Friday, April 18, 2008

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 13, 2008)
“Life Behind the Door” (Acts 2:42-47)

Churches nowadays, especially the ones here in America, do all kinds of things to get people inside the door. Some have made their buildings look less like traditional churches. They do this because they think that some people might be afraid to step inside an imposing sanctuary. So the church is made to look like an office building.

Many churches also publish slick advertisements, like this one from the Yellow Pages: There’s a big picture of a husband and wife – both young, attractive, and perfectly groomed – with the caption calling both of them pastors. Then the ad says “Today’s Church ... the Ultimate Life Starts this Sunday! ... Come and experience what so many others are talking about! ... Sermons that inspire and motivate ... Superior quality children’s ministry ... Contemporary and uplifting music ... Cutting edge youth program ... Mention this ad for 5 free espresso drinks.” Then, there is a quote from a “satisfied customer” at the bottom which says: “Today’s Church is alive! Every Sunday it exceeds my expectations. My income has doubled, I met the woman of my dreams, and most importantly, I have a strong relationship with God.” I’m glad he added the “most importantly” part ... but it is very curious that the first thing he mentions is about money. I would have mentioned the coffee!

Does this kind of stuff bring people inside the door of the church? It might. But what happens when your income does not double? What happens instead if you lose your job? What happens when you don’t meet the woman of your dreams? What happens instead when your marriage crumbles apart? Where is God in all of that? Jesus said in today’s Gospel that he came so that we “may have life and have it abundantly.” Our lives do not often seem so abundant. And churches that hold out false hope are bringing people in the wrong door.

Jesus said that he is “the Door.” If people come inside these doors here and our preaching and our life is not centered on Christ, then we have become like the thieves and robbers that Jesus condemns in our text. False teaching and the false hope and false promises that go along with it kill and destroy faith.

So what does “Life Behind the Door” look like? Baptized into Christ and trusting in his saving death and resurrection, we have entered into the door of the Holy Christian Church. And once we’re inside that door, what does our life in Christ look like? St. Luke answers that for us today, as he describes the activity of the early church in today’s first reading from Acts 2: And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their posses-sions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, at-tending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

First and foremost, “Life Behind the Door” involves being devoted to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship. For the first Christians in Jerusalem, they heard for themselves from the very mouths of the apostles. And what the apostles had heard was directly from Christ. Their word was the Word of God. Today, we devote ourselves to the apostle’s teaching when we devote ourselves to hearing and studying God’s Word. The creeds and confessions of the church are expositions of that apostolic teaching, and so it is good for us to study them, too ... just like we’re doing now in our Adult Bible Class, studying the Book of Concord, the Lutheran Confessions. We do not invent new doctrines, but we believe, teach, and confess only what the church has taught over the centuries as being the apostolic teaching.

Also, being devoted to the apostles’ fellowship means so much more than just potlucks and pinochle. Fellowship is primarily doctrinal. When we remain faithful to the apostles’ teaching, this preserves our fellowship. We are united with one voice in what we believe, teach, and confess. This is pleasing to God, as Paul urges in 1 Corinthians 1, I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you may be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Cor. 1:10)

Another way of translating “fellowship” here is “communion” or “sharing something in common.” We are united in a common faith and love toward our Lord and toward each other. “Blest be the tie that binds / Our hearts in Christian love; / The fellowship of kindred minds / Is like to that above.” (LSB 649.1) We are united in prayer as we bring our common petitions before the Lord’s throne of grace. “Before our Father’s throne / We pour our ardent prayers; / Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, / Our comforts and our cares.” (LSB 649.2) This fellowship or communion finds its fulfillment in the “breaking of bread,” which is another way of speaking about Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. There, we share most intimately our fellowship with Jesus and with one another. There, at the Lord’s table, we kneel together in a common confession of faith. There, at the table we kneel together to receive in common our Lord’s true body and true blood. That is true fellowship.

Now, I said fellowship is primarily doctrinal. At the same time, I don’t want to deny the social aspect of fellowship. Potlucks and pinochle and coffee and cookies and retreats are important. It is good for us to be involved in these activities to get to know our Christian brothers and sisters in our own congregation. In so doing, we will better learn how to serve them and love them. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about someone just by playing cards with them or sitting across the table from them at a potluck.

“Life Behind the Door” is also a life filled with awe. Of those first Christians in Jerusalem, the text says that “awe came upon every soul.” They had a holy reverence. They acknowledged the presence of the risen Christ among them. Moreover, when the apostles were alive, they did many wonders and signs. These were their badges of authority, you might say. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12 that these signs and wonders performed by the apostles were the signs of a true apostle. The very same thing that Jesus did, the apostles did ... making the lame to walk, the mute to speak, raising the dead, and so forth. Therefore, they carried the authoritative, inspired message of Jesus.

We don’t get to see those spectacular signs and wonders among us today. But the presence of the risen Christ is still among us. His signs and wonders are still done, although in more subdued ways, such as in Baptism and in the Lord’s Supper. These are miracles just as much as the healings and speaking in other languages that the apostles did. And so we, too, can come into worship with a holy reverence and be filled with awe. And we can leave in awe, knowing that we have been in the presence of the Risen Christ and that His presence goes with us.

“Life Behind the Door” leads us to share lovingly with each other and especially with those in need. The text says, All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. Now this does not mean that we ought to live like communists. The early Christians still owned their own goods and property. But they certainly acknowledged the use and benefits of their possessions for the common good. For us, the point lies in our willingness to share with those who need our help, especially those who are of our own household of faith. God has given us our possessions to be a blessing to others. Jesus was willing to give up His own life for us, and this motivates us to give to others. In comparison to His sacrifice, it is a small thing to feed those who are hungry, to support those who are ill, and to clothe those who are without adequate clothing.

St. Luke concludes by writing, And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. The early Christians still went to the temple in Jerusalem. That was the common place to meet and to pray. But when it came time for “breaking bread,” or the Lord’s Supper, they did this in their homes, which soon became the meeting places of Christian congregations all over the place, as did certain synagogues when the whole membership put their trust in the Messiah Jesus.

“Life Behind the Door” is true, abundant life. It’s simple. It’s pure. It doesn’t involve gimmicks to get people inside the door. It doesn’t involve the dynamic personality of the pastor or the music or the youth program. Instead, it is about the dynamic, powerful Word of God. It is a life centered on Christ and his finished work at the cross. When we hear the message of the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death on the cross, when we acknowledge that He is risen indeed and is even among us now, when we come before Him with awe and reverence, He blesses us with glad and sincere hearts. We tell the Good News about Jesus, and the Lord will add to our number those who are being saved, for He promises that His word will not return void, but will go out and achieve the purposes for which He sent it. That is real, true, abundant “Life Behind the Door” ... a life united with Christ, our Good Shepherd ... and we carry that Life with us even when we leave behind the doors of this building.


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