The Imperfect Church | Sermon from 10/1/17

Based on Acts 2:43-47

I used to own an old car. When I first laid eyes on it, it was on the side of the road with a for sale sign. I didn’t know what it was, but it looked awesome. It was red, although the paint was cracked and faded by years in the sun. It was small and sporty looking, but still conveyed that it came from a different time. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that I liked it.
And so I purchased this 1974 MGB with grand ambitions in mind. I was going to restore it back to health, for it needed some major restoration work. I was going to bring it back to its glory days. I was going to have it live again as it had once known life, back in the 1970s, back on the coast of Florida, where it had originated. It was going to live again, just like it had in the past. I was going to redeem it.
There’s something compelling about restoring to life, about redemption. This old MG needed repairs to the radiator, work on the carburetor, electrical work, and transmission work. It had rust on the undercarriage and parts of the body. On its second drive, the timing belt broke and the car overheated on the side of the road. I barely got it home. On the third drive, the throttle snapped off the gas pedal and I was left trying to climb the hills back home using only the clutch. I didn’t make it. But that was ok; it was awesome to own this car!
I managed to fix the throttle, fix the timing belt, repair the radiator leak, tune the carburetor, replace the thermostat, and take it for a few more drives without trouble. But on its seventh or eighth drive, the brakes failed. I was able to pump them back into working order to get the car home.
But the brakes proved elusive. I couldn’t figure out how to fix them no matter what I tried. And so there it sat, in the garage, unused. My little 1974 MGB that I loved, that I’d labored on, sat unused, gathering dust. I’d come to it with so much hope about giving it new life, about restoring it to its glory days, but that hope seemed more and more elusive. But that was ok, it was awesome to own this car!
Finally, I threw in the towel, literally, and called a tow truck to take the MGB to a repair shop that specialized in old British cars. The repair shop called the same day. The news was grim. I had a huge hole in the fire wall only discovered when the dash was removed from the car. It made driving extremely unsafe.
I was crushed. For all the trouble, I loved that car and wanted to drive it for it had captured my heart. I had labored on it, spent much time under its hood, driven it into a wall, grown to feel attached it to it. We’d even named it Que Que Dow, after how Jack, as a toddler, referred to Lightening McQueen. It was awesome to own this car!
But there was no hope, Que Que Dow was dead. I could not redeem him. And so, I donated him to charity. But in my memory, it was still awesome to have owned that car!
Doctor Luke writes our scripture this morning while journeying. There’s this great moment in chapter 16 of Acts where the narrative shifts from past tense to present tense; where the personal pronouns shift from “them” to “we.” Luke has been writing Acts while he’s journeying with Paul around the Roman Empire and, in chapter 16, the past catches up with the present.
At that moment in chapter 16, Luke and Paul are in the midst of conflict. They’re often run out of synagogues, temples, and whole cities as their gospel message causes negative responses. Paul’s Gentile-focused message that declares circumcision unnecessary and the law inefficient for salvation has rubbed other apostles the wrong way. Peter, working out of the temple in Jerusalem, the defacto leader of the church, is in conflict with Paul over just these issues, suggesting that perhaps the law still applies, or some of the law, and perhaps circumcision is still required.
Then there’s conflict with other evangelists, with cities, and with the Roman Empire. The current moment of chapter 16, as the past catches up with the present in the narrative of Acts, isn’t a pretty moment for the church. Conflict threatens to undo all that’s been accomplished in a short span of time. Life no longer seems to characterize the church, for the conflict is zapping its energy and enthusiasm, its very life. Paul and Luke know this especially as conflict surrounds them on many sides.
With wistfulness, Luke looks back from this moment of conflict to the very beginning of the church, at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the twelve disciples in the upper room. In chapter 2, he shares about how they experienced the power of God living within them, Peter preached in power to the people gathered around them in Jerusalem, and three thousand people were converted. After that incredible beginning for the church, Luke recounts our scripture this morning; a nostalgic vision of the beginnings of the church.
That vision says they held all property in common. No church member lacked for any need they had. They were all of one accord and agreed on everything as they fellowshipped, broke bread, and gave thanks. They worshipped properly, they had funds to give to the poor and needy, and perhaps most compelling for us today, they were growing faster than anyone had imagined.
It appears the church was in its perfect state at this moment in history in Acts chapter 2.
[Slight pause]
Except appearances can be deceiving.
That was the case with Que Que Dow. Nostalgia colors our perception of the past. It helps us selectively remember the good over the bad. Nostalgia gives us the ability to look back wistfully, forgetting the pain to only see the joy. It’s fair to say nostalgia colored my view of Que Que Dow as I reminisced just a few moments ago.
Free of nostalgia, I can say it wasn’t awesome to own that car; That car was a royal pain, and I wasted $2000 on it! I should have known better than to purchase a car, off the side of the road, that had rust along the undercarriage. Parts of the engine were in such disrepair that bolts actually broke as I tried to take apart components. Gaskets would literally dissolve in my hands as I opened up parts of the engine. One problem would lead to another problem which would lead to another problem until I had a huge problem on my hands. But the story I told at the outset is how my brain chooses to remember my time with Que Que Dow, romantically, nostalgically, selectively.
