Sermon: Finally Community
Scripture: Romans 1: 1-13
Date: April 3, 2016
Since January we have been on the road with Jesus to Discipleship. This journey of discipleship both culminated and began again last week with the empty tomb. In a couple of weeks we are going to continue the journey – only now with the Apostles as they go into the world. We’ll be thinking about how Disciples become Super Heroes – Super(natural) Heroes. But before we finish our Journey, I want to back up just a bit, and as we prepare for Holy Communion, consider this from Luke’s Gospel.
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles† reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
So as we complete this first part of our journey to discipleship with Jesus, we finish where we began. In the church dedicating ourselves to God as Christ was taken to the Temple as an infant to be dedicated as the Messiah. And now the man, Jesus, brought to the Temple once more, this time to be on trial before the Temple leaders. And this time, rather than hailed by the old man Simeon as the Messiah, the salvation of Israel, now condemned by the High Priest as a false Messiah IN ORDER to be the salvation of Israel. And so we finish where we started. We’ve journeyed to the Jordan for Baptism, through the wilderness, to the synagogue in Nazareth, up the mountains of the Beatitudes and transfiguration. We’ve felt the adulation of the crowds and then the rejection of the crowds. And at every stop we’ve heard the Call to Discipleship. And many of you have responded. Now we have come full circle. We are back n the church. And as we prepare to come to the Lord’s table I want to take just a few minutes to reflect on the church as a community of disciples being disciples. Because nowhere is that more evident then we gather at the Lord’s Table and take on the body of Christ. As I study this passage from Romans, two of Paul’s phrases that he uses here really stood out for me. The first is when he writes “I long to see you”. Longing implies to me an intense desire. And as I thought about that, I recalled another time that phrase was used in scripture. When Luke writes about the last supper, he goes into some detail about the preparations that were made for the last supper. And he tells us that as the supper began, Jesus says to His disciples “how I have longed to share this meal with you”. Now I have always wondered about that statement. Because Jesus had shared most meals with these same 12 men for the last three years. What made this meal different? What gave it this sense of intimacy and perhaps even urgency that is conveyed by Jesus opening statement? I’ve been thinking a lot about that and I have come to understand that what Jesus was doing here was planting His church, establishing this band of 12 as the church that would take on the task of transforming the world (even one individual at a time) in the image of Christ. I don’t think it was the meal that Jesus longed for, it was the fellowship, the community, the church that began with these Disciples as they broke bread together that night. In Jesus mind, all of history had led to this moment. And Jesus was ready. He longed for the plan to be fulfilled. He longed for this moment with these who would give form and substance to His church. Let’s get on with it. I am ready for this moment to come. We have those moments in our lives, don’t we? Moments that we wait for with great longing. Sometimes it’s excited longing. Great anticipation. We can’t wait. This is going to be great. It’s the longing of a couple on their wedding day. Or a young man or young woman on graduation day. Or expectant parents on the way to the hospital. All the preparations have pointed to this one moment of joy. But it can be a different kind of longing too. It can be longing that comes through anxiety and grief – even dread. It’s the moment when the anesthesia is given and you’re taken back for surgery. All of your questions and imaginings have led to this moment. There’s no turning back. Or it can be that moment when the lid to the casket is closed on a loved one. The sad preparations have been made, the visitations are finished, the words of committal have been pronounced. The time has come for that final goodbye. I suspect that this was both kinds of moments for Jesus. He couldn’t wait to see what God was going to do with these faithful men in this new community, this new covenant. The time had come for them to step out, to get on with it. But at the same time, there was the cross. It was time for Him to be the sacrifice so humanity could get on with it. I have longed for this moment, He said. Indeed, all of humanity from the beginning of time had longed for this moment of grace and redemption. And as I think about Paul’s words, I suspect that his sense of longing is very similar to that of Jesus at the last supper. He “longs” to see the Romans so he can start them on their way to being the kind of vibrant faith community – a community of Disciples- that God needs in the capital of the pagan world. In fact, his “longing” is so intense that he literally goes to Rome in chains. “I long to come to you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong – that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged to each other’s faith.” Disciples are those who long to be a part of Christ’s community with such intensity that they are willing to pay any price, make any sacrifice, to be a part of it. In fact many of us first come to the church bound in worldly chains only to discover that when Christ is with us, those chains can not hold us. As I read this passage from Romans it is clear to me that what Paul is longing for is the same as Jesus’ longing, and that is the longing for community. There is an intensity to his longing to be in a community of disciples being disciples. Because for Paul, the strength to continue in ministry, to persevere as a witness to Christ comes only in the community of faith. The power to be transformed in the image of Christ comes through community. I suspect that what both Jesus and Paul would want us to know is that what transforms church members into disciples is the intensity of their faith. Disciples have an intense longing to worship and serve that supersedes all the other longings and desires of our lives. People say to me all the time that they don’t need to be in church to worship God, to follow God. That they don’t need the church. But that is certainly not the mind of Christ. He longs to be in community, to share this meal, because it is in community that we find the faith to follow Him. And the strength to take our witness into the world. And community is a constant theme for Paul. The body is only as strong as the sum of its parts working together for Christ. Build one another up in love, he tells the Corinthians and do not tolerate those in your midst who would seek to tear down the community of faith. When one part is missing, no matter how insignificant, the body, the community can’t be whole. As I read Paul’s letters, it is apparent that he believes that you can’t truly be a Disciple of Christ, truly be like Christ, apart from a community of faith. Because he knew that on their own, the Corinthians and the Ephesians and the Roman believers did not have the strength to stand against the world. We find the strength to witness, to love, to make disciples, within the context of community. There is no more powerful image of true worship I think, then when the community gathers together to celebrate this sacrament and becomes the body of Christ joined in covenant by His blood. The fulfillment of Christ’s longing comes from being in community together because there is so much of our faith experience that only happens in the context of a Christ like community. I love the hymn “Blest Be The Tie That Binds”. In that hymn John Fawcett describes community in this way. Before our Father’s throne we pour our ardent prayers; our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares. We share each other’s woes, our mutual burdens bear; and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear. How I have longed to share this meal with you, Jesus said. How I long to come to you, Paul says. Blest be this tie that binds us together. When we are truly transformed in the image of Christ, we long to be in community with one another.
