A Sermon for 7 May 2017 – 4th Sunday of Easter
A reading from Acts of the Apostles 2:41-47. Listen for God’s word to us.
“So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
If you’ve been to Shaker Village outside of Lexington, Kentucky, then you know how wonderful it is! It’s a museum of a village that once was teeming with men, women, and children. But it’s more than just some old museum; it’s a retreat destination and a bit of a working farm where you can stay overnight in refreshed Shaker quarters. Everything is reminiscent of the Shakers: from the clean lines of the chairs and nightstands, to the simplicity of the TV-less rooms, to the recipes at the dining room tables. The food is so good: fresh from the farm and so sumptuous. The Shakers believed in delighting in the fruits of the earth as much as they believed in living simply as a sign of humility before God. They believed Christ called them out to be a light. Living together in simplicity, setting their hands to the plough that all of them could eat and worship and live – collectively. Communally. None of them owned personal property, but pooled their resources once they came to join the community. They would live by the community’s codes – willing to take their turn at whatever task was theirs for the day for the benefit of the common good. Of course, they failed to realize that their celibacy vow would lead to eventual elimination – I think only 3 Shakers are left in the United States. But for a time, their way of life seemed idyllic – seeking not to compete against one another as is the norm in our market-driven world, but to be alongside one another in humility and harmony and joy.
It reminds me of the followers of the Risen Christ according to the story we have before us in Acts of the Apostles – though they didn’t do the celibacy thing so that men and women continued to have children to whom they could pass on the joy of following the crucified yet Risen Christ. According to the book of Acts, which is considered a continuation of the gospel of Luke; the part we heard today picks up right after Pentecost. The breath of God filled the first 120-or-so followers of Christ who had gathered for the Jewish feast of Pentecost just fifty days after Passover. Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims from all over Israel who had come to observe the festival celebrating God’s giving of the Law on Sinai 50 days after the exodus. When the Holy Spirit hit those first followers, Peter preached such a rousing sermon about the Risen Christ, that suddenly the movement jumped to over 3,000 people who wanted to know what to do in response to this very good news. . . . Maybe the story’s a bit of an exaggeration, like a fish tale, told after the fact to stress how like wildfire the way of Christ was spreading. But Acts of the Apostles wants us to know that those who first heard wanted to know how to live their life in response to the Risen Christ. They wanted to know what to do. How to be. They wanted to put into practice the kinds of things that would help them grow into this message Jesus had been teaching – this word of a God so full of love for us all that Life would be the final word each day and forever. “They devoted themselves,” Acts reads, to the apostle’s teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers (Acts 2:42). And just to round out the picture of what this looked like, Acts states that: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number” (Acts 2:44-47).
Now don’t worry, I’m not going to tell us that this means we all need to head off to the pawn shop tomorrow to sell everything we have then come huddle up together here in one perpetual overnight lock-in, which church youth so often love. I think, rather, we are to know that our first Christian ancestors committed themselves to certain practices in order to stay connected – not only with one another, but with God. They understood themselves to be caught up together in a higher calling. They didn’t exist, any longer for themselves alone – if ever they ever thought they did. They knew themselves bound together so much so that the earliest Christians commonly would sell something they had in order to give what was needed to another. It’s like they knew that saying that “the shoes in my closet that I no longer wear belong to the one who has no shoes” (Sara Coven Juengst). Jesus made it clear to them that their own desires took a backseat so that they would come to embody this way of being – together, putting first the needs of the collective. Loving as deeply as does our God. . . . One commentator puts it beautifully: “The newborn church (was) a place where the deepest human longings for God, community, and basic provisions were being met in abundance for all” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2, Timothy B. Hare, p. 427).
