"Why Church?"
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
September 12, 2010
Acts 2:42-47

Pastor Scott Black Johnston of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, went out with his clerk of session for a Mexican dinner.  As they stood in line, they discussed the book Good to Great, a book that talks about how good companies become great companies.  The man standing behind them overheard their conversation and wanted to join in.  He asked, "Are you talking about the book Good to Great?"  They said they were and the man said, "My company is organized according to that book's principles.  Although what makes my company different is that it's a Christian business."  Johnston could not resist so he asked, "What makes it a Christian business?"

The man replied, "It's simple!  We have three rules for moral conduct that everyone has to follow: Rule 1:  No swearing.  Rule 2:  No drinking alcohol.  Rule 3:  No facial hair.

Even though the Reverend Dr. Johnston was a bit miffed that he flunked this man's test for behavior congruent with Christian morality, and even though he could have pointed out that Jesus almost certainly sported a beard and his first miracle was turning several large vats of water into wine, he chose not to respond.  However, the man's comments triggered his thinking: "Is that really all there is to our faith?"  The man was describing his business, but haven't many churches adopted a similar mindset.  They have reduced the Christian faith to little more than simplistic moral lists.1

Isn't it this sort of simple thinking about the Christian faith that spawns someone such as the Florida pastor who declared September 11th as International Burn a Koran Day?  This fringe pastor of a tiny fundamentalist congregation gained worldwide attention and has given over 150 interviews to the press because of his inflammatory views.  There's nothing quite like a religious extremist to grab the attention of the media.  He appeared to have great difficulty understanding that he would hand terrorists a perfect recruiting tool and place our troops in greater danger, all because he thinks being a faithful Christian entails attacking other faiths.

I wonder how many people will keep their distance from any church because they would hate for someone to think they were even remotely connected to a demagogue who gains notoriety by fanning the flames of religious intolerance.  Can anyone really imagine that this is what Christ envisioned 2,000 years ago when he gathered faithful followers into a community and called on them to live by his new commandment? "Love God with your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself."

This morning's reading from the Acts of the Apostles provides us with a glimpse of the Christian Church in its earliest stages.  It says that the first Christians were devoted to Christ and to one another.  They ate together, they prayed together and they worshiped together.  They cared about each other and lived together in harmony. "They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person's need was met."2 And they loved not only each other, they also cared for people outside of their faith community.  The early Christians gained a reputation for caring for the destitute and the dying, for responding to anger and persecution with love and forgiveness, for acts of charity and for helping the downtrodden.

When the church in the 21st Century is at its best, it possesses these same core characteristics.  It extends compassion to people regardless of their religion and to those who have no religion.  It strives for justice for all people, not only those who think as we do.  And it works with God to create a world where people of different nations, races and religions can live together in peace.

Why are you here?  Is the church essential to you?  What would happen if you walked away and cut yourself off from the church?  You would gain a few hours on Sunday morning and save some money by not pledging, but what would you lose?  Strength in times of temptation?  A satisfying purpose for living?  Encouragement to forgive people who hurt you?  The glue that bonds your closest relationships?  Hope in times of darkness?  A supportive community that will stand by you and will see you through rough times?

The church reminds us to keep a healthy rhythm to our lives.  We live in an increasingly stressful and angry world that can rob us of our health and our sanity.  When we worship, we pause from the frenetic pace of life to reflect on what it all means and to ponder what is truly life-enhancing.  In church we find healing for the physical, emotional and spiritual wounds the world inflicts upon us.

Life has many ways to make us feel inadequate, unimportant and undeserving but the church teaches us that each of us is valuable in God's eyes.  Bishop Desmond Tutu tells how the blacks of South Africa maintained a spirit of joy even during the many years of apartheid.  He said it was "a policy that was viscous; a policy that rubbed people's noses in the dust; a policy that saw nothing wrong with public signs that read: 'Natives (meaning blacks) and dogs not allowed.'  No subtlety at all.  They had road signs that read: 'Drive carefully, natives cross here.'  Sometimes a native South African - a prankster - would sneak out at night to change the sign and the following morning it would read: 'Drive carefully, natives VERY cross here.'"

The policy of apartheid was designed to destroy people.  However, when black South Africans gathered in their churches for worship, pastors such as Bishop Tutu would remind them of what the Bible said: "That despite their suffering, they were endowed with infinite worth, INFINITE WORTH, because they were created in the image of God.  We hear this so frequently, that we forget how powerful it is.  Tell people who are treated like rubbish, 'You are a God-carrier, you stand in for God, you are a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit' and it can have an amazing impact."

Bishop Tutu goes on to say, "If we truly believed that each one of us is a God-carrier, we would not simply shake hands when we greet each other.  We would do what the Buddhist does.  We would bow before each other; and say as the Buddhist says, 'The God in me greets the God in you.'"3

Why is the church essential?  In addition to helping us grasp the amazing truth that we are precious to God and we should look for the image of God in one another, the church is where we discover what makes life fulfilling.  Our culture often counsels us to pursue a life of ease.  However, God does not want you to have an easy life; God wants you to have a rich life.  And your life becomes rich as a result of the choices you make and the actions you take.  Your life becomes rich when you dedicate yourself to working for a just cause regardless of its popularity.  Your life becomes rich when you create beauty and spread happiness.  Your life becomes rich when you answer God's call to serve people in need.  Your life becomes rich when you forge deep emotional bonds with others by taking the risk to love and to be loved.

I read a story about a track meet.  This meet was not a stage for the world's greatest athletes.  It was a Special Olympics event.  One of the races that day featured six teenagers with special needs.  They were all very excited as they stepped onto the track and they looked very determined as they took their places at the starting line.  Each was proudly outfitted in new running shoes and bright-colored shorts, and all had their own race numbers pinned on the front of their T-shirts.  The coaches, family and friends were shouting encouragement from the sidelines.  Then silence fell as the starter called out, "On your marks, get set..." And at the sound of the gun, the race began.

These competitors were neither fast nor graceful, but all of them were running to their best of their abilities.  That is, until one of the young women tripped and fell.  As she did, one of the other runners came to a sudden stop.  Danny knelt down and asked in a loud voice, "Marlene, are you okay?"  It caught the attention of the other competitors who noticed that Danny and Marlene were stopped in the middle of the track  One by one they went to the spot where Danny was helping Marlene to her feet.  Then, picture this: all of the contestants linked arms and marched down the track together to the finish line.  The judges could not determine a winner, but the runners did not care.  They knew it was not that big of a deal who went across the finish line first, but they knew it is a big deal to have good friends who look out for each other and who take care of one another.4

We have a vibrant community of faith.  We have inspiring worship with wonderful music, marvelous Christian education classes, terrific children and youth programs, and some outstanding opportunities for mission work.  But what makes Westminster - or any church - a faithful and dynamic community of faith is its spirit.  We must exude warmth and welcome, caring and compassion.  In the end, what makes a church great is not its mission or its ministries, it is the spirit of its people.  Great churches have people who are devoted to God, people who truly care about each other and people who are not simply willing, but eager to be Christ's hands and feet in the world.



1. Scott Black Johnston, "The Perfect Church," November 22, 2009

2. As translated by The Message.

3. Bishop Desmond Tutu, untitled sermon at the Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta, May, 2009.

4. Deborah Fortel, "Masqueraders Anonymous" on Day1 website.