of the church. Not how I believe in the church (I do – but that is a different matter) – I believe BECAUSE of the church. Not just this congregation, but the worldwide church of Jesus Christ. It shouldn’t be here. It shouldn’t exist – according to human wisdom. It shouldn’t have lasted this long.
For one thing, it was founded by decidedly unqualified people. The story from Exodus says that Moses chose the best men he could find to help settle disputes among God’s people – men who feared God, were trustworthy, and hated dishonest gain. That makes sense. Any good business tries to hire the best educated, most qualified people to help them succeed.
But the gospels tell stories about how Jesus called people who seemed to have very little in the way of education or experience. He called fishermen; a tax collector; and others with no particularly remarkable skills. One of the things we don’t know is whether Jesus sought these folks out specifically and intentionally, or whether they were the only ones who responded. Maybe Jesus tried calling scholars and wealthy business owners and great salesmen, but they had the good sense to say, “Follow you around? You must be kidding. No thanks.”
In the gospel stories those first disciples are regularly depicted as failing to understand who Jesus was and what he was doing. When Jesus was being interrogated, Simon Peter denied knowing him three times. Judas betrayed him. When Jesus was crucified, the disciples were in hiding. They were anything but courageous leaders – until after the resurrection. But according to tradition, they went on to spread the gospel and start churches around the Roman Empire, facing suffering and death by doing so.
The apostle Paul was not one of the early disciples of Jesus. Instead, he was a Jew who believed the Christian movement was a dangerous aberration of Judaism, and he helped with efforts to stop it. Not exactly the kind of person one would choose to help spread the gospel and start churches. But then he had some kind of encounter or vision of the risen Christ, and he became one of Christianity’s most ardent evangelists.
Many of the most important leaders of the church were people who were not particularly interested in being leaders, or particularly qualified. At this time of year, we in the Protestant Church tradition remember Martin Luther – a Roman Catholic priest and university professor who, almost 500 years ago — on October 31, 1517 – came up with a list of topics he wanted to debate with the leaders of the church about what the church was doing and teaching – things that he believed went against what he read in the Bible. He tacked that list of 95 concerns on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany (the medieval version of a public bulletin board or facebook post). Instead of getting a debate, he was excommunicated from the church and ended up helping to start a new kind of Christian church – a Protestant church. We are some of the heirs of what he started.
And still today, although our congregation is blessed to have some church members with useful skills like accounting, legal training, managerial experience, computer knowledge, teaching experience, and construction, sometimes the people who become part of our church and help provide leadership are those who have more needs than obvious skills to offer, but whose faith points to what God is doing among us.
The church also seems to survive – and even thrive – with little or no resources. Jesus was not wealthy, and he didn’t leave any fortune to start a new venture (although the gospels suggest that he had some supporters with money who helped him – some of them women). For the first three centuries the church was a marginal movement – sometimes even persecuted. There were no church buildings – folks would meet to worship and pray and eat together in synagogues, or homes, or in secret hiding places.
That changed in the fourth century, when persecution of the Christian church was ended, and later Christianity was made the state religion of the Roman Empire – an event that some consider a great victory of the church, but may have brought some problems of its own. We are fortunate to have this beautiful building, our right to worship is protected, and we even enjoy a special favored tax status. But in many places in the world, Christians still gather to worship in crude buildings or storefronts or house churches – and lives are changed in those settings as much as they are in cathedrals and football stadiums and converted arenas.
A third reason the church shouldn’t even be here is that we have a history of doing some terribly stupid things. Almost every church occasionally loses its focus on following Jesus – which is the only reason it exists in the first place. Congregations get preoccupied with success, or survival, or supporting the status quo, or fundraising. We look for what makes us comfortable or nostalgic instead of what makes us grow in faith and love.
And, we must admit, the Christian church has had its unfortunate moments. The Crusades of the 11th, 12th, and 13th century, by which Christian Europe sought to take control of the ancient Holy Land from the control of Muslims, were poorly organized and often disastrous campaigns. The Massachusetts witch trials of the 17th century resulted in the execution of 20 people – most of them women – and were a sad chapter in the history of our own Congregational tradition. The majority of the church has often failed to stand up for the rights of people: slaves, blacks, women, and gays. And today, the church is still suffering from its failure to protect people from clergy misconduct. It will take a long time to earn the trust of people who have been hurt by these sins.
But still, the church is alive, even if it is going through some tough times in this country. It seems to me that if it were merely a human enterprise, it would be long since gone. It probably would have never even been born — had it not been for a resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
I believe in God and in the resurrection of Jesus Christ because the church is here. It is alive. To many people in our world it looks like foolishness – the most inefficient, out-of-touch institution in a world where more and more people are suspicious of institutions. But if the apostle Paul was right, then that is the way God intended it to be – not the “doing stupid things” part, and not the “out-of-touch” part – but foolishness in the eyes of the world. It’s not only for the wealthy, or the people who have their lives all neatly together – it is for the poor and the poor in spirit. And I still believe it is our best hope for a world that is no longer ruled by money or by the domination of some people for the enrichment and ease of others.
In order for us to do this church thing well, it means that we must be willing to trust God’s foolishness more than our wisdom.
Robert J. von Trebra
Copyright 2014 by Robert J. von Trebra