“Christ Centered Community” – a sermon preached on March 8, 2020, at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando

Now you are coming to him as to a living stone. Even though this stone was rejected by humans, from God’s perspective it is chosen, valuable. You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple. You are being made into a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Thus it is written in scripture, Look! I am laying a cornerstone in Zion, chosen, valuable. The person who believes in him will never be shamed.[a] So God honors you who believe. For those who refuse to believe, though, the stone the builders tossed aside has become the capstone. This is a stone that makes people stumble and a rock that makes them fall. Because they refuse to believe in the word, they stumble. Indeed, this is the end to which they were appointed. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. 10 Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:4-10, CEB)

For the forty days of Lent we’re exploring what it means for us to be a “Cross-shaped” Community.

As I said last week, all of us belong to one or more communities.  Family is a kind of community.  Your work place is probably a community.  School is a community.  Your neighborhood is a community.  The groups you gather with to exercise, or play sports, or share common interests are your communities.

Needless to say, communities come in many forms, shapes and sizes.  And, we are saying, the Church is a uniquely “Cross-shaped” kind of community.  And, to be “Cross-shaped,” we must also be “Christ-centered.”

Some communities form around a particular person, or personality.  Some call this the “Cult of Personality,” when there’s deep devotion and group identification with a particular individual.  In the midst of this election, there are Bernie-people, and there are Biden-people, and there “Make America Great Again” people.  As candidates have dropped out of the race for President, news reporters speculate who, and whether or not, supporters will shift their allegiances to other candidates.  Or, is their loyalty only to Elizabeth Warren, or Mike Bloomberg, or Peter Buttigieg?  Time will tell!

It’s not always political.  Lots of famous people have fan clubs, devoted followers, and groupies.  Sometimes, it even happens with pastors!

A few years ago, when President Obama was fairly new in his first term of office, I heard about a town in North Florida that had two billboards about Obama, on opposite sides of town.  One billboard claimed he was the Messiah.  The other billboard called him the Ant-Christ.  Obviously, he’s neither.  He was just a president, that some loved and some didn’t.  But, my point is that both of those billboards represented communities with very strong feelings about a particular person!

Would we say Christianity is a “Cult of Personality?”  Maybe.  Obviously, we are a community that exists because of, through, and for a particular person – Jesus Christ.  But, I’d argue there’s one major difference between a typical “cult of personality” and the church.  In all of the communities that exist because of enthusiasm for a particular person, the “fans” usually don’t really know the person they idolize.  They may have watched them on a movie or TV.  They may have seen them at an event.  They may have even met their hero.  But they don’t really know him or her.

But, our community, the Church, is based 100% on a knowable person – Jesus Christ – who is with us when we gather.  Jesus promised, when two or more gather in his name, he is with us.  And, that same Jesus Christ inhabits our worship and our work.  And, that same Jesus Christ, lives in you, and lives in me.  And, that same Jesus, is God!

We’re not just a community that gathers for the sake of tradition, or for the sake of a particular set of beliefs, or as a religious duty.  We may do those things.  But we exist for one, and only one reason – the living, risen Jesus Christ draws us together.

Now, Jesus did say, “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the Christ.’ They will deceive many people.” (Matthew 24:5). Jesus was talking about particular individuals who would make false claims about being the Messiah, and lead some astray.  But, I think we can apply that concept more broadly.  It’s entirely possible for the Church to be a community that’s NOT Christ-centered, building itself around a particular tradition, or dogma, or a particular charismatic leader, or a particular form of legalism, or a narrow exclusive form of holiness, or a building, or a style of worship, etc.

And, when we move Christ out of the center, and move anyone or anything false into his rightful place, we become something else. Our community becomes something else!  And, the result can be spiritual bankruptcy, at best, or becoming harmful, exclusive, judgmental, or manipulative at worst.

Being a Christ-centered community obviously involves beliefs, and practices, and traditions.  But, all of those are secondary, ancillary, periphery concerns.  Christ is our center.  Christ is our core.  Christ is our identity.  Christ is our purpose.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  And, if that ever changes, we’ll be in trouble.

Let’s be honest!  As much as I believe we’re made for community, and need community; as much as I believe the Church is called to be a family; and as much as the Bible teaches us about being a community through love, forgiveness, mutual support and acceptance, etc., sometimes we REALLY blow it.  We fall short – a lot!  Sometimes the church can be a terribly exclusive, hurtful, hypocritical place! Just as families can be broken, dysfunction, and abusive, so can the Church!

Dorothy Day once said, “The church may be a harlot at times, but she is my mother.” 

