This is the third sermon in my four part series of the vision of an Eighth Day Church. My first mark of an Eighth Day Church is a church rooted and grounded in the story of scripture. Today, it’s living and growing as the family of God. I choose my own scripture verses rather than using the ones for the sixth Sunday of Easter: Acts 2.42-47, Romans 12.3-10, and Luke 24.13-35.
Today, I am going to give you a confession. It’s been weighing on my heart for a few weeks, and I need to get this out in the open and confess it to you. Each Wednesday night between 9 PM and 10:30, I am glued to the television reality show, The Apprentice. There, I’ve said it! Now, if you ring between those times you know why I don’t answer the phone. Or, if we are in a meeting on Wednesday night, you know why I try to end it before 9. Why do I like it? Well, many reasons, but one has to be that I enjoy watching this group of people all with the same goal try to work together. The winner of this reality show will sign a year’s contract to work with Sir Alan Sugar for £100,000. For many of them, it’s not the money, but the ability to work with one of the best business minds in the UK, if not the world. They divide up into teams and are forced to work together while at the same time compete with even their own teammates! While they live in the same house! Sir Alan, the leader who comes alongside them to judge every move, whittles 12 candidates down to one. Why do I mention this today? Because this programme is an excellent exploration in how not to do community! We continue looking at our three marks of an Eighth Day Church, where the second mark is encountering the risen Jesus as we grow in fellowship as the family of God.
The Apprentice, and all other reality shows, is only a small picture of what is happening in our larger society. Think about all the ways culture is breaking down personal relationships. With a cash machine, you no longer have any need to come face to face with a person at a bank. With an internet connection, you can order all your groceries online at Tesco.com, avoiding bumping into other people at the supermarket or even having to face a checkout person. If I was alive a century ago and I wanted to ask my neighbour a question, I would have to get off my bum, walk to the house, and speak to them. Then came the telephone, which kept me in my house and avoiding face-to-face contact. Then came email, which removes the voice factor. We love the conveniences so much, do we even realise what we are missing? My ethics professor at Duke told the story of a village that used to get their water from a communal well. As part of the ‘improvements’, they installed plumbing with pipes that took the water to each home. Do you know what happened? The community fell apart. How could something like plumbing destroy community? They no longer gathered at the well. They used to talk, share stories, share their lives! That didn’t happen when they no longer gathered together at the well.
As Christians, we don’t necessarily gather around the well, but we do gather around the well of revelation in the Bible. Our foundational story tells us that we are created in the image of God. As Christians, we testify to the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three persons, yet one God. God in the very Godhead is a community of persons. We don’t understand this always, but the mystery tells us that God is love, and how can one love if there is no one else to love? We have in the Trinity a community of persons where for all times there has been love among the three. This is the image in which God created us – as people who were never meant to be individuals alone, but we were made for each other. How does this look in Genesis 1? God created us male and female. We were created to live with each other as humans and in fellowship with God. At our most basic level, we truly reflect the image of God when we live in fellowship with each other. We as the church live in a world that is becoming more and more separated, more and more broken. God calls us to live as a fellowship of people who are united in him and then reflect that unity to the world.
At times, the church has been the opposite. We can easily point to the many denominations that display for the world the church is divided. Then there are the divisions within churches. I know churches that have split because they couldn’t agree on the colour of the carpet. But how about the subtle ones where people come each Sunday and sit in isolation? Some don’t want it. Others prefer it. Do we know the others in our churches? Do we know their families? Do we know that they have experienced an awful week at work? Do we want to keep these things to ourselves? Do we know why someone missed church? Do we truly listen to what people are saying to us? Do we expect a minister or a pastoral visitor to bother with that sort of thing? These questions force us to face our isolation, and our distortion of God’s image. These may not feel like divisions because there wasn’t any argument. But, it still adds to the sense of isolation that may be there, whether desired or not. We end up reflecting to God the world’s brokenness rather than reflecting to the world the unity of our God. It’s The Apprentice on a large scale where the participants eventually scatter, hearing the words ‘You’re fired!’ from the one around whom their goals were centred.
Let’s take that and look at our story in Luke. For these men and women the death of Jesus was the end of Jesus’ ministry. This group of people had been united around Jesus. He was their reason for being a group. Now that he was dead, what was left for them? These two people headed to Emmaus may have been going back home. They may be representing the natural breakdown of the group that no longer needed to stay together. They were returning to life as they knew it before Jesus. They expect to return to their home and begin again all those things that got put off because they were wasting their time with another would-be messiah who Rome had easily deposed of. The little community of followers was fracturing and here were two people going back home – likely the first of many.
But, because Good Friday was not the end of Jesus, this was not the end of the story. Our two travellers did not make it to Emmaus. Instead, Jesus appears to them and in the retelling the story of scripture and in some broken bread in a wayside inn, Jesus begins to re-knit this little community back together again. With these two, it was a walk along the road. With Peter who denied Jesus, it takes a walk on the beach. With Mary, it was calling her name in the garden. With Thomas, it was an appearance to him so that he could believe. And much later, it was a blinding light as Saul met Jesus on his way to try to destroy the new community. The risen Jesus overcomes that which separates us and brings us into a community of fellowship. The community that the risen Jesus forms becomes a place where people can meet him. This passage in Luke tells us in story form what Jesus tells us explicitly in Matthew, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ Jesus who is present with us in fellowship is also the one who draws us into fellowship. We gather in his name as he works to undo what the world has tried to do and still is doing.
This is why I want us to take on the call of our Methodist President, Martyn Atkins. A church that is open to renewal and stop the decline needs to become an everyday church drawn together by the risen Christ. By being an everyday church, this does not mean taking on more committee assignments or agreeing to do the cleaning. We look beyond being a church that gathers only on the Sunday. A church that will reflect the image of God in fellowship within the Godhead and with us is not a church that meets only once a week. This would take a lot longer to unpack, so I will only bring three things.
The first we can hear in our Luke passage. Do you want to know why Jesus met those two people on the road to Emmaus? Because that’s where they were. If they had been on Space Mountain at Disneyland, he would have met them there. We need to be a community where people are. People want to know how to be a better parent, how to live in a world of injustice, how to deal with addictions. They do not want to sit in a committee and talk for an hour about whether to have a 5 pin or a 7 pin lock. But they might if we meet them where they are in other places. I have preached small groups since I have been here, and this is one of the first places where church and life can intersect. We need to make sure that our small groups don’t degenerate into one more church event during the week, but ask the question: are we here reflecting the community of our Trinitarian God – the God in Jesus who met us where we are? One of the reasons that Disciple Bible Study made such a difference to our lives is that it tore down what we thought a small group bible study meant and then showed us what it could mean to be a community who learned and cared for each other while studying this story about the risen Jesus who drew us together. It forced us to look at the bible and then ourselves. If we are only committed to preserving what we have, then it won’t matter who is preaching or how nice people are after church. If what we do here doesn’t touch people’s lives they will continue to walk past.
The second thing an everyday church means is letting Jesus out of the church. We have locked him up in here. I heard a story of a Kenyan who did an exchange for six weeks in Britain. They asked him why the church in Kenya was thriving and in Britain was declining. He said you only speak about Jesus in these four walls. In Kenya, we talk about him wherever we are – in the post office, in each other’s houses, anywhere! What do you think about that? Do we do that here? That means a meal out with friends becomes a little bit church in the Bonny Inn or wherever! A visit with someone who cannot come brings church to them. Jesus isn’t a word we can only say in church! Jesus doesn’t have to stay in here. He can be wherever two or three gather.
The third thing about being an everyday church comes from the lesson we heard from Paul. The image of the church he seems to like most is ‘body’. That expresses our interconnectedness better than any other image. We know that the hand is one part of us, but it’s hard to tell where the hand, wrist and arm begin and end. And there’s the blood, veins, and whatever else that keeps it connect, which the Spirit of Jesus does for us. We are many, yet one and though we all have different abilities and gifts, we need each other. No one person – not the minister, not the steward – can dominate. Our fellowship becomes a place of trust and safety. We trust each other to do the jobs assigned – even if we feel they didn’t do it the way we would have liked. We become a place of mutual love and forgiveness. We rejoice when others rejoice. We hurt when others do. We look at how to reconcile when the community breaks because of sin and division. We are always seeking ways to overcome that which would isolate, that what would marginalise. The church Jesus calls us to be is a place where all people can belong. This is why I say that Safeguarding, while tedious with the regulations, is so important. But protecting our children from abuse is only a small part of our recognition that all people are important and all worthy of a safe place to be free from any abuse – whether violent or even being told they are making the coffee wrong. I want this to be a place of mutual love, where people are connected in their lives together, where we walk alongside each other. It can start after church. Don’t chat about the weather. Ask someone, ‘How are you?’ If you don’t know someone, ask them about themselves. And listen for the answer.
Can you imagine a place like this? We can if we can imagine a resurrected Jesus bursting out of the tomb on the eighth day of creation! By the Holy Spirit, Jesus creates us to be a community united in him. A community that sometimes stumbles and has to have restarts, but a community that is on the way. Unlike the broken community in The Apprentice, we don’t pick people off one by one. A comment by one of the participants was telling when she said, ‘You think you know who your friends are and then you get in the boardroom in front of Sir Alan and then everything changes.’ Here we meet friends, and they become more than friends – a family. We don’t get it right all the time, but we have someone constantly draws us and empowers us to be more than we are. Jesus is here to unite us. Jesus forms a community where there is no deceit and no competition. Jesus walks alongside us, sharing a meal, opening our minds, drawing us from our scattered lives and brings us into fellowship with each other so that we may truly reflect the image of God!