A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 28, 2014
University Baptist Church
The early church began with a crisis. It was a crisis of identity. It was a crisis of trust. It was a public relations crisis. Actually there were several crises. There was the crisis of the fact that Jesus was betrayed by one of his own. He was sold out for some silver coins, like many politicians sell their souls.
Then there was Jesus’ arrest. He was brought up on trumped up charges and convicted in a kangaroo court with flimsy evidence and contradictory witnesses.
Then there was the abandonment of Jesus by his so-called disciples. They were huddled in an upper room, praying for their own lives. Not all of the disciples abandoned him. Only the chosen dozen. A few Marys, Salome, Joanna, and some other women who were not named remained faithful until the end.
Then there was the crisis of Jesus’ crucifixion. The end of the movement. The death of the leader. The fear of the disciples. The terror of it all.
This did not bode well for the future of the movement. It was not seeming to be rooted in courage or sustained by grace. In those moments surrounding Jesus’ last days, the disciples were typified by cowardice and faithlessness. Talk about a crisis.
We all know that they found their mojo eventually, but it took Jesus rising from the dead. It took Thomas touching his wounds. It took 40+ days of Jesus being with them.
And now they had to launch a new season. They needed to go forward with courage. They needed to plant new seeds of hope in new people. “The next generations are going to build upon your courage.” That’s what Jesus must have told them.
So, they needed to restart. The first thing they did was to restore their purity, adding another disciple to replace the betraying and very dead Judas. Of the 70 or so disciples, they chose Matthias. For some reason, they didn’t choose Mary Magdalene, even though all four gospels point out that she was faithful to the end, even more faithful than the original daring dozen.
The fact is that most of the disciples disappear from the Biblical record after the resurrection. Sure, we hear of Peter and James, but not the others.
So, when the early church began, the first crisis was how to define themselves. They were charting new ground, trying to figure out how to sustain a movement without their charismatic leader. What charisma might they have? What grace might they need to sustain their early church? And not only that, how could they remain faithful when one of their own twelve had betrayed Jesus and poisoned the movement? So they replaced the stained Judas with a new disciple. Matthias would join the other eleven in the mission of courage and grace.
They would not cower in a corner, licking their wounds, hoping to stay safe. The movement necessitated courage. It needed to be sustained by grace.
Here’s the biggest identity crisis of the early church. Was it a Jewish movement or was it a movement open to the rest of us? Remember, that Judaism does not seek converts. It encourages the Hebrew people to be more faithful and more dutiful to the Torah. It encourages dialogue and argument with tradition and even Holy Scripture. It encourages people to be faithful and courageous. But by and large, it is about preserving the heritage of the tribe or 12 tribes. It’s about purity and redemption of God’s ideal for the chosen people. The Messiah was to be the one to restore Israel to its former glory, to rid it of its complicity with sin, to cleanse it of its dabbling with unjust systems, to, as Isaiah hoped, repair the breach and restore streets to live in.
So the replacing of the 12th disciple was central to this purity. They were restoring the 12 tribes of Israel, at least symbolically.
But the story changed shortly thereafter. The feast of Pentecost came and the church took on an international flavor. Paul, Silas and Barnabas came along and the gospel started spreading to the Greeks or as the Jews called them, the goyiim, the uncircumcised: the nations. Peter had a dream in Acts 10 where God told him that it was okay to eat non-kosher food. And the Gospel spread to the ends of the earth.
This was a big change. And it made people uncomfortable. “Can’t we go back to the old ways? Look, we’ll even find a substitute disciple so we can go back to our darling dozen. It’s so much easier this way. At least we know who we are.”
But the early church was forging new ground. They were carving out a new identity. The message of Jesus was Good News to the world, nit just the Jewish people.
When people go to college, they all of a sudden are faced with decisions about how to define themselves. Once they no longer live with their families, they have to decide who they are. What is most important to them? Almost all of us have been there. This weekend is Parents’ weekend at the U. I imagine students are loving their reunions with their parents and remembering that what came so easy before has gotten more complicated. There are new experiences that they don’t share with their families. There are friends that the parents haven’t vetted. There are thoughts and ideas that are dancing around in their brains that they had never before considered. It is exciting and unmooring and creative and scary all at the same time. They say that the first year of college is like a dog year, meaning that it’s like seven years developmentally. And each student must decide who they are. Who are you?
