Sermon September 4th 2022

Well, I must admit that I had some challenges setting out to write this sermon. In part because I’m having trouble distilling all that I learned and studied and attended over the past 10 weeks. But first let me express some gratitude, I am thankful for the leadership that took place in my absence, for the preachers like Ruth, Whitney, Ross,  my Dad and Wayne, for the assistance of Mike B in making sure that regardless of how the tech was
acting that day, services were still streamed and heard, and I am very grateful for the gracious pastoral care that was provided by Angela. But you know, I am also thankful to this congregation and the session- I was amazed that not once did anyone email or call me with a need- yes, some of you sent lovely messages of support and that was very much appreciated but no one contacted me with a problem that needed to be fixed. Leading me
to believe, that you don’t need me- ok, that’s not how I interpreted it- rather I am grateful for the space you gave me to grow spiritually, academically and relationally. Thank you. I hope that you do get a sense of some new energy and vision in the upcoming weeks and months!
In August, I participated in the Guder Scholars program at the Centre for Missional Leadership at UBC. Six active clergy, from reformed traditions across North America (from 40 applicants) were accepted into the program. It was a sort of “think tank retreat” in which we shared trials and joys of the past few years and learned from academics on the future of the church- particularly from an online perspective. One of the books we used to
help us in our discussions was Jason Byassee and Andria Irwin’s text Following:
Embodied Discipleship in a Digital Age. I’ll be touching on it a little later.
As this group was getting to know one another we shared things about ourselves, like our interests and hobbies, and it will surprise no one here that I spoke about the importance of music in my life. In fact, this summer, when I was not studying or praying or spending time with family, I was attending live music. I half joked with the group that if I were to ever work on my Doctorate it would be on the religious experiences of music
festivals- because this summer- they were my church- well sort of, it requires some explanation.

You may not know this, being the good church goers that you are, but on the Sunday morning of the Vancouver Island Music festival there is one of the best workshops of the whole festival, the Gospel Hour! Thousands of people arrive early, at 9:30am, to participate in a most energetic worship experience- and it opens with prayer. This year, nearly 10, 000 people sang Down by the Riverside with New Orleans legend John Boutte.

I was brought to tears by how moving it was. A few weeks later I was standing in a rec hall in Port Alberni when reggae singer Caleb Hart began to get the whole crowd, to sing, “Praise to the Most High King, the reason that I sing”. Imagine millenials and gen xers being drawn into a moment of worship while they waved their solo cups in the air. And last week, I watched Canadian Baritone from the Met Opera, Joshua Hopkins, in the
Barber of Seville in an open air theatre in the high desert of Santa Fe. As his energetic song culminated in the crescendo of “Fi-ga-ro!” streaks of lightning came down on either side of the stage, as if all of creation was participating in a burst of reverence. Those were some of my church moments this summer.
I know that in his sermon a few weeks ago my Dad asked, What is the sound of the Holy Spirit? And he talked about how sometimes concerts appear no different to big worship moments-my experiences this summer would tend to agree. But if that is true then what is church? Or perhaps put another way, what is the point of the church? In some of my conversations this summer it was about how irrelevant the church has become- generations of people feel that they don’t need the church. Now don’t get me wrong, the church is relevant to me and I’m sure to most, if not all, of you, but to the majority of our neighbours, it would not matter to them if we existed or not. There is a dangerous indifference about the church, which was a dilemma and discussion shared amongst us Guder scholars.
This is where looking at the Book of Acts can help. The early church leaders were asking similar questions, in part because they were trying to figure out what made them distinct from all other communities and religious practices. This is why I want to spend some time this Autumn looking at the early church through the Book of Acts, starting with this passage from Acts 2. Our Bible study group spent four weeks studying this passage just a few months ago. It is a passage that has come to typify the early church, and can
help us understand the point of church today- and perhaps what separates us from other enthusiastic, energetic and spiritual gatherings. In the NRSV translation the subheading for this section is “Life among the believers” in other translations it is “The Holy Habits”.
This brief passage sets out to explain what the early Christians did to set themselves apart,  the very definition of holy. These habits include but are not limited to, devotion, teaching, sharing, study, eating and praising together. This is what Will Willimon calls in his commentary, “the embodiment of the Gospel” and this was the challenge the Guder
scholars tackled as we read the book about embodied discipleship in a digital age. Are we  still the church if most of our embodiment is done online or looks awfully similar to a music festival or service club?

Well, here are four ways the church is supposed to be different as it appears in Acts 2. First, the devotion is directed to teaching. Will Willimon startlingly points out, “The church is not to drift from one momentary emotional outburst to the next, to resuscitate Pentecost on a weekly basis; rather the church moves immediately to the task of teaching, keeping itself straight about what it is and what it is to be about.” The high energy of a
music festival or praise song or choir anthem is good- it moves us to a spiritual plane different from our daily lives, but it is not a sustainable place to be. In fact, I would argue that the Spirit moves through teaching more than music- that’s not to say my teaching or sermons alone but in all that we learn from one another. You have incredible gifts and wisdom to share as we ask ourselves what is the church to be about.
That question moves us to the second embodiment. The early church is in fellowship or what is often termed as koinonia- which is a Greek word that in this context means, a fellowship that produces astounding wonders and signs. It is a fellowship that causes awe.
I think that we have come to use the term fellowship to mean our social time together- and that is not all together wrong- but in the early church their social time together included the aforementioned teaching and the sharing of all their goods. It was something radically different from the Roman world around them and it often manifested in what Byassee calls
“undistracted friendships…a letting go of the self and joining another in the journey of their life”. The third embodiment was that the early church engaged in the breaking of bread. Of course, fellowship includes food and certainly for Luke, food is an important part of Jesus’ fellowship. Throughout his Gospel each dinner time experience was a time of
fellowship (a time to experience awe at wonders and signs), a time of revelation and a teaching moment. Willimon says, “eating together is a mark of unity, solidarity and deep friendship, a visible sign that social barriers which once plagued these people have broken down.” Sometimes the breaking of bread means they had communion together- but likely
most often, it simply meant they ate together.
Finally, the fourth embodiment is that the early church prayed together, even as this nascent church was developing they still went to the temple together to praise and pray.
They held on to their Jewish traditions while developing and adapting this new phase of their faith. They were in essence in transition- and in order to work best together they prayed for God’s guidance and praised God’s presence.
Admittedly, this kind of teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread or prayer does not happen at music festivals. The point of the church is to be the embodiment of these holy habits and the gospel. The problem is, we struggle to know how to do that. As we move though some early passages in Acts we will see how they did it. But also starting in a few weeks we are going to spend time in our elders districts, which I am renaming for this
purpose our koinania groups. After church one or two groups will meet together to essentially discuss the questions, what is the point of our church? What is our church about? How do we embody the gospel in this neighbourhood? I warned you I would come back with a head full of ideas.
Acts 2:43 says, “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were  being done.” It is my hope that when we gather together we feel that awe, it doesn’t have to be high energy, in fact it shouldn’t be all the time, but awe at all that surrounds us. It is my hope that when our neighbours see as at work that they experience those wonders and signs- not just for one weekend, or one hour a week, but often- every time we gather for
teaching, fellowship, food and prayer. My question to you is, how are we going to make that happen? Amen