May 24, 2020
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig
(Image by the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow)
Whatever else they were, the early followers of Jesus were a persistent, resilient, adaptive group of people.
Yes, they failed to understand what Jesus taught them. They made mistakes. They fell short. Often. At the end, Judas betrayed Jesus. The other men fled when he was arrested.
Then there was Peter. No follower demonstrates their shortcomings as clearly as Peter.
When Jesus taught his disciples that he would suffer and die, Peter “took Jesus aside” and objected to the teaching. This may have been a set-up. Because the gospel says that when Jesus replied, he looked first at his disciples and then rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan.”[i] I don’t know about you, but I would have something of a problem following someone who called me Satan. Peter hung with Jesus.
John’s Gospel tells us that there was something of an awkward moment when Jesus went to wash the disciples’ feet at the meal we call the Last Supper. Peter said no. Jesus explained why. Peter said wash my hands and head too. Jesus explained why not. Twice in one conversation, Peter got it wrong.[ii]
He did so again when Jesus talked about his coming death. “I’ll lay down my life for you,” Peter said. Jesus answered, “before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”[iii] After Jesus’ arrest, Peter did exactly as Jesus predicted.
At the arrest of Jesus, A disciples took out a sword and started hacking away. All three gospels include this story. John names the disciple. Peter. A noble gesture to protect Jesus. But misguided. “Put away the sword,” the nonviolent Jesus said.[iv]
But, for all the times that Peter fell short, and for all the times that the others fell short, I still say those first disciples were persistent, resilient, and adaptive.
Consider all they went through as they followed Jesus.
They left their families behind. Not always easy to do.
They left their homes and employment. I do not know how much a fisherperson earned in the time of Jesus, but it had to be more than one could earn following an itinerant preacher and teacher with no place to lay his head.[v]
Jesus expanded their understanding of who God loved. To the Jewish people, Jesus added: Samaritans, Gentiles, Romans, Syrophoenicians, women, children, people with illnesses that normally put them outside the community, and everyone. Each act of kindness and healing and welcome on the part of Jesus meant his followers had to draw love’s circle wider and wider until it disappeared, and they realized that each person is a beloved child of God.
The length of Jesus’ ministry is not precisely known. Many scholars suggest between 3 and 3.5 years.[vi] Others think it was shorter. However long, his disciples spent most of that time with Jesus.
Then came the arrest and crucifixion. And Jesus was gone. His disciples left alone. They struggled with what to do.
Three days later, the resurrected Jesus appeared to them again. After some confusion, they rejoiced.
Then came the Ascension. The return of Jesus to heaven. The events described in today’s passage. As did many of the people of the day, his disciples still had political expectations of him. They still thought he would establish an earthly kingdom, so they asked if he would do that now. Jesus responded that that was not for them to know. God controls the time.[vii]
Jesus then promised the Holy Spirit.[viii] I invite you to join us next Sunday at the same Zoom time and the same Zoom channel to learn, or hear again, what became of that promise.
For now, consider all the disciples experienced.
They left much behind to follow Jesus.
Life on the road.
Prejudice breaking, mind expanding teachings.
Jesus with them.
Jesus arrested and put to death in a state-sanctioned execution. Not with them.
Jesus resurrected. With them.
Jesus ascended. Not with them.
They lived a whirlwind life following Jesus. And for the record it that whirlwind would continue as they continued to follow.
Through it all, they were persistent, resilient, and adaptive. Persistent. They stayed the course. Resilient. They recovered from difficult events kept on going. Adaptive. They changed again and again and again.
Persistent. Resilient. Adaptive. These are not named in the Bible as either the fruits or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I believe they are both. Because without them, the movement that started with those first followers of Jesus could never have grown to be the church that it is today.
This weekend, one of the conversations in our nation has been about opening churches and other house of worship. But to talk about opening churches is to address the wrong question.
Buildings played, play, and will play an important role in the life of the church through the ages. But the Church is the people—people who have committed to follow Jesus and covenanted to do so together.
I was confirmed as a member and ordained as a minister of the Word and Sacrament inside the physical facility known as East Main Presbyterian Church in Grove City, Pennsylvania. But that building has undergone many renovations and additions, as I noticed when I returned three years ago for my mother’s memorial service.
As it is and as I remember it, it holds a warm spot in my heart. But far warmer are the spots filled with people – Rev. Gordon Boak, Rev. Jack Dunlap, Nancy Paxton, Polly Beech, Becky May, the list goes on and on. Because the Church … the Church is the people. People who have committed to follow Jesus Christ and who have covenanted to follow together.
A church is not closed because the doors to its building are temporarily shut.
A church is not closed because the people have made the difficult choice to provide sacred distance and care for its members and community—particularly the most vulnerable people in its community—by not meeting in person for a season.
A church only closes when its people fail to love. Only closes when its people stop proclaiming the word. Only closes when its people no longer reach out to one another and the community and the world.
Churches have not closed. The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone has not closed. We do not need to open or even reopen the church because we never closed the church. We and many others closed church buildings. And when the time is right and the risk can be minimized, we and congregations and mosques and synagogues and other houses of worship will return to our buildings.
Until then, we will be persistent. Resilient. Adaptive. The first followers of Jesus did this. And the Church of Jesus Christ has done this since the day of Pentecost. Teaser alert: tune in next week, same Zoom time, same Zoom channel to learn more about that day.
The Roman Christians of the third century who from time to time worshiped underground in the catacombs would be stunned to take part in a Zoom worship service.[ix] But after a while, and after they learned English, they would figure out that gathered around devices the likes of which they never imagined, we are worshiping Jesus.
Despite all the movies I have watched, I really have no idea what it would have been like to worship in a massive cathedral during the middle ages. I have no desire to invent a time machine and go back and find out. I do not want to study Latin for one thing. But if I did, I would learn what to do and see the connections.
Persistent. Resilient. Adaptive. That is the story of the Church. That is the story of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone.
Presbyterians have gathered for almost 149 years on the corner of 15th and 149th. The building has changed over the years. I first saw our building about 10 years ago. Fellman Hall and the lift were not there. Programs changed over the years. But the essence of the Church has remained the same. The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone has always consisted and consists today of followers of Jesus Christ who have proclaimed the Good News of God’s grace and witnessed to the love of God in Jesus Christ.
After almost 149 years, we worship on Zoom Church.
We share the Lord’s Supper.
We sing. That is a challenge for us and for everyone using Zoom, but we have figured out a way to make it work.
We pray for each other and for needs in God’s world.
When one hurts, we all hurt. When one rejoices, we all give thanks to God.
We celebrate birthdays.
We have learned a new way to reach out to neighbors who hunger.
We have received the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering to support caring ministries in our nation and around the world.
We have trained officers. We will ordain and install them next Sunday.
The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone is open, serving God, and following Jesus.
We are Christ’s Church:
And one last time, I invite you to join us next week at the same Zoom time, the same Zoom channel to hear about the Holy Spirit who gives us those gifts. Amen.
[i] Mark 8:31-33
[ii] John 13:1-17
[iii] John 13:36-38
[iv] John 18:11
[v] Luke 9:58
[vii] Acts 1:6-7
[viii] Acts 1:8