I think the number one reason this happens is when the Church loses its focus on Christ; when we STOP seeing Christ in ourselves and each other, and when we start trying to be something other than community centered on the person of Jesus.

I have a pastor friend who started lighting a candle at every church business meeting, every staff meeting, and every meeting he had with individuals, as a reminder that they’ve gathered around and for Christ.  Christ is the center of what they’re doing – not the business, not the planning, not the agenda, not the conflict, not the personal biases.  Christ is the center.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Luther Pastor, who lived during World War II, and participated in the resistance of the Nazi regime.  Eventually he was arrested, put in a concentration camp, and killed.  For Bonhoeffer, the practice of Christianity and the existence of the Christian community were entirely Christ-centered.  He wrote, The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity.”

When Bonhoeffer says, “everything else recedes,” he means all of the things that draw us to each other, or separate us, all of the things we admire about teach other, or all of the things that offend us.  In the end, only Christ matters.  Only Christ matters.

The Moravian pastor, David Augsburg, writes, “This community of disciples is connected by two powerful attachments – attachment to Jesus, the living center of the group, and attachment to fellow disciples.  This circle around Jesus is a circle connected in solidarity.” 

I particularly like that image – a circle of men and women, young and old, black and white and brown, gay and straight, cisgender and transgender, progressive and conservative, traditional and progressive, republican and democrat, all representing Christ to each other, encircled around the person of Jesus together.  And, as Christ draws us himself, at the center of the circle, we are inevitably drawn to each other.

In 1 Peter 2, Peter uses the image of a spiritual house, or a building, or Temple, to describe Christian community.  He says each of us are “living” stones, interconnected; each a building block of this community.  Together, we are a spiritual temple.  We are the Church!

But, the structure we’re part of began with a strong cornerstone, Jesus Christ.  In ancient architecture, the first stone to be positioned was a strong, square stone, which determined the place, position, and direction the building would take.  It all began with a single cornerstone.  The placement and strength of that first cornerstone was critical.  All the other stones would be added, starting from the cornerstone.  Later, the structure may be renovated or remodeled.  Rooms or additional floors may be added.  But, it all began with that strong cornerstone.

Christ is that cornerstone, and we are living stones, joined together, to be a spiritual temple for the world.

In most translations, 1 Peter 2:7 says, “Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’”  That makes sense.  The rest of the passage refers to Jesus as the cornerstone.  But, the CEB version says, For those who refuse to believe, though, the stone the builders tossed aside has become the capstone.”

 In architecture, both the cornerstone and the capstone are very important, but they serve very different functions is a structure.  The cornerstone is the beginning of the building, setting its position and direction.  It’s part of the foundation.  Whereas, a capstone is the final wedge-shaped stone placed at the top of an arch.  A cornerstone is literally at the bottom, at ground level, and everything is built adjacent, or upon it.  But, a capstone, is the top stone.  And, as the stones used to build the arch lean inward, creating the arch, it’s the capstone that locks the arch in place.  Without the capstone, the structure would literally collapse!

Let me say that again: without the capstone, the structure would collapse!

I don’t know which translation is correct – cornerstone or capstone.  But, both have merit.  Only Christ can be our cornerstone – the one upon whom our community is built.  Only Christ can be our capstone – without his strength at the center, this all falls apart!

The Peter says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

            What I’m describing is likely most obvious in our Sunday worship.  When we gather in a place of worship, with images of Christ, and songs about Christ, and Scriptures about Christ, and a sermon about Christ, and prayers in Jesus’ name, it’s pretty obvious we’ve gathered as a community for Christ.  But, Christians gather at other times, for other purposes, other than worship.  We study together.  We serve together.  We do business together.  We make places together.  We fellowship together.  We support each other in hard times.

We may not explicitly say the name of Jesus each time we gather.  But, if our community is Christ-centered, Christ is equally present when we gather around the altar for holy communion, or when we gather at Starbucks for a cup of coffee and conversation.  If we’re a Christ centered community, Christ is at the center of all we are and do.  But, we must keep him at the center!

The Book of Revelation says that in heaven, there’s a throne, upon which is seated Christ, imaged as a sacrificed lamb.  And, gathered around the throne of Christ, day and night, for all of eternity, are creatures, and saints, and angels, and people from every tribe, language, and nation from the earth, all singing, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:12)

I love that image!  All of God’s creation, encircled around the risen Christ.  And, that’s who we’re called to be, here now, together, for each other, and for the world.  You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple. You are being made into a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5)

I end with a great quote from the Christian author, James Bryan Smith, “Can we live the Christian life without a worshipping community?  I would answer, ‘Yes. It is possible – all things are possible with God.’  But the better question is, ‘Why would we even want to try?’”  James Bryan Smith

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