SERMON ~ 01/15/2023 ~ The Church

01/15/2023 ~ Second Sunday after the Epiphany ~ Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 ~ Weekend of the MLK Holiday ~ VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7960701/video/790487056

The Church

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified, consecrated, in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, a people set apart for the work of God…” — 1 Corinthians 1:2.

A disclaimer: you may have already heard me say some of the basic facts about Scripture I am about relate. However and additionally, a good chunk of what I’m about to offer would be included in a Bible As Literature undergraduate course. (Slight pause.)

Scholars believe Paul wrote only seven of the thirteen letters attributed to the Apostle. The earliest Epistle was probably to the church— the word ‘church’ here means people, not an institution— the earliest was written about the year 52 of the Common Era to the people in the Greek city of Thessalonika. It is commonly called First Thessalonians.

The date most often assigned to the writing we heard today, First Corinthians, is 54 of the Common Era. We are fairly confident Paul died about the year 64. Hence, none of the seven letters authored by the Apostle could have been written at a later date.

We think Jesus was raised from death in what we would call the year 30 of the Common Era. Scholars also think it’s unlikely any of the Gospels were came together until around the year 70 of the Common Era and the years after that, the first one being Mark. John, the last Gospel written, probably reached its final form about the year 100.

What should be, therefore, obvious is twofold. First, the true Letters of Paul were composed before any of the Gospels. Second, the Gospels were recorded at least 40 years after Jesus had been raised from death, one some 70 years later.

Except for Philemon, a personal letter to a friend, the other letters of Paul are written to communities of faith, gatherings of people in towns located in what we today call Greece and Turkey. Knowing he is headed there, Paul’s last letter is one to a community of faith, to people, in the capital city of the Empire— Rome.

Some of these towns, like Rome, are quite large. Those who study these things believe the City of Rome had as many as 1,000,000 residents. The Roman Empire, essentially the Mediterranean Basin, probably had better than 70,000,000 people.

Historians believe that by the year 100 of the Common Era— 70 years after the resurrection of Jesus, 36 years after the death of Paul— the Christian population of the entire Mediterranean Basin totaled less than 10,000. The bottom line is this: when Paul is writing to these churches, each one probably had about 50 people.

They meet in people’s houses, not in buildings designated only for worship. These churches are what we in today’s society call small churches. (Slight pause.)

This is what we hear in First Corinthians: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified, consecrated, in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, a people set apart for the work of God…” (Slight pause.)

You may have noticed these words in First Corinthians sound formal. That’s because they follow a standard form for writing a letter in the ancient Greek world. There are a lot of formalities in this era.

But there is a short, I think funny outline of Paul’s letters, just words long, going around among clergy. This outline both does away with the formality and accurately reduces all the letters of Paul to a very simple formula.

(Quote:) “Grace. I thank God for you. For the love of everything holy… stop… being… stupid. Timothy says ‘hi.’” (Slight pause.)

I’ve also heard many clergy say this: we have a very formal template of the church in the 1950s stuck in our heads. Therefore, we fail to realize the church numbers we saw in the 1950s were a total anomaly, a large deviation from what was historically normal.

How different was it? Well, we probably think that at the time of the American Revolution everyone was God fearing. And yes, everyone might have been God fearing.

But very few were in churches. Records indicate the percentage of church membership in 1776 was about 17% of the population. Attendance was probably lower than that. Today the percentage of people who claim church membership is just under 50%.

So what is (pardon the expression) ‘normal?’ (Slight pause.) I admit, the numbers I’m about to quote are probably a little out of date but not terribly so. And they do offer a realistic picture of what the church actually looks like today.

The percentage of churches with a weekly attendance of 2,000 or more— your big Joel Osteen type churches— are less that one half of one percent of all the churches in America. Churches with a membership of 100 or less— that’s membership not attendance— are just over 50 percent of all the churches in America. (Slight pause.) So, what is normal? How should church be defined? (Slight pause.)

Question: how did Paul define normal? Paul’s definition of normal was an assembly of people, no matter how many, who are called to be saints. Saints— these are people called to do the work of God and the will of God. (Slight pause.)

We humans have an interesting trait. We like to organize and we like to be organized. I think somewhere along the line church as Paul describes it, people called to be saints, stopped being how we did church.

What took over? What replaced Christianity? Church-i-anity. We got organized. And church became about being organized instead of doing the work of God, the will of God, listening for the call of God.

Perhaps you’ve noticed after the resurrection the description of church structure in the New Testament say there are only two offices. There are Deacons and there are Apostles.

Further, deacon is not an elected office. Everyone is a Deacon. Everyone is called to feed the hungry, clothe those in tatters, shelter the homeless— the work of God.

The only reason the Apostles are split out is this work of the people of the church— this feeding, clothing, sheltering— is so time consuming the Apostles need to be set apart so they can spend time teaching. If there are only two offices in the church Paul knew, that’s not a lot of structure, not a lot of organization. (Slight pause.)

Next month as I mentioned earlier we will have an Annual Meeting of this church, this organization. There’s that word again— organization.

I fully appreciate organization. Indeed, when I landed at the church I served for twenty three years the first thing that happened was a re-write the by-laws. Because I had a large hand in that I was invited (invited as I just used it here is a euphuism) to participate in re-working the by-laws of both the Association and the Conference, the larger structures in New York.

I am an organization person. I helped rewrite three sets of by-laws. I am the first to say organization is very important, very necessary. But it is not church. Church is doing the work of God, the will of God, listening for the call of God.

Indeed, this weekend we celebrate the birth of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Why do we celebrate? Many will tell you it’s because in offering leadership to the Civil Rights movement King organized it, made it work as a body.

I would maintain we celebrate King not because of any organizing skills, and he was very good at that, but because he brought a real understanding of the work of the church to the mix. King understood doing the work of God, the will of God, listening for the call of God is vital. (Slight pause.)

So, what is church? How do we define church? Defining church with numbers in membership, with attendance, with buildings, with budgets, with by-laws, with rules— all these are very important. But these do not define church.

Church is people. Church is we the people. Church is we the people who are, in the words of Paul (quote:) “…called to be saints, a people set apart for the work of God,…” Amen.

01/15/2023
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “What is church? Please consider this from Barbara Brown Taylor: ‘The Desert Fathers and Mothers say the hardest spiritual work is to love the neighbor as the self— to encounter another not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control but as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you allow it…. And this can be as frightening as it is liberating as anything and may be the only real spiritual discipline.’”

BENEDICTION: Let us learn as faithful disciples of Christ. Let us know that God is available to us at any time and in any place. Let us give thanks for the grace of God in Christ, Jesus. Let us trust in God for all time and for all eternity. Amen.

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