When I was a young lad (or younger lad you might say, because many around here like to point out that I am “so young”)… I had a somewhat unorthodox Sunday School class. The youth group… we called it the youth duo, since two youth wasn’t enough to be called a group… had a teacher who was… nuts frankly… you know that good kind of nuts… Nigel… a stay at home dad, camping enthusiast… he once lead a youth retreat seminar from a canoe, and another time, he drove to New Jersey to buy a boat, and another time he bought two hay balers (but he didn’t live on a farm). Somewhat impulsive, but a deep thinker, and conversation starter.
For a whole year we talked about nothing but one question… “who are you, and what are you doing here?” One of the things that’s become clear to me is that sometimes we have to go back to basic foundational questions and re-answer them. Bring our additional experience back to those questions we asked way back when. We need to look at the same issue with new eyes. So for the next 8 weeks we’re doing a series of sermons asking the question, who are you, and what are you doing here? Who are we. Who is the church. Why do we do this thing we call church? What’s the point of all.
So where do we start?
Well, Centre Street Baptist Church, when it was founded, had this thing we call a covenant. These 8 messages will focus on themes drawn from that document, and the Scriptures on which it’s based.
Our Church Covenant‘s first paragraph states:
Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and, on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we do now, in the presence of God, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another, as one body in Christ.
“Solemnly and joyfully”- sounds like an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp, honest lawyer or succinct preacher. But it captures something important. Being the church is a joy and a blessing, but it’s something we ought to take seriously; really ponder about.
So, first of all, what’s a covenant? Our culture doesn’t speak of covenants often. It’s not something we do. If you hear the word, chances are you’re in church.
There is a common misconception- covenant is not a contract. Contract is terms of a transaction, what two parties agree to give or do. Covenant is the binding of a relationship. Covenant identifies the nature of relationship. It outlines how two parties will be connected to one another. These days we don’t talk about covenants much. Afterall, our relationships are defined by facebook.
We covenant together as a congregation. We covenant, “in Christ”. That’s the key to this whole thing. A Church is a covenant community, “in Christ”.
Our covenant, points to the other covenant. The “New Covenant” IN CHRIST. We are a people of the covenant of Jesus Christ.
So what’s this Covenant of Christ?
Writing 600 years before this New Covenant would be inaugurated, Jeremiah writes:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke,though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
So,we can see four aspects of this covenant:
1. The writing of the law on hearts and minds
2. They will be my people.
3. They will know me
4. I will forgive their sins.
The focus at hand is on the second part: they will be my people.
In the New Testament, we see this:
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10)
You are God’s people.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ” (Life Together, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1954, 21). Our individual salvation and redemption comes from something outside ourselves- from being united to Christ. Christ, being united to all of us, unites us together. We are bound to each other. Because we are united to Christ eternally, we belong to him eternally WITH one another. 1 John 1:7 says, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another” Being in Christ, means being in fellowship with all those who are in Christ.
We are God’s people. We are built together. Living stones assembled together. Interlocked.
We are assembled by a builder.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, the labourers work in vain.” (Ps. 127:1)
“On this rock I will build my church.”
The word church, literally means gathering or assembly. It’s the people of God, scattered around the world coming together, in Christ. That’s what it means to be a covenant people, IN CHRIST. A Christian community is relationships in and through Jesus Christ as mediator. We are bound together because we are all bound to Christ.
Paul articulates this calling like this:
“walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bear with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift… speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Eph. 4:1b-7, 15-16)
So, we are called to be a people together; a united body, made of individual parts which are given grace from Christ, and called to work properly so that the whole body might be built up. That’s what it means to be part of this thing we call the church.
Now, let’s get back to Acts chapter 2 which was supposed to be the basis of this sermon. Acts 2 is often where we go when we want to see what the church should be like. This is what the first church was like. The Apostles came together in a community with the believers and this is what it looked like:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 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. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
And now, I’ll do something I once said I would never do. In this case, it happened by accident. But I actually have a three point alliterative breakdown. Yes, *shudder*, here’s the three Cs of Covenant Community from Acts 2:
“They devoted themselves” we are told. Devoted in the Greek means persisted, continued steadfastly. They were “all in”, to steal a poker term. The first Christians were committed in a way we often don’t get. To be in the church, you HAD to be committed. It was death warrant. Being a Christian was a serious risk. If you weren’t “all in” you weren’t in at all. But things changed, and being outside the church became risky business in the Western world. Suddenly people were in the church but not committed. To be part of a covenant people requires a serious level of dedication. It means being exclusive in your commitment. It means working at developing trust, faithfulness, love. Is it worth it? Absolutely. But it’s not something to be taken lightly. It is a true blessing to have the Christian community, and yet we’ve taken it for granted in many ways. We don’t treat it like God’s blessing and grace. We too often take this community for granted.
Are you in church “just because”?
One of the things that church was committed to was fellowship. The Greek koinonia suggests sharing, participation in, being communal. Literally, koinonia most commonly means partnership. They devoted themselves to partnership, to sharing, to working as one. Christian community “is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we participate” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 30). We often have a diluted understanding of fellowship. Fellowship is not sipping coffee and talking about the weather and whether or not the Knights will go to the memorial cup this year. That may be part, or rather a first step towards fellowship, but koinonia is so far beyond that. We are told by Luke that they were all together, breaking bread in their homes, praying, worshipping, sharing everything communally. The call is to participate in Christ’s community together.
Are we doing that?
Those first Christians gathered DAILY for prayer, worship, teaching, sharing, eating. Imagine having to listen to me every day. Now that takes serious commitment. Just ask my wife.
Is church something you have segmented one morning a week for? Ok, maybe for some it’s Sunday worship, Wednesday bible study, Thursday choir, and one Tuesday a month for a committee meeting. We should be in frequent contact with one another. We need to be in frequent contact with one another. If you want to fuel your faith, and see it really grow… be around Christians. When was the last time you had an honest conversation about your spiritual life? I have people apologizing to me for taking up my time and distracting me from work. I crave those moments when people drop into my office just to talk. I need to be pushed to put down the book and actually converse with an actual person.
We North Americans have fallen into this weird theological perspective we’ve been sold- that faith is a strictly private matter. Me and Jesus that’s all I need. “I have a personal relationship with Jesus.” Spiritual growth is measured in my quiet time alone with God. What about being taught? Sharing? Encouraging others? Being encouraged? Being mentored? Using your spiritual gifts? Serving and loving others? You can’t do that in your quiet time. That quiet time is good. Jesus took time away to pray. But that is not the measure of Christianity.
YOU ARE A PEOPLE.
You are intertwined. Knit together. Bound. Interlocked. Of one body. However you need to picture to get your mind around it. The church is God’s people. Not a random meeting of individuals passing in the night… or one morning a week as it were. You have been called together. Built into a spiritual house. Bound by a covenant. You are a community. Not a community is the sense of a people who live in the same neighbourhood. You are a people called to be in communion with one another. We are called to share in the covenantal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, extending that to one another. We are to be one as the Father and Son are one. That was Jesus’ prayer for his people (John 17:11)- that we would be as one. I quote that a lot in the pulpit. I preach it in every other sermon it seems. But I’ll stop preaching it when we all start living it.