What Is the Church?

Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, Raleigh, N.C.
Reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

Long before there were PACs, and soft money, and attack ads people gathered in Athens, the birthplace of democracy, and debated ideas. There were no media consultants, no expert pollsters, no spin doctors. There were just ideas, and people who used the force of their personality and intelligence to promote those ideas. It was democracy in its nascent form.

Long before there were $100 million contracts, and luxury boxes in stadiums, and team logos that every kid had to wear people gathered in fields or school gymnasiums to play simple games that brought great joy. There were no agents, no billionaire team owners, no television contracts that dictated every aspect of the show. There were just games, and the children and adults who played them as a distraction from the difficulties of real life. It was sport in its fundamental essence.

Boy, I sound like an old codger for someone who gets called a “young pastor” all of the time. Well, it is not my intention to try and convince you life was better when the Model T ruled the road and the Internet was something you might find inside a wig. No, my goal is simply to get us to think about fundamentals. Today is one of those days in the life of our church when we make a big decision. And we are anxious. We are anxious because we will not all agree and it doesn’t feel good for us to disagree with our friends. We are anxious because however we vote this afternoon the future is not as clear as we would like it to be. And when we get anxious and unsure life becomes more complicated. We feel less certain about how to proceed under those circumstances. And so I am suggesting we strip away the peripheral stuff this morning and just focus on the fundamentals. Let’s remind ourselves what is central about our life in this place. And I’d like to start that conversation by asking the most basic of questions: What is the church?

The great French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, once defined the church as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to shared things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden such as beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community.” I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t help me strip away anything and get down to its essence (all apologies to the sociologists in the crowd).

In 1912, the great theologian Ernst Troeltsch published the monumental work, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches and Groups. It remains a classic of religious sociology, social history, and ethics. Troeltsch argued that Christianity could be divided into three forms: the church, the sect, and the cult (or the mystic). “The church emphasizes the sacraments and education; the sect emphasizes conversion and commitment; the mystic emphasizes inner experience. All three types are authentically Christian, each has roots in the New Testament, and all three have decided strengths as well as weaknesses, according to Troeltsch.” (Garrett Paul, “Why Troeltsch? Why Today? Theology for the 21st Century,” The Christian Century, June 30, 1993).

But as important as Troeltsch’s work remains in defining the different aspects of the Christian experience, it, too, fails to get us to the bare fundamentals of our life in church that I am talking about. So, instead, I turn to our scripture for the morning and read these words that describe the life of the very first church in Jerusalem:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common.”

And I know our first reaction is skepticism. After all, we know this idealistic image of the early church is not the whole story. All you have to do is keep reading in the book of Acts to see that. The early Christians quickly developed many of the same problems that still haunt the church today: factionalism, screwy theology, and power struggles. And I also know it is naive to look at the beginning of any movement and say, “Aha, here is the essence of truth and purity that we must follow.” It’s just not that simple.

But sometimes, when life gets complicated and foggy, and when we are faced with big decisions that leave us anxious, it can help to go back to the beginning and remember the basics. Whether it is the beginning of a relationship that has now grown stale, the beginning of a plan that has gone off course, or the beginning of the church, going back to the start of something can shed light on the darkness that tends to envelop us.

So, where do we find the answer to that simple question, “What is the church?” in this passage? For me, the answer comes in verse 44: “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”

Notice what is left out of that passage. It doesn’t say anything about theology. It doesn’t say they all believed exactly the same thing. It doesn’t say they all liked the same kind of music in church, or the same mode of communion, or the same food on Wednesday nights. It doesn’t say they were all alike in any regard. It simply says they were together and they shared all that they had with one another. That is the essence of the church for me.

That’s not to say there is no substantive theological content to our lives together. After all, we are a people who follow the life and teachings of Jesus and so we must struggle to understand what that demands of us. But if we boil our life at Pullen down to the fundamentals this is the place we come to be together and to share. And as ridiculously simplistic as that sounds it is actually the antidote for so much that ails us.

For in a culture that reveres the lone wolf individual, and that stresses the pursuit of personal dreams and fortunes above all else, to come to this place week after week to be together and to share is a noble endeavor. We give ourselves to each other and share even when our theologies differ dramatically. We give ourselves to each other and share even when we don’t agree on the war. We give ourselves to each other and share even when we don’t vote the same way on important matters. The fundamental essence of our life at Pullen is not that we are all the same, but that we are all willing to be here together and share our lives with each other.

By now some of you have shifted from skepticism to full-blown pessimism because of the naivete of this sermon. It sounds like I have gone from idealistic ramblings to just plain old pie-in-the-sky goofiness. After all, where would we find this kind of unity within our diversity? Where would we find this spirit of caring and sharing inside our walls? Well, look no farther than the balcony to my right where our youth sit. The youth group in this church, under the leadership of Randy and our wonderful volunteers, is a model to us all of what the church is. They are certainly not perfect, nor are they all the same. But their sense of being together is critical to them and their willingness to share who they are and what they have is admirable. And this morning, as five of them have gone through the Rite-13 ritual, we have all pledged to support them as they journey to adulthood. One of the ways we can provide that support is to follow their example. Let us all cherish what they cherish — each other.

Long before there was something called orthodoxy, and ordained ministers, and great cathedrals, the church gathered together and shared all things in common. There were no creeds, no committees, no anxious votes. There was just the church, devoting themselves to teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And so we pray.