Four Marks of an Authentic ChurchApril 25, 1999, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fourth Sunday in Easter
Our lessons today give us four marks of the authentic church. I said last week that for John Calvin, the marks of the authentic church were where the Word was rightly preached, the sacraments rightly celebrated and discipline observed. In our first lesson today, we hear the biblical basis of that: They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.1 Now I am not going to repeat what I said last week about Reformed worship as Word and Sacrament together on the Lords Day. This congregation has heard that for many years, as David Read preached and wrote quite eloquently on the subject. Rather, I want to explore the other three marks the church does more than worship! Indeed, worship is the well from which our common life emerges and the summit to which our common life flows,2 the place we must return on a weekly basis, if we are to be nourished and supported that we may mature into the fullness of Christ. That is the first point: worship was essential to the early church. They knew they must be there if they were to grow in grace and truth, if they were to be fortified for their own daily ministries.
This is what lies behind what we tell people in our Inquirers Seminars as the first expectation for members: worship every Lords Day when physically able, here, when in the city, and the nearest Christian church when elsewhere whether Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or free church for Christ is present in each of those places. That expectation has less to do with keeping our own sanctuary full than with the pastoral concern to help our members grow in grace. In worship we come into the transforming presence of Jesus Christ as he reveals himself in the Word proclaimed, in the breaking of bread, and responds to our expressions of praise, concern and need in prayers offered to God in and through him. Faithful participation in such worship is the first mark of the faithful church.
They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching. The second mark of a faithful church is its investment in continuing to learn about its faith. Christian education is not an option, but a necessity, a matter of equipping us to live faithfully in the world. Consequently it is for more than Children. For almost four years we have been engaged in what so many told us was not going to work a dedicated Christian Education Hour between worship services. It has been so wildly successful that it may be difficult for us to remember what the nay-sayers were suggesting. But come and sit in Christians and the World Around us, one of the Bible studies, Chucks course on Christian Spirituality, or my Basics of the Christian Faith and you will discover a people learning the apostolic faith, struggling to sort out the center and learn what it means for us in our day to day lives. At MAPC it starts in the nursery with a level of care and devotion that reveals Gods love. It moves into the childrens church school, is augmented on Wednesday evenings with Kids Club, and continues through confirmation and into a Senior High program. All of this is designed to nurture and teach our young people with an alternative to the other gospels being preached in every other corner of their lives; the false gospels that nurture the Littleton, Colorado tragedy. In the wake of that tragedy, we need to ask ourselves what it is of lasting value we have to give our children? Here they are learning that following Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is not the same as being a good scout, or good citizen, though it excludes neither. It is about learning to live with and follow the one who is both shepherd and gate to the safety of the sheep-fold. It is about following his voice rather than the distorted, and often sick voices that blare from boom-boxes, the glitzy ad pages of their magazines or television screens, and for this generation, the chat-pages of the Internet. What an extraordinarily difficult time to grow up. That is why we have a Kids Club. That is why we take confirmation seriously. That is why we make working with Senior Highs a priority.
Life does not get easier as one grows older, but simply more complex. Therefore, we now have a complex program of educational offerings whereby we adults can know the apostolic faith, can chew on it in discussion, and come back the following week to ask further questions. It happens not just on Sunday morning. You will find women in Bible Study here on every other Monday evening. You will find it on selected Wednesday evenings as people come together to more fully understand how to live as Christs people in this world. This evening a new Bible Study will begin for the 20/30s as they explore together the book of James, being reminded that faith that does not express itself in action is not faith. Such is one of the marks of a faithful church. And so we tell potential new members that one of our expectations for them is to find a place in our common life where they can continue to grow in their understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and better know him as the shepherd and guardian of our souls.
They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. With glad and generous hearts they praised God in this way. Generous giving is one of the marks of a faithful church. In the church of the New Testament giving was understood to be a privilege, a means of sharing in the self-giving of Christ for us. It was a means of supporting not only their common life, but also of sharing what they knew they had received. Later, as the Jerusalem church came under great hardship and suffering because of its persecution, the Gentile church rose up to meet their need. The Apostle Paul moved through the churches of Asia Minor and Greece taking up a collection to see to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem. Such generosity has always been a mark of the authentic church.