The disciples had these roots of courage in the prophets and the other heroes and sheroes of the faith. They had the stories of Jesus and the meals that they shared together. They had the grace of God, so present in their friends—the other disciples and the early church. But still, they needed to constantly ask themselves, who are we? Are we doing the right thing?
Who are you? What are your roots? Who are your courageous forebearers? Who have been sustained by the grace of God? Who are you?
So often when we meet someone, we identify ourselves by our occupation. I’m a pastor, a retiree, a teacher, a student. I’m a mother, a father, a son, a daughter. I’m an addict, a survivor, a thriver. Of course seemingly obvious things like age, race, and gender play into identity. Less obvious things also play into this too, like life experience, health (physical, emotional, spiritual), gender identity, sexual orientation, employment, and the list goes on. Who are you?
Identity is at once complex and varying. Are you the same person you were ten years ago? How about two years ago? How about since June?
We encounter people who make a profound impact on our lives, and we can never be the same. Our Nicaraguan guests spoke about how coming to see us was a life-changing experience. What experiences have changed and enhanced your life? Think about that.
The musical Les Miserables has identity as a main theme. The main character, a convict, is freed and quickly breaks parole, but not before being confronted and befriended by a priest. He’s caught in the act of stealing from the priest and the priest lies to the arresting officers. He grants the ex-con his freedom, but also reminds him of his responsibility to become an honest and redeemed man. The rest of the play, Jean Valjean tries to live a grace-filled life, all while he runs from his former jailor who can only ever see him as one outside the law. In one of the main songs, he sings, “who am I?” Is he a convict, a mayor, a father, a thief, a do-gooder, a protector? He is trying to do God’s work and is constantly challenged to not do it. And yet, he remains rooted in courage and sustained by grace. And we leave the theater, wondering, Who am I?
In Rochester, people asked about our church. I got the chance to talk about who you are and what we do together. I spoke about our situation here at the crossroads of the University and the Dinkytown/Marcy Holmes community. I spoke about the stances we take. I spoke about the size of the church, the make-up of the congregation. I spoke about the visit from our sister church, our touring bell choir, our national-anthem and Mendelssohn singing vocal choir, our multi-use building, our exciting forays into Gospel ministry. And yet, all of this could not fully explain who we are. For we are all of those things we do, and so much more.
We are rooted in stories of courage across the years.
We are rooted in the stories of our congregation’s abolitionism before Minnesota was a state.
We are rooted in stories of frontier life, the industrial revolution and the post-industrial present.
We are rooted in stories of courageous people standing up to denominational pressure for conformity.
We are rooted in partnerships with a sister church in Nicaragua and refugees from Burma.
We are rooted in stories of people who are willing to stand on the side of justice even when it makes us lonely.
These are our roots. And they are a continuation of the roots found in scripture of those early disciples and leaders who forged a new way in the midst of great opposition.
And we are sustained by the grace of those who have and continue to pray for us. Nadean Bishop said that the closing service for our Nicaraguan guests two weeks ago was one of the most moving and grace-filled services she has ever attended. She spoke about the how love we shared with our guests, the prayer shawls, the music, the blessing and the tears showed us who we are as a people. She said it encouraged her and us to be even better as the years continue.
Who are you?
We get that you are rooted in courage and sustained by grace. But given that, who are you?
This season, as the colors change and we redefine what is real in our midst, we ask anew who are you? Not what do you do, not what do you think, not what do you feel, but who are you?
Matthias, substitute disciple might well have said, I am a part of the movement of God. I am rooted in this 12-tribe tradition, but I am also captivated by a grace that opens new doors for me, reveals new experiences, introduces me to new partners on the journey. Who am I?
I am a disciple. Rooted in courage, sustained by grace. Aren’t you?