One popular Sunday School song that made its way into our United Methodist Hymnal in 1989 says:
I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! It reminds us that the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people. It also goes on to say that we’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colors and all ages, too, from all times and places.
This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, sometimes also called “the birthday of the church.” On this Sunday we remember the time when — on the Day of the Feast of Pentecost, according to the biblical book of Acts — the Holy Spirit worked in the lives of the apostles so that the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus Christ was heard and understood by all kinds of people gathered in Jerusalem for the feast. Peter preached to a large group and God brought about three thousand people “into the community on that day, and those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized.” The scriptures go on to relate that “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.”
As this happened, a sense of awe came over everyone, and all the believers were united by this sudden sense of community. They then began to meet every day in one another’s homes to share meals, worship and praise God together, and then they began to actively demonstrate God’s goodness by selling pieces of their property and personal possessions and then distributing the proceeds to those in need. And then, because of the sincere work of this community of faith, “the Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.” (Read the rest of the Pentecost story in Acts 2:1-17)
In the Apostles Creed, we say “we believe in the Holy catholic church . . . ” (a phrase which means the whole universal Church rather than any particular denomination. In the affirmation of faith from the United Church of Canada, we say, “We are called to be the church: to celebrate God’s presence, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen . . .”
The Apostle Paul tells us that being “called to be the church” signifies that we, as a church, are to be “the body of Christ” in our world today. This means that as a church we collectively embody the ministry of Jesus Christ, united for the purpose of carrying on his work in our world. And, just as a body has many parts, each with its own function, there are many different kinds of people who come together to “be the church.”
Serving together in this way, acting as the “body of Christ,” doesn’t mean that we must lose our individuality. It means that working together, each with his or her own gifts and graces, we can accomplish much more as a faith community than we ever could alone. When Paul addresses the Galatians on this topic, he emphasizes that whenever we have the opportunity, we are to “work together for the good of all.”
Examples of the compounding effect of working together rather than alone abound. Right here in our own faith community is our Alzheimer’s & Dementia Support ministry. What began as a significant donation by The Ostby family to honor Bernie and Sylvia Ostby drew the attention of two of our staff members, Dr. Bill Longsworth who received the donation and Melinda Smoot, our Director of Communications, along with longtime church member Chris Lokey, whose wife and Melinda’s dear friend, Judith, lost her battle with Alzheimer’s disease in 2015. Our communications team then went to work developing and promoting a program to honor this gift and carry out the specific request of the Ostby family to bring internationally renowned dementia care pioneer Teepa Snow to First Church for an educational event open to the Greater Fort Worth community. This work then caught the attention of Linda Abel, RN, a member of our congregation who was looking for a way to use her own professional gifts and expertise in ministry to others. The combined ideas, energy, and commitment of this group then attracted and gathered more interested and talented people among our staff and congregation. As the program grew and gained momentum, word of it reached throughout the state, and our church became the model for Teepa Snow’s organization, Positive Approach to Care® for implementing this programming in other faith communities.
And the momentum didn’t slow there. In fact, that’s when it really began to pick up speed. As our church then began to join forces with community agencies who have the same desire and vision for helping those with dementia as well as their families and caregivers, this group began to look into a growing, organized national effort called “Dementia Friendly America.” This organization was formed and exists solely for the purpose of educating, establishing criteria and training protocols, and then certifying individual cities across America as “Dementia Friendly.” Today, Fort Worth is well on its way to achieving this certification, becoming one of these Dementia Friendly cities and the first in the State of Texas to do so.
Because of how our church rose to this challenge and opportunity to “work together for the good of all,” we are at the forefront of a life-changing movement that will transform the lives of countless people for decades to come. Did Gary and Peg Ostby know that their simple request for this gift would spark such an exponential reach? Did Bill and Melinda have any idea when setting the course for this new church program that it could go this far? Did Chris and Judith Lokey know that their painful story would fuel the impetus for bringing this life-changing education and support to others? Did our librarians know that the display they put in their window would catch Linda’s attention as she walked by — and then become the answer to her prayer for a personal ministry? Did our communications team guess that their work could reach and impact so many, so quickly? Absolutely not! What our own community of faith experienced firsthand was the deep truth of this affirmation — and how it empowers us as the body of Christ to “work together for the good of all.”
Every time we say, “We are called to be the church,” we are affirming this power we hold as a church to Love God, Serve People, and Transform Lives. Or, in other words, “work together for the good of others.” Peter repeats this great truth twice — and perhaps most eloquently in 1 Peter 2:10: “Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people.”
Every Sunday at the conclusion of traditional worship, we answer the same question together: Where will we go and what will we do? The answer we give each week embodies what it really means to be “called to be the church.” I look forward to further exploring the significance of this call with you this Sunday in the Sanctuary.
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster