The Church is a Holy Hot Mess
When we were first dreaming of a community called KINDRED, we gathered around the table and opened up our bibles to the first chapters of the Book of Acts. These are the chapters in which the church is born. This is when the disciples receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and begin to preach with power and work wonders of healing and transformation. This is where we would find guidance for how we should be. This is where I expected to be refreshed in the discovery of the church in its earliest and purest form, before time and humanity soiled it and made everything a mess….
…but then we actually began to read the book of Acts and I discovered something else. The church has always been messy. The apostles were doing incredible things in the name of the Risen Christ. Good things. They were bringing good news to the hopeless and healing to the hurt….but they were also a hot mess. Their community was growing and multiplying in significant ways, ways that obviously had established leaders concerned about how to control zealous preachers like Stephen. Yet, they still messed up along the way. The Hellenists and the Hebrews were on the same team, part of the same Jewish family, but since those driving the movement forward at its center were Hebrews…the Hellenists became marginalized even among the larger community they helped build. Their needy went overlooked, but they would not remain silent. They cried out for justice. They insisted that the church remain true to its claim of good news for the poor and it’s commitment that there would be no needy among them. Now, when our integrity is challenged like that? I can picture some bruised egos and a defensive response….but Holy Spirit is at work here and something else happens.
The disciples’ eyes are opened and, just as they eventually recognized the risen Christ beside them on the road, they recognize the system is unjust and respond to the cries of those who had been treated as second-class followers. They reflect on how best to respond and discover that this is an initiative best led by leaders already in their midst. The names Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus are Hellenist names. The disciples empower local leaders to lift up the Gospel among their own people. In this moment, some are called to help others recognize their capacity for leadership and to empower them to be who God has called them to be. Some are called to embrace their God-given gifts and to engage them for the sake of their community. Their people need them to. Not the disciples of Jerusalem, but Stephen is best equipped to respond to Stephen’s community. Philip is best equipped to respond to Philip’s community. Prochorus is best equipped to respond to Prochorus’ community. These leaders are lifted up to do the work of the Gospel and filled with the Holy Spirit, they get it done. They aren’t rogue actors, they didn’t elect themselves, but are lifted up by their peers and others as ones who are trusted and blessed to be a blessing. Others have said to them “I see in you gifts for service, a passion for these people, and a capacity to care.” Stephen shows us that he doesn’t have to be a pastor to minister. The community recognized the gifts of these seven, commissioned them to lead, and then got the hell out of the way.
This isn’t because the disciples are exceptional leaders themselves or because they have astute community organizing savvy. They have never read “the 7 habits of highly effective people.” For all their gifts and all the wisdom of the early church, it is still inevitably flawed and messy. And I’m gonna say something you probably wouldn’t expect a pastor to say, but I’m going to say it anyway. What I see revealed in the text is this: The church will not save you. The church will NOT save you, Jesus does. You are known and loved by people and by your creator, but it is because of God that we are entirely set free from sin, shame, despair, and darkness. Your identity is not rooted in a church, it is rooted in Christ.
However! In this season of Easter, as we wrestle with the resurrection, we are acutely aware of God’s being very much alive. And the early church reveals that the church is rightly understood to be the incredibly diverse body of Christ, still living and breathing and moving in the world. God uses the church to transform us into the shape of Christ…Into a community that sees those unseen, that hears the cries of our neighbors say “our widows are starving,” that speaks bold truth into the void of silence and slander, a community that defies the engines of fear in the name of divine hope, and that uses its final breath to utter faith and forgiveness.
I lean exclusively on the cross of Christ to save me, to redeem, restore, and reconcile me and all of creation before our Creator. But I also believe that the body of Christ is not among the dead, but the living. I believe that the church is full of the Spirit and of wisdom. I believe that you are full of the Spirit and of wisdom. Community is crucial in times like these, so if there’s a part of you that longs for a sacred community that is messy and flawed but serves something much bigger than itself…welcome among KINDRED. Pray and listen to how God has called you to help others recognize their capacity for leadership and to empower them to be who God has called them to be. Pray and listen to how God has called your to embrace your God-given gifts and to engage them for the sake of their community. We need you to. We need what God has given you is we, together, are to take the shape of Christ in the world. And don’t stay quiet about it. Let me know, let others know about the things you see that might otherwise go unseen. What you hear that needs to be amplified. The Hellenists declare to us, “speak up! God cares.” May we be attune to God’s voice and God’s movement here. Amen.