A sermon on 2 Timothy 1:3-14 and Acts 2, given by the Rev. Sara Hayden to the Presbytery of Northeast Georgia, on May 15, 2012. Sara was asked to speak about growing the church during a time in which many Christians see their work in competition for scarce resources toward an uncertain future.
Sara Hayden is the Executive Director of the Tri-Presbytery New Church Development Commission, which works to strategically grow Christ’s church – deep and wide – by supporting and planting diverse and vital new PCUSA churches. Twenty-three new churches are beginning their ministries right now.
So, a Presbyterian Minister walks into a bar. Yours truly.
I was at a conference about evangelism for Presbyterians. And we were having a really good time, not least because the conference organizers had the foresight and intelligence to put us at the beach — always a thrill for this native Midwesterner.
On the third day, I settled down in the hotel lobby and opened up my laptop. My eyes and ears zeroed-in, from afar, to the bar area. I watched one of my colleagues sit down at the counter and began friendly banter with the bartender, who comments right away: “It seems like you all are pastors, is that right? You all seem to belong to the same church or something . . . ”
The tone of his observation went beyond mere congeniality. Conferences are held all the time at this hotel. This week, something was different. And what I think the bartender was getting at, is that we Christians represented something bigger than just shared information and ideas. We had people from South Korea and from Kenya, and Frisco TX. All in the same place.. Brown skin, light skin . . . pearly white skin. Women and men. Of all ages. In ministry together.
“What kind of church is this?” He asked.
“We’re all Presbyterians!” my colleague enthused.
And I was proud of us, and I thought, “Yes! This is what it means to be Christian! We believe God has brought us together and we belong to one another. We belong to generations of saints that passed on the faith and made room for their children’s children. We unite for a future hope-filled by the Word of God and God’s presence in our lives. And we have good news to share!”
Abruptly, I was brought back down from my vision to the hotel bar when I overheard the words, “jurisdictional,” and “polity.” Confused, I tuned back into the scene. My colleague was engaging in his own brand of Presbyterian witnessing as he explained exotic terms unfamiliar to others: He literally defined “synod” and “administrative commission.” He was on a roll.
It may not surprise you to learn that the bartender became, shall we say, less-captivated at that point, and steered the conversation back to his original interest. He told my fellow conferee about his friend’s church. They had made it a church for all people. They prayed consistently for one another, for their neighborhoods, and city. They followed a vision into a future with hope, confidently expectant that God was present when they gathered and had a Word to speak to them, and a message that infused their common life. What they reminded one another on Sundays, changed every moment of their lives in the days that followed.
I listened as he spoke, thinking, that the church he described could be any number of Presbyterian churches. A healthy, Spirit-filled church.
I’m sure none of us has experienced feelings of insecurity about our denomination, but, it is out there! So, for your benefit, I’ve managed to keep a small list of what I call “Presbyterian apology.” They’re sort-of evangelical apologies — a strange blend of “welcome to our church!” with “but-I’m not-sure-you-would-like-it” kind-of-flavor.
Apology #1: If you can’t get enough of committee meetings and Roberts Rules of Order, then the Presbyterian Church is your kind of place.
Apology #2: If you become Presbyterian you get to joke about being a “frozen chosen” Christian in front of other people who have no idea what this means.
Apology #3: Presbyterians don’t like to evangelize or talk about God’s claim on our lives — so if you’re uncomfortable talking about God beyond the bounds of 11-12 on Sundays then this is the place for you!
Apology #4: One of our most Spirit-filled Presbyterian activities is debating the relative merit of drum and guitar-led music with screens versus organ music and hymnals. Come join us!
You get the idea.
Friends, I’m no public-relations specialist but I am confident we have more to offer and to claim for ourselves.
In any case, that’s what it was like on Pentecost.
Let’s say we’re bystanders in another hotel lobby about 2000 years ago. Something strange is happening to the people at this religious gathering in Jerusalem. A uniting spiritual power claimed those who came together and they began to testify to one another, each, in their own languages but in a way that everyone could understand; that God was doing something in them, through them, in spite of them!
Hear these words from the Book of Acts, following Pentecost:
Many miracles and wonders were being done through those who were sent and everyone was filled with awe. All the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed. Day after day they met as a group in the Temple, and they had their meals together in their homes, eating with glad and humble hearts, praising God, and enjoying the good will of all the people. And every day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved.
Four things stand out to me from this story:
1. The people expected the Holy Spirit to show up and to change them.
2. They told others when they felt the presence of the Holy Spirit.
3. The people lived changed lives because of what they experienced about God.
4. And the people acknowledged that the Holy Spirit was working in the lives of strangers. That when Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come upon them, it didn’t mean just them, it meant strangers, and foreigners, and even non-religious people. The most unexpected people were used by God to bear the most important messages.
Our two scripture passages, 2 Timothy and Acts co-exist in tension. The book of Acts centers on the work of the Holy Spirit of God loose in the world. Read through 2 Timothy. The letter preoccupies itself with cultural forms of doing church, espousing a not un-WASPY sense of decency and order. The writer enumerates all the possible things that could go wrong within the church in the future; therefore, he claims, it is necessary to establish protocol for who can and cannot serve as leaders in the church. Perhaps we Presbyterian Christians can relate. The unbridled expansion of the beloved community in Acts. The caution of Timothy.
But, I’m not being fair. Ultimately, the love of God that casts out fear wins out, and the most compelling, message of yes, even 2 Timothy, is one that advocates: “Fan the flames of the gift of God that is within you.” Perhaps the letter is a bit of a wet blanket. Perhaps God’s people are weighed down by malaise, pessimism, or polity-preoccupation. But it only takes a spark, doesn’t it? To get a fire going? Timothy starts in the exact same context we have right now and offers wisdom, hope, and love to us today. To paraphrase:
Put the gifts God gave you into practice. (All of you) use them for the world. And in so doing rekindle the flames of God, the power of the Holy Spirit that is within us. (1:6)
If you want to be fully alive by the Holy Spirit’s power, you have to practice what you preach.
In the midst of that early community of Jesus Christ, you can be sure, there was only one Messiah. Of course, the others lost their way. Sometimes individual arguments obscured a community that was supposed to be about the big picture God set about revealing through us in the world. Every once in a while the people went through phases, in the words of 2 Timothy, “in senseless and stupid controversies, breeding quarrels.” That sounds about right.
If it’s all about rules and titles, then it’s hard to let the flames go to where the Spirit sends them to be – inside the church, growing the body, and outside, growing the body in the world. 2 Timothy reminds us: “Take hold of the life that is really life.” Not the junk that it’s so tempting to focus on, instead.
I experience God in my life because of a church that welcomed me and taught me God would never forsake me no matter what happened in my life or the decisions that I made, in spite of failures and successes. I learned from them that our life was ordered and prioritized around the power and grace of the God in whom we believed. This message I not only heard. I saw it lived out. This gospel-embodiment changed my life. It changed everything for me. I became Presbyterian because of my home church in Overland Park, Kansas lived the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Growing up can be tough on an awkward middle-schooler. You’re never quite sure where you belong, always in search of a safe place to be yourself, with your — in my case — lanky arms and legs and that never very gracefully came to rest. I found my welcome in the church. They had always tolerated my and my young colleagues’ antics in Sunday School or church picnics. Sometimes we were destructive. Sometimes the adults hardly wanted to be around us. But I remember one Christmas Eve when my pastor, Jay — during the height of my awkwardness, handed me the communion chalice and said, “let’s serve God’s people together.” It was a small job of great significance that I didn’t have time to panic about. And I remember the glow of light that surrounded us and how lovely it felt to look into the faces of my brothers and sisters, friends and strangers as I offered the cup to them.
Whether providence would have me one day become a preacher or dedicate my life to another ministry, I felt profoundly welcome that day, knowing I could return to the table again and again, and I would never be turned away.
I’ve heard it said once that “There is nothing more inspiring to a church than knowing something is at stake and having the courage to respond.” Today, something is at stake. That something is really much larger, and, dare I say, much more important, than any individual family, or congregation. Because Christ believed that the church would provide for the revealing of the Kingdom of God within the world. Jesus himself believed so.
He sent ordinary people out in pairs and teams. One of the last messages he spoke to those who followed him was this: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and, to the ends of the earth.” Or, in other words: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you. And it will not discriminate.”
And then he ascended into heaven. The disciples are literally standing there looking up at him, and then staring at the clouds! They had nothing left but the promise that the Holy Spirit would come. So, they recalled his way of life. How Jesus went to the margins and borders of the cities, lakes and called to people who were hungry, outcast, forgotten, and otherwise lost. His ears and eyes were attentive as people called to him. Sometimes for healing, sometimes for money, sometimes for attention. Jesus went to them. He learned their needs. He developed their gifts. He recognized the spiritual gifts of exceptional people – many, like Martha and Mary – who had never been encouraged before to use them. Not merely for themselves, but for the world. As God’s instruments in transforming them world as it was, into the world as it ought to be. Those who answered “yes” to the call –– few were priests or rabbis or trained religious leaders. They simply were people willing to follow him. He told them to tell the others. They would need help! He told them to make disciples of every nation.
This is our story, whether the people we worship with, the ones who bring us casseroles and pray for us when we have surgery or give birth have gathered for 10 weeks or are celebrating 150 years of ministry. Have you heard the song, “we all are one in Mission? . . . We all are one in call. Our ministries, united. By Christ, the Lord of All.” That’s the best thing about being Christian. That’s the best thing about being Christian.
The Spirit has led me to share very little about “new church development” although there are many hopeful stories to show and tell. Because really, all we do as Christians, in new churches, in middle-aged churches, in 2000 year old churches, is answer that same call Jesus issued to the first people who followed him: Make disciples. Be molded by the power of the Holy Spirit. And, in Timothy’s addendum: When the light in your midst smolders, remember to fan the flames. Rekindle the gift of God that is within you.
Close your eyes and pictures the church of your dreams. What is produced as a result of the church? Is the sanctuary full of songs and voices? Do strangers walking by feel welcome to rest on the prayer bench? Do they stop in the door Sunday morning because a friendly person on the front steps invited them to come in? I do not know the dream in your heart for God’s church. But I pray, that by the power of the Holy Spirit, God will use the unique gifts within you to make that dream a reality.
May we, as Presbyterian Christians in Monticello, and Athens, Atlanta, and Rabun Gap, be known as the people who, rather that saying “they ought” as a description of our neighbors, instead we answer, “we will.” Yes, we will. We will make space for those who hear Jesus calling to them.
Let us not forget that that same Spirit, which was given to us at the birth of Christ’s church, is given to us as well to build up the body of Christ in love. Do not withhold what we have discovered from others. Do not hide it under a bushel. Let all who truly follow Jesus: Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!