This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 16th, at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in Alamance County, NC. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us! Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215. We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.
Sermon “Be the Church: Disciples who are One at Baptism and the Table.”
The Lord appeared again to Abraham near the oak grove belonging to Mamre. One day Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. 2 He looked up and noticed three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran to meet them and welcomed them, bowing low to the ground.
3 “My lord,” he said, “if it pleases you, stop here for a while. 4 Rest in the shade of this tree while water is brought to wash your feet. 5 And since you’ve honored your servant with this visit, let me prepare some food to refresh you before you continue on your journey.”
“All right,” they said. “Do as you have said.”
6 So Abraham ran back to the tent and said to Sarah, “Hurry! Get three large measures of your best flour, knead it into dough, and bake some bread.” 7 Then Abraham ran out to the herd and chose a tender calf and gave it to his servant, who quickly prepared it. 8 When the food was ready, Abraham took some yogurt and milk and the roasted meat, and he served it to the men. As they ate, Abraham waited on them in the shade of the trees.
We continue our series, “Be the Church” today, exploring values of a vibrant church taken from the book of Acts.. I will be reading Acts 2:37-47 from the New Living Translation, and invite you to read along in the translation of your choice, or to listen quietly in your seat, imagining yourself as those first hearing these words.
37 Peter’s words pierced their hearts, and they said to him and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
38 Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 This promise is to you, to your children, and to those far away — all who have been called by the Lord our God.” 40 Then Peter continued preaching for a long time, strongly urging all his listeners, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!”
41 Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.
42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.
43 A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. 44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. 46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity – 47 all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.
These are the words of God for all God’s people. May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our hearts and ears of our minds, that we might see and know what God has for us in these words of Holy Scripture.
Does anything stand out to any of you either from our Genesis or our Acts reading?
Though we are studying Acts, today I’m drawn first to our Genesis reading. In our Genesis reading, God appears to the spiritual ancestor of Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, our father Abraham. In our Tuesday sermon shaping group, several of us noted with surprise how God neither appears in power and in glory, nor as a single solitary person, to Abraham. Instead, long before the names Father, Son, and Spirit were used in prayer, God appears as three persons all at once, who seem to be strangers passing by Abraham’s tent in the extreme heat of the day in the Arabian desert. Knowing anyone traveling under such a sweltering desert sun would need shelter, Abraham is moved with compassion and offers these three hospitality. Jim Bissett pointed out in our sermon-shaping group the historical context: that in this situation whether or not you offer or receive hospitality would have been a life or death question. Someone traveling in that extreme desert heat could easily die without an offer of the kind of shade, water, or shelter Abraham offers these seeming strangers. Abraham and Sarah not only welcome them out of the heat of the sun into the shade of their campsite, they also wash their feet, and give them each food and drink from their own table. Moved by Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality, God speaks as these three persons who are somehow also one, announcing to these two their promise that, though they are past child-bearing years and have begun to give up any hope of children themselves, God will yet grant Abraham and Sarah a child and, through this son, the whole world would be blessed.
This story was so important to early Christians that one of the earliest pieces of Christian art is based on this story. (pass out copy of art) In this painting, the Trinity is pictured as these three who came to Abraham, now gathered around a table of welcome. The artists make clear this story is not only about Abraham and Sarah’s welcoming strangers but just as much about how these three persons who are together the One God are the true host, welcoming Abraham and Sarah and offering them gifts beyond words. This painting is meant to show the Trinity as not just hosts to Abraham and Sarah — but also to all who walk this pilgrim path through the circles of our world. As Abraham and Sarah did, this Triune God welcomes all people out of the blazing heat or freezing cold of their days to find rest under the shelter of their tent at a place at the Triune God’s table, where there is always more than enough to eat and drink, and where all are welcomed as one family.
When we celebrate God as Trinity as we do this Sunday, and as we do whenever we sing our Doxology, we are joining these early Christians in celebrating how, at heart, God is not some lonely judge sitting on a distant throne far removed from our lives dispensing heartless rules and cold judgments; and celebrating how our lives, at heart, are neither merely blind chance nor blind obedience to dogmas or rules. At heart, God is instead a perfect community which all are invited to join, an embrace of compassion extended to all, a dance of lovingkindness that has existed long before anything was ever made and which will continue long after the world as we know it now winds down and passes away, a love that always makes room for more at the table of mercy. It is love, the love shared by the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit, that birthed us and our world into being; it is that same love as it is extended to you and to me that gives us the strength to embrace all our joys and challenges with hope; and it is to such love we all long to return, for that love is our heart’s true home.