How then, in our contemporary culture, has it also become a mark of derision? We all know the joke about the minister, who in the midst of a crisis was asked to do something religious, and so he took up an offering. Give, give, give, wrote a disgruntled reader to Ann Landers a number of years ago. That is all I hear at church. I thought that Gods love was free. It is!, responded the famous columnist. But it is a lot like water, if you want to insure its availability and have a clean and safe supply when you need it, it costs money. Then, to really make her point Landers concluded by asking: Can you think of a better definition of Christianity than ?give, give, give? With glad and generous hearts they praised God. Giving is one of the ways we worship God. In fact, for some it is a primary way in which they can serve God. The stories about this in American culture are legion. You know about J.C. Penny, the founder of the famous department store. He began by tithing giving ten percent of his income to the church. But as he became more and more successful, he moved beyond the 10% mark, giving fifteen, then twenty, and even more. By the time he reached the height of his success he was giving away 90% and living on ten. When asked why, he responded that it was one of the gifts God had given him whereby he could faithfully serve. The Rockefellers tell the same story. John D., himself a tither, is reported, when giving the children their allowances, to have reminded them: ten per cent was to go to the church, ten percent was to go into the bank and the rest was theirs to use as they saw fit. Such was the training that would lead that family into its heritage of generosity and service.
Giving is a mark of our faithfulness and one of the expectations of membership here. We tell potential new members that we expect a pledge from them that they will be able to honor. When they ask us how much, I always respond, Whatever you think will be a worthy expression of the importance of this church in your life. Only you can decide that. We will challenge you to consider tithing. But if you are not currently giving 10% of your annual income away, do not try to start doing that now. Rather, come talk with me about a strategy for doing that over the next then years. But for now, the important thing is that you make a financial commitment and keep it. As God has blessed you with resources, so share them. It is one of the ways you worship and serve God.
Day by day the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved. The explosive growth of the early church was no accident. It was Gods work among them. Luke wants us to be absolutely sure of that. It is God who awakens in people a longing for himself. It is God who quickens people to go looking for what will refresh their spirits. It is God who awakens in people a need for faith. But it is Gods people who share the faith by inviting others to come and see. We call it evangelism. It is the fourth mark of a faithful church.
Evangelism: do you know what the word really means? It comes from the Greek word euangelion, which simply means good news. Evangelism is bringing good news, being bearers of good news. The best definition I know of evangelism is attributed to the Asian Christian evangelist D.T. Niles. Dr. Niles defined evangelism as one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread. Thats good news. Evangelism is not about arguing someone out of hell and into heaven. It is simply announcing the discovery of something so good you want to share it with others.
It can be done in many ways. We do it through ministries of care: a shelter dinner, a senior luncheon, a tutoring program in Spanish Harlem, the Yorkville Pantry, Inwood House, Search and Care, the list goes on. As we share our resources and share ourselves we announce good news about the one who is Lord of our lives. And always, it is done for him. Of all the things we can do through our giving feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, caring for refugees, providing space for those working to free themselves from addictions, tutoring children who are at risk, the list goes on none is worth much unless we are also sharing the good news of Gods love for them in Jesus Christ. Indeed, our action is an expression of Gods love. But let us not miss the opportunity to also speak that word.
We do evangelism by our presence on this corner, and by the way we make these building accessible and available to the needs of those in our community. Some 500 people come through our Church House Lobby each day for one reason or another. Someone suggested the other night that perhaps we need to put a sign up, both in our elevators and at the door, saying Why not come back and see us Sunday morning? We have Good News! So too, with our radio spots on WQXR. Those are more than advertisements. They are evangelism announcing good news. Join us, it could change everything. That slogan was suggested by someone who walked in here on a June day, bereft over the loss of a job, and three years later found that everything had changed. They are not just empty words. It is good news.
But the most effective way to do evangelism is through each of you. And so we tell new members that one of our expectations of membership is that you will invite two non-churched friends to worship with you each year. Non-churched friends -- evangelism is not cattle rustling. Changing the brand on someone who is already Christian is not the point. Reaching out to someone who is not, or to someone who once went to church but gave up on it years ago that is the point. Do your friends a favor, invite them to worship with you next Sunday.
Worship, study, giving of time, talent, treasure and announcing good news in word and deed, these are the marks of faithfulness. Where it exists, day by day, the Lord adds numbers to those who are being saved.
LET US PRAY.
- Acts 2:42
- This is actually a paraphrase from Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.
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