Seventh Sunday of Easter
June 5, 2011
“Witness, Mercy, Life Together: Our Life as Church” (Acts)
“Witness, Mercy, Life Together”: This is the threefold emphasis now being used for our national church body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” has also served well as the basis for our sermon series here at St. Matthew’s this Easter season. We have seen these themes emerge in our readings from the Book of Acts, for “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” can be said to characterize the life of the early church. But not only so, these aspects of the early church’s life are true for us as well. And so our series wrap-up today: “Witness, Mercy, Life Together: Our Life as Church.”
Let’s review how we have seen these themes come through so far this Easter season. Let’s take the matter of “Mercy,” to begin with. Mercy: Diakonia is the Greek word we’ve associated with this. Diakonia literally means “service,” but we’re using it especially in terms of service to others through works of mercy. Compassion in action, you could call it. Christians see people in need, suffering misery in some way–sickness, poverty, disaster, grief, loneliness–and by the Spirit of Christ dwelling in us, we are moved to meet that need in acts of mercy. Real, practical help–food, clothing, money, lending a hand, sending out mercy teams to poverty- or disaster-struck areas, sometimes just the kindness of visiting the sad and the lonely–the church displays the mercy of God by taking action to relieve human misery. These are acts done in the name of Christ, and they bring glory to God.
The early church lived this way. We’ve seen it in the Book of Acts. For example, in Acts 2: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” In Acts 6, the church chose seven men to attend to the diakonia of serving the poor widows, so none of them would be neglected in the daily distribution. The church did not let love remain at the level of lip-service but put that love into action, tending to the needs of those who needed help.
The early church lived this way, and so do we. I was delighted to hear the other day that our Ladies’ Guild has decided to help our brothers and sisters in Joplin, the city that suffered such devastation in the recent tornado. Our Missouri Synod, our Missouri District, and now our congregation–actively involved in providing practical help in the name of Christ. This is good; this is love in action. This is the church living out her calling to be people of mercy.
The church lives the way her Lord lived. Jesus Christ, in his ministry, was constantly providing help and showing mercy to people in need. Healing the sick, the blind, the deaf, the lame, feeding the multitudes–Christ was moved with compassion and he did something about it. He also was demonstrating the wholeness and the restoration he will bring about in the age to come, when all sin and sorrow and sickness will be done away with and the restored creation will no longer be subject to futility, death, or decay. Even now, God cares about our physical well-being, and he even uses us to be the vessels of his mercy to others.
That’s “Mercy.” Now let’s move to the church’s “Life Together.” Life Together: Koinonia is the Greek word we’re using, which literally means “fellowship,” “communion,” “common participation,” “sharing in the common things.” The church’s life together is shaped by sharing in the things of God: a common Savior, Jesus Christ; a common faith, engendered by the Holy Spirit; a common hearing of God’s word being preached and taught; a common sharing in the sacraments, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Communion. These are the things that make us a community, the communion of saints. Our oneness, our unity, is the Lord’s doing, and he does it through the gospel.
The early church lived this way. We’ve seen it in the Book of Acts. We read of those converted on the Day of Pentecost: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” That is koinonia, life together. Likewise, in our reading today, set in the days leading up to Pentecost, it says of the company of disciples: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” Again, life together as church.
You see, God does not intend for us to be isolated, “Lone Ranger” Christians. No, he has made us part of the body, the body of Christ. God’s plan is that we belong to his family, the church. We are brothers and sisters, joined in the bond of baptism. We are made for one another. To pull apart from the body, to withdraw, is unthinkable. It goes against the leading of the Spirit. Our common life means that we are here together, physically present with one another–regularly, often, every Sunday, as health permits. This is God’s will for you, I can tell you with full confidence. Our mutual support and encouragement edifies the body, builds us up. We are strengthened in the faith. We discover one another’s needs, so we can help our brother or sister. We offer our gifts–our time, our talents, our treasures–for the common good. This is the life together, the koinonia, that God intends for us, and has gifted us for, as church.
Our Lord Jesus Christ prayed for our life together, didn’t he? We heard it today in the Gospel of John. Jesus prays to the Father for those who believe, “that they may be one, even as we are one.” And from that prayer that night, Christ went and did what it took to make us the people of God, by dying on the cross, rising from the dead, ascending into heaven, and pouring out his Spirit on the church. Our life together arises from the life of Christ himself.
“Mercy,” “Life Together,” now “Witness.” Martyria is the Greek word for “witness.” It is the church’s testimony, our verbal testimony, to the gospel of Christ, his death and resurrection and salvation in his name. We bear witness to what we know to be the truth, whether that proves popular of not. Often it is not. The hostile world may not like what we have to say. But we say it nonetheless–as winsomely as we can, to be sure–but in any case, opposition will not stop our witness. And God will save some through our witness. So we speak God’s word and confess the faith that God has made known to us.
The early church lived this way. We’ve seen it in the Book of Acts. Indeed, of all three points, “Witness, Mercy, Life Together,” “Witness” has been by far the predominant theme running through our readings from Acts. Peter and the apostles were witnesses worthy of the name, telling the Sanhedrin: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things.” Peter bore witness on Pentecost Day, when he preached: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” And he bore witness, saying, “Be saved from this crooked generation.” Stephen was a faithful witness, even in front of an angry mob, which led to him becoming the first martyr of the church. Paul bore witness to Jesus and the resurrection, calling Gentiles to repentance, at the Areopagus in Athens. And as we heard today, when there was a vacancy among the twelve apostles, Peter said to the larger group: “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us–one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” There needed to be a full complement of apostles who had been with Jesus throughout, eyewitnesses to all he had done, including seeing Christ risen from the dead.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he gave his apostles the content of their witness: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” And again he told them: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Christ then empowered their witness with the gift of the Holy Spirit. And this apostolic witness is the foundation of the church. We are here today as a result.
And we the church today carry on this witness to the world. Far and near, around the world and around the corner, through the church at large and through our own personal witness, you and I tell others the good news about Jesus. For we know it to be true, and we know this gospel to be life-giving. It is our only hope for eternity. The message that Christ Jesus, the Son of God, died on the cross for our sins, winning our forgiveness; that he then rose from the dead, in victory over the grave; that the salvation he bestows is our one great hope on the day when he returns to judge the living and the dead–this is the gospel we believe, this is the good news we freely speak and want to share with others. The church’s witness just keeps going, from person to person, from church to world, from generation to generation.
As we’ve seen this Easter season, “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” characterized the life of the early church. But more than that, these three themes also characterize the life of the church today. God has gifted us, so that we have received the life-giving witness of the gospel of Christ. You and I have experienced God’s mercy, in the works of kindness and service that other Christians have done for us . And we enjoy the blessings of life together as God’s family, the church.
Having received these gifts, we now are called to pass them on to others. There is work for us to do, good work. We as church, and we as individual Christians, get to be in on what God is doing in the world today. We bear witness to the world of the death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ, calling other sinners to join us in repentance and faith and in receiving the forgiveness of sins. You and I reach out in acts of mercy, serving our neighbor in practical ways. And we commit ourselves to our life together as church, eager to maintain the bond of unity, supporting one another, loving one another, being there for our brothers and sisters in the faith.
“Witness, Mercy, Life Together”: A good way to sum up the life of the early church in Acts. And a good way to describe our life as church today. Our series wrap-up is also our church’s lift-off, a launching pad into our future, and a vision of what God can do for and through us. “Witness, Mercy, Life Together”: Life in Christ, for church and world!