It could have happened like this: In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, when darkness covered the deep, the LORD our God cleared her throat. Then the Holy Spirit —the breath of God— began to sing over the water. Then all creation came into being.
Later when the Holy One was handcrafting you, when he was working in the darkness, forming our inward parts, knitting us together, what if God was singing while he worked? And what if some of that music got into each of us? Now any time any of us do any singing, we’re giving back the song of the Holy Spirit. Like we can’t even help it.
As human people, we were born into this world with the singing of the Spirit in our bones. It’s just how we come. The same thing is true for the church. Like the universe, like every living being, the church was brought to life by the music of Spirit. Today we hear a story that comes from the earliest days of the church.
As the story goes, in those days, there were people who were there for Jesus’s teaching and miracles. They were at the cross when Jesus was dying; they could have been in the garden the night before. They were there after Jesus got up from the dead. They were there after Jesus ascended into heaven leaving behind this band of believers. In those earliest days, you know Christians were reeling from trauma. They didn’t know what would happen to them next.
You and I know they were looking at each other and asking: Look, what are we trying to do here? What is the church even for…
Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you might be asking the same thing.
It could be that you found this video online, but you’re not so sure about taking a chance on a church again. You might have been betrayed or disillusioned by the church. It could be the church has not earned your trust, or it could have broken your heart. If that has happened to you and you’re still giving Church of Peace a chance right now, Wow. Thank you. You would be right to ask: Look at the world. What is the church even for…
Now it could be, you’re a person who loves going to church on Sundays, and now we can’t! We’ve grown accustomed to thinking of church as the building we go to, only now the building is closed. Or maybe church is the activity of showing up together on a Sunday morning, only now that activity is canceled. Now that our normal experience of church has been disrupted, we’re all asking: What are we trying to do here? What is the church even for…
I invite you to imagine being in the crowd of people who were outside the temple. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, and a man who could not walk was carried to the Beautiful Gate by his friends so that he could beg for alms. You’ve seen him there before; you might have given him alms.
On this day, Peter and John looked at the man, and he looked back at them, and you can’t hear what they’re saying, but suddenly the man sprung to his feet. He was walking, and leaping, and praising God! All the people were filled with wonder and amazement! Pretty soon all of us began praising God! The whole crowd walking and leaping! We followed Peter and John to Solomon’s Portico.
That’s where Peter launched into one of his signature sermons. Using the newly-walking man as an object lesson, Peter explained how this miracle came from God. Going further, Peter blamed the people for crucifying the Author of life. He called for repentance and promised resurrection. And before Peter’s done talking, he and John got themselves arrested —hauled out of the pulpit in handcuffs.
The next day, the authorities made Peter and John stand before them. Once again, the Holy Spirit poured into Peter, and he began to preach. The newly-walking man was standing beside them! The officials were scared, and you would be too, so would I. They tried threatening Peter and John, but it didn’t work. All the people were praising God, so the police let them go.
Imagine if you had been part of that crowd.
Imagine later that night, you were having dinner with friends and you found yourselves comparing impressions of the early church: Did you know, the ones who followed Jesus are saying that he is the Messiah. He was raised from the dead! Some of them perform signs, and wonders, and miracles. Yeah, well I hear they pool all their money into one big pot and share everything communally. I heard that too, and they do a lot of eating. Those Christians are always breaking bread and baptizing people. Have you heard, the story of the Gospel is amazing! I know! So is the singing!
Imagine sitting with your friends trying to make sense of the church…
In her novel Beloved, Toni Morrison gives us a glimpse of the church at its best. She describes a life-inducing worship service that’s not in a building and not on a Sunday morning. This church happens in the Clearing in the late afternoon; its leader is Baby Suggs, holy. After she sat down and prayed, she called the children to come, and she told them to laugh, and they did. She called the grown men to step out of the trees and dance. Then she called the women to come down and cry.
As it goes in the book, “It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women, then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until… all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.”1 Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage International: New York, 2004. page 103.
In its earliest days, the church was known for eating together, and praying, and singing the hymns. The people performed miracles, they got arrested, they got each other set free. Then it all got mixed up until we can’t even tell the difference between getting baptized, or getting in trouble, or getting healed. We can’t even tell the difference between the signs, and the wonders, and the singing. It’s all mixed together!
The power of the Holy Spirit pours into this glorious swirl of praising God any way we can. In between the silence and the singing, you’ll hear the skeptics and the preachers looking at each other and asking the same question: What are we doing here? What is the church even for…
You might find your own answer to that question.You might find a thousand ways to answer that question! Right now, if we were collapsed on the ground exhausted from laughing, and crying and dancing, and somebody were to ask me: What is the church even for? I’d say, we’re the ones who are asking four questions.
One: Who is most vulnerable?
Two: How can we help them?
Three: What if there is more forgiveness than we ever imagined?
Four: Where are the signs of coming back to life?
Who is most vulnerable? And how can we help?
What if there is more forgiveness than we ever thought…
Where are the signs of coming back to life?
These are the four questions, and we are the ones asking, and you and I know. They might get all mixed up. We might start to ask:
Where are the ones who are vulnerable?
How can we help this over-the-top forgiveness?
What if we are about to come back to life?
It could be the world needs a group of people dedicated to asking these questions, and maybe God does too. Maybe we do too. It could be, right now is the moment the church has something to prove. And we’re ready.
Right now when the world says: Stay away from each other! Stay six feet apart. No touching! Ours is a faith that says: Okay. But see we’re more connected now than ever before.
Right now when the world says: What if we run out of what we need? Or what if we die? We could die! Ours is a faith that says: We will share what we have, then we’ll have more than enough. Of course we could die. But what if we live? What if we are getting ready to come back to life…
Right now when there’s a virus that threatens breathing, you would think that would make the world go quiet. Instead. Never in my life have I heard so much singing. A few weeks ago, there was a video of Italy on lockdown. The streets are empty, but someone began singing out the window of an apartment, then a neighbor added the harmony, then others joined in. A dog is barking! You couldn’t see any people —only the music filling the street until even the walls of the buildings seem to be singing!
Broadway musicians are performing sing-along musicals on television; they’re creating Zoom renditions of their famous hits. People are singing Happy Birthday outside nursing home windows and across the yards of neighbors. More than a few of you have told me that you are singing along with the music videos on our church Youtube list; you’re singing the hymns from your own living rooms. Our cats and dogs have never been so blessed!
From the middle of a pandemic, it’s like the whole world has come back to singing because how can we not! We are giving back to God the first gift she ever gave us, all that singing that got into our bones. And what if, turns out, there is even more forgiveness than we realized… Who is vulnerable and how can we help? See we are coming back to life, and the Spirit gets it all mixed together, and the LORD our God is singing.
And maybe— so are you. Hallelujah! Amen.
|↑1||Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage International: New York, 2004. page 103.|