Sunday Message, 26th June – Spirit without Measure 9

Real Life – Real Community

Acts 2: 42 – 47


A few years ago a guy called Tony flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. He checks into his hotel and tries to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock wakes him at 3:00 a.m. The night is dark, the streets are silent, but Tony is wide awake and his stomach is growling.  Everything is closed except for a diner in an alley. He goes in and sits down at the counter. The rough looking guy behind the counter comes over and asks, “What d’ya want?”  Well, Tony suddenly isn’t so hungry anymore so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he says, “I’ll have a donut and black coffee.”

As he sits there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night’s work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group, smoking and swearing. He gulps his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him says to her friend, “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” “So what d’ya want from me?” her friend says,  “A birthday party?  You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?”

The first woman says, “Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the guy at the counter, “Do they come in here every night?” “Yeah, Why do you want to know?”

“Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?”  A cute kind of smile crept over the man’s face. “That’s great,” he says, “yeah, that’s great. I like it.” He turns to the kitchen and shouts to his wife, “Hey, come on out here. This guy’s got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes’ birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here.”

So they make their plans. Tony says he’ll be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and Harry says he’ll make a cake.  At 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He has decorations and a sign made of big pieces of card that says, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” They decorate the place from one end to the other and get it looking great.

At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friend. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout and scream “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Agnes is absolutely stunned, her mouth falls open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost falls over.  And when the birthday cake with 39 candles is carried out, she totally loses it… sobbing and crying.  Harry, who’s not used to signs of emotion, mumbles, “Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake.”  So she pulls herself together and blows them out. Everyone cheers and yells, “Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!”

But Agnes looks down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly says, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I keep the cake just a little while?”  Harry doesn’t know what to say so he shrugs and says, “Sure, if that’s what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want.”   “Oh, could I?” she asks. Looking at Tony she says, “I live just down the street; I want to take the cake home. I’ll be right back, honest.”

She gets off her stool, picks up the cake, and carries it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watches in stunned silence and when the door closes behind her, nobody seems to know what to do. They look at each other. They look at Tony.  So Tony gets up on a chair and says, “What do you say that we pray together?”

And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prays for Agnes, for her life, her health. Tony recalls, “I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her.”

When he’s finished, Harry leans over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he says, “Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”

In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answers him quietly, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”   Harry thinks for a moment, and in a mocking way says, “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it.”

Jane read for us a short passage from a part of the bible which recounts the beginnings of the church, shortly after Jesus returned to heaven.  This, initially, is a gang of people that Jesus has dragged from all sorts of places.

Rough fisherman.  Tax collectors and bankers.  Nationalist Terrorists and enemy soldiers.  Old women and widows.  Religious zealots.  Prostitutes.  Children.  Wealthy men with property and land.  Doubters and sceptics.  Healed lepers.  Over enthusiastic young people.  Jesus own mother and brothers.

All of them together because their lives have been impacted by this one person, this Jesus of Nazareth.  His life, his person, his presence with them and all that he has done in his life produce this unique community of people as God does a remarkable thing and breathes his Holy Spirit into them, like licks of fire on top of birthday candles and so the church is born.

Now, you’d expect that this bunch of ragamuffins wouldn’t come to much at all, that it would be all a flash in the pan.  But those few little verses show us something spectacular about the thing called church.

I don’t know what often comes to mind when you think church.  Maybe you’re one of those people who think “Church!  Oh great! Fantastic! Woopee!”  Or maybe you’re more normal and think (sarcastically) “Church!!!  Oh Great!!!  Fantastic!!!  Woo-pee-doo!!!”   I’m not entirely out of sympathy with that sort of opinion and to be honest, in my line of work, that’s a bit of an occupational hazard!

But do you know something?  When you get passed the uncomfy seats, stained glass windows and long-winded prayers, there is treasure to be found.

What does the passage say?  These people had found something to gather round….real community, real life.  And as they gathered, the people who’d been with Jesus the longest would re-tell all the things that Jesus had told them

– love the lord your God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself

– love your enemies, turn the other cheek

– build your life on solid rock, not sinking sand

– follow me, take up your cross

– love one another, encourage one another, pray with one another

– feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the poor and the widow

– wait until I come back for you.

And as they heard these things and put them into practice, we see that they all began to be amazed by the fantastic things that were happening amongst them – the way peoples lives we being transformed, fixed up, sorted.  The discovery of a new family where everyone, from the shiniest saint to the biggest sceptic were welcomed and valued as part of new community.  It was only living a life with Jesus at the very centre that could bring all that together.

They remembered their Jesus as they ate, as they talked and sang and celebrated; as they prayed, were taught, shared their possessions with one another and met up after a days work for a chat, the remembered him.

You see, this wasn’t about a new religion.  Jesus didn’t come to start one of those.  In fact, he came to bring an end to something that people had made into the most confusing and complicated religion around.  ‘Love God – Love People – Live life together’ Jesus says to them.  And when you do that, I’ll be the glue that will keep it all together.  It was the kind of church people wanted to join because it was the kind of church that had been born from a Jesus who showed every single person there their absolute value, worth and purpose.  It was the kind of church born out of a common experience of the Jesus who loved everyone just as they were.

I want to say something to you here this morning – whether you are a visitor, a member, a new follower of Jesus.  What I want to say is simply this:  the church isn’t defined by its latest scandal, its biggest achievement, its size, its membership or its leaders, its denomination, its building, its good work or its location in a town.  The church is folks like me and folks like you siding up to Jesus, receiving his love, his grace and his forgiveness and taking steps into the world together…..real life, real community – warts and all!

16 years ago, I decided to follow Jesus and as soon as I did I found another bunch of scoundrels trying to do the same.  That day, we became family following Jesus together and wherever I’ve been around the world (which isn’t that far) I’ve found more of them…more scoundrels living real life, in real communities of faith, trusting in Jesus, bound together because at one point they were adrift, but now they were secure.

The invitation I want to offer you today is one that is simple and free, but one that will cost you everything because you see, being part of the people who follow Jesus isn’t just a Sunday morning diary engagement to be filled.  It’s a commitment to a journey of faith and a journey in community. It begins by realising our need for him in our lives.  Jesus came to reconnect us back to God and to other people because in and of ourselves, we’re more prone to sin and selfishness than to love and reconciliation.  So Jesus dies on a cross at the hands of angry men to pour out such abundant love and power so that every broken bridge can be mended.

Love God – Love People – Live life together…with Jesus right at the centre.


Andrew Clark

26 June 2011

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