It’s good for us to remember that that sorta was the church’s story at least throughout our first 300 years. Not that times always were easy – we can’t romanticize it. Any quick read of the New Testament letters lets us know that the early church most certainly struggled on the journey of learning how to be the church together. But they were growing, maturing, laying the foundations for the future. . . . Take for instance, the church in the 2nd Century Roman Empire. They were a tiny, but powerful movement because the church lived by a different ethic – connected to God and others in ways those around them were not. They really were a light in a very different kind of world. . . . Like the first house churches that were an eclectic array from across culture. There were some slaves, right alongside those who were free. Women of means were a part of it – sometimes with their husbands and sometimes without. Those freshly widowed were a part, and in fact, thanks to their place in the church, they would come to find new purposes in their lives. Supposedly it wasn’t atypical for those of the Roman Empire to abandon children that didn’t suit their fancy. Soon the early church took in such abandoned children and created an order of widows, financially supported by the church, who became mothers to such discarded children. Isn’t that beautiful? That our first Christian ancestors figured out a way to care for those put aside by the empire. . . . People were tradesmen, and fishermen, and every now and again a Roman nobleman even joined. . . . There was something powerful about being connected together in a way they were not anywhere else in their day. They would look around to see the diverse faces in their midst that proved that a radical kingdom had begun through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. . . . According to one scholar, the 2nd Century church, “welcomed outsiders, regardless of their background, and thus overcame the obvious divisions of gender, ethnicity, and class that characterized the Roman world” (Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 2007, p. 56). They believed and enacted what Christ taught, that all are worthy in God’s eyes, not just the elite, learned, wealthy men. They embraced that all are to be loved: women, children, and men too. That all reflect the very image of God – even if Roman society taught otherwise. The welcome they extended was radical in a culture that sought to keep certain people in certain places. The result was that those on the fringe flocked to such a people of inclusion. It was one of the earliest marks of being church.
And the radical welcome of the earliest churches wasn’t all. In an increasingly chaotic world, the early church was an anchor for one another. Because of their baptism into Christ, they instantly were not alone. They literally were bound to one another – engrafted together into something beyond themselves that would be there to shape them for the living of each day. That would be there with them to show them how to live in loving connection with God and others every day. . . . History tells us that in those first house churches, 15 or 20 people would connect twice daily to sing and pray and hear the Apostle’s teachings read aloud. Before work in the morning, and after work at night; this was where they belonged. This was where they were grounded – they didn’t expect to do it on their own. Our first Christian ancestors found stability among one another. Belonging – which was another of the earliest, attracting marks of being church.
It helped too that the early church was ready – whatever came – because the Roman world suffered shattering plagues twice in about a hundred-year period. . . . Christians already were living according to the command to love one another. They already were caring for the hungry and thirsty and sick. They already were looking after the needs of the widows, children, and strangers. So, when the plagues hit, our 2nd and 3rd Century ancestors in the faith kept on doing what they already had been doing. They simply took care of one another. We hardly can believe it as it’s such a different culture from our own, but imagine the power of seeing – pretty much just among the Christians – what one historian describes as: “Basic nursing care (like) sips of broth, cold rags on the forehead, tender backrubs, a change of bedding, visits from loving friends – (which all) strengthened the sick and helped at least some of them to overcome the disease” so that immune they in turn could care for others with it (Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 2007, p. 65). And their commitment to connection mattered, even in death; because if one was lost to the plague, Christians would care for the deceased’s body with a proper burial. They didn’t do like others did: leaving the dying out in the streets in fear as was common among non-Christians in the Empire. They’d even take in the dying whose families had abandoned them; tenderly caring for them until the end and beyond. . . . Such sacrificial service was another very clear mark of being church together.
More than just interesting stories from the past, all of it very well gives us some clear marching orders as the 21st Century church. Of course throughout time, we’ve erred too often in other directions, but what a glorious early history . . . to be a people of radical inclusion, rock solid stability, service to others despite the risk. . . . It’s needed today as much, if not more, than ever before: the Church of Jesus Christ living likewise each day for the sake of a world in such need. May it be so.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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