Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Easter

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (May 24, 2009)
“The Business of the Church” (Acts 1:12-26)

Throughout the Easter season this year, we have been looking at the readings from the Book of Acts and considering the question “How does the Church live in the light of the resurrection of Jesus?” This morning we might add the Ascension of Jesus to that question, since we commemorated that event in our Lord's life this past Thursday. Jesus was received into heaven in a cloud of glory. The angels promised the disciples that “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) We no longer have Jesus' visible presence among us. We extinguished the Paschal Candle on Thursday to signify that fact. But our Lord Jesus is still very much present with us. He promised, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20) The same Lord who rules and reigns over all creation for the good of his Church is present with his Church to forgive, to strengthen, to comfort, and to refresh.
“How does the Church live in the light of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus?” Here's an overview of how we answered that question:
  • God's people share a common life, expressing that common life in the unity we have in our confession of faith and in the way we support one another when we are in need. As we do so, we testify to the resurrection of Jesus, and the power of his risen life among us.
  • God's people repent of their sins, turn to the Lord, rejoice that our sins have been blotted out by the blood of Jesus, and enjoy the times of refreshing that come from being in the presence of the Lord.
  • God's people believe and proclaim that the Holy Name of Jesus is the only name by which we are saved, especially when there are so many competing truth claims in our world.
  • And like Philip in his encounter with the Ethiopian official, God's people point others to Christ, with whatever part of the Scriptures we have in front of us, and we are ready to do this whenever and wherever the Spirit leads.
Today we want to look at one final reading from the Book of Acts on this last Sunday of Easter as we consider our question at hand. The remaining eleven disciples have returned from the Mount of Olives, or Olivet as St. Luke calls it. They had just witnessed the ascension of Jesus and were obeying the instruction that Jesus had given them to “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49) The day of Pentecost was just around the corner, when the Holy Spirit was going to fill the disciples with power to preach the Good News about Jesus.

And so, the disciples went about their business. And what exactly was that business which they understood was necessary? They gathered together, devoted themselves to prayer, and held their first “voters' assembly.”

The believers in those days understood the necessity of gathering together. Of course, they were a relatively tiny group … about 120. That's about how many people we have here at Messiah on our best-attended Sundays. And when you are in such a small minority, receiving support from like-minded folks is important and beneficial.

St. Luke writes that they were “with one accord … devoting themselves to prayer.” Their gathering together had a singular purpose … To pray. Do we forget about that purpose when we gather together? When you come to the Divine Service, do you go on “cruise control” during the liturgy, or are you also praying the words you are speaking and singing? Do you pray right along with the pastor when he prays the collects and the petitions, so that you can say a hearty “Amen” at the end of each collect and reply with a sincere “hear our prayer” after each “Lord, in your mercy”? Do you sing the hymns only when you like the tune, and without paying attention to the words? Our hymns can be prayers and praises offered to God, too, you know. They're not just meant to be musical interludes to break up the monotony of the liturgy.

What about at other times? Are we devoted to prayer at other times when we gather together? We often begin our meetings with prayer. But do we do this just because it's part of the routine … having an obligatory opening and closing prayer? “The prayer is finished … now let's get down to the real business.” How often in our council meetings and voters' meetings do we follow the example of that first “voters' assembly” recorded for us in our text today, where the members prayed before an important decision?

The company of the believers in Christ had gathered together and discussion turned towards replacing Judas as one of the twelve apostles. It was clear that having eleven apostles was not our Lord's original intention. Jesus specifically chose twelve, making a connection between the twelve tribes of Israel of the Old Covenant and the twelve Apostles as the foundation of the Church of the New Covenant, the New Israel. Peter laid out the requirements to fill the office: “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22). Two candidates were brought forward, Joseph and Matthias. And here's what I want you especially to notice. What did they do at this point? They prayed. Before any vote was taken or lot was cast, as in this case, they prayed. They asked for the Lord's guidance on their choice.

I called this meeting a voters' assembly, and I suppose that's kind of tongue-in-cheek. There's no evidence of any vote being taken. But perhaps there was initially when they were deciding which two candidates to present to fill the office of one of the Twelve. Only then, when both men were found equally qualified did they leave it up to a roll of the dice or a drawing of straws or the flipping of a coin. This is all conjecture, but it's certainly possible. Some commentators say that the apostles jumped the gun by deciding in this fashion, that it was the Lord's intention to have St. Paul be the 12th apostle, chosen by our Lord himself later on in the Book of Acts. But that debate is beyond our scope right now. The main point here, of course, is how they prayerfully carried out their decision making process, asking God to be an active part of their business meeting.

Memorial Day weekend has become a weekend when we take time out from our usual business. Some people get out of town. Others stay at home, but they do so in order enjoy an extra day at home with the family. Maybe there's some work around the house you need to catch up on, and your work schedule has kept you from getting around to it. Whatever you decide to do, I hope you take time out from your usual business and remember the meaning of Memorial Day … a time to remember and give thanks for those men and women whose business it was to fight for our country and who lost their lives in so doing. We get so busy with resting and relaxing and having fun and barbecuing burgers and dogs that we forget about the real meaning of the holiday.

In a similar way, it's easy to get busy with jobs around the church building, that we forget about the most important business of the Church. God has called each and every one of us into his family in the waters of Baptism. He gathers us together to receive his gifts of life and salvation in Word and Sacrament here in our congregation. We respond by devoting ourselves “to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) Then, our Lord sends us out into the world to tell the Good News about Jesus and to serve our neighbors in love as a testimony to the resurrection life of Jesus within us. That's the real business of the Church.

There's a lot of business that goes on here, that's for sure. It can seem overwhelming at times. But every thing that we do here … whether it's changing light bulbs, vacuuming the carpet, mowing the lawn, fixing toilets, painting walls, setting up tables and chairs, counting money, writing checks, answering phones, fixing computers, going to board meetings, council meetings, and yes, even voters' assemblies … everything we do ought to support the number one business item of the Church, and that's getting out the Good News about Jesus. If there's something we do that doesn't support that, then maybe we ought to rethink whether our time is better spent in some other activity.

Prayer might be the best place to start.

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