I have good news for you this morning: your church is too small. Your church is too small! Now, I imagine you’ve heard that before, and I’m willing to bet that the last time you heard it, it didn’t sound like good news. Maybe you heard it in a meeting with the district superintendent: I’m sorry, she said, but your church is too small to support a full-time pastor. I’m sorry, but you’re too small to be on your own anymore.
Or maybe you heard it from a visitor one Sunday morning: I love your church, he said. The people here are friendly, and you obviously love to be together for worship. I wish I could stick around, but your church is too small. I’m looking for something bigger.
Or maybe you have found yourself saying it in at church council one night: It would be nice, you said, if we could do more for our community, but we’re just too small. We don’t have the resources.
“Your church is too small.” It doesn’t sound like good news, but today, on World Communion Sunday, at this Community Worship Service, it is the gospel, the good news, we need to hear. Your church is too small, but Christ’s church—ahh, that’s a different story entirely.
About sixty years ago, a man named J.B. Phillips wrote a book called Your God Is Too Small. Phillips is more famous for his translation of the New Testament, called The New Testament in Modern English. Many of you, maybe, have heard of The Message, Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible. Phillips’s translation is like an early version of The Message; he translated it so that his youth group could have a Bible in language that they understood more easily.
Anyhow, Phillips had a keen sense for bringing the gospel into his own cultural situation. And that’s what his book Your God Is too Small is about. Phillips looked around and saw all these different people thinking and talking about God. But they only talked about God in a very narrow sense: God was the Santa Clause who stood around waiting to answer their prayers like checking off a Christmas request list; God was some distant figure only interested in their moment of salvation and not much else; or God is a police officer, sitting at the corner waiting for you to transgress some moral law, so he can blow his whistle and direct you to the nearest court of law for your punishment. Phillips identifies different, destructive pictures of God, and his response to each of them is, your god is too small! In place of the restrained, restricted god you imagine, you need and can receive the true God, the fullness of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Friends, whenever we get off course, whenever we head down a path that leads further and further away from God, whatever it takes to get headed back in the right direction is good news. That’s why Your God Is too Small was good news sixty years ago. And it’s why your church is too small is good news for us this morning.
In our Scripture readings we hear an expansive, grand vision for what the church of Christ is and is called to be. From Deuteronomy we hear that everything we are, and all that we are supposed to be doing, is grounded in who God is and what God has done. “Hear o Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” That’s who God is: the Lord, the God of Abraham and Isaac, of Sarah and Leah, the God of Moses and Miriam, the Lord alone is our God. The Lord, who delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt; the Lord, who raised Jesus Christ from the dead: the Lord alone is our God.
In John’s gospel, Jesus sounds the same theme. In his long prayer to God the Father, Jesus says, “What I have, I have from you. And everything is to the glory of God.” And Jesus closes with a prayer for the Church. Jesus prays, not just for the first disciples, but for you and for me, too: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” We are who we are, in Jesus Christ, because God is who God is: one God, the Lord, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
And in Acts, Jesus gives us our marching orders: by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are to be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. This is what the church is; this is what the church should be doing: we are to be witnesses of the God of Jesus Christ, by the power of God, in our communities, our neighborhoods, and even to the ends of the earth. And an essential part of our witness is that we are to remain united, not by our own power or authority, but by the very power of the one God, the Lord of Israel and of Jesus Christ. This is Christ’s own vision for the church; this is Scripture’s mission for us, as much now as it was 2000 years ago.
But if we are honest, we must say that we have struggled with this grand vision of the church. We can say, even, that we have not lived very well according to Christ’s vision. And over time, our vision of the church has taken over. Over time, our picture of what the church is and what the church is supposed to be doing has gotten narrower and narrower and narrower. Over time, Christ’s church has become my church and your church, and this morning we need to hear, so badly, the good news: your church is too small! Your church is too small!
When you look around the room, and everyone looks like you, talks like you, thinks like: your church is too small!
When you are more concerned with how many people are showing up for a worship service than you are with how many of those people really want to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, your church is too small!
When the most important decision your congregation has to make this year is when to have the spaghetti supper, your church is too small!
When the community around you has changed and there are new faces and different kinds of people and you have no idea how to reach them, or if you should even bother with them, your church is too small!
When everything is about what you want to do, and what you have accomplished so far, and what you think is important, your church is too small!
And when you have become so attached to your congregation and your people there and your way of doing things that you find yourself thinking, “We are never going to do things that way at my church,” well, you know, don’t you, that your church is too small!
But on World Communion Sunday, when we gather to remember that the church is not just the congregations of Harford County, that the church is not just American denominations, that the church is not just today, but yesterday, and tomorrow, too, we have a chance to embrace Christ’s church and Christ’s vision for his church and Christ’s mission for Christ’s own church. Your church is too small, but the church of God in Jesus Christ is universal, unbound, unrestricted, unrestrained, and empowered by the love of God poured out upon us by the Holy Spirit.
I think we got a taste of that universal, global church at the United Methodist General Conference this spring. Conservative and liberal American delegates came to that General Conference ready to do battle, maybe even split the church. It was like the American presidential campaign, playing out right inside our United Methodist Church. But this year almost half of the delegates were from other countries, and they wanted to know, “Why should we play by American rules? Your church is too small! What about our witness to Jesus Christ in Liberia, in Cote d’Ivoire, in the Philippines, or in Germany?” The greatest hope for the United Methodist Church is that this world church of Christ will continue to insist that we expand our vision beyond the narrow American bounds that we have known in this church for too long.
And I think, even here, in the Grove, we are getting a taste of the universal church of Christ this morning. If we are serious about worshiping together, not just as a neat idea or a break from business as usual, but as a way of us really being the church of Christ in Harford County, then I think we have started to break out of our smallness and into the largesse of the kingdom of God.
But the greatest taste we have of the fullness of Christ’s church, of the body of Christ, will come in just a few minutes when we celebrate Holy Communion. We will gather at a Communion table knowing that right this very minute, millions and millions of other Christians from around the world are also gathering to celebrate Holy Communion. At the Communion table we will lift our prayers and praise of the Living God with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” Can you believe that?! Right here, in this little corner of rural Harford County, we are joining forces with every saint, with every angel, with every disciple of Jesus Christ God has ever called. Amazing! At the Communion table, in just that little bit of bread and juice, we will receive Christ’s true, resurrected body and blood, as much of the fullness of Christ and his church as you can squeeze into every church building that exists now or ever has been built. At the Communion table we will receive grace to become the church of Christ, and to grow as that church, grace that exceeds every measure, every limit, every restriction, every barrier that has ever been raised against the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Your church is too small, but Christ’s church—well, that’s another story. The size of Christ’s church doesn’t depend on how many members have been added to the rolls. The size of Christ’s church doesn’t depend on our budget or our offering. The size of Christ’s church doesn’t depend on our narrow visions or our restricted ideas. Christ’s church is bigger—yes, bigger than our numbers, bigger than our local congregations, bigger than our denominations, bigger, thank God, than our divisions. You belong to Christ’s church; you are members of Christ’s body. By the grace of God, you are the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church! Receive what you are! Confess what you are! Become what you are! Live what you are!