Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve talked some about our Baptismal covenant, and as Epiphany continues, I want to dig a little deeper into those promises that we have made, and remade, and renewed.
The first seems ideal for an Annual Meeting Sunday, because it is all about community, being faithful in worship and the sacraments, and being faithful in coming together.
It’s that coming together part that many see lacking in the world today. If you’re in the kind of online lists that I am, you see essay after essay about why church attendance is declining, how mainline denominations are failing, and whether virtual church – attending online, or calling it in, is going to be either the death or the salvation of traditional religion.
Sometimes, I think they miss the point. One article I read this week said, along the way,
“The more that worship is at your church is about teaching and inspiration only, the more people will be able to substitute your church offering with digital ones.”
I wonder how the kind of worship the author is imagining fits with that promise “to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”
I heard a sermon once about the difference between continuing to pray, and continuing in “the prayers,” the ones that have been passed down by the apostles, from Jesus’ own to us.
There is something more that happens when we come together as disciples, as apostles of Christ, than mere inspiration, as wonderful as that might be.
In the readings that we have today – setting Paul aside for now, because he seems to be having a bit of a moment – in the Samuel reading and the John, the community of faith comes into its own, and does its part valiantly to build up the kingdom of God.
Samuel is a young boy living in the house of God under the guardianship of Eli. His mother and father visit him every year; his mother makes him a new coat each time to bring to him. She must spend the year guessing how much he has grown. Samuel lives at the shrine at Shiloh because of a promise Hannah made when she was so desperate for a child, a promise to return him to the Lord, to the temple where she was praying. Once Samuel was weaned, which would be about the age of three, she brought him to the priest who had witnessed her promise and promised its fulfillment. Eli took Samuel in. His own sons grown, he started over with this young boy and raised him up to serve God.
When the young boy, Samuel, heard God calling, he didn’t know what he was hearing. It took the experience of one steeped in the traditions of the Lord, who had lived his life within a worshipping community, to recognize the voice of God, even in those days, when the word of God was rare among them, and visions not often seen.
Turn and turn about, it took the newcomer, the child, the innocent to bring before Eli the charges against his sons; to speak truth to the establishment and the power. As frightened, as young and inexperienced, as Samuel was, his was the call to offer judgment to Eli for the sake of his sons.
Without one another, without the community of the shrine at Shiloh, their church, neither of these two would have heard, or if they had heard, still neither would have recognized the word of God speaking to them, telling them their own stories, guiding their lives. They needed one another, and it was the worshipping community that brought them together.
In these days, as much as in those, the word of the Lord is rare, and visions not often seen. Of course, they can come unbidden to anyone, anywhere; but if there is no context, no tradition of hearing and seeing, of seeking God, how will they be known? How will they be interpreted? To whom will they be told? If not for the context of a worshipping community, how will our children know to listen for the Lord, to seek God, while God wills to be found?
In the Gospel, Jesus has just come from John and the Jordan. He has called Andrew, and Andrew has called Simon, who will be named Peter, and brought him along, too. Now Jesus comes across Philip, and as soon as Philip hears the call, he runs to his friend Nathanael, and brings him along: “Come and see.” Andrew and Philip each as their first response to Jesus is to turn back to their community and tell those closest to them, “We have found him.” We have found Jesus. It is their natural response, their overpowering urge to share the good news, to bring others along with them, not to follow along alone but to bring and to be and to build a community of faith. The apostles have no notion of following Jesus alone. It doesn’t even cross their mind.
Few of us are designed to be ascetics, withdrawn from the world. Each of us can, of course, listen for God and search for God alone; but I know few people, and I am certainly not one of them, who can sustain a lively, long-term prayer life without a community of faith to remind them, encourage them, to carry them through those dry times when the desert sands burn and we have to hide our faces, or turn away; to lift them clear of the rip tides when the floods overwhelm. Those who can hear the word of God over the clamour of daily living without help are rare; the clear-sighted mystic seldom seen. Most of us need one another, if we’re honest.
When I moved to Ohio, I missed my community of faith so badly it hurt. But when I started going regularly to the cathedral, I noticed that they used the same words at the fraction, the breaking of the bread, as the church we had left behind. We don’t use them often here, but you know them:
We who are many are one body, because we all share in the one Bread.
The breaking of bread, and the shared prayers were my bridge across the ocean. Knowing that my faith community was still one body with me, because we all share in the one bread, lifted me so that I could finally feel as though my head was above water; helped my heart which had got lost somewhere en route, finally to make it to the other side.
Most of us need one another to help us to find God, to hear God, to see God’s face in Jesus.
So will you continue in the apostles’ fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?
I will, with God’s help. Amen.