The Sunday Sermon: Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 26, 2017
Scripture: Romans 12
- Hear the sermon: Sorry, no audio this week
Lent Four: Ecclesiology, Brandon Ouellette (Student Minister)
Well here we are friends, the fourth Sunday in our Lenton season. Over half way there and already in the last week of March, can you believe it? I would go into the meaning of the 40 days of Lent, not counting Sunday’s, but you’ve heard it from Pastor Joel more than enough and quite frankly, he’s a little better at math than I am. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working our way through several of these “-ology” words, theology—the study of God, Christology—the study of the nature and person of Jesus Christ, Anthropology—the study of human societies and cultures and their evolution over time, and today…as we look at Ecclesiology or, in order to get away from fancy Seminary language, the study of the Church.
What is the church? A building? The people in it? Is it simply any Christian gathering, or is there something else required for us to be a church? Does it extend out beyond these four walls? To those around us in our community? How are we to act as a church? Both individually and communally? Of course these are all questions that could be turned into sermons themselves but it may be helpful to do now what we are always commanded to do when looking for answers. Let us turn to scripture.
Our passage for today comes in two parts, both from Romans chapter 12, starting with verses 1-13, listen now for the word of God.
12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,[a] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[d]
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
While reflecting on the message I was going to give this week, I had a moment of panic as I often do as a young and inexperienced Seminary student. Sure, I had papers due and Greek homework to finish, but what I was really afraid of was the subject matter for toady’s lesson. Ecclesiology—the Church. Don’t get me wrong, I love the church, but church for me has looked like many different things in my lifetime.
My family and I moved to so many different places growing up that we never really had a home church. For us, church often looked like the steading passing of telephone poles or the gas stations on the way to our next destination. By the time I was 8, I had lived in 5 different states and moving had become sort of second nature. There was no community growing up, all you had was your family, and the love that they poured out to you every day. This was my experience, up until we finally settled down in Illinois—I was in fifth grade. After some searching around, we finally found it—a church, a community in which we felt comfortable opening ourselves up to. This was the community that I grew up in, that I was shaped by. We finally had one—a church we could call home.
What we didn’t realize, or perhaps I should say what I didn’t realize at the time, was that just like in a family, a church can have its own sort of…drama. Hurt feelings, misunderstood actions, stepping on toes, being offended, lying, cheating, stealing, the church had it all! I mean, this could be a reality T.V. series people! I remember thinking, later in high school, how could a group of God’s own people, Christians, dislike each other so much? Why do they keep coming back, Sunday after Sunday? Is this what all churches are like? It’s only in retrospect that I realize, no, not all churches are like the one I grew up in, but we all share problems, more than we’d like to think.
Paul certainly shared my frustrations with the Romans, to whom he was writing this letter to, the letter in which our scripture reading came out of today. As I am sure you know, but perhaps have not given much thought to, after Jesus was gone and the mission was placed on the disciples to spread the Gospel, no one had any idea what they were doing. Nobody knew what the Church looked like, the word didn’t even exist! All that people knew was that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and no other form of worship existed in that time in order to express that fact. So what did people start doing? They started meeting, gathering, and fellowshipping together. Slowly, a word began to crop up, describing this process—ecclesia. There you go, putting my Greek education to some good use. Ecclesia, where we get the word ecclesiology. Ecclesia has many different translations because, well, Greek is hard! But the most agreed upon translation is something like, “to be called out from and towards something”.
Put another way, to be called out from the world, as human beings, towards something bigger than themselves, towards God. Now, some scholars will just tell you ecclesia means, “a gathering” but how much cooler is that first definition?! “To be called out from the world, as humans, to something so much bigger than ourselves. And it is in this essence of ecclesia that we see our call in Romans 12, 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Extend hospitality to strangers.
These are the qualities of God’s people. Before there was any established church, before any written down doctrine or dogma, the definition of the church was a group of people, gathered together, looking to better themselves and their society in the reality of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
This all sounds great, but we forgot one thing. Early Christians, just like us, were human. They failed and often time fell short of God’s plan for them. Paul was frustrated with the Romans because they had separated themselves in two groups, the Jewish Christians, and the Gentile Christians. Two separate communities who had their own ideas about how to be true Christians. And Paul was furious about this. The entire point was to come together, in community. It wasn’t about keeping certain laws or speaking a certain language, Christ had come to unify, to reconcile, and help us realize that we are all in this together.
And it’s with this in mind that I want to point us to the last section in Romans 12, v. 14-18, ending with 21,
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
To fully realize ecclesia, what it means to be a church, is to follow Paul’s words to us here in Romans. It may seem like a drawn out laundry list to some, but it is important to realize that these things are not easy to achieve! “Bless those who persecute you”, not forgiving, not ignoring, but blessing! “Do not claim to be wiser than you are” How many of us need work on this one? It’s not easy! It takes work, but it is work that we are called to do as Christians, and as a Church.
At the beginning of our time together, I described what church often looked like for me growing up. It was messy, but there was also a lot of good. God eventually led me to the Presbyterian Church, into what I feel deep down in my soul, is a tradition that is actively seeking to live out the mission that Paul set before us. But we can’t be complacent. Even now as I’m speaking, I think to the issues surrounding the refugee crisis throughout our world, the consistent racial injustices committed every day across our country, discrimination against LGBTQ+ peoples, the poisoning of our waters by fossil fuel corporations, veterans who are sick and dying before they can get treated at VA hospitals, orphaned children being turned away at the border, brothers and sisters of Christ in the churches all around the country fighting over the smallest things while people, our people, outside the walls of a church building, are suffering.
Who isn’t here? At the feast table? Pastor Joel has asked this question several times throughout the past few weeks and I’d like to echo it—who isn’t here? Who should be? Why aren’t they here? What can we do to change that? What does it mean to be a Church, in full realization and reflection of God’s will for us? To love and welcome your enemies. To clothe and feed the stranger. To treat others as you would like to be treated. To do more, be more. To be in essence of ecclesia– to be called out from the world, once sinful humans, towards something bigger than ourselves, towards God and God’s plan for all of humanity. To be a Church is to be mission-minded, to go out and be the change that scripture calls us to be. It is with this mindset that church escapes being enclosed within these four walls, but out into all of God’s creation, as it was meant to be.
Now unto God the Father, Maker, and Redeemer, we ask for wisdom in all things, through your will, in Christ our Lord
Brandon Ouellette, Student Minister / March 26, 2017