The church! When you think of the church, what is it you think of?
Maybe it’s Cornerstone. This might be where you met Jesus, where you were baptized and where you have grown in your faith.
Maybe it’s the church from your childhood. The church where you met Jesus, where you were baptized and where you grew in your faith. The church where you went to Sunday School though they year and VBS in the summer.
For some of you the old song was a reality when it said, “Church twice on Sunday and once in the middle of the week.”
When you were growing up church may have been the focal point that your family activities revolved around, and the words, “We can’t, we have church then.” were something that you heard many times in your home.
Some people have really only had one or two churches homes in their entire life. Others change churches like some people change clothes.
They are like the man who was rescued from the deserted island. His rescuers noticed that there were three grass huts on the island and asked him about them. “Well,” he said, “The one there is my house, my home. And that one over there is my church, it’s where I worship on Sunday.” “What about the third hut?” His rescuer asked. “Oh,” he replied, “That the church I used to go to.”
Sometimes when I meet with someone who has just started attending Cornerstone, they will list all the churches they’ve attended in the past, and then they will list their litany of complaints that accompany each church. I wonder; when they leave Cornerstone, where we will fall on that list.
They are looking for the perfect church and they don’t realize that wherever they go, there they are.
Over the next few weeks, our theme is “We the Church” and during this time I want to focus on the Church, because for many of us, so much of what we think of when we think of church is now missing from our lives.
The building, the gathering together, the singing. And to be truthful, we aren’t sure when those things will be a part of our reality again.
If the church was permitted to open next week, but there could only be fifty in the building at any one time, you would have to come in the front door and go immediately to your seat, which of course would be socially distanced from the other seats in the worship centre.
During our time together, you wouldn't be able to hug anyone, or for that matter you wouldn’t even be able to shake their hands. There’d be no music for the fear of people singing moistly, or we’d have to sing with masks on. There would be no celebration of communion, and a very limited children’s program.
And then, when the service was over, you would have to immediately get up and leave the building.
At the end of the day, would that have been the church you miss?
And I understand how some people feel about Hebrews 10:25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
But how we met together 3 months ago, in a comfortable climate-controlled building, with a band, and children’s ministry would have been very different from how those who first read these words 2000 years ago worshipped together.
And so even though we aren’t together physically on Sunday mornings, we are still meeting together. When we watch the message on whatever device, it is we watch it on. And when we nod and agree or shake our heads and disagree, we are doing it together.
So, this morning, I want to start by looking at what the church is.
The scripture that was read this morning, is the first time the word church is used in the bible, and that is found in Matthew 16:18 Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.
There has been all kinds of debate and confusion about this passage. And as is typical when we can’t agree, there are usually lines drawn and things end in division.
The traditional Catholic interpretation of this passage is that it is here that Peter is granted authority as the first pope, and leadership of the church. But there is no clear indication that this is about an institution.
On the other hand, the traditional Protestant interpretation would be that the rock upon which the church was founded was Peter’s confession of Christ, rather than Peter himself. However, that interpretation ignores what the text says.
While Jesus is the Cornerstone of the church, it is fairly obvious that Peter was identified as one of the foundational stones the church would be built on.
Later on, Peter would write a letter to the church, and in it he would say, 1 Peter 2:4-5 You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honour. And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. . .
So, today we’re not going to focus on who or what Peter may or may not have been in relation to the church, we’re just going to focus on the church.
I had mentioned that this was the first time the word, “Church” was used in the bible, and there is only one other time that Jesus uses the word, and that is in Matthew 18 when he’s laying down guidelines for how believers are supposed to resolve their differences.
However, the word church is used over 100 times through the remainder of the New Testament. And the word that was used almost exclusively was the Greek word, Ecclesia. And that word is defined in Encyclopedia Britannica, this way: Ecclesia, from the Greek Ekklesia, (“gathering of those summoned”), in ancient Greece, assembly of citizens in a city-state.
So, while the word church has a spiritual meaning today, when it was first used it simply meant a group of people who had been called together for a purpose.
So, what do we discover about the Ecclesia or the church in the New Testament?
Acts 2:47 . . .And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.
The Church was a Large and Growing Group There are some people who if they hear you talking about church growth assume that you’re shallow, and that all you’re concerned about are numbers.
But church growth seemed to be the norm for the early church. Two weeks ago I spoke about the church’s birthday on the day of Pentecost.
