“God’s Covenant Community: The People of God”

a sermon based upon Genesis 12:1-4, Jeremiah 31:31-34, & Acts 2:36-47

Already in today’s service, we have spoken a lot about “the Church”. Some people were raised to think that “the Church” is holy, or divine, because it is an institution created by Jesus in service to God. In some respects (theologically) that’s true. After all, we in the UCC say that Jesus is the “only head of the church” and we believe that (in God’s eyes) there is only “one holy & universal Church”.

However, as faithful as we are to our local congregation, the Church itself never becomes “holy”, if by that we mean the object of our faith or something we worship. The Church is too human of an institution to represent God on Earth; it has proven itself too often to be too fallible and faulty to mirror Jesus’ life as he lived it. (!) The institutional Church, with some 2,000 years of social history and development behind it, often feels “archaic” or out-of-touch today.

The Church doesn’t move at the speed of business, or see the world in partisan political terms; the Church doesn’t produce goods & services that bolster our economy. So, what do we offer that is of “value” to today’s world? (Frankly, some Churches seem to be so focused on Heaven that they are of no Earthly good at all!)

In Walter Brueggemann’s most recent book, he is asked: “Why join a church? What is the benefit of church membership?” Walter Brueggemann answers: “It is about being a member of a body that has things in common, and that has futures in common toward which we are willing to work. Each member is invited to take sustained responsibility for the life and well-being of the whole. That responsibility must be widely held. … The time is well over in our society when it could be assumed that the church is simply ‘there’ and can be counted on at our convenience. Now we know how fragile the church as a community is, and that it therefore takes attentiveness on the part of all its members. …

“I think membership obligates us to each other.”

I think what we offer is a consistent expression of Jesus’ life and teachings -- his desire to create an alternative community he called “my church”, which focuses on the love of God for this old world such that God would send a Messiah/Christ for its salvation. That’s who we are to this day.

The life and ministry of Jesus Christ -- His ethical teachings and His faithfulness to God – provide us with a process and a goal for the healing of our world. Jesus’ model of faithfulness, even to the bitter end -- did not negate the life-changing energy He unleashed in the world. We are here today as Jesus’ followers in the flesh – His covenant community, “the people of God” in Alpena – because Jesus was right, and God vindicated His ministry by raising Him from death.

Those early Jewish disciples became “the Church” following the Crucifixion of Jesus because His Holy Spirit continued to live in them and to empower them. “Forward through the ages, in unbroken line, move the faithful spirits at the call divine.” When human beings open themselves to the “new life” offered by faith through Christ -- when they open themselves to the Gospel that Jesus taught, and trust the Holy Spirit of God to guide and empower them, they are the Church.

We heard the dramatic conclusion of Peter’s Pentecost sermon in the third Scripture reading today: “Let all the house of Israel know assuredly

that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified!”

The people were cut to the heart… “What shall we do?” they asked.

And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized all of you, in the name

of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

And there were added that day about 3,000 souls. … And day by day, attending the Temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of 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. (Acts 2:36-47)

That’s a first, quick, snapshot of the first Church gathered together and doing ministry in Jesus’ name. It’s who we are… still.

The Church is a “covenanted community” of people who have chosen to follow Jesus Christ. It encompasses the whole company of Christians – past, present, and yet unborn – who are called by God into fullness of life. That’s what we mean when we speak of the “communion of saints” or of the “holy catholic Church” – we mean the “universal” Church, in all places and throughout all time. Richard Avery & Donald Marsh put it like this in a song: “I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together. All who follow Jesus all around the world, yes, we’re the church together!”

While the congregation is the local expression of God’s Church, even we are much more than a strictly “human” organization. Yes, being a Church consists of a special building & a set of programs, but fundamentally the Church is made up of Christians who respond to God’s call in their life. Each person here has their own personal interests, tastes, politics, and lifestyle, but we are “bound together” in covenant to be one “people”, one “body”, with one “Spirit”. Those are all biblical metaphors for our sense of “extended family” that the congregation becomes. We are the People of God.

Or if I may offer yet another metaphor: when our members (in all their political and personal variety) are taken together, we are a multi-faceted “tapestry” of diversity… not all alike by any means; but, even so, there is no “confusion” of who we are. We seek “unity” without insisting on “uniformity”. For some more doctrinaire people, our acceptance of diversity of opinion among our members and our dismissal of uniformity may be an explosive concept. They like a “one-size-fits-all” belief system. We in the UCC don’t do that.

Let me define some words before I go any further…

The English word “church” derives from the Greek word “kyrie” which means “Lord”. (Kyrie elision, Lord have mercy.)

A “kuriakos” means “one who belongs to the Lord”; the hierarchy of Roman priests are called the “curia”. The German word for church is “Kirche”, the Scottish call it “Kirk”… all derived from the same Greek root word for “Lord”. We come to the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day… that’s “Church”.

A more important Greek word, however, is “ekklesia” – from which we get the English word “ecclesiastical” and the Spanish word for “church”: Iglesias. The Greek verb “ekkaleo” means to “call together” or “to summon” (to “assemble” at the request of a “lord”). It’s not a particularly religious word in its origin. The Greeks used it to describe an assembly of the whole body of citizens who met together to make political decisions or to hear an appeal arising from judicial opinions. A herald (an official messenger) would blow his trumpet and, in the name of the ruling political authority, call together an assembly to do official business. That was an “ekklesia”.

It’s the word used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible for when the people of Israel were summoned together. In Numbers 10, for example, the people were summoned by a trumpet to learn the word of God. Or in Deuteronomy 9 & 10, when the Hebrews were traveling in the wilderness, their assemblies were called “ekklesia”. The word came to be used for “the whole people of God”, that is, all those whom God summons together. It’s another word for church.

In fact, “ekklesia” is the word the Septuagint Bible uses as the translation of the Hebrew word for “synagogue” -- the particular meeting place of the Jews for worship and study in local communities.

In other words, “ekklesia” came to refer to both the “total people” called by God, and a “particular group” meeting in one place. So, when the early Christians began writing letters, and sought to describe the uniqueness of their congregations, they naturally used the Greek word “ekklesia”. They believed that they were a people called by God into a new era, under a new covenant.

They were called together by a Higher Power (God) that transcended their social divisions.

“Ekklesia” builds, first, on the understanding of a “special calling” which pervades the Old Testament. The Jews believed that they had been God’s “chosen” people; John Calvin later said that the Church was God’s “elect” people. The concept is the same: God has called you, chosen you, and made you into a Covenant Community, distinct from the rest of society. St. Paul and others enriched that meaning, and expanded it, to define a new social group: Christians.