Acts 2:23-32 and Acts 12: 11-19.
This is the second sermon in a Lenten series on prayer. Since we have so many guests this morning, let me catch you all up: that last week I suggested that a life of prayer doesn’t point to any one kind of prayer or even to formally praying for long or loud stretches. Instead, it is about living so one stays connected, in touch and communicating with God.
This morning, the sermon is titled “The Possibilities of Corporate Prayer.” “Well, of course, it’s possible, Michael,” you might be thinking. “We pray corporately here each Sunday, at different times during service. When we pray the confession in unison. When we pray together as different individuals lead us with their prayers, sort of an impromptu prayer team. When we pray as our Savior teaches us.”
Yes, beloved, it is possible to pray together. And I might add a recommendation: during the prayers of the people, don’t just listen to people who stand before you with prayer concerns. Nope, aim higher: to pray with them.
Still, maybe… maybe we don’t do pray together, with one heart, as often or as thoroughly as we might…
What I meant with the sermon title was “The Possibilities ENGENDERED by Corporate Prayer.” So often in our modern, North American context, prayer is something individual, private, solitary. And, clearly, there is good reason why we all have our own prayers, our own need to bow our heads or drop to our knees for one’s own heart to heart with God.
But as the church, I worry sometimes, we miss the power of praying together. And we fall short of the commitment of praying together.
Let’s look at the stories from today’s readings. They probably aren’t the bible stories we are most familiar with. The Book of Acts is sort of under attended to by many Christians. Maybe because it tells the history of the early church facing hard times, serious persecution, tests to their will and courage and faith.
For us western Christians, where our faith tradition or its secular facsimile have been part of the dominant culture for centuries, it’s almost impossible for us to fathom what it would mean to have to risk in order to believe. Can we even understand what the cost of discipleship might be? Could we ever suffer persecution since the practice of our faith leaves us often with identities not all that different from everyone else? We couldn’t be persecuted even if some authority wished to since we can hardly be distinguished from everyone else!
There are people who say that the emptying of the churches in the last 40 years is changing that. That the church is experiencing a de facto disestablishment– no longer holding the privileged place of power and protection and prestige in our society. This condition is spoken of a “post-Christendom:” wherein the advantages Christians took for granted in early, at least, nominally Christian society have disintegrated.
And there’s some truth in that assessment of change: the church in 2011 is much less likely to be a part of folks’ lives because there are any distinct social or political advantages to belonging. Church membership, being a Christian are no longer badges of honor or elevations of standing in contemporary North America. All the peer pressure to participate is in the past.
In the long run this may be good for the church. With less of the wrong or, at least, lesser motivations for belonging, we might better focus on the right reasons or what really matters.
Hopeful scholars suggest that for the first time since the Emperor Constantine raised Christianity to its status as the official faith of the Empire in the early 4th century (cynics might suggest Constantine was hijacking the faith!), the church has a chance– divorced from the status quo and all it demands in return for privileges it granted the church– of an independent, less compromised faithfulness– one whose allegiance is more exclusively Jesus Christ– might look, feel and live like.
I sort of doubt that our disestablishment has, so far, been either that extreme or threatening. Yes, these days, your neighbors might think its weird or silly or old-fashioned that some of us get up on and head off to church, instead of having a lazy Sunday at home in our pajamas with a cup of coffee and the paper. But how many of us are fearing persecutions? Yes, yes, conservative Christians often complain that the division of church and state or our secular society or the liberal establishment (the media or academia or…) martyr them. But really. I don’t know people in the U.S. who are risking job or home, limb or life to be conservative Baptists, middle of the road Methodists or even the most progressive UCCs.
In the days of Acts, that wasn’t the case at all. It was dangerous to be a Christian.
In chapter 4, Peter’s preached a sermon that brought the Sanhedrin breathing down the church’s back. Called before the Sanhedrin and issued a gag order, Peter’s told to cease and desist from teaching people about Jesus… Peter responds with the classic formulation of the choice of faith: given the alternatives, listening to human authority or to God, our choice is simple and clear. We choose God, no matter what the cost.
It’s interesting to note: in the early church’s time of great persecution: two facts are indisputable: 1) there is a greater boldness about the faith– Christians have some chutzpah to talk about what they believe, or why and how they follow Jesus!, and 2) the church is growing in numbers by leaps and bounds. In our day, where it’s safe to be a Christian, where there’s not so much demanded of being faithful, we hardly have the courage to speak of or act out our faith at all. And the church is bleeding members as if it does not matter.
But in those early days, Peter and John aren’t ducking or pulling any punches. Instead, they are storming full steam ahead. Into danger. Into trouble.
This first time, the Sanhedrin doesn’t dare act, and let’s Peter and John go. Once freed, they return to the other disciples gathered in Jerusalem. And they pray. Not a prayer that the authorities will leave them alone, or that God will shield them. Instead, I imagine them getting down on their knees and lifting their hands to God and praying for boldness when it comes to telling the world the story of their Lord Jesus. Rather than asking that notice pass over them, they ask for even greater power for healing in Jesus’ name.
Beloved, what would happen if we really got together, and prayed fervently, consistently, profoundly that our witness might be strengthened, that we might be empowered in our abilities to change lives, so that the whole world might know of, notice, be presented with the love of God in Jesus?
