Text: Acts 2:42-47
In June, we had a Sunday morning service at the one-room Hoggatt School, where our church met in the 1860’s. In July, we met for worship one Sunday morning at Brookside Park together with the UCC and First Christian Church. And here we are this morning out on the front lawn for our Worship under the Trees service.
I love these services and I have to say that this Sunday is always one of my favorites. There is just something about being outside. We are literally outside, of course – we are outdoors - but we are also outside of what we usually do. This is different from a typical Sunday. And we need that every once in a while.
This morning we are outside, but if we had to, we could do without a building. I mean, it’s nice to have a building but you can have a church without one. Wellspring Community Church, a church we helped start in Des Moines, has in its constitution that it will not own property because it wants to put its emphasis elsewhere. I’m really glad we have our building, even with some maintenance challenges, but it’s not really a necessity.
That kind of raises the question: what else could we do without? I’m not suggesting it, but a church can exist without a pastor. A church can function without any professional staff. Some churches operate this way and do quite well.
When we get right down to it, what does it mean to be a church? What are the essentials? What is at the core of it all?
Our scripture today is an account of the very early church in Acts. They did not have buildings or clergy or tax-exempt status. They did not have organs or copy machines or hymnals or a sound system or a custodian. They did not have an annual conference or convention to attend. They did not have published curriculum or a Sunday School. They were kind of making it up as they went along – they did not have a guide book or church manual.
They had no precedent or model to follow. At this point, they did not have a New Testament to guide them. I mean, they didn’t even have a church basketball team. But they were the church, they were full of life, they grew, and the account of their life together can be helpful for us today.
Luke gives us a kind of summary statement: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” That verse is a description of their life as a church in a nutshell, and the next few verses flesh out the picture a bit.
They attended to the apostles’ teaching. This meant listening to the apostles, who were still present among them, and learning from them. They understood that they didn’t have all the answers and that there were things to learn.
If we reflect back on Jesus’ ministry, he spent the bulk of his time with a small group of disciples, teaching them. Learning is a big part of what it is to be church together. This includes hearing the Word read and proclaimed each Sunday. It means studying the scriptures and the history of the Church. It also means listening to one another and learning from one another – having open minds and open hearts and open eyes. It means being open to new truth. And it’s not just for youngsters or those new to faith. In the Book of Acts, we find as big a name as Paul learning new things and making some very big changes.
These early Christians devoted themselves to fellowship. These were people committed to one another – devoted, the text says, to one another. Now around here, we have what is called “Fellowship Time” once a month, where we have refreshments after worship. In the summer, we do this every week, and while it is pretty popular, I’m not quite sure this would rise to the level of “devotion.” Fellowship – a true sharing with one another, caring and compassion and responsibility for one another – is a lot deeper. The time we spend together in meals like we will have today or having cookies and coffee after church is just a start on that kind of deep fellowship.
To me, what is most notable about these first Christians is the care they demonstrated toward one another. They shared meals, shared laughs, shared hopes, shared dreams, shared pain. If someone were in need, they would sell possessions so they could provide for one another. What they had was not just for themselves; it was for the larger community. We tend to be very individualistic – it’s the American way – but these early believers were focused on the community.
And then, they worshiped. They were devoted to “the breaking of the bread and the prayers.” The “breaking of the bread” refers to the Lord’s Supper, or communion. This was a church that worshipped together frequently and fervently. Worship not simply a duty to take care of so they could get on with the rest of their week, but something that grounded their lives.
We read that this community enjoyed the goodwill of the people. A community such as this would no doubt stand out in the wider society. When people are cared for, folks notice. When needs are attended to, word gets around. Life was hard, really hard. Life expectancy was short. There was a lot of hurt and a lot of misery. A community that expressed such love and concern, that had such a deep fellowship and that gathered together for in heartfelt praise and prayer would attract the notice of others.
This passage concludes by saying, “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Growth, you may notice, is not at the top of the list. Attendance and baptism statistics were not the most important thing. The growth is attributed to God, not to the congregation, and it seems to be more a by-product. This church was devoted to teaching, to fellowship, to worship, to prayer; they shared their gifts, shared their resources, shared meals, provided for everyone, had glad and generous hearts, and enjoyed the good will of the people. So - of course they grew.
Now to recap: no building, no pastors, no deacons, no guitars, no PowerPoints, no coffee shop, no developed theological positions, no mission and vision statement. What they had was a strong sense of God’s presence and a dynamic sense of fellowship and belonging that drew people in.
If you had to describe the church that is profiled in this passage of scripture using only one word, what would it be? I would choose the word Together. This church learned together, prayed together, worshiped together, ate together, indeed they lived together. What was powerfully attractive about this church was the quality of its life together.
This was a church that looked out for everyone, a church in which everyone mattered and everyone belonged.
When you get right down to it, was does the church have to offer that you can’t get somewhere else? You can get better coffee down the street. You can find other opportunities to serve and if you just want a sermon, you can find a better one online. (I mean, it would be hard, sure, but you could do it.)
More than anything else, what the church has to offer is true community found in Jesus Christ. And yet our way of living today makes developing such community very difficult. We live busy lives, with long work weeks, various responsibilities, and kids in a plethora of activities. Students face all kinds of time demands. Given the hectic pace of life, how can we build the kind of meaningful community that changes lives?
This is not a small question. I think about the kind of issues confronting many of us, and it seems to me that in many instances, what we need as much as anything is community.
We face issues of aging. Some are concerned for their own health, and others for the health of parents. We face issues of parenting and all that that can entail – new parents and parents-to-be and parents of children and youth and parents with empty nests.
There are students facing all of the challenges that can bring – issues with roommates and money and juggling work and school and study. There are questions of vocation and what do I want to do with my life, as well as dealing in one way or another with what it means to be a follower of Jesus as a college student.
There are those of us here today who are in times of transition in many ways – transitions in schooling, transitions in employment, transitions in relationships, transitions in life - folks feeling very much up in the air about things.
Some are facing financial struggles and are concerned for how to make ends meet. Some have faced loss and are struggling with grief. Some look at all that is happening in society, all that is going on in the culture, crazy stuff, alarming stuff that is in the news every day and they are deeply concerned and maybe a little afraid for the future. Maybe a lot afraid.
These are all concerns for which there are no easy answers. Yet what a difference it makes to know that in the midst of such difficulties, one can depend on the support of a caring community of faith.
The church described in Acts faced an entirely different set of challenges than we face. These were people who lived in a time that could not be more different than the times we live in. And yet there were real similarities.
We may have stressful lives, but so did they. They too faced change and transitions and upheavals. Most people in the first-century world lived on the edge of existence – life was brutal and there was no social safety net. By becoming a follower of Jesus, many left behind family and friends. Some lost their livelihood. Many would suffer persecution, if they hadn’t already. How did they respond to this? Led by God’s spirit, they forged a powerful community of faith.
How do we build community? