What Is the Church?

October 21, 2018 Speaker: Matt Benton Series: The 5 W's

Passage: Acts 2:42–2:47

The five W’s.  I remember in elementary school learning how to write a book report or a story or really anything.  And the first thing you learn when coming to write a paper is that it needs to answer the five W’s.  I took a journalism class in middle school and learned every newspaper article should answer the five W’s.  They’re the basics, they’re how we communicate the fundamentals.  And the five W’s are who what when where why. And then because we always have an extra question but it doesn’t start with a W we add in how.


I know y’all have heard of these five W’s.  They’re how we learned to organize our thoughts, how we learned to structure our thoughts in learning how to write.  It’s how we sometimes think about things and issues.  It’s an easy way of going back to the basics, back to the fundamentals to figure out what’s at the heart of the matter.


We should probably do that as Christians more, getting back to the basics. We should probably do that as Christians more, revisiting the fundamentals.


For a couple weeks we are going to do just that.  We are going to look at a few of the five W’s as they pertain to the church. We began last week during our cd release concert as Brenda invited us to consider the question “Who is God?”  Who God is is the central question the Christian faith attempts to answer.  It’s the central question all religions seek to answer.  Who is God, what is God like, and what does that say about who we are living in this world.


Today we are going to address the second W: what.  What is the church?  What are we doing here on Sunday mornings, what are we supposed to do throughout the week, and what difference does it make in the world.


Next week we are going to address the third and final W of this series: Where? Where are we headed?  Where is this world headed? 


These questions make up the heart of Scripture, the heart of the Bible, the heart of the Gospels, the heart of Jesus’ teaching.  They’re also questions that are central to each of us as people as we seek to make sense of our world.  They’re questions each of us that call ourselves Christians, each of us who come to church, must answer for ourselves.  So for these weeks we are going to spend some time considering these foundational fundamental questions.


Today we look at what is the church. 


There’s an obvious answer: the church is a building or place or thing we come to. I’m sure many of you this morning said to a spouse or a child “are you ready to go to church.”  Church is a thing or place or activity you go to.  You are at church right now.


As some of you know I was recently in France for ten days.  While there we saw some family friends who live in France and they were asking me how things were going with the church.  As a pastor I frequently get a similar question wherein people basically get what I do on Sundays but they are very curious what I do during the week.  It’s ok if you’ve wondered that yourself, my wife wonders it quite frequently.  In the course of explaining it I mentioned that this church is so young that we don’t have a church building but we meet in the school.  And the friend then said, “so you don’t have a church?”  Oftentimes we are accustomed to thinking of the church as a building or as a place. 


There’s an answer that this church embodies somewhat uniquely in that the church is a group of people.  We do not have a building and yet we are a church.  What is the church?  It’s the people who gather in the name of Jesus.  There’s an old church song that goes “I am the church you are the church we are the church together.  All who follow Jesus all around the world yes we are the church together.”  That’s a good answer and a really helpful corollary to viewing the church as a building but its still a tad unsatisfactory.


For a full answer let’s look at Scripture.  The New Testament has a couple different forms of writings within it. The first four books are four different accounts of Jesus Life called the gospels.  They were good news writings to tell about how God had come to be with us in Jesus Christ.  Most of the New Testament is composed either of these gospels or of letters written by followers of Jesus to different churches throughout the Roman world in the generations following the events the Gospels recount.  Sandwiched in between these two types of writings is a book called Acts.  The full name is the Acts of the Apostles and it is a good news story of what happened after Jesus.  How did these churches that these letters are going to be to get started?  What happened narratively after Jesus ascended into heaven?


Basically Acts is the story of the church. 


So in trying to answer the question what is the church we will turn to a particular section from the Book of Acts that outlines how the earliest church functioned.  And within it we will find our answer as we seek to know what it is we are doing here this morning, in this building, with these people.


Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.


So these where the characteristics these were the markers of the earliest church. In this short paragraph we see what it means to be a church and what it means to be the church.  And we can see a number of distinct activities within this paragraph that we can take one by one. 


They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.


A clear key marker for what the church is is the thing we find ourselves doing today. We worship.  We gather together and worship God.  We see the features of worship laid out here in the first descriptor of the church.  We gather together, we listen to the apostles teaching or to Scripture read and proclaimed, we break bread, and we pray.  A simple answer to the question of what is the church is that it’s the group of people who come together to worship God.


Worshipping God is important as it connects us to God as God’s Spirit is present with us today.  It connects us to the God who created us, who loves us, who wants to heal us from our faults and failings.  It helps us encounter love and grace and forgiveness.  It helps us become people who bear love and grace and forgiveness to the world.


But the separate elements of worship are important as well.  When we come together as a gathered people we realize in a hyper individualistic world that the individual is not the. Most important person in the universe.  When we listen to the apostles teaching we become people who are humble enough to listen and to learn.  When we pray we seek help, not relying on our own strength.  And when we break the bread in communion we come to see this world as good and see miracles as the union of our world with God’s Spirit. Worship deeply changes us, both as individuals and as a community.


Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.


What happens in worship does not stop here.  We don’t come here, feel better for a bit and then leave to be the same people we were coming in.  The point of coming in worship, the point of church, isn’t just for us to feel a bit uplifted at noon on Sundays.  It’s so that we can leave here changed.  We can leave here slightly different.  We can leave here charged to be a sign of God’s presence in the world.


In the early church the apostles were performing signs and wonders.  The Holy Spirit was working through them and people outside of the church were noticing something was different because there were Christians around.  They were noticing signs and wonders.


Does our community encounter signs and wonders because we come here to church every week?  They should. One marker of the church is that people notice we are here.  They see signs.  They see wonders.  They take notice of something happening, something on the move, something different. There’s something going on. Because there’s a church.  How are we living into that?  How are you living into that?


All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.


Uh oh. Red alert friends.  Uh oh.  Scripture has started meddling.  It’s turned to economics.  Being a church requires giving of oneself in order to meet the needs of the community. Sometimes that comes though giving offering so that we can maintain the operating needs of the church.  But hopefully most, if not all, of that money is going to ministry, towards being the church.  Sometimes that comes through special giving, through service, such as donating socks or coats or bug spray.  Sometimes it comes through being so attuned to the needs of the community that you keep mcdonalds gift cards in your car in case you come across a homeless person in the street.  Or you keep bus tokens.  Or you keep granola bars.  It means seeing where the needs of people in the community are not being met and giving of yourself in order to meet them.  Investment in the community is a clear marker of what it means to be the church.


Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.


There’s an element of church that involves daily thinking upon the things of God. Whether that’s going to the temple daily, praying daily, studying Scripture, or the like. We need to, daily, contemplate and meditate upon what God wants for us and what God wants for the world.  We need to do this because it’s easy to get distracted.  It’s easy to focus on our own problems, our own needs, our own wants. When we pray, when we study, when we have holy conversation with friends we are brought back to the ways in which God is living and working and moving in our lives, our communities, and the world.


They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.


A key feature of the church is fellowship.  It’s connecting with one another.  It’s seeing the beauty in and of our community.  If you share a meal with someone you are engaging in an intimate act. Sharing a meal, eating together is a stopping to enjoy the company of others.  Sharing meals and eating together bind us in special ways.  And so one of the markers of the church isn’t just so much eating together, although we Methodists do love ourselves some potlucks, but its about coming together as a community and becoming community.  It’s about connection.


In our current setting, is there anything more lacking than connection to others?  In our modern culture is there anything missing from our lives, from our neighbors lives, than genuine connection with the people around us?  We live in a highly professional highly transitory area. Who struggles to make friends and develop deep, important relationship?  Who knows someone who on some level is lonely?  Who knows someone looking for connection?


As a church we are called to be people who are connecting with each other and praising God for the gift of relationships.


And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.


This is what the Bible says about what the church is.  I wonder if we went into our neighborhoods and asked people what they think about the church what they’d say.  I wonder if we went and asked people who are doing their grocery shopping right now or who are sitting in Starbucks right now or who are going to brunch right now what they think the church is what they’d say.  A ton of literature has been written about what non Christians say about the church.  And most of it says non-Christians don’t think of the church as a group of believers who praise God, share, give to the needy, daily go after the things God wants, and who value honest genuine authentic community. Instead we hear that non-Christians think the church is self-centered, unwilling to develop relationships with non-Christians, that the church is judgmental, and unconcerned with the needs of the community. And if this is the view of the church its understandable why fewer people are coming to church.  Just like if the church were thought of as being devoted to God, devoted to the needs of the community, and a place of genuine authentic connection to others it’s unsurprising that more and more people were joining in.


So the question becomes how are we as a church measuring up to the way Acts describes the church.  Are we passionately worshipping God?  Are signs and wonders being performed through the work and ministry of this church? I’m partial but I would say yes. When I think of signs and wonders I think of a group of people gathering over 2,300 socks for the homeless in our community.  I think of lives being changed and transformed through connecting to God in worship. 


When I look at this church I see a group of believers who care about the needs of those in the community, like really care.  Who will sacrifice to collect insect repellent because some in our county, some in our community live outdoors.  I think of people who can’t wait to hear what we’re going to do next to serve people in our community.  When I look at this church I see a group of people who warmly welcome and seek to connect, authentically connect, with new folks.  I see a group of people who want to pray for their community. 


The world needs people like that.  The world needs people who are passionate about what God in Jesus Christ wants for this world.  The world needs people who will give of themselves, sacrifice in order to meet the needs of those in the community.  The world needs people who want to authentically connect with others. The Bible says that’s what it is to be church.  The world needs us to be church.  Let us go forth to be church.  Let us pray.

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