What happened before that day was over is recorded in Acts 2:41 Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.
If we keep reading in this chapter, we discover that the day of Pentecost wasn’t just a one off.
Acts 2: 47 . . . And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.
And if keep reading we discover in Acts 4:4 But many of the people who heard their message believed it, so the number of believers now totalled about 5,000 men, not counting women and children. And in Acts 5:14 Yet more and more people believed and were brought to the Lord—crowds of both men and women.
The early church wasn’t a plateaued church or a declining church, they were a growing church, and not just by a little bit. It was exponential growth. In Acts 1 they were a group of 120, but just days later their group numbered in the thousands.
Two months ago, we celebrated the fact that we have been worshipping together as a church for twenty-five years. And in that message, I spoke of how things have changed in those twenty-five years. And we celebrated how we had grown and expanded our reach during those twenty-five-year.
Twenty-five years after the day of Pentecost, there was a Christian presence in Israel of course and the surrounding countries. But the church had expanded and was present in what we now think of as Italy, Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, and Albania to the north. Spain to the west, and Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia to the south and India to the east.
Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:8 had become a reality. Acts 1:8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
It's easy to think of Cornerstone as the church.
But the church exists in many different forms, in many different places. And there are things that we disagree about, but there is so much more that we agree on. That Jesus is the son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that he died on a cross and that he rose from the dead. That he offers us new life and forgiveness through his grace.
If we go back to the story, those thousands of people, who were saved in the early days of the church, didn’t just rent a big football stadium and worship together. Instead we read in Acts 2:42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.
So, not only was the church large and growing, The Church was a Small and Intimate Group
If we keep reading we discover in Acts 2:46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—
The greatest asset of the early church was its community. So, while there was this large growing group there were also their small intimate groups that got together on a regular basis to discuss God’s word, to share food and to celebrate communion.
We are told that they worshipped at the temple which meant that they would have been a part of a huge crowd for that element of their worship. And then they would come together in smaller groups, for community.
Eventually, they started to worship on the first day of the week, Sunday, in order to recognize the day of the resurrection.
Later in the book of Acts we read in Acts 20:7 On the first day of the week, we gathered with the local believers to share in the Lord’s Supper. Paul was preaching to them, and since he was leaving the next day, he kept talking until midnight.
Now understand they worshipped the way they did in homes because that was their reality at that time. They weren’t defining a template that would need to be followed forever. That was their reality.
And in their homes, they functioned much like churches do today. They worshipped together. And while we don’t have a detailed description of what that looked like, we are told in Ephesians 5:19-20 . . . singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And before you get all excited, the hymns they were singing weren’t Victory in Jesus, Power in the Blood and How Great Thou Art. But whatever they were singing, they were apparently singing.
As well, through the New Testament the church is instructed on how to practice their spiritual gifts, they are taught by teachers and pastors. They prayed together, they ate together, they reached out to their communities in an effort to help depopulate hell. And they did some things that we normally reserve for our large public worship. They took communion together, and they baptized new believers.
On Good Friday, many of us took communion together, in our homes, with our families, for the first time. And we are going to do that again soon.
There are places around the globe today, where meeting in homes for church is a reality because of political and religious persecution.
In Canada, that’s not our reality.
There are groups that meet as house churches, and that’s fine, very little has changed for them during the pandemic. For most churches, today in our reality, we meet in buildings and enjoy corporate worship.
But there still needs to be space for the more intimate setting, especially since meeting in larger groups is something we can’t do right now. Jesus reminded his followers in Matthew 18:20 Jesus said “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
As we move ahead and redefine our new normal as a church, we will need to connect in smaller groups. What will that look like? We aren’t sure yet. Would you be willing to open your home to your bubble to watch Sunday’s service together? Would you be willing to host a small group in your home? Would you be willing to attend a group like that? A group where you could find that community that we are missing. Use the connect card on hfx.church to let us know.
So, the church was large, and the church was small. But there was more than that.
I mentioned earlier the results of Peter’s message on the day of Pentecost, the thousands of people who became Christ followers that day.
This is how the group that Peter was preaching to was described.
Acts 2:9-11 Here we are—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!”
Now listen to the invitation that Peter extends in his message, Acts 2:21 “But everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.” Who would be saved? Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.
