Sunday, April 14, 2013

Dying For and Dying To (Sermon, Easter 3)

Acts 6:1-14, 7:44-60

            Once there was a church full of people who loved Jesus and who tried to love one another. They had the best of intentions in all they did, in worship and in serving others. They even hosted a food pantry of sorts with fresh food that was passed out so that all could eat and be satisfied.

            Of course, behind the scenes, things were less rosy. There were some who wished that church could be the way it always was. Too many changes made them upset. They felt that the congregation needed to slow down, heed what had always worked, and focus on their community.

            There were others who felt that innovation was needed, that the church needed to be more open and outward-focused. These people were interested in different styles of worship and new areas of service. They struggled with how slowly things seemed to change and were frustrated by their inability to change everything all at once.

            Then the leaders wanted to help, but were stretched in too many directions. Not all the homebound were being visited, not everyone who needed help was being seen, and when the leaders focused more on administrative tasks- the worship suffered. The community struggled to get things done, to get things right, and to get along with one another.

            This description, of course, is of the church in early Acts. The Christians who were from Jewish backgrounds had memories of the temple worship and a sense of tradition. They were the ones who had always “belonged” and they felt that honoring those traditions was critical to the future of the community that followed Jesus. The Hellenists, Gentile Christian who spoke Greek, were newer to the community, but were equal contributors. They showed up and volunteered and were truly dedicated. They felt that in return for their dedication- their families and relatives should receive the same considerations (like being a part of the distribution of goods).

            The apostles and leaders in the community wanted to be dedicated to teaching and preaching about Jesus, but when they get caught up in the other workings of the community- they aren’t able to study and pray in a way that leads to effective leadership. In order to remedy that situation, they divide up some of the tasks. In particular, seven men are appointed to head up the food distribution- the passing out of goods that everyone has brought together for the good of the order.

            Stephen is one of those seven. He is assigned to distribute food, but he cannot refrain from preaching as he does it. Instead of just handing out the bread and the fruit, he talks about why they are doing this and the motivation behind their community living. He makes some people very angry by pointing out how they are still ignoring the work of God in the world, just as people have done since the world’s beginning. He offends the wrong people and they kill him. He dies for and in the Lord. (And he does so with Saul looking on and approving.)

            Despite the struggles and divisions in the early church over all kinds of things, the Holy Spirit continued to work through them so that people continued to be brought to the faith. Yes, more of them died. Many more were killed for their faithful actions. It had little to with what they believed and lots to do with what they were willing to do to be a part of God’s work of justice and peace in their towns and cities. In order to live out the way of discipleship, some died for the faith and some died to their ideas of the faith.

            Everyone who decided to follow the way of Jesus had to let go of certain ideas, certain convictions, certain assumptions about the world, about other people, about life in community. They had to die- to perish the thoughts- so that the new life of Christ could grow in them. That new life comes with a lot of extra growth that needs much room.

           The community of Christ today is called to the same new life. What are we willing to die to so that the community of Christ will grow? Do we have the conviction of Stephen to continue to talk of Christ, even when it’s not officially our job and when it makes others angry? Are we willing to let go of the way things have always been so that things may become the way God is shaping them to be?

            What would you give up to see new people learning about the love and life in God? What about our life in Christ would you die for and what should you die to?

            We cannot expect that the God of renewal and reformation intends for the church to remain the same. We cannot hope that the Spirit of fire and water will leave things unaltered and unaffected by time and circumstance. We dare not rest on the idea that the Christ of healing and justice will allow us to sit back and organize our creeds while the world struggles in darkness.

            The life of faith is a life of action. A life of action has seasons of growth and seasons of dying. What in this community, in the larger church, in each of our lives is dying so that God’s new growth can spring forth?

            Despite the divisions, the arguments, and the deep grief over change, the early church worked forward in the Spirit to keep the way of life in Jesus the Christ alive and changing their world. We are called to no less of a life of action in discipleship. In fact, we are called to the very same life of healing, sharing, and working for justice. And the very same Spirit is at work in us… carrying us through deaths (of people, of ideas, of traditions) and bringing forth new and abundant life.


This sermon was inspired by this blog post by Jan Edmiston: I've been thinking about this since I first read it- weeks ago. 

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