Friday, June 5, 2020

“Structure and Spirit” - May 17, 2020

Text: Acts 1:15-26


Don’t you just love a good church business meeting?  OK, maybe not.  Business meetings are typically pretty cut and dried.  You make decisions that need to be made and hope that it doesn’t take too long.  If it is done well, there can be moments of gratitude and inspiration and excitement about the future – our Annual Meeting can often feel like that.  And it’s not the case in this church, thankfully, but I have to say that some of the worst moments I have experienced in churches and in denominational life have been in business meetings.  There are some church meetings that ESPN could probably televise while they wait for sports to come back – that’s how explosive it can sometimes be.

When we ask people what they like about church, they will talk about worship, about the great music, they will talk about fellowship and a sense of family, about people who care for them, about a place for their children to learn and grow and belong.  They might talk about food – about pot luck meals and fellowship dinners.  But I have never heard anybody say that what they really love is the business meetings.

As we read last Sunday, the Book of Acts open with Jesus telling his disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and that then they will be witnesses to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world.  And then he ascends to heaven. 

So the disciples are waiting for the coming of the Spirit.  What happens between the Ascension and Pentecost?  What do the disciples do as they wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit?  They have a business meeting.  Seriously.  Why do we find a business meeting in the middle of such dramatic and earth-shaking events?

The simple answer is that twelve was an important number.  Jesus had called twelve disciples, and this matched the twelve tribes of Israel.  Eleven just wouldn’t cut it.  In our scripture, we get a very graphic autopsy report on Judas, who had betrayed Jesus.  He was no longer among them and they needed another apostle.  There was tradition and there was symbolism; twelve was important. 

But that still begs the question of “why now?” Why have a business meeting when the Holy Spirit is scheduled to show up any minute?  It seems like really odd timing.

It may seem like a crazy time to have a business meeting, but maybe it was exactly the right time.  The church always needs both structure and spirit.  The apostles moved to find a replacement for Judas so that when the Spirit came, they would be ready.

There are a lot of people who complain about the “institutional church.”  I have a book on my shelf titled They Love Jesus But Not the Church, which is written about millennials but describes a lot of people.  There are people out there who have perhaps been hurt by those who seem more committed to the institution of the church than they are to loving God and loving their neighbor – more concerned about the structure of it all than the ministry.

Structure without Spirit can leave you cold.  But on the other hand, Spirit with no structure can be chaotic.  Every movement of the Spirit requires some kind of structure.  If the Spirit leads you to start a Bible study or feed the hungry or have a deeper prayer life, there has to be some kind of organization for it to really work.

In high school, I played in the jazz band.  What was great was when we improvised.  There was a basic tune we played, a basic melody, and then we would take turns improvising.  But we had to have both order and creativity for it to work.  There had to be structure beneath all the improvisation.  We played in a particular key and counted out a particular beat.  If it were all improvisation – if there were no structure at all – if everybody just played whatever they wanted, whenever they felt like it - it wouldn’t work. But if it were all structured, with no improvisation, no opportunities for originality, no creativity, no freedom, then it would have been lifeless.  It wouldn’t have been jazz.

I think it’s that way with most of life.  We all need a starting place – we need structure.  The structure is to help us and guide us – it’s not there to weigh us down.  If the goal is to fly, then structure and tradition can be our wings.

The apostles would go on to do all kinds of things that had not been done.  God would lead them in new directions.  God would give them power and courage and strength to face all kinds of adversity.  This was all the work of the Spirit.  But they were able to do what they did only as they were tied to the community and as they worked together.  That was the structure.

This morning we are especially thinking about the ways that we learn and grow as followers of Jesus.  We are honoring all of those who are leaders in Christian Education.  Church School and Lenten Studies and gatherings for college students and youth activities and camping and conference opportunities are some of the structures – some of the ways through which the Spirit works.

The Spirit leads us to grow in faith, but the Spirit works through teachers and leaders and counselors and our Christian Education Committee and yes, even business meetings.  It takes both structure and spirit.   

Several years ago, as part of my sabbatical, I had the chance to visit some emergent churches.  That was the name given at the time to new kinds of churches.  They were made up mostly of people in their 20’s, and they rejected the megachurch model of doing church.  While definitely a new and different thing, they were also open to traditional and ancient liturgy, and many had a strong focus on the arts.  In a sense what they did was very new and at the same time very old.  The whole movement was hard to describe, partly because there is so much difference from church to church, but I decided to visit some of these emergent churches.

There was one church in particular that was very interesting.  They had started out several years before as a church of 20-somethings, mostly single or at least without kids.  They were doing something new and exciting – it was a movement of the spirit.  By the time I attended this church, they had been around a few years and were now in a new location – they had grown a bit, and they met in a theater in a hip urban neighborhood.  Dogs were welcome – a couple of worshipers arrived with their dogs, which I really liked.

But here was the thing: they had been very focused on spirit as they started out, on this new thing that God was doing, but in time they realized they needed structure.  They were getting married and having kids now.  They had to think about a nursery, and do we have children’s church or just have the kids in worship with everybody else, and what kind of programs and activities do we have for our children?  And given our growing number of kids, is this theater really the best place to meet?  There has to be a structure for the Spirit to be able to work. 

There is so much that goes into our being the church that seems mundane, that may not seem all that spiritual.  Paying the bills.  Picking up beer cans in the parking lot.  Changing diapers.  Trimming hedges.  Making coffee.  Counting the offering.  Tuning the piano.  And recently, even more stuff: learning Zoom.  Determining what music we can legally stream.  Making sure we have computer equipment that is up to the task.

All of this is necessary, because it takes both structure and spirit for us to be the church.  Without spirit, our structure can be meaningless.  But without structure, the spirit has no place to work.

Maybe it is exactly right that in between two big, dramatic, spiritual events, the Ascension and Pentecost, we find a business meeting.

The Church needs leadership.  Another apostle was needed to replace Judas.  It was decided that the new apostle, as a witness to the resurrection, needed to be someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning.  Two were put forward as being qualified and worthy: Justus and Matthias.

Then we come to a very interesting part: they cast lots to determine who would serve.  Actually, this seems to be a fairly common approach in the scriptures, and this was not seen as mere chance; this was seen as God’s choice.

Some have continued this practice.  In some Amish traditions, several qualified men will each take a Bible from a table; one of the Bibles is marked to indicate that the one who chose that Bible is to be the pastor.

It’s not just the Amish.  An Episcopal priest in Grand Rapids, Michigan shared that her congregation chooses its vestry – its governing board - in a similar way.  A group of people is nominated, and at the annual meeting, all hear the responsibilities explained and agree to serve if selected.  The names are placed in the offering plate, the church prays, and then names are drawn to fill vacancies on the board.   The church has been doing this for a number of years and has found that more people than before are willing to serve.  It has helped to encourage the mindset that all church members have gifts to share.  The decision to go to this form of “election” was based on this scripture from Acts.

Both Justus and Matthias had been faithful in following Jesus and were willing to step in and serve.  In the Bible, we don’t hear of either of them again.  But they are an example for all of us: willing to serve and open to the Spirit.  Amen.

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