The Church was Inclusive
The reason that Jesus came wasn’t to save some people, it was to save all people.
That’s why we are told in John 3:16 “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
And after the crucifixion and after the resurrection and just before Christ ascended, he told the Apostles that the church was to go to all the nations. And within a generation the church had spread across the known world.
Those who worshipped Christ spoke different languages, they came from different cultures, they had different skin colours, but they were all part of his church.
And they didn’t always get it right.
We sometime glorify the New Testament church as a perfect church, but it wasn’t a perfect church because it was made up of imperfect people.
And the wasn’t very long before we read in Acts 6:1 But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food.
They had to figure this issue out because diversity was going to become the reality of the church. No longer would it simply be a group of similar people who had a similar back ground who shared a common skin colour and a common language. And if we keep reading, we discover that the church fixed it.
Later in the book of Acts, Peter had to deal with his own feelings about those who weren’t Jewish. He had been brought up being taught that gentiles weren’t the same as Jews, either in his eyes or God’s eyes. And yet as the church grew and expanded, and Peter met more and more gentiles, and ate in their homes, he made this amazing discovery,
Acts 10:34-35 Then Peter replied, “I see very clearly that God shows no favouritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right.”
Jesus’ brother James goes on to tell the church in James 2:1My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favour some people over others? And that is the same question we need to ask ourselves today.
So the church was a gift from God for everyone.
Today, however, when a church says that they are inclusive it often means that they accept everyone regardless of what they believe or how they behave and that wasn’t what was taught about the church in the New Testament.
Most of the New Testament is made up of letters that were written to the believers in various churches. Listen to how Paul addresses those who received the letter of 1 Corinthians 1:2 I am writing to God’s church in Corinth, to you who have been called by God to be his own holy people. He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did for all people everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.
But not only was church inclusive, The Church was Exclusive
I struggled for a word here, because exclusive has a bad feel about it. We think of exclusive clubs and organizations that bar people because of their gender, colour or finances. And we say, “That’s not right.”
And so the other night, at three o’clock in the morning, I pondered a different word, and
But the reality is the church may have been offered to everyone, but the church wasn’t for everyone, it was exclusive. Whether you like the word or not.
Lutheran Pastor Andrew Schroer wrote, “Christianity in many ways is an exclusive religion. It says that sin separates you from God. It teaches that no other god or religion can save you.”
And Jesus tells us in John 14:6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” He didn’t say he was a way, he said he was the way.
2000 years ago, being a part of the church was for those who were part of God’s family. It was for those who called on the name of Jesus, not those who called on the name of one of the plethora of Roman Gods, or Greek Gods or no God.
But that’s not what the church has become. It was C. S. Lewis who wrote, “I believe there are too many practitioners in the church who are not believers.”
But that wasn’t how it started.
2000 years ago, church wasn’t a social event, it wasn’t some place that you went because that’s what you were expected to do, or because that’s how you were brought up.
Going to church 2000 years ago came with a price. Christians were often persecuted and ostracized. In some cases, they lost their friends, sometimes they lost their employment and there were times they lost their lives. All because they were Christians.
And that wasn’t a surprise, Paul reminded Timothy of that reality in 2 Timothy 3:12 Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
And so if you were part of the church 2000 years ago you were expected to believe the same things and to behave a certain way. There were behaviours that were encouraged and there were behaviours that were condemned.
And you might be thinking, “Behaviours that were condemned? That sounds a little judgy. Aren’t we told not to judge people?”
Actually, what the bible tells us about the church and judging is spelled out by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:12 It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning.
And so, while the church is inclusive in that the offer of salvation and grace is open to everyone, that doesn't mean that the church should embrace their sins. The bible is very clear that when we become Christ followers that we are given a new life, a different life and we’re expected to follow a new path.
As my Daddy once told me, “We may come just as we are, but we can’t stay just as we is.”
That means that the church can’t accept every belief or opinion as equally valid. And it means that the church must speak out about sinful behaviour in the church.
At the end of the day, the church is exclusively inclusive.
For a while anyway, Cornerstone will look different than it did in February, but to quote Craig Groeschel, “God is not calling us to go to church; He is calling us to be his church.”
And as we move ahead we need you to be the church, to provide community and to provide support. How can you be the church? That is a discussion that I’d love to have with you, on the phone, on zoom or in your driveway.