“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.
In both cases – the Jewish synagogue or the Christian Church -- it is not just a voluntary human assembly, but one that is formed by the will and act of God. God calls the assembly together: ekklesia. While the synagogue restricted itself to the Judean population, the children of Israel; the Church, called into being by Jesus Christ, does not depend on people being of the same race… or on anything else which the members themselves have achieved. (!) In this regard, St. Paul’s vision of the Church as “no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female, for in Christ all are one” was a radical innovation of social inclusion.
By now you are probably rolling your eyes thinking: “It’s all Greek to me!” All this discussion about the roots of our language may seem irrelevant and labored. But the conviction -- that the Church we experience in our society, and the church we appreciate quite personally right here in Alpena, was ultimately created by God for the Good of humanity in Jesus’ precious name -- this conviction is fundamental to the biblical perspective. God has created us, called us, and covenanted with us to be God’s Realm (God’s People) here.
Yes, we own the church building, but it’s God’s church. We run the church’s programs, but it’s Jesus’ ministry. We are a member congregation of the United Church of Christ, but we are “covenanted” with God Almighty. That’s where our ultimate allegiance lies!
We are “Church”-- Kuriakos -- “belonging to the Lord”. We are “ekklesia” – called together by our Higher Power to do the Lord’s business.
This morning, we read responsively both our “article of faith” (regarding Jesus Christ as our Lord, our use of Scripture, our reliance on the Holy Spirit, claiming the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers, and taking responsibility to make the “historical faith” relevant in our own generation) and we read our “Article of Covenant” – both documents date back almost 40 years ago.
I especially like the portion of our Covenant that says our purpose is: “to develop in people a consciousness of their relations and duties to God and to each other… and to inspire them with love for truth, passion for righteousness, and enthusiasm for service.” Love, passion, and enthusiasm… very positive words! Up-beat.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we said that we would “covenant with each other to strive to express His spirit in our individual and corporate life… working, giving, praying for the increase [of the Church], its purity and its peace; and seeking in every way to make it a power for the building-up of the Kingdom of God.” A power for the building up of the Kingdom of God. That’s our hope, our mission!
After that, we got down to the nitty-gritty of what it means to be a member of this particular local church, in which “we find our spiritual home.” We recognized Kathy & Ray Moore as new members, fully and officially joined with us: “enlisting in the work of this local church as it serves this community and the world.”
And we concluded the reception of new members by saying to Kathy & Ray: “We welcome you with joy in the common life of this Church. We promise you our friendship and prayers as we share the hopes and labors of the Church of Jesus Christ.”
Last Saturday, the baptism of baby Levi Straley (Cindy & Jim’s grandson), and now the adding of two new members to our roster this week, are among the highest joys of a local congregation like ours. There is new life, new relationships, new opportunities for ministry in our midst… 157 years after our founding as a congregation in Alpena. Who would think that an old-line, mainline, traditional congregation like ours would still be producing good fruit on new branches so long?
Actually, our lineage as a Church goes back 2,000 years to that Pentecost event when those 3,000 Jews joined the Jesus movement. No… it actually goes back 4,000 years earlier than that, when an unknown old man (75 years old) and his wife (Abram & Sarai) were called to leave their country and their kinfolk, to “go from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” That’s a risky business -- to leave one’s comfort zone and head out to an unknown destination! This initial act of faith on the part of Abram & Sarai in response to the Lord God, is the basic “covenant” in the Bible which started Judaism.
Another “covenant” was made between the Lord God and the Hebrew people which redefined the initial covenant with Abraham. That was when Moses was given Torah Law -- what we call the Ten Commandments. These principles were to guide the people of Israel like a national Constitution, with the Lord God as their ultimate leader.
Unfortunately, as the centuries passed, the Covenant community of Israel failed to keep those agreements. They wanted a king “over them”, who made his own rules. Civic institutions were designed, as well, such as a Temple and a priesthood, and elite families who disregarded the poor. The national leaders did not live in loyalty toward the Covenant, nor trust in the Lord God. Civil War decimated the ten Northern tribes of Israel, leaving only Judah & the Levites. Eventually, even they were defeated and exiled to Babylon.
It seemed all was lost. Abraham’s covenant of blessing was broken; Moses’ covenant had failed.
But the Prophet Jeremiah kindled new hope when he wrote to those defeated people: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a New Covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Not like the covenant I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – my covenant which they broke! … But this is the covenant which I will make… I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. … They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
I see Jesus’ life and ministry as the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promise of a “New Covenant”. This one would not be limited to the “chosen race” from which Jesus came, but would be open to them and to everyone. This New Covenant would be one of forgiveness and one in which God’s Law would be written in the hearts of people, from the least of us to the greatest.
This New Covenant was sealed with Jesus’ own lifeblood, which allows us (the Church) to be a Community: called together by God, to assemble, to congregate and to serve in Jesus’ name. Hallelujah!