And then Paul says: I long to come so that we can be encouraged by one another in the faith. The letter to the Romans was written late in Paul’s ministry and reflects a mature faith that wasn’t always evident in Paul’s earlier days. This was especially true in this matter of encouraging one another. Paul’s early ministry was more characterized by intolerance and impatience. But Paul had learned the importance of encouraging one another. Paul completed three journeys through Asia Minor and Greece in which he started new faith communities and helped to build other communities. He walked many miles to share the good news of Jesus Christ. And when he set off on the first of these journeys, he took two companions with him. One was John Mark, who tradition identifies as the writer of the Gospel of Mark. He was a very young man when he traveled with Paul. The other companion was a man named Barnabas. Barnabas has become synonymous with a ministry of encouragement. In fact, his name literally meant “son of encouragement.” Part way through that first journey which took them through much of what is today Turkey, John Mark became homesick and left Paul and Barnabas, and went home. And that angered Paul. So when they were preparing to go on a second journey, Barnabas said to Paul, “I’ll go get John Mark and we’ll meet up with you.” But Paul refused to let John Mark be a part of the journey. “He is worthless to me. I can’t trust him” Paul said. Hardly words of encouragement. But Barnabas pleads his case. “He’s young. Let’s give him another chance.” But Paul refused, and so Barnabas and John Mark went on a journey of their own. But the Christian community is a community based on second chances. All of us are here and redeemed because God was willing to give us a second chance. And eventually Barnabas convinced Paul to give John Mark a second chance. And now, near the end of his ministry, Paul longs for this community of encouragement and second chances. It’s what he hopes for the Roman community. And when Paul finally arrives in Rome, he is imprisoned and from his jail cell he writes in a letter to his young protégé Timothy these amazing words: For I am already being poured out as a drink offering (surely he had this sacrament in mind when he wrote those words), and the time of my departure is at hand. Be diligent to come to me quickly. Get John Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry. Disciples find encouragement in community with one another. That is why when we offer this Sacrament, we offer it as celebration of the whole community. It’s the community that Paul envisioned for the Romans, and it is that kind of community where disciples are willing to be poured out for one another and for the world. We are disciples of the new covenant that Jesus made in blood. We are the body of Christ. Disciples reflect the image of Christ in all that we do. It is the kind of community that Jesus expects us to be, St. Luke and as Disciples it becomes the Greatest longing of our lives. And in community together there will be times of great joy, but there will also be times of struggle. Just as there were for those first Disciples. The community that Jesus longed for is the community of Easter and Pentecost, but it is also the community of Peter’s denial, and Thomas’s doubts, and Calvary’s Cross. And it was the same for the church at Rome, and Corinth, and all the other places that Paul traveled. And it is the same for the community of faith that you and I are a part of. The community that Jesus and then Paul longed for is a community of grace and love and encouragement. It is the community we become a part of when we are baptized and vow to be a part of when we join the church.. And then finally we need to understand that when Jesus longed for community He saw those first Disciples as only the beginning. I believe that Jesus still longs for community. He longs to share this meal with us today. Paul’s longing to be in community with the Romans comes straight from the heart of Christ.He saw Roman Christians as Disciples who would take the community of Christ throughout the Empire and indeed to the ends of the world. And it is into that same community into which we were Baptized. It is not just this church, it is the worldwide community of Disciples of Jesus Christ. That’s what Jesus longs for from His church. Today we close our time together by remembering that when we were Baptized we became a part of the community of Christ. That moment when we became the object of Christ’s longing. We have come today to celebrate the community of faith to which we belong but also to remember that there is so much more that Jesus longs for us to be.