Life as an ‘Easter Church’…
May 7, 2017
Scripture: Acts 2:42-47 (Msg. Translation)
They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.
So, here we are…some three weeks after Easter…Jesus has appeared to the women and to the disciples several times, he has even shown up again for the sake of Thomas, and so now in this week’s reading we move on into the early life of the church. The gospel of Luke originally included the book of Acts. It was written as a longer work by one author and includes the whole of the Jesus story from his birth in Bethlehem to the account of the resurrection and is then followed by a description of the life of the early church in Jerusalem and the ministry of the Apostle Paul.
I chose this reading from our selection today because I think it is a good time for us as well to revisit what it is that we are called to as a church of our Lord. A moment for us to consider not only what the infant church looked like but to see how we might draw lessons ourselves from their example, helping us to discover how to be faithful to the call of Jesus upon our own hearts?
A quick reading of the account of the early days of the church may at first come off as idyllic, as though the early assemblies encountered little to no resistance. However, I am not at all sure that was the case, for the anger and opposition of the ruling religious class in Jerusalem towards the Jesus movement quite possibly persisted throughout the formative weeks, months, and years of the fledgling Christian movement. However it does appear that the enthusiasm and the momentum of the earliest followers of the faith seemed to outweigh any outside resistance for we have little to no record of it having any impact until later on when Roman state-sanctioned resistance resulted in persecution and martyrdom of many early followers. In our reading today however at the beginning of the Christian experience it is clear that their commitment to this new way of practicing their faith as a fully lived experience, and as one that resonated through the whole of their life as a community was truly something to behold.
Now…some two thousand or so years later, it seems as though that same level of enthusiasm is far less common, due in large part I am fairly certain to the change in social focus and social identity from the early and heavy Jewish emphasis on ‘community-first’ versus today’s penchant for individualism and family-centric social structure instead. The Jewish faith and in fact the Semitic mindset out of which it came was very much focused around the concept of society as a community of the whole, with the good of that community taking precedence over the good of any particular individual. As such, the early church of our reading quite naturally placed great emphasis on the opportunity to form a new sense of community around the narrative of the gospel and the story of the risen Lord Jesus. Letting go of individual rights and individual ownership of goods and property was for them certainly much different than it would be for us who have all been brought up within a social structure and framework that favors and rewards individual success and initiative.
And yet, the account of that early community is still attractive to many today, offering as it seems a progressive and caring illustration of society in which the primary focus of the church seems to be one of kindness, caring, sharing, and equal opportunity. And I wonder if that is still possible in today’s world, if such a way of living in and as a community very much in contrast to the balance of society as a whole is still something Christians can or should pursue? And if in fact we were to seek to imitate the life-in-community of the early church, what might that look like here in our own fellowship?
How might we engage the modern challenges that are all around us and still find ways to have a highly visible witness characterized by both a deep sense of abiding peace as well as the abundant joy that our passage tells us the early church displayed? How might we best show our own community that we are followers of our Lord and Christ? And perhaps more to the point, how might we best share that which is in our hearts with others who may not have a professed belief? How might our witness in our community become that of an ‘Easter Church’ as well? What is it that the early church had or did that gave the early movement the energy and vitality to carry forth throughout the many centuries since?
As idyllic as it may sound…as perhaps unreal and unattainable as the account of the early church in Acts may seem…I think that there is a lot packed into the few sentences of our passage which can serve us well as instruction…or at least as touchpoints by which we may be able to evaluate our own life together as God’s church. And that instruction begins with the very first line, where we hear that all of the disciples and followers were faithful to do at least four things as a routine part of their life together.
In the first line of our reading for today we hear that all of those gathered around this new faith committed themselves to the teaching of the Apostle’s, their fellowship together, sharing a common meal frequently, and ‘the prayers’. Perhaps a closer look at these four things might also shed some light on our own life together.
The Presbyterian Church from which we draw our heritage has always placed great emphasis on the reading of God’s word in the service and pastoral teaching that seeks to illumine that word for the believers. Our tradition, different from that of the Roman Catholic Church does not place the Sacrament of Communion as the primary and central focus of the service but rather this element of teaching centered on the scriptures. As such, from a symbolic point of view the pulpit or lectern from which the message is shared is just as important as the communion table and the baptismal fount…each of these three holds a central place in our reformed worship and service structure, but the week to week focus is primarily on the teaching of the word.
However, the wording of our reading would seem to indicate that just ‘hearing’ the teaching is not enough…but rather taking that teaching to heart and sharing it with others as a part of your faith understanding is the necessary and next step. Which of course, puts the pressure on the pastor to be as clear and succinct as possible. However it also puts the pressure on you the hearer to ask for clarification if you do not understand, or justification if you do not agree with what is being taught in order to be able to share the message effectively. If done well, truly being ‘committed to the teaching of our faith’ takes a lot more than just listening!
The second thing the early church focused on was their practice of fellowshipping together. The nature of their life together, of the time they spent in each other’s company was that of genuine friendship and sharing with each other. Much like we do here in the time just prior to our service and for a more extended period of time after the service is over. Truly we are well practiced in conversing and sharing matters of concern as a church, we just need to do more of the same in our daily life out in the community. We need to be so friendly and so obviously filled with God’s Spirit of peace and joy (even the quiet variety), that our behavior inspires others to wonder just what it is that makes us so sure that it is going to be alright, that goodness will surely triumph in the end. For in sharing in this way we may lead others to seek out the source of our joy and to find their way into their own relationship with God. Being truly devoted to fellowshipping as followers of our Lord means that our willingness to do so does not stop on our way out of the church buildings, but rather carries on throughout our life within the community.
Thirdly our passage tells us the early believers were committed to sharing a common table frequently. The gospel accounts have many references to Jesus sharing a meal with his followers as well as with those who were still seeking to know who he was and what he was all about. Jesus was roundly criticized for not only eating and drinking, but also for having a good time doing so with those many considered unworthy of his attention. Jesus was unfazed by those who criticized him for breaking bread with tax collectors, sinners, and others who had been forced to the margins of the Jewish communal life…and so perhaps…should we.
We do share a meal on occasion, but we also could do a much better job of it to be sure. Taking the time to break bread together often gives us an opportunity to get to know each other better, helps us to listen and to really hear one another, to know that which is perhaps of concern and to celebrate that which is good and exciting. We have spoken recently in the Council of trying to do just this more intentionally in the near future…so if you receive an invitation or wish to extend one, remember it is one of those things the church has always been blessed by…one of those ways in which we can practice true community.
The fourth aspect of the life of the early church mentioned in our reading was that the followers were devoted to ‘the prayers’. ‘Devoted to the prayers’ is what the passage says. It does not list any particular prayers, or any particular way or method of praying, it just says they were committed to ‘the prayers’. And I am intrigued by this description for it seems to call for each of us in the church to have and to maintain a certain attitude towards and practice of prayer. Prayer as a discipline, as a normal part of the routine of one’s faith life was present and worthy of mention in the account of the early church’s life together. And while we have always maintained that prayer is a necessary and vital part of our worship together, our reading seems to indicate that it is something that needs to be a part of our daily life and routine on each of the other six days of the week as well.
And I have always found that the easiest way to do this is to view any and all prayer as simply a conversation with God…which can still seem daunting to say the least, but not if you remember that our God is a God of love and compassion…a God of understanding and the deepest of joy. If you can think of God as someone who both wants to listen as well as to speak with you in and through all manner of ways, then perhaps prayer can become something to look forward to each day.
So…we will continue to pray here in our church time together…and I encourage you to continue that conversation throughout the rest of the week…for prayer as a regular part of one’s faith life improves with practice…and it serves to center us in an understanding of God’s ways as well.
The balance of our reading, after this first sentence, goes on to share how this practice of being a community of faith was enriched and rewarded by the hand of God. The blessings and the joys they all experienced were so great as to be contagious to the larger community in which they lived…so much so that our reading tells us that ‘daily the Lord added to their number…’. It is hard to calculate just how much our church would grow, or how much more of an impact we would have if we were truly able to become even more a community within our community. How much of a difference it might make if our life together on Sunday mornings, which is truly rich and rewarding for us all, could be extended in multiple ways throughout our community, and in all of our interactions with others throughout the week.
The early church grew because there was a divine and holy partnership in place…the people of the faith lived their faith openly and in great joy and sincerity, unafraid to profess their love for God and to extend that love to their neighbors in need…and in turn, God blessed their lives and the work of their hearts and hands in such a way that their faith was visible and truly a blessing for the community as a whole. As we find our way closer and closer to truly becoming an ‘Easter Church’, we will find that same partnership still in place…
It we commit ourselves to the teaching of the scriptures…our understanding of the Word of our Lord will become in us a rich source of inspiration and guidance for ourselves and for others…
If we commit even more fully to fellowship…our fellowship will find its genesis in the sanctuary and move outward from there, becoming a new sanctuary in the hearts and minds of all those we touch…
If we commit to the breaking of bread…sharing a common table will become much more frequent, much more the normal way of sharing together, and surely will require a much larger table as we seek to include all of God’s children there…
And if we commit to the prayers…both as the church of our Lord gathered, and in the silence of our own secret place of prayer, then the practice of praying will become the underlying essence, the power of divine relationship that holds it all together.
Come let us commit ourselves to follow in the footsteps of those who first walked in this way…together…