Yet, though this love is the dance at the center of the universe and our lives, it is something with which we each can lose step and fall out of rhythm. Our Acts reading points us to what we can do to get back in touch with this love of the Creator, The Christ, and the Spirit. Struck to the heart by Peter’s preaching at Pentecost, facing the many ways they have fallen out of step with this love which moves lives forward to their deepest fulfillment, people ask what to do to get back to this connection and this rhythm for their lives. Peter points them toward a change of mind and thinking – which is maybe a better translation of the Greek word metanoia than the word “repentance” in our Bibles, with all it often conveys today – followed by baptism. This change of mind ushers people into God’s renewal of their lives, reconnecting them with the love of the Creator, The Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Peter goes on to say this promise of renewal is not just for those being baptized by Peter that day but for all who come after them, following in their steps, each and every one of them– even all outside these walls, even those the world had given up on and judged too lost, too last, and too least, no exceptions.
As Annette and Jim both pointed out in our sermon shaping group, too often we think of what Peter describes as a one and done deal — wih is thinking, you’ve said a prayer, been baptized, or come to the altar, and that’s it— you are saved! — when instead changing our hearts and minds is an ongoing process, one which we see the church in Acts constantly needing to go through, each time they get it wrong by trying to put up “you are not welcome here” signs.
Those who accept Peter’s invitation continue being transformed again and again through connecting with the love of the Trinity which is at the center of their lives. They do so through taking part in specific actions that help keep them connected with , grounded in, and growing in God’s all-inclusive love: they listen to the apostles’ teaching, they embrace fellowship or solidarity with each other despite differences, they share meals and resources together including the Lord’s supper, and they pray together. As a few in our Tuesday night group pointed out, the rest of Acts make it clear that, like most of us, even as he preaches these words, Peter himself even doesn’t completely get them. Throughout Acts, Peter again and again has to return to these sources of connection and renewal to begin again whenever he loses sight of God’s love for all.
These activities that Luke highlights are what theologians call means of grace – a 50 cent phrase for practices that help us remind ourselves who we are and whose we are, and help us find our place again back in that dance of creation, that movement of love, that embrace of kindness, that is our own true home. If even Peter and the apostles need to reconnect with this flow of love, so must we. Just like these first believers did, we need to consider what practical acts we can put in place in our individual lives and our lives together to slow down our busy lives, quiet the noise around and within us, to return home into the rhythm and dance of the love of the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.
When we are baptised or confirmed — which I remember some of you recently saw happen to your grandchildren! — we remind ourselves how God said over Jesus at his own baptism “this is my child whom I love, in whom I am well pleased”, while the Spirit came over Jesus like a mother dove enfolding her chicks under her wings. We are trusting the promise that God the Trinity enfolds us too in this same embrace of love — each and every one of us — announcing through Christ we too are God’s own children whom God loves, in whom God is well pleased.
When we pray and listen to Scripture, which is where we find the apostle’s teaching today, together, we quiet the noise of our world and our worries. We remind ourselves who we are from God’s perspective. As Henri Nouwen once wrote, “you have to keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry, and, in the long run, destructive. The world tells you many lies about who you are, and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this. Every time you feel hurt, offended, or rejected, you have to dare to say to yourself: ‘These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity, and held safe in an everlasting” love.
When we take the Lord’s supper together, we remind ourselves at that table that we are not intended to be alone. We are made to bear the image of the God we know as Trinity, a God who is not some lonely hermit in the sky but a community of love, open to all. At Christ’s table we are reminded we can only discover who we are as bearers of that image when we stand together in friendship and in solitary with others, especially those very different from us. As Desmond Tutu, archbishop of South Africa during the end of apartheid, reminds us, “… the essence of being human” is “that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation.”
As a number of people pointed out in our sermon shaping group, as beautiful as such a vision of openness and community is, it is also messy. Being open to others is not always easy. Standing in solidarity with others, sharing our lives, our resources, our finances, with them, is both risky and sometimes costly. Like Jesus, you and I can be hurt, can be forsaken, when we go down that route. I bet if I asked around this room, many of you would have stories aplenty to share about just this painful truth.
What’s more, unlike Jesus and the Trinity, you and I will fall short and make mistakes — we will fight, we will argue, and we will have conflict in our attempts to be this kind of community. You can take that to the bank! God’s Table of mercy reminds us there is always forgiveness from God bigger than our failings. None of us can fall too far or do too much to return home to love of the Trinity. God’s love and mercy allows each and every one of us to begin again. No matter what. That is good news!
Yet these ever open arms of welcome by the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit are not only good news but also a challenge. For, to embody this love together, to move in step with it, we also have to make space for all, even for others who have failed us, even those who have us caused us harm and betrayed us, being ready to begin again with them too, welcoming them back to us as God in Christ has welcomed us back again and again. No wonder we need to be connected with the Triune God’s love, mercy, and transforming grace!
Ultimately, slowing down from the busyness of our lives like this to connect or re-connect to God and each other through these means of grace opens us up more fully to life itself. Our challenge, as we explore how to “be the church” together, is to explore how we can do this together, how we can discover ourselves as one at baptism and table, as one with God and each other, and one with all God’s creation and all people, through these means of grace. May we embrace this love, this welcome, this full and fulfilling life together today and all our days. Amen and Amen.