The Forgotten Epistles Titus 3:3-8 8/2/2020

I am the Church; You are the Church

This morning we begin our summer sermon series with a reading from the letter to Titus – and with an important distinction. Saint Paul did not write any of the letters we will be exploring. Instead, these are classified as “letters of Paul” in the same way that many of the later psalms are classified as being “psalms of David.” That is, they were almost certainly composed by people who came after Paul and in the manner, style, and tone of Paul, as a tribute to Paul and his work.

Why does that matter? Actually, it matters rather a lot, especially when we look at the theology and instruction in these later letters. Scholars rightly point out that some of the early church leaders who followed Paul in keeping alive the flame of this new Jesus-following movement were sometimes so concerned with “getting it right” regarding guidelines and policy that they ended up creating division and running roughshod over Paul’s insistence that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.” It helps to remember that in the very first years of the Jesus-following movement, those who stepped up to help lead were, in effect, trying to change the tires on the car while it was barreling down I-40.

The only reading from Titus in the lectionary appears as the second reading for Christmas Day – when we would much rather hear the Christmas story from Luke chapter two. But tucked into this otherwise mundane list of duties for church leaders is a stunner of a passage – today’s reading.

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure.

Right now, for you and for me, here today, it sometimes feels as though we’re following in the footsteps of Titus and the other early church leaders. It seems that the institution of Christianity survives a massive shakeup roughly every 500 years. The most recent being the Protestant Reformation. [Great Schism, Pope Gregory & leading out of Dark Ages]. And for much of this century, that is, the twenty-first, church leaders and church members and scholars and historians have been engaging in much lament and discussion about whether the church as we know it is in the midst of another great emergence.

For most of the twentieth century, “the church” looked like this: worship on Sunday morning in the building with everyone else. Supplement with activities on Wednesday evenings and Sunday evenings. Reinforce with Sunday school, prayer and Bible reading at home. But we now have a couple of generations of people for whom that was never the norm. They didn’t grow up with that, and as a result, their children are not growing up with that either.

“If you build it, they will come” is no longer true for the institutional church.

Instead, in the last twenty years, we are increasingly seeing leaders learning to be the church by meeting people where they are, walking with them and modeling Christian witness in the community. Some have had “dinner church,” which looks a great deal like the house congregations that received all these letters from Paul and from others following in Paul’s footsteps. Others are offering pop-up churches in parks and parking lots, meeting families where they are on Sunday mornings.

And when the doors were shut in March because of the pandemic – it turns out the church itself was never closed, even if it temporarily left the building. A lot of church leaders who, like me, are technologically challenged – we turned to our young adults for help and humbled ourselves to ask for a light in the darkness. And within a few weeks, we were up and running again. YouTube videos. Livestreaming on Facebook and Zoom. Exponentially increasing our witness through outreach. Learning to live with a heavily modified Sunday morning worship now that we are once again assembling here in the building we love, the beating heart of our community.

As we make our way through new and uncertain paths, you and I can find – buried in an obscure epistle, one that is mainly a checklist for those seeking leadership in the church – a vivid reminder of the only thing that matters.

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure.

The church is not dead. By no means! As long as two or three are gathered in his name, there Christ will be also. You and I are here in Christ’s name. We are the church. The movement of those who follow Jesus is alive and well. And the current great emergence that we have been seeing in this twenty-first century shows us that where there is life, there is hope. When the goodness and loving-kindness of our Savior appeared, he saved us. The saying is sure.

          “Fear not,” the angel said to the shepherds on the hillside outside of Bethlehem. “Fear not,” Martin Luther said, as he devoted his whole self to spreading the word of justification by grace through faith. “Fear not,” I say to you, and to myself most of all, at a time when Saint Titus reminds us of the truth of the old Vacation Bible School song: I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world: Yes, we’re the church together.”

Next week, we will hear from First and Second Peter – but not the well-known passage that comes up in the season of Easter in Year A: “Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.” You and I and the St. Michael family, those gathered here today and those gathered spiritually from their homes and those who are blessed by our outreach … we are all of us living stones. Yes, we’re the church together.