When Jesus Crashes the Church’s Party

Here is the audio and full transcript of last Sunday’s sermon. The audio is in two parts, and it starts with the children’s sermon and anthem. The sermon starts at the 6 minute mark of part 1.

John 20:19-31
New Hope Fellowship
Second Sunday of Easter
April 28, 2019

I have three best friends who I went to seminary with at Truett Seminary at Baylor. Kyle is the pastor at a church in Jacksonville, Florida, Matt is the pastor at a church in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Bill is the President of a seminary in Chicago. And when we were in seminary, we all started preaching at little churches in little towns in Central Texas outside of Waco.

For Kyle it was Mertens. For Matt it was Rosebud. For Bill it was McGregor. For me it was Cego.

Cego is a suburb of Bruceville-Eddy,
which is a suburb of Lorena,
which is a suburb of Hewitt,
which is a suburb of Waco.

Cego is actually an old farming community except now without the farming or the community. There’s one family left. And they have this little church.

There were normally only six of us in attendance at Cego Baptist Church on Sunday mornings. All of the people who made up the church were named Harrington. Three older women and one man.

I would stand up at the front of the sanctuary and teach the Sunday School lesson. The sanctuary probably sat 100 people. Then, we’d take a short break. I’d walk to the back and go to the restroom or something, and then we’d start the service.

We didn’t have a piano player, so I’d lead the singing of a few hymns all by myself, have a prayer, and preach a sermon. Usually, during the first hymn, one of the ladies would get up and change the board with the attendance and offering. Every week, it said:
S.S. Attendance: 6
Worship Attendance: 6.

I don’t really remember, but I’m pretty sure we didn’t have an invitation.

I preached there all through the summer of 1995—except for one Sunday we didn’t have church because there was a tractor show in Temple.

Cego Baptist Church closed down shortly after I left there. And even the church building has been torn down now. I tried to take Jamie by there a couple of years ago, but the building was gone.

I know what it’s like to go to a church that by almost all observable and measurable standards isn’t much of a church.

Our gospel today gives us a picture of a church that by almost all standards isn’t much of a church. Here we have a church that had no pipe organ or even an old upright piano. No choir. No pastor, even. In fact, it’s a picture of church at its weakest. It may be the most miserable little gathering ever to take upon itself the name, “church.”

It’s the disciples of Jesus, gathered after his resurrection.

And look at them! For long, painstaking chapters in John’s gospel, Jesus has been preparing his disciples for his departure. He has gone over, then over again, his commandments
to love one another,
to be bold,
to trust him,
to be the branches to his vine,
to feed on the Bread of Life,
to be ready to follow him at all costs.

Somebody wasn’t paying attention. Look at them, cowering like frightened sheep behind closed, bolted shut doors.

They were supposed to be the ones walking confidently out into the world, full of the Holy Spirit, announcing the Easter triumph of God. Look at them hunkered down, cowering, hoping that nobody in town will know that they’re there.
[I am indebted, in this sermon, to William Willimon, “You Call This a Church?” April 6, 1997, Duke Chapel]

Here, says Tom Long, is the church at its worst — scared, disheartened, and defensive.

Long says, What kind of advertisement might this church put in the Saturday paper to attract members?

“The friendly church where all are welcome?” Not exactly. Locked doors are not a sign of hospitality.

“The church with a warm heart and a bold mission?” Forget it. This is the church of
sweaty palms and
shaky knees and
a firmly bolted front door.
[Thomas Long, Whispering the Lyrics, 1995, pp. 89-94]

Could this even be called a church? Not only has it got
no sanctuary,
no pulpit,
no choir.
It has
no plan,
no mission,
no conviction,
no nothing.

If you did a survey asking people what they looked for in a church, they might respond with things like:
friendliness or
sense of mission or
good preaching or
a feeling of family
a certain kind of worship style or
good programs for kids.
But they definitely wouldn’t say, frightened members or fear.

Here is a church with absolutely nothing going for it except….

Except that when they came together, the Risen Christ
pushed through the locked door,
threw back the bolt, and
stood among them.
And Jesus said, Peace be with you.
And then he showed them his hands. And he showed them his side.

And Jesus told them, As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

Then he breathed on them, and he said, Receive the Holy Spirit.

Then he told them that they would now embody his mission of forgiveness.

And I think we could say that this here is the beginning of the Christian church. All the ingredients to make a church are here:
a group of disciples,
the presence of the crucified and risen Christ,
the sending of the church into the world,
the giving of the Holy Spirit,
the message of the forgiveness of sins.

This is a reminder to us of what we are all about. It’s also a reminder of how closely tied the church is with Jesus. We don’t have church without Jesus.

Just as Jesus is sent by the Father with a mission,
the church is now sent by Jesus with a mission.
Just as Jesus has been the bearer of the Spirit,
the church is the bearer of the Spirit.
Just as Jesus declared the message of forgiveness of sins,
the church now declares the message of forgiveness of sins.

