Good Purpose

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
April 7, 2024

I started reading a book a couple of years ago about the happiest country on earth. It made me very unhappy, so I didn’t finish it. And that’s why I won’t say the title of it. The author might’ve ended up in a very different place than where I left her, so my treatment of her might not be fair.

The book in question was by an Englishwoman who saw that Denmark was considered the happiest country in the world. So she and her husband went there to live for a year to see what it was that made Danes so ridiculously happy. And I have to say, the Danes may have been a happy people, but with each page of this woman’s book, I became more and more unhappy.

I think I finally put down the book when the woman describing the happiest country on earth talked about going to a bakery. She and her husband were the only customers, but the woman behind the counter refused to wait on them. She wouldn’t even acknowledge them. After a while, they noticed one of those little contraptions—we have one at the BMV—where you take a number in order to be served in the right order. So they took one of those little tickets, and the proprietor waited on them.

The point the book seemed to want to make was how orderly things were in this happiest of places. But it just sounds miserable to me. There are countries at the other end of the spectrum—countries ranked unhappy by the same standards that called Denmark happy—where I would imagine that new customers would not have been ignored by shopkeepers because they didn’t know they had to take a number, even if the shop was otherwise empty. And when I think about it, the people in those countries may not have as much money, but they would still seem happier to me.

And, as it turns out, whatever those standards of happiness are, they don’t really work. Because suicide rates in the world’s happiest countries are far, far higher than in countries at the opposite end of the spectrum. The difference is found in looking at a whole nother scale—and this one isn’t about happiness, but meaning. And many of the unhappiest places on earth are also places where people feel that their lives have more meaning.

This introduction has turned out to be a great deal more dismal than I thought it would be when I planned this sermon. But I needed to arrive at a place where we think about what gives our lives meaning. There are many things that do, but knowing that your life makes a difference to others is a big one. And being part of a community is another—and very often those two things go hand-in-hand.

Our culture is probably very different from what it was in and around Jerusalem two thousand years ago. But humans themselves probably haven’t really changed all that much. We may not live our day-to-day lives the same way, but people still knew the difference between unhappy and happy back then, and they still searched for meaning in their lives.

And they began to find meaning in the earliest Christian community. Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that, once the church was founded, all the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals, and to prayer. I’m not sure what their neighbors thought of this in the first century, but we recognize it as the very same things we think make us a church.

But you don’t have to be a Christian to see this. You don’t even have to be religious. Luke tells us of four things that brought the first Christians together, and these would be the things that create community, with or without the faith aspect: They came together to learn, to enjoy one another’s company, to eat together, and to show concern for each other: These are the things that create a sense of belonging. These are the things that helped people find meaning. These are the things that give purpose to people’s lives.

The purpose of the earliest Christians who united in community wasn’t always the same as ours, though. That’s because they earnestly believed that Jesus was going to return at any moment, so they broke with their old way of doing things and lived in preparation for the new world that was about to be established.

We now know that they got that part wrong. Jesus has already brought the Kingdom, and his followers are supposed to live as his people—as Kingdom people—in the world as it is. It’s not up to us to sit around waiting for the old world to end. We’re supposed to transform the world because we are followers of Jesus.

That’s why I would add one thing to the purpose of the church as set forth in the Acts of the Apostles, and that’s outreach. The first Christians believed in preaching the gospel to invite others to believe. But they didn’t necessarily see helping their neighbors—even those who didn’t share their beliefs—as a priority. But we do. And so we devote ourselves to the teachings of our faith, to fellowship, to sharing in meals, to prayer, and to helping our neighbors.

There’s a time and a place for everything, including each of these marks of Christian community. But today we’re thinking especially about the middle one—the one our translation calls “sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper).” The original Greek here says simply the breaking of the bread. When we break bread together in church, we remember the One who died and yet lives within us. And when we break bread together we know that we are not alone, but are part of a family—not just this church family here in Chardon (though that’s hugely important), but also a family that stretches around the world and throughout time.

Though the Lord accompanies us throughout our lives, today we call upon this same Lord to send the Holy Spirit to settle on the bread and the wine that, in them, we may discern the body and blood of the One in whose Name we are gathered. And may we also feel that same Spirit settle on us that we may be united and strengthened in love and service within the church and also in the world.
—©2024 Sam Greening