November 2, 2014

Acts 5:33-42

33 When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.

34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while.

35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men.

36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing.

37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.

38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.

39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

40 His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.

41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.

42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah. 

For some weeks I’ve been offering messages based upon your responses to the three questions I asked you over the course of the summer.

This morning’s message is a diversion from that series, as I want to combine two ideas together. Today we begin the first week of our stewardship campaign for the 2015 church budget, so I want us to follow the theme of stewardship.

But I would like us to think about stewardship in a way that moves beyond just dollars and cents. I would like us to think about the gift that the church is to each of us – this church, but also the church at large and what a gift it has been, and remains, to the world.

In this week’s Scripture passage we read of a critical moment in the life of the early church. The apostles were persecuted for their faith. They were taken before the Sanhedrin – the same Sanhedrin that had condemned Jesus to death – and they were flogged and warned that they were not to speak or preach any longer about Jesus. What did they do? The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah (verses 41 and 42).

Imagine if they had done what they were told. Imagine if they stopped doing the work to which they had been called. Imagine if they suddenly became silent about their message. If they had, the church would have come to an end. And where would history be without the church?

In 1946 the movie It’s A Wonderful Life was released. The movie, which stars Jimmy Stewart, has become an undeniable holiday classic. You know the storyline, I’m sure. Jimmy Stewart plays the character George Bailey, a banker whose life has not fulfilled many of his dreams, and on Christmas Eve, because of a lost deposit, he is facing arrest and prison time. George drives to the edge of town, intending to jump from a bridge. His guardian angel, Clarence, intervenes, and in answer a comment George makes that he wished he had never been born, Clarence shows him how differently the town of Bedford Falls would have been without George.

Think for a moment about what life would be like if our church did not exist. Think for a moment about how our community would be different if our church did not exist. Think for a moment how history and the world would be different if the church at large had never existed. It’s an unfathomable thought to imagine. The world, and history, I believe, would be unrecognizable.

Consider these portions of our church’s history – the Restoration Movement on the western frontier was planted in Shelbyville in 1830 when, according to the minutes of the Long Run Association, 20 members of the Shelbyville Baptist Church left by consent. That same year that exact number of persons became charter members of a new reform church in Shelbyville called “The Church of Disciples of Jesus Christ.” The congregation later took the name “First Christian Church.” The congregation became a part of the denomination known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Although they first met in homes, the congregation began to grow rapidly.

The first church building constructed by the congregation in 1832 faced Fourth Street.

In 1864 the church had outgrown its building space. The dedicatory sermon for the new church building was preached on April 25, 1865.

With the coming of the Great Depression in 1929, First Christian Church came upon some difficult times. The building fell into some disrepair. The rook leaked, the furnace needed repair, the walls cracked, the bell tower began to lean dangerously. The church, like the rest of the nation, was in debt. Yet the congregation continued to grow in the face of hard times.

On August 7, 1969 First Christian Church caught fire and burned to the ground. The sanctuary was rebuilt and dedicated in 1971.

The congregation moved into its new facilities on July 15, 2001.

Obviously, our church has a long history in the Shelbyville community. As we draw close to our 200th anniversary, it is worth taking a few moments of time to consider the impact our congregation has made upon our community and upon our own lives, and certainly in other congregations as well.

When we think about church, our thoughts most likely turn first to the impact a congregation it has had upon our own lives. Think of the friends you have. Some of my closest friends are those I have made in church. You wouldn’t know the names of Steve Dalton and Kurt Lohr, but they were two of my closest friends growing up, friends I made at church. Other congregations to which I’ve been privileged to belong have provided friends for a lifetime.

Think about all the other significant events that take place in church? How many of you have made close friends in this congregation? In another congregation? How many of you were married in this church? In another church? How many of you have had a family funeral in this church? In another church? How many of you have had church friends in this congregation or another congregation praying for you when you really needed prayer? How many of you had someone from church come to see you in the hospital or visit with you in a funeral home (not for you own funeral, of course, but for a loved one’s or a friends)? How many of you were baptized in this church? In another church? How many of you had a child dedicated in this church or another church? How many of you had a Sunday School teacher, a deacon, an elder, a minister, or someone from this or another congregation who made a difference in your life?

I can think of so many friends, so many weddings, so many baptisms, so many baby dedications, so many funerals I’ve seen or in which I’ve been a participant. I can think of so many times of comfort – and times of challenge as well.

But the reality is that we don’t always know the impact our church has, just as we don’t always know the impact our lives have had. And we probably won’t ever know the fullest extent, at least not in this life. But one day we will know. One day we’ll know of all the ways in which our lives mattered and made a difference and all the ways in which our church mattered and made a difference. Do you believe that? I do. To know of the difference our church and our lives make is one of the gifts of eternity.

Skeptics often attempt to rewrite history when it comes to the impact of the church. Amazingly, some skeptics of faith will attempt to convince us that the church really has not been influential throughout history and that it has not really accomplished much. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

How many people would have been left destitute if not for the immense resources of churches offered to feed the hungry, to clothe people, to bring shelter; how many people left sick if not for the hospitals founded by churches, how many patients left untreated if not for the countless volunteers who traveled to all corners of the globe to care for others, and who continue travel to so many countries, even when they are threatened by war or illnesses such as ebola? How many orphans would be left unloved if not for the countless families who embraced those precious children in the name of Christ? Think of how many people have been educated because of the church. Most universities were founded by churches, church groups, or denominations. Sunday Schools were established by the church to provide education before there was much of a public education system in our country.

In our own community, we partner with other churches and other ministries to make a difference. There is Operation Care, Arriba Ninos, the Serenity Center, the Open Door of Hope Men’s Shelter, Habitat for Humanity, and others. Shelbyville is a great place to live and a great community but below the surface of what we see as we live and work and move around town there are so many needs and so many challenges facing us and without the presence of the church entering into those needs and challenges Shelbyville would be a very different place.

I believe we sometimes take for granted that the ministry of a church is very tenuous. I have no doubt that the church as a whole will continue until the end of time. But we’ve all seen the churches that have closed their doors. Sometimes it’s the small country churches that close as people migrate into larger town and larger churches. But it’s also the larger churches as well. Drive through Louisville or other cities and you will find many large church buildings that sit almost empty because the community changed around them and they did not adapt. They did not reach out to their new neighbors and before they realized it, and after it was too late, those churches reached a point of decline that was irreversible.

The first church, besides my home church, where I preached was West Middletown Christian Church in West Middletown, Pennsylvania. The name of the town is a bit deceiving because it’s not large enough to have an East, let alone a West. In fact, it’s not even a town, but more of a village stretched out along the highway that runs through the middle of the community. For two summers – 1976 and 1977 – I served as a substitute minister for that congregation. I think a really good crowd in that church was 20 or so people. Sometimes, when I’m home visiting my mom, I drive by that church and it’s still there, though I don’t know how many people attend. By the looks of it, it’s probably not prospering. But it’s still going, and I’m grateful it is, and I hope it does continue, but it’s not a guarantee.

We can easily take for granted what we have as a church. Jesus said that the gates of hell will not overcome the church (Matthew 16:18), and I certainly believe that affirmation. But Jesus was talking of the church universal, not individual churches. It is only a guarantee that the church at large will continue, not that individual congregations will always survive.

Our church has served the Shelbyville community for almost 200 years, and it has been a gift to each of us in the years we have been privileged to be a part of the congregation. May we thank God for the great gift of his church!