Sermon – January 19, 2014

Categories: Sermons

Rev. Joe Connolly

The Church

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“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, together with all those who, wherever they may be, call on the name of Jesus, the Christ, who is both their Savior and ours:…” — 1 Corinthians 1:2.

The information I’m about to offer you would get in a Bible As Literature undergraduate course in many colleges. Scholars believe Paul wrote only seven of the thirteen letters attributed to the Apostle.

It is also thought the first Epistle written, the earliest work in the Christian Scriptures, was to the church— ‘church’ meaning people, members of the church— the earliest Epistle written was to people in the Greek City of Thessalonika. That work is commonly called First Thessalonians and was composed about the year 52 of the Common Era.

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 are fairly confident Jesus was raised in what we would call the year 30 of the Common Era. Scholars are equally confident the four Gospels were unlikely to have been composed until after the year 70, the first one being Mark. John was the last Gospel written as you heard earlier and it probably reached it’s final form about the year 100. [1]

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. One was written some 70 years later.

So, I would also invite you to note when the works of Paul are considered— the works of Paul: First Thessalonians, Philippians, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Romans and Philemon— only Philemon, a personal letter to a friend— is not written to a community of faith. Only one letter of the seven is not written to a church.

Paul writes to churches, people. Paul writes to churches in towns we would today locate in Greece and Turkey— the towns of Thessalonika, Philippi, Corinth, Galatia. Finally Paul, knowing a trip to this location is about to be undertaken, writes a letter to the church, the community of faith, the people— the people in the church, in that group— located in the capital city of the Empire— Rome.

Some of these towns to which Paul writes are quite large. Those who study demographics in ancient times believe Rome had as many as 1,000,000 residents. And the Mediterranean Basin probably had better than 40,000,000 people.

I mention all these facts and statistics in order to ask a question: ‘what do those churches to whom Paul writes look like?’ ‘How many people do you think are in these churches to whom Paul writes?’ (Slight pause.) Now, do me a favor: if you’ve thought of a number, hold that number in your thoughts for a moment— number of people in that church, any of these churches. (Slight pause.)

Would it alter the number on which you decided if I told you 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 entire Mediterranean Basin with its 40,000,000 souls, had a Christian population of less than 10,000? (Slight pause.) You see, my point is when Paul is writing to all these churches— and clearly for two millennia we have treasured these letters— when Paul is writing to all these churches, they are made up of maybe 50 people each.

They meet in houses, not in public buildings. In short, they are what we in today’s society, would call small churches.

I was reminded of all this when I went to a clergy meeting this week. My colleague and friend, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Johnson, said something I knew. But he said it in a way I’d never heard it said before.

He said we tend to have the church of the 1950s stuck in our heads as a template. Therefore, what we fail to realize is the numbers we saw in the churches in the 1950s are a total anomaly, a very, very large deviation from what was historically normal.

How different was it? Well, we probably all think that at the time of the American Revolution everyone was God fearing— right? It’s often said today that this is a ‘Christian Nation’ and was founded by Christians.

Well, everyone might have been God fearing while the Revolution was in progress. But was everyone in church? No. In fact, the percentage of the population who were church members in 1776 was about 17%. (And the attendance was lower than that.)

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

The percentage of churches with a weekly attendance— that’s an attendance— of 1,000 or more— your Joel Osteen, Robert Schuler style churches— churches with an attendance of 1,000 or more are less that one half of one percent of all the churches in America. Churches with a membership— that’s a membership not an attendance— churches with a membership of 100 or less number just over 50 percent of all the churches in America. (Slight pause.) So, what is normal? How should church be defined? (Slight pause.)

These words are in Fist 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, together with all those who, wherever they may be, call on the name of Jesus, the Christ, who is both their Savior and ours:…” (Slight pause.)

I think for Paul what is normal is quite obvious. For Paul normal is when church is defined as an assembly of people, no matter how many, who are called to be saints. Saints are people set apart to do the work of God and the will of God. (Slight pause.)

We humans have an interesting trait. We like to organize and, rumor to the contrary, we like to be organized. So, I think somewhere along the line Christianity, the church— which Paul describes as people called to be saints— this being called to be saints stopped being how we did church, stopped being what church is about.

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

I am sure you’ve noticed after the resurrection the descriptions of church structure in Scripture say there are only two offices. These are Deacons and Apostles.

In one sense, everyone is a Deacon. It’s not an elected office. Everyone is called to feed the hungry, clothe those in tatters, shelter the homeless.

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

And guess what? Next week we will have the Annual Budget Meeting of the church in the 200th year of our organization. There’s that word again— organization.

Those of you who know me well realize I fully appreciate organization. Indeed, once it was known our church had re-worked its by-laws after I arrived, I was invited (that’s a euphuism) to participate in re-working the by-laws of both the Association and the Conference.

I suppose what I am trying to say is organization is important. 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. And why is it we celebrate King? Many will tell you we celebrate King because this cleric offered leadership to the Civil Rights movement.

I would maintain the real reason we celebrate King is the understanding of the work of the church as opposed to the organization known as church King brought 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? When we start defining church with numbers, through buildings, with budgets, with by-laws we have it wrong. Church is people who are, in the words of Paul, “…called to be saints, a people set apart for the work of God,…” Amen.

01/19/2014
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

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: “When we think church is about organization, it follows naturally that we might want to evangelize. After all, that’s the only way to grow an organization. Ask any Rotarian. Well, 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.

[1] When the Gospel reading from John was introduced, this fact was mentioned.

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