In our second reading, by chapter 12, things have, in one sense, deteriorated immensely. Stephen has been killed and the church has scattered. Or have they? The persecution is increasing, that’s true. But the church is also facing its changing circumstances unflinchingly. These are not Christians who compromise or back down. Instead, they meet the challenges of their day, assuming that they will find God in them. The church makes its own evolution in response to the world, the changing circumstances around it.
You might say, instead of scattered, the church has spread. And is recognizing its calling to become a church for all people. The church is growing not only in numbers, but spiritually, culturally, in diversity and unity. It’s being transformed by a clarity of mission that comes of the challenges it faces– in the face of opposition, these are people of faith who are clear, have to be clear, about what matters and what does not. Sure of what they are to do and how they are to spend, dedicate their lives.
In the second section we heard Mark read, James is put to death for the crime of being a Christian. Peter is in prison; presumably a similar fate awaits him. But, and here I quote, “The Church was earnestly praying to God for him.”
Beloved, what do we really pray earnestly for, as a body, together, consistently, believing that if we keep praying and asking God, God will hear and respond?
With Peter in prison, that’s exactly what happened: this remarkable Divine intervention happens. Angels and white light, broken chains and prison doors opening of their own accord. Godly amnesty. Not an earthquake exactly; I think we call it “grace.”
And reason might have led Peter to head out of town, run away into hiding, join some Witness Protection Plan.
But where’s he go? Right back to the church, albeit the group of Christians gathered in someone’s house for prayer. The first place that Herod’s authorities are sure to look for him. And what’s he find them doing? What’s he find the church up to? Cowering in the corner? Remembering the good old days? Fighting with each other about whose fault the present troubles are? None of these.
Instead, here they are again, in one place, devoted to prayer.
I’m not wishing persecution on us that we might grow in boldness. The hard times we are facing from our own irrelevancy are enough. Beloved, we in the North American church don’t need to praying for a period of difficulty, that the church might reverse decades of decline. It’s here. And I do believe somewhere in it, our opportunity is to be found. Because God’s here with us in it too.
I remember how full our churches were after 9/11.
Most of you know, I was the UCC’s Conference staff person in New York City when the World Trade Center was destroyed. Four of my former parishioners and two of my friends died in the collapse of those buildings.
But you know what I remember most? How people showed up in church the next Sunday. They came many times over normal attendance. Churches that didn’t even see full sanctuaries for holy days were brimming.
I’m still not sure why, what people were looking for, what they hoped to find. Solace, security, understanding, forgiveness? Maybe they didn’t even know! But it was like 3 weeks of Easter that September.
And then almost as quickly, the crowds started to die down. Not in just one week exactly, from the third to the fourth Sunday after 9/11. But almost that quickly. Obvious attrition; you couldn’t miss it: you could see Sunday attendance dropping back to the way it was before.
One of the pastors called me in early October. As the Regional Conference Minister, I was pastor to the pastors. I’d been checking in on all of them regularly since the attack. Some of our churches saw multiple deaths. And all pastors felt the added strain of people’s fear, anger, confusion, uncertainty. On top of their own emotions. A study found that two years after the bombing in Oklahoma City, a disproportionately large turnover happened in the pulpits of the city’s churches.
I’d been trying to stay in touch, and then one of the pastors, my colleague, called to talk. He told me about the disappearing crowds. Then he went on and said that he was felt bad. Were they leaving because he’d disappointed them. He explained, he’d tried so hard to make each service appropriate, deeply helpful, and spiritually rich… to minister to them. But, apparently, they hadn’t received what they were looking for, and now they were wandering off.
I responded, that pastors are often too hard on themselves, because we fall into the trap of thinking that its all up to us. That a worship service is what we bring to it or offer God’s people. That we can do something and somehow alone, by ourselves, like superheroes, fix things, make a difference, allay fears, right wrongs, etc. But only God can do that. On a really good day, using us, through us. But other times not. Sometimes God has to work around us or in spite of us. Other times, God is working through someone or something else. Or through nothing and no one obvious.
Maybe the people were wandering off, I suggested, not because of what they didn’t get, but because their weeks in church had given them enough, or at least what they were looking for?
I never want to find myself doubting that church can add more to more people’s lives. But I’m not willing to believe that what works for me is what everyone else needs, what will be right for them. So maybe in those few short weeks, his efforts paid off and the swollen crowd received what they needed, or better what God needed them to have.
It’s been a long week. With the atomic crisis in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami. And then yesterday’s and now today’s missles and air strikes against Libya.
There are troubles all around us. And troubles closer to home for many of us too. Reasons for us to be thankful for our faith. For our trust that we are not alone. That we have one another, and even more, that God is with us, leading and guiding us along life’s way. A great blessing that will grow for us and for others as it is shared…
Beloved, why don’t we pray together? In a new way? Together as one body, the body of Christ. Not just now of course. But starting right now. Taking hands. Offering our hearts. Joining our faith together and presenting it as our offering to God. With our hopes…
I’m going to ask that I’m joined by my colleagues here this morning with service camps from St. John’s and Sebastapol. And I’m going to ask that you all, take the hand of someone next to you. And someone else on the other hand if there’s anyone that close. And let us pray… (The three ministers offered up pastoral prayers…)
Preached by the Rev. Michael W. Caine