Fourth Sunday in Easter A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
1 Peter 2:19-25
Yesterday, AMC showed the movie, “The Last Samurai”. Leaving behind the issue I have with a movie made in 2003 being shown on a channel called “American Movie Classics”, it’s actually a pretty good movie.
It tells a fictional story set in the 1870s about one Captain Nathan Algren, a veteran of the American Civil War. While a raging alcoholic because of the horrors he both saw and committed, he is still a legend, and a brilliant tactician. He is recruited, therefore, to train the fledgling Japanese army so that they can put down an insurrection led by rebel Samurai Moritsugu Katsumodo.
Why is Katsumodo rebelling? Japan is undergoing a program of rapid Westernization, a program which the Samurai object to. They fear that too many changes are happening too quickly, and that, ultimately, Japan is rejecting its core values and identity.
Captain Algren soon finds out that the army he is supposed to train have, literally, zero training in any sort of combat. And though the army is barely competent, he is ordered to engage Katsumodo, relying on the army’s superior numbers and firearms to win the day. The battle is disastrous, the army is routed, and Algren is taken prisoner.
Without spoiling the rest of the movie, while Algren is a prisoner among the Samurai, he gets a deeper understanding of why the Samurai feel the way they do. They feel that, with all of the changes happening around them, their way of life will be lost. They remember what it used to be like and don’t like what things are becoming.
What Katsumodo and the Samurai are doing, essentially, is wishing for the good old days again. They look at the past and compared to the present, at least in their minds, the past was much better. They pine for their golden age.
I could not help but think of the church as I watched this story play out. You know what I’m talking about.
50 years ago, the church was perfect. Just ask anyone who was around then. It was the golden age of Christianity, when it was assumed that by the end of the century, the entire world would be Christian, and we would have peace and harmony.
Since then, the church has been in a steady decline. Things started to change, and they changed too quickly. When things change, people get upset and leave. We drove them away with our attempts to be hip and relevant and “missional”, whatever that means. This is the church narrative I heard growing up, but you know what? I don’t believe it anymore.
I don’t believe that the 1950s and 1960s were the crowning moments of 2000 years of church history. Sure, in America, churches were booming, but so was racism, bigotry, violence against women, and greed—all of which the church gladly participated in. And if the perfect church and the people in it existed 50 years ago, then I was never part of that church, and the implication is that I and others like me are less Christian than all of you.
That’s not to say that today are the glory days of the church, either. One need only look at any number of polls and surveys to see that people are well aware of the failings of the church, which is seen as a bastion of intolerance, hate, and hypocrisy.
No, if we want to see what the glory days of the church REALLY were, we have to go all the way back to the very, very, VERY beginning, like, Acts of the Apostles and the original Pentecost beginning. Now THAT’S a church I would be proud to look back on and pine, “Ah, the good old days.”
According to Acts, in the earliest church, everyone got along. “All the believers had everything in common”, they “gave to anyone who had need”. Their hearts were glad and sincere, and they enjoyed the “favor of all the people”. “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Sounds idealic, and perfect. But it’s important to remember that the Acts of the Apostles was probably written 30-40 years after the events it reports—it is a retrospective look at what the second generation of Christians thought about the first. Apparently, we in the church have a very, very long history of looking back and saying, “Those were the good old days.”
Still, it’s worth looking at this very first church and asking, what was it that made it so appealing to those who came after it?
According to Acts, there seems to have been four foundations of the church: the teachings of the apostles, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. And these are the ways in which the early Christians lived out their faith in response to those four foundations: they were together and held everything in common, the sold their property and gave to any, ANY, who had need, the continued to meet together, and they broke bread together in their own homes.
Frankly, I don’t know how they survived without youth pastors, full time music directors, a traditional and a contemporary prayer meeting, or their own, separate buildings to meet in. We hear over and over that these things are necessary to build “successful” churches.
Instead, they devote themselves to worshiping God and being active in their community. Combined with the incredible signs that the Holy Spirit was performing through the apostles, the community couldn’t help but grow.
Ah, the good old days. Days that were gone by the time Acts was written. Days that felt like they never existed by the time the first letter of Peter was written, written to a community undergoing suffering for their faith. The dream didn’t last. Things changed.
Things will always change. There’s nothing we can do about it. What we change, that’s what matters.
In her sermon to the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly this weekend, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Webber said this:
“It’s no news to anyone here that there is a lot of hand-wringing these days about the longevity of the Lutheran church. And yeah – to be sure, we used to be bigger, more significant and more impressive. Sure, we used to own more property, have more members, bring in more cash and leverage more power than we do today. It’s hard to argue with numbers. But the thing is, buildings, numbers, money, power – and other aspects of worldly success may indeed be signs of A kingdom, but brothers and sisters, they are not necessarily signs of THE Kingdom…”
What are signs of THE kingdom? The teachings passed down to us by the apostles. Gathering together in fellowship. Breaking bread together. Praying.
These are the foundations of a community built on Christ, foundations that don’t change. The community that does these things, that passes down the teachings of the apostles and gathers together to pray and share the Lord’s Supper: there, the church is found. As long as the church sticks to these, it will continue.