That’s the case for Luke, writing chapter 2 from the perspective of conflict in chapter 16. Nostalgia colors the view for Luke, for in the midst of his current chaos and conflict, the past looks much better by comparison. That’s human nature. Nostalgia colors our past, highlighting the good and making it possible to forget the bad.
Luke, in his nostalgic look back the church of Acts 2, paints for us what is, in part, a fantasy. Luke, writing chapter 2 during a time of high conflict, looks back at the beginning of the church with nostalgia. His rose colored glasses filter out the conflict, the chaos, the challenge of that moment in history. Historical accounts tell us that, from the very beginnings, the church had difficulties and conflicts. Even Acts itself, in chapter five, records that there was dissension in the ranks at the inception of the church as Ananias and Sapphira argue against turning over all their property and possessions to the church.
The church of Acts chapter 2 wasn’t perfect, wasn’t free of conflict, wasn’t as great as the picture Luke paints. Luke’s brain selectively remembered the earliest beginning of the church. His mind did what all of our minds do, eventually forget the bad and only remember the good.
This passage in Acts chapter 2, much celebrated as the picture of what the church should be, much acclaimed as what we should try and return to, much venerated as the paradigm of church growth, is a rose-colored picture that suggests the church in its earliest form was perfect. The reality, however, is that the beginning of the church, steeped in conflict, was far from perfect. The church, it seems, has always been imperfect.
Recognizing that the beginning of the church wasn’t perfect, wasn’t all roses and sunshine, wasn’t all glory, is freeing. Day by day, Luke says, the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved. That wasn’t because the church was perfect, but rather in spite of its imperfections. Steeped in conflict and chaos, God grew the church in Acts, redeeming it from its imperfections.
So it is for us.
Church attendance is up 21% on average. Giving is up $36% on average. This is tremendous news and worth celebrating as we look forward to the future with our grand plans and ambitions for small groups, for meeting food insecurity needs, and for reaching the hurting in our community. Day by day, the Lord is adding to our numbers not because we have achieved some sort of perfection, or gotten closer to the wistful memory of the Acts 2 church, but rather God is adding to our numbers because we know ourselves to be imperfect.
And that reality is freedom.
We are not a perfect church because we are not perfect people. As John Wesley commands us, we are on the road toward perfection, seeking spiritual growth to become ever more like Jesus, but we’re not there yet. And even still, God chooses to make use of us, God chooses to move in power through us, God chooses to accomplish wonderful and amazing things through us.
We’re growing not because we’re perfect, but in spite of our imperfections. We’re growing not because I’m perfect, but in spite of my imperfections as your leader. We’re moving forward and day by day, God is adding to our numbers and adding to our witness to this community because God is in the business of redemption. God takes what we give God, no matter how imperfect, and makes something beautiful of it.
It’s what I wanted to do with Que Que Dow: take something imperfect and make something beautiful out of it. I wanted to redeem the car. It’s why so many modern church growth gurus hold up the Acts 2 church: they want to take their imperfect church and make something beautiful out of it on their own. We want desperately to be in the redemption business ourselves.
But we are not because we are not God. Growing as a church begins not by redeeming things, but by admitting that we cannot and, instead, simply saying to God we are imperfect people ready to be put into perfect service for the kingdom. A posture of saying we are ready to be used by God, a humility that accepts that it’s God’s church and not our own, is the beginning of growth because it admits that this is God’s church, not ours; that we have limitations but, put to the use of the limitless one, nothing is impossible.
We have such a posture here at this church. I came here and encountered you as people ready to be set on fire, ready to get to work, ready to move boldly into the future serving radically. You want to know more, you want to love more, you want to give more, and so you come to church, ready to grow. That attitude makes all the difference, for when you encounter the gospel here at this church, you encounter the satisfaction of your longings to grow in love. A church grows primarily because it’s people are growing spiritually.
And that is freedom. We need not achieve some standard, we need not be something close to perfect, we need not hold ourselves to an impossibly high standard and we need not fear that the growth we’re currently experiencing will evaporate if we don’t measure up somehow. All we need to do to keep growing is keep being a people who are seeking to grow spiritually, keep being a people who admit redemption is God’s business, keep being a people who humbly admit to their imperfections seeking to be put to perfect use by the limitless one. That’s freedom; knowing that all we need to do is continue to be who we are: a people walking the journey of faith.
This morning, our challenge is this: admit that we’re not perfect. This morning, our hope is this: we’re not perfect. No matter our imperfections, no matter our shortcomings, no matter our past and no matter our present, God will make use of us because we have adopted a posture of discipleship, of wanting to grow spiritually. God is in the business of redemption, and we are experiencing a powerful dose of it as we grow numerically, financially, and in impact to this community.
Come to the Table this morning, imperfect, receiving of the grace that enables us to move on toward perfection. Come to the Table this morning, experiencing the power of redemption in your life, knowing that God has redeemed you from sin and death, and continues to do so. Come to the Table this morning, a disciple of the risen Christ, encountering, in the midst of our own limitations, the limitless love of our savior. We come to the table as an imperfect church, but a church that knows we stand in need of the sustenance provided at the table; we stand in need of Jesus Christ. And that makes all the difference.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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