In the world in which you and I live, we love to debate beginnings. At what point, our culture has often debated, does a fetus become a child? Is it at the moment of conception, as some argue, or perhaps it's at the point at which a fetus can survive outside the mother, or maybe it's the point at which the heart begins to beat?
We also love to debate the point at which a child becomes an adult. Is it at 16 with the independence that a driver's license brings? Or perhaps it's at 18 when you are old enough to vote, or maybe it's yet at 21 when our society has decided that you are old enough to drink, or maybe even it's really when you turn 25 and the car companies decide you're old enough to rent a car all on your own.
It is not just the secular world that loves to debate thresholds. We often debate or wonder about the same things in the church. We will debate for hours: Did salvation come to humanity through the cross or through the resurrection? Did the saving work of God occur on Good Friday or did it occur on Easter morning? It is, to be truthful, in some sense a trick question; the correct answer is it came through both. You really can't separate the two.
Pentecost, the day on which the followers of Christ received the gift of the Holy Spirit, is often said to be the birthday of the church. Until Pentecost, the disciples looked more like the keystone cops than a group of dedicated and organized spiritual leaders. But the gift of the Holy Spirit seems to have transformed them. Even the most casual reader of the New Testament can notice that the Book of Acts, which is the story of the church in the early days after Jesus' resurrection, is remarkably different from the Gospels that precede it. After Pentecost, the disciples are focused, faithful, courageous in a way that they had never been in the stories we have in the Gospels. It is no surprise, then, that we often date the beginning of the church to the gift of the Holy Spirit on that very special day.
But today I want to toss out a new idea...perhaps the origin of the church began earlier, a whole generation earlier than Pentecost.
Today, in the Gospel of Matthew while Mary was engaged but not yet married to Joseph, she became pregnant. Now, we, the readers are blessed with knowledge that no one other than Mary seems to have at that point, and that's her pregnancy was a gift of the Holy Spirit. Now just a bit of background, Mary was visited by an angel, as we know, and offered the opportunity to serve as the mother of the holy one. And in the greatest obedient leap of blind faith since Noah agreed to build a 450-foot long boat on dry land, Mary agrees to become an unwed pregnant teenager at the request of God. Noah only had to suffer the ridicule and derision of his neighbors, but Mary's risk is far greater. As an unwed pregnant teen-ager, she could be stoned; she could be put to death.
Scripture tells us that Joseph found out about Mary's pregnancy and, being a decent guy, decided to break it off with her quietly so she would not come to any harm. But before we move any further, we ought to wait and think. We know how Mary found out she was pregnant--an angel told her. But how did Joseph find out?
So let's for a moment play a bit of biblical detective. Who told Joseph that Mary was pregnant? Did Mary tell him? That seems doubtful. When Joseph initially finds out about Mary, he does not seem to possess the very news that Mary had. He doesn't know that this pregnancy is a gift from God. I don't think we need have any doubt that, if Mary had been the one to tell Joseph, she would have shared this part of the amazing news with him. So who was it that told him? Was he told by Mary's family, a mutual friend, perhaps a neighbor who had figured things out? How far had the story of her pregnancy traveled? It seems fair to assume that it wasn't a neighbor or a mutual friend. Joseph makes his decision to handle things quietly because he believes that no one yet knows. I think it safe to assume that it was not a third party who informed him. I think it almost has to be Mary's family who approaches Joseph with the news. But, interestingly, they clearly do not share the good news of Mary's story with Joseph. They just tell him of her pregnancy.
The way Joseph was told, her family had decided--no doubt--to "handle" things on her behalf. They approached Joseph; they told him that his betrothed was pregnant. But they clearly withheld the part of the story that Mary had to have shared with them. She KNEW what was going on. She wasn't likely to hide the wonderful news from her family. She believed this pregnancy was not an embarrassment, that this was a great gift from God. But that does not mean her family believed. We can assume that Mary's family, firmly believing that she was both crazy and pregnant, decided to keep both hidden the best they could.
It was not until Joseph had learned of Mary's condition and resolved to break it off quietly that he received a visit from an angel. Joseph, he is told, do not worry about this, but take Mary as your wife and she will bear a very special child who will save people from their sins. Now this is the first time Joseph heard this part of the story; and in the second great blind leap of faith in our story today, he agrees.
Their families must have thought that the two of them were equally crazy as they pledged to share this improbable mission that no one else understood.
In that commitment, in that moment of decision, perhaps that's when the church was born. No one was there to take pictures or write it up. But in that moment two thousand years ago, two people acknowledged a child was entering the world and that child would be a transformative life in the history of creation. It did not matter what the world said. Ridicule and derision could be carried with the belief that the pain and the hardship were worth it. The life of this child was too valuable to forsake. Anything would be endured so that this child would be heard and known and shared with the world.
Churches are not made up of building or programs. They are not measured by the size of the budget or the dulcet tones of the choir. Instead, wherever two or more come together with the understanding and belief that there is a life and message so precious and so wonderful that anything can be endured so that all may share in the joy of this news, then there is a church.
We are mere days away from Good News being born into the world again as we celebrate Christmas. Perhaps you will go to church to celebrate the event. But are you ready to BE church? Are you prepared to respond to the birth of this Christ Child by shouldering the responsibility and enduring the hardship that the world around you will have the opportunity to hear of his never-ending redeeming love?
Let us pray. Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ at his coming may find in us a mansion prepared for himself, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.