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As sad as it is that we can’t gather in our church buildings to worship together, there are some good things that have come from this. The internet and social media have been flooded with options for daily devotions in the word and with multiple opportunities to worship in a virtual way with people in many different places. A number of people have told me that they attend two or three online worship services each week. Those who are surfing, either out of boredom or who are looking for answers are sure to see religious memes, devotions and worship services, and they may be led to click on them when in normal times they might have simply ignored them. God will certainly use this to accomplish his good purposes.
Another good thing that comes for the fact that we can’t gather in our church buildings is a greater appreciation and understanding of what the church really is. The church is not a building. As nice as it is to have a building with architecture that encourages us to have reverence for God and, through pictures and symbols reminds us of who God is and what he has done for us, the church is not a building. The church is people; people who know and trust what Peter proclaimed. God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.
The church is not founded on concrete. The church is founded on the means of Grace, on God’s word and sacraments.
We see that very clearly in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. He didn’t tell the crowd about a beautiful building the apostles were planning to build, or even about how friendly the little church startup core group of 120 people was. He proclaimed God’s word, both law and gospel. He helped those listening to him realize their sin and their need for a savior. He reminded these people who claimed to be longing for God to fulfill his promise and send the Messiah that God had indeed kept his promise and sent the Messiah. But instead of receiving him they rejected him. In fact, they were responsible for his crucifixion.
Of course, we are tempted to think, “that’s not me. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t in the crowd shouting ‘Crucify him, give us Barabbas.’” No, you and I were not physically there. But we were still responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. The Bible reminds us that Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins (Ro 4:25). The reason he went to the cross was because we sin. Because we sin, we are just as responsible for his crucifixion as anyone else.
The Holy Spirit used Peter’s proclamation of the law to bring about the desired effect. The people were cut to the heart. They realized that they had done something so terrible that there was no way they could fix it. There was no way they could ever make it right. They couldn’t un-crucify Jesus. They asked, what should we do? Is there any way God can forgive us for what we have done? Is there any way we can be saved?
If we look around every day and find reasons to pat ourselves on the back because, although we admit that we aren’t perfect, at least we are not as bad as so many others, then the law has not had its proper effect on us. Every day we need to experience the dread, the terror, the broken heart that the people on Pentecost felt when they realized that they were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. Every day we need to think, “there is no way I can ever fix my sins. There is no way I can ever make up for what I have done that caused the suffering and death of Jesus. Is there any way God can forgive me? Is there any way I can be saved?”
When God’s law has done its work and smashed our sinful pride to bits so that we realize that we deserve God’s punishment and can never save ourselves, then we are ready to hear the answer Peter gave. Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call.(Acts 2:38-39)
What a joyful day it was! Those whose hearts were smashed to pieces by the realization that they killed the Messiah now had their hearts bound up by the comforting message of the gospel. “Yes, not only can your sin be forgiven, it already has been forgiven. God raised Jesus from the dead. He was delivered over to death for your sins, but he was raised to life for your justification. (Ro 4:25) Through Baptism God grants you the gift of the Holy Spirit, the comforter. He assures you that your sins, every single sin, has been paid for, forgiven, washed away by the cleansing blood of Jesus shed on the cross for you. This gift of forgiveness is free for everyone, for adults, for children and even for the gentiles.” It was a joyful day for Peter and the Apostles who had the privilege of baptizing 3000 people! It is a joyful day for us because we are reminded that, at our baptism we too received the gift of the Holy Spirit who enables us to rejoice that all our sins are washed away in the blood of Jesus.
The church is not founded on cement. It’s not a building. It’s people, people who have been brought to see their sin, to trust that Jesus is the crucified and risen Messiah, and who have been assured of their forgiveness and of God’s love through the sacrament of baptism.
Those who are a part of this church want to continue to make use of the means of grace, to hear God’s word and to receive the sacrament so that their faith continues to grow. In one of his epistles Peter compares us to newborn babies who crave spiritual milk so that we can continue to grow stronger and stronger, and more and more mature in our faith.
That’s what we see happening in the early church. Peter encouraged these people to save themselves from this crooked generation, to separate from those who taught and lived contrary to the will of God. 42They continued to hold firmly to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread, and to the prayers. 46Day after day, with one mind, they were devoted to meeting in the temple area, as they continued to break bread in their homes.
These believers didn’t have a church building. But they found ways to do what the church does, to devote themselves, to pay close attention to, to have daily contact with the apostles’ teaching, the words Jesus gave the apostles and commanded them to teach to others. They didn’t have a church building, but they found a way to fellowship with each other to encourage each other. The gathered in the courtyards of the temple and in each other’s homes. They didn’t have a church building, but they found a way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper to be assured of their forgiveness and strengthened in their faith. And they found ways to pray for and with each other.
Did you notice something? We do have a church building, but it’s not wise for us to gather in it right now. But we are the church and we can still do everything the church does. We can gather in our homes around a computer or a radio and devote ourselves to the word that Jesus entrusted to the apostles. We can still fellowship with and encourage each other by calling each other on the phone, or through email, or even in a video chat. We can still gather in smaller groups to celebrate the Lord’s supper to be assured of our forgiveness and strengthened in our faith. Nothing can ever keep us from praying for each other. And, when we are able to gather again in our church building, I’m sure we will appreciate what we have more than ever before.
The church is people; people who have been brought by the Holy Spirit to trust that the crucified and risen Jesus is both Lord and Christ. They are people who devote themselves to God’s word, to prayer and to receiving the sacrament. They are people who let the light of Christ shine through in all they do.
44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45They were selling their possessions and property and were distributing the proceeds according to what anyone needed… They shared their food with glad and sincere hearts, 47as they continued praising God and being viewed favorably by all the people.
The church as an organization has not been given the responsibility to provide for people’s physical needs. The mission that Jesus gave the church was to preach the gospel, to make disciples by using the means of grace, the gospel in word and sacrament. That’s what Peter did on Pentecost. But those who have been brought to faith in Jesus, the people who make up the church, are moved to love their neighbor as themselves, to do good to all people especially the household of faith. That’s what these early believers did. They willingly shared what they had with others. No one said they had to do these things. This was a fruit of their faith, something they wanted to do because they knew what God had done for them.
Luke says that these Christians, were viewed favorably by all the people. Their love and generosity seems to have peaked people’s curiosity and that provided opportunities for them to tell others the reason for the hope that they had. The result? Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Makes you wonder doesn’t it? What do people today think of the church? Do they see it primarily as a building? When they hear the word church, do they think, “that’s where that strange group of people meet, and I get the idea that I wouldn’t be too welcome there?”
Shame on us if that’s the case. How wonderful it would be if, because people hear us praising God as we go about our daily lives, and because they see our light of faith shining as we show Christlike love to all, people would be moved to ask us about the hope we have. How wonderful it would be if we would be reminded by what we are going through right now that we are the church. Then, as we tell people about the hope of heaven that is ours in Jesus, the Lord would add people to his church daily. Not to a building or an organization, but to the number of those who will spend eternity with Jesus.