As she walks down the street, she racked her brain to remember whether she has enough money in her account to cover the check she wrote the power company, and guesses she’ll find out when the lights either turn on (or not) when she gets home. She turns the corner and sees a stucco building, people crowding the stairs, and slowly entering through the front doors.
As she walked through those double doors, she was handed a piece of paper, with a short, “hello,” and a smile without the eyes, and found herself in a tiny entryway, full of people, talking amongst themselves about topics and people that she knew nothing about. A few lifted their heads to give her a nod, and she continued being shuffled through that tiny entryway into a larger space full of benches and windows, wood and white; there was music playing loudly, and everyone was talking excitedly, waiting for something… she didn’t know what would happen next, but she waited patiently through the noise and the music and the commotion. Something was going to happen any minute now.
When a person who has never been to church, any church, walks through these doors, or, frankly, the doors of any church, they are here for a reason that maybe they don’t even know yet. Maybe there has been some sort of dull longing, some curiosity or concern that God has used to bring them here. But when they arrive, we don’t make it easy. We do weird things. And we have built our buildings in a time when everyone went to church, strange structures that are completely designed for those who have always been here. We use words that require a dictionary and a thesaurus to begin to comprehend. We treat each other like family, for better or worse (with all the conflict that can bring), and it is difficult to break in and become a part.
I don’t want to overstate or understate the bravery required for a person to walk through those doors, but know that it takes a level of bravery that most of us haven’t thought about before.
Even when I am on vacation, I go to church every week of my life. That means that I am a visitor to new churches a few times a year. And, even as a pastor, there is a sense of anxiety that goes along with being new. There is a little bravery required every time I go to a church that I have never been to before. I never know what’s going to happen.
So we have to admit, that every time a guest comes to us, it is very much like the first day at a new school and they don’t know who they will sit with at lunch.
In the early church, they went out to seek those who would become new, to seek the foreigner, the guest, the visitor. Not in that street preacher, charlatan, sort of way. But earnestly understanding that in the story of the lost sheep, as soon as we claim Christ, we become the shepherd, it is each of us who must leave the ninety-nine and to go find the one.
We are the shepherd.
We leave the comfort of the flock, and sheep becomes shepherd, because we have the responsibility to share the good news of a good, and better, shepherd who gathers us all, but sends us to find the one who is hurting, the one who is suffering, the one who needs Jesus, that better shepherd.
So we find Peter preaching to anyone who will hear him, any who will listen. But, again, not in the way we understand sermons in our modern world, not sermons like mine. Sermons have always been the way that Christians teach faith history and sermons are meant to tell the story of what God has done in and for his people; sermons teach the story of who God is and how faith lives in faithfulness to him.
The question that they actually asked was, “Why do these men appear to be drunk?” But Peter answers the question, “Why do we need to be saved by God from ourselves?” Truly. He hears the question with his ears but hears the true question with his heart. He knows their longings and yearnings. He knows what brought them to Jerusalem. He knows because he has lived it. He sees his story, the one that begins in disgrace and shame and ends with grace and love and hope and peace – joy. He sees them and feels compassion enough to be compelled to speak. And speak he does.
Can you imagine hearing Peter’s sermon from last week, the one that ended with the message that says: “Christ who died, rose to life, sits at the right hand of God, and makes everything alright… makes everything alright…” Can you imagine hearing that sermon and then coming and experiencing the Church in a community like ours. You didn’t know anything about this Jesus and you see symbols that make no sense to you – why are there rails down here? Why does the person speaking stand behind that weird wooden boxes? They don’t do that on TED talks. Why do they sing together and stand while doing it? What’s up with the little hand raises? What does ‘amen’ mean? What’s up with playing the organ?
By their very nature, Churches really aren’t user-friendly. People come to hear from God and they end up stuck in a room with people.
Can you imagine the courage needed to walk through these doors?
The same thing was true when Peter was touched by the Holy Spirit and preached. These people were in Jerusalem to experience God, but Jerusalem was full of people. We’ve been to tourist attractions. We know what crowds feel like. I, personally, can’t imagine an environment that would feel less sacred than being in a crowd of people, trying to find a room, trying to find a meal, getting in each others’ ways. And, then, these travelers see a huge group of people talking to one another, in ways that they don’t understand, in languages that they don’t understand. So they make a big assumption and they say, “Ah, yes, they must be drunk.”
That’s the question they ask that Peter answers quickly. And I have always found this to be a funny answer. Peter says, “We can’t be drunk. It is only nine in the morning.” But, to be fair, this isn’t the question he is really answering. He’s answering the deeper question that is, “How can I connect with God?”
These people to whom he is speaking are Hebrew people, people from in and around Palestine who love and serve YHWH but have struggled to experience him in meaningful ways. Though they love and serve God, they have not loved God with their whole hearts or their neighbor as themselves. Peter tells the story of why.
He begins with the Prophet Joel, saying that God gave his Spirit to everyone. Not just for young, not just for old… not just for men, but for women as well – that in itself is revolutionary at his time. The Spirit is for the sons and daughters of God and will cause miracles. And when all is said and done, God will save everyone. The prophet Joel said it, Peter affirms it and he says something like, “Look around. It’s happening now.” All that the prophet said would happen is happening now. The time is now. The place is here. Get ready.
Then he answers another question, one that hasn’t been asked, which is, “Why here; why now?” The answer is Jesus. He says that the Spirit and its proof have been around this Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ, but that humanity rejected him. Humanity wanted him in chains, to be a slave to us, to be a slave to death, but God freed him to become the author of our salvation. Just like Joel said, “Salvation is here and for everyone,” but now it is because of this Jesus.
This sermon. It changed lives. God used it. Now imagine you heard it. That you were filled with the Spirit of God, that your heart was changed, that you became resolute, committed to greater love of God in Christ, and to love your neighbor as yourself, but then you show up to church, and you yourself find a typical church. Would you still believe that Peter’s words were true?
We have lost sight of the mission.
Like the shepherd, we have to begin looking for the one. That is, we have to be willing to leave these doors and tell the story of a God who overlooks our faults, forgives and offers love and salvation to all who want it because of the one we call Christ Jesus. And, as a church, we have to make this story easy to access. We have to tear down the walls between people and the Holy Spirit. We sing “Holy Spirit you are welcome here…” but are the Spirit’s people welcome here? Have we made God known in a way that is open to everyone? Have we gotten out of the way of God’s grace? Have we made room?
And, by making room, I’m asking, have we reached out. Now imagine the story from before in a different way. Instead of walking down the street, before the worship service, thinking about light bills and shopping lists, this time she is animatedly talking to a new friend, the one asked her if she would like to come. This time the friend tells her what to expect tells her about the people she knows and loves at her church. She tells her the weird things that we do as a part of the Church, but also tells her how our ritual feels ancient and beautiful. She tells her why being a part of a church is central to her life.
This time as they walk through that weird little room that we call a narthex, and into the sanctuary, introductions are made and names are given. This time, instead of waiting for something, anything, to happen, something already has. Relationships have been made and it’s friends who are sitting next to each other, ready to worship God together.
And so it is for us to be the Church in here and out there. We are the Church and at our best when we are making friends and leaving the ninety-nine to seek the one. Amen.