As a church, we find
our mission and
our Spirit and
our forgiveness
in the presence of Jesus. And I think that just maybe that moment when Jesus walked through the door among that
weak,
cowardly,
unbelieving
conglomeration of disciples they were as close as any church ever gets to being a church.

Because the risen Christ came uninvited into the room and stood among them and gave them
his mission,
his Spirit, and
his message of forgiveness.
And they were a church—a real church. They had all the ingredients.

You know a lot of talent and planning and effort and practice go into making our worship times happen each Sunday.

Now, the preaching is planned, too. I don’t just come up with an idea during the hymns before the sermon starts. I don’t just wing it. I actually do put some thought and time into preparation. I’ve never been one to subscribe to the theory that “lack of preparation” equals “inspired by God” or “from the heart.”

But you know what I have learned probably more than anything else since I’ve been involved in planning worship and preaching over the last 20+ years. It’s a lesson I have been taught time and time again.

The lesson is that despite all of our dedicated planning and thoughtful preparation, worship, real worship, is not our creation. It is a gift. And church, a real church, is not our creation. It is a gift.

In fact— and this is true with any church— I hope that all our planning at church is not just another form of those disciples’ locked doors. We
plan the service,
proofread the worship order,
prepare the sermon with diligence,
plan interesting and appealing activities for all,
make sure everything is tied down and planned,
so we can keep it all
fixed,
predictable,
safe, and
under control.

But sometimes, by the grace of our living God, the Holy Spirit slips through
our closed doors,
our making our way through the worship order,
our respectable reverence,
and there is worship, worship not of our own creation but worship as a gift from God.

And we take off our shoes in wonder because we have become a church.

If you want to see us, stripped away of everything of our own devising, then look here in this 20th chapter of John— a pitiful huddle of timid souls hanging on to one another behind our locked doors.

Without the presence, the presence that makes our human gatherings the church of God, this is about all we are.

But the good news is that it was to this church, which was hardly church, that the living, Risen Christ came saying Peace be with you (John 20:19).

Church is a gift of God who refuses to leave us alone. God comes to us. Jesus’ presence makes this church. To the church which had nothing, Christ gives everything. Spirit. Mission. Forgiveness.

We are a church, not because of this sanctuary, not because of
our worship service,
the preaching,
the music,
the various activities.
We are church because to us, even to us, Christ has come and given us his gifts of Spirit and mission and forgiveness. And he commissioned us to give them to the world in his name. And those are all the ingredients we need.

That’s why we’re called a church.

William Willimon, who was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and is now on faculty at the Divinity School there, tells about his first church to pastor. It was in rural Georgia. He was fresh out of seminary, eager to be a good pastor in his first parish. He was in graduate school at the time, commuting out to the country on the weekends.

Most Sunday mornings at dawn, it was a tough trip out there from Atlanta. He used to say, This trip only takes thirty minutes but takes us back thirty centuries. It was a long way from Atlanta to Suwanee, Georgia.

On his first visit to the church, he found a large chain and padlock on the front door, put there, he was told, by the local Sheriff. The Sheriff, why? he asked.

Well, things got out of hand at the board meeting last month; folks started ripping up carpet, dragging out the pews they had given in memory of their mothers. It got bad. The Sheriff come out here and put that there lock on the door until our new preacher could come and settle things down.

Willimon says that rather typified his time at that church. He would drive out there each Sunday, just praying for a miraculous snowstorm in October which would save him from another Sunday at that so-called church.

He spent a year there. He tried everything. He
worked,
planned,
taught,
pled,
but the response was always disappointing.
The arguments,
the pettiness,
the fights in the parking lot after the board
meeting
were more than he could take. It was tough and he was glad to be leaving them behind when he left for greener pastures.

A few of years later, while visiting at Emory, Willimon ran into a young man who told him that he was now serving that church. His heart went out to him. Such a nice young man.

They still remember you out there, he said.

Yeah, I remember them too.

Remarkable bunch of people, he said.

Remarkable.

Their ministry to the community has been a wonder, the young man continued. That little church is now supporting, in one way or another, more than a dozen of the troubled families around the church. The free day care center is going great.

Willimon says he could hardly believe what he was hearing. What happened?

I don’t know, he said. One Sunday, things just sort of came together. It wasn’t anything in particular. It’s just that, when the service was done, and we were on our way out, we knew that Jesus loved us and had plans for us. Things pretty much took off after that.

This is what Willimon thinks happened as he looks back on it. That church got intruded upon. Someone greater than any preacher
knocked the lock off that door,
kicked it open and
offered them peace, the Holy Spirit, mission and
forgiveness.
And now, they are called “church.”

Church isn’t
the pastor’s brilliant preaching,
your Herculean commitment,
your long range planning or
your generous giving.

Church is
a gift,
a visitation,
an intrusion of the Living Christ standing among
us.

Church is what happens when Jesus crashes our party. And then we realize it never was our party to begin with.

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