Welcome church to the church that together we can be about the church. I suspect to some of you may feel my opening sentence fails to pass the grammar test because of the repetitive use of the word church. But let’s think at that sentence for a moment. “Welcome church,” is proper because you and I together are the church. We are a congregation of Christian believers and seekers of God. This use of the word church to describe a congregation is the third most common definition of church found in Webster’s Dictionary. “Welcome church to the church.” These words are expressing a welcome to the congregation to the physical building we call church. The church is a building established for public worship. This use of the word church is the most common definition of church in the dictionary. “Welcome church to the church that together we can be about the church.” The last use of the word church refers to those engaged in the ministry of the Gospel. In many circles, church used in that way means specifically work that is to be done by clergy such as a priest or minister. But we Baptists are a different breed. We try to follow what the Bible says, and we believe it says everyone is charged with engaging in the ministry of the Gospel and not just those folks called reverend, pastor, minister, or whatever other title someone wants to use. “Welcome church to the church that together we can be about the church,” means “welcome folks to this place of worship that together we can fully share the message of hope.”
I wanted to begin our time together talking about the multiple uses of the term church because often people in the world say, “Church does not matter anymore.” Considering the varied definitions of church, how are we to interpret the statement “Church does not matter anymore.” Does the person saying that mean, “The congregation (you) do not matter anymore.” Or does that person mean to say, “The building does not matter anymore.” Or does that person mean to say, “The ministry of hope that we carry out does not matter anymore.” It is difficult to know the mind of those from the world who say, “Church does not matter anymore.”
We are equally faced with statements, “I’m a Christian, but I do not need church.” Does that person mean to say, “I’m a Christian, but I do not need you (other Christians). Or does that person mean to say, “I’m a Christian, but I do not need public worship.” Or do they mean, “I’m a Christian, but I do not need to be engage in the ministry of hope.” It is equally hard to know the mind of Christians who chose to live and speak like the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am here today to assure you church matters. You matter! This public worship space matters! And the ministry of hope matters to God and may matter to other people more now than at any other time in history! You, this space, and our ministry together matters because hope is needed now more than ever.
Last week, I was in a meeting of folks working on a conference to bring the government agencies, non-profit service providers, and the faith community together to work cooperatively to end homelessness in Saratoga County. As we talked about the needs of the homeless, the non-profit providers said the people need food, housing, transportation, and money management skills in order to overcome their circumstances of homelessness. Then there was a pause in the construct of the list of needs of the homeless and the leader of the group asked, “We have heard from the non-profit agencies, but what does the faith community think is the biggest need of homeless people?” I responded, “They need hope. It is the same need we all have. Hope. Without hope, people struggle and wonder, what is the point of living?” That response led to collective efforts of government, non-profit groups, and faith communities to relabel our efforts to be called “Partners in Hope.” Church matters because church (fellowship, worship, and ministry) matters because in its simplest form and in its totality, church offers hope.
In the beginning of the Christian church, the focus was all about sharing the hope found in the good news of Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection. We read today from the book of Acts which records for us the life of the early Christians. Among the early Christians was a man named Apollos.
Apollos was a native of Alexandria, Egypt. In the ancient near east, Alexandria was an intellectual center of the ancient world with a great collection of books. Apollos traveled from Alexandria and was now in the city of Ephesus along the coastal plain of what is now modern-day Turkey. In our reading today, we are told that Apollos “was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord (Jesus). And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.” Apollos was a Christian who was sharing the news of hope as he moved from Alexandria to Ephesus; a walk of 1,800 miles. Apollos was a powerful speaker and he knew well the Old Testament. Apollos knew about Jesus and taught accurately for as much as he knew. But when it came to the subject of baptism, Apollos knew nothing of Jesus’ command to be baptized as an expression of faith in Jesus and through that faith and baptism to have the Holy Spirit led the believer in a new life. A new life in a congregation, in public worship, and ministry of hope.
One day, Apollos began to speak boldly in the synagogue; a place of public worship. In the crowd that day, was a Christian couple named Priscilla and Aquila. They were Jews expelled years earlier from Rome by an edict of the emperor. They had become Christian after hearing about Jesus through the teaching of another missionary, named Paul. When Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos preach, they noted his deficient understanding about baptism. We have a good picture that Apollos was in the pulpit of the public worship space (church), preaching to the assembled group (church), about the ministry of hope in Jesus (church). Apollos was uniformed or misinformed about the ministry and two members of the church realized it. Right away, we see that church matters to the faithful. None of us, including pastors, are faultless in our understanding of God and the Scriptures. We need each other. For this reason, I believe it is practically speaking impossible to follow the ways of Christ and not be a part of church, in all its expressions. I do not believe you can be a Christian and not need church. To believe you can be a Christian and remain separate from other believers is contrary to the example of Jesus. It is contrary to the example of Jesus’ disciples. To believe you can be a Christian and not need church is contrary to teachings of the Bible itself. The world and worldliness are just too strong and to influential for us to avoid the pitfalls of evil by going it alone. There are also far too many other belief systems drawing people away from God for us to go it alone. Church matters to our spiritual development.
Priscilla and Aquila knew Apollos was a gifted preacher, but he was lacking in his understanding. Our reading says, Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos aside, meaning in private, to explain to him the way of God more accurately. What a great teaching for us about church. When we hear something that is not quite right, we have a choice. Ignore it and let the person go on thinking incorrectly or speak up and help them. This couple could not ignore the misunderstanding of Apollos about baptism. So, they spoke up but in a manner of Christian love. They did not shout aloud their concern and embarrass him, nor did they go to everyone around Apollos and point out his deficient understanding. Instead, they went to Apollos in private that he may know the way of God more accurately. This is a great example of the way we should conduct ourselves in all our dealings with one another. If we have a problem with someone, we need to practice Christian ethics in dealing with it. We need to address the matter. We should not go around telling others we are going to address this privately. That is almost the same as addressing in publicly. Likewise, if the matter is resolved in private – leave it there. Do not share with others that we addressed an issue privately and now it is resolved. Apollos learned and the church (congregation, public worship, and ministry of hope) grew stronger.
Apollos then lived out his story as a more complete messenger of hope. Living out the story of hope then is the role of the church. It is the role of this church. Together, God has called upon us to be the church where no one loses hope. Together, we are the presence of Jesus Christ in this given spot. Every person here shares in being the presence of Jesus. It is together that we speak about God and together we worship God. It is together that we grow in life and we talk with one another about how God is shaping us into the image of Jesus. It is together that we celebrate every small victory in life and together we walk with one another through the difficulties and trials of life. We are the living hope of God because we are the presence of Jesus Christ in this spot at this time in life. We are partners in hope with Jesus and one another. That was and is God’s plan; there is no backup or alternative plan.
In 2018, a music group Cochren & Company, released a new song called Church, with the subtitle, “Take Me Back.” It is a song of hope for those returning to church and to those seeking the hope of the church.
The song says in part: “Take me back, to the place that feels like home. To the people I can depend on. To the faith that's in my bones. Take me back. To a preacher and a verse. Where they've seen me at my worst. To the love I had at first. Oh, I want to go to church. Tried to walk on my own but I wound up lost. Now I'm making my way to the foot of the cross. It's not a trophy for the winners. It's a shelter for the sinners. And it's right where I belong. I want to go to church. Oh, more than an obligation. It's our foundation. The family of God. I know it's hard. But we need each other. We're sisters and brothers. Take me back.”
Welcome home church to the church that together we can be about the church. Being a church where no one loses hope is not about being an exclusive club or group. We must always be open and reaching out to others and explaining with grace why they see hope within us. When others see hope in us, they are seeing Jesus. We have hope because of Jesus. People will see that. When others see hope in us, we have become an instrument of God.
It pleasing to be here, that we are a church, worshipping in church this day, and that we are a church engaged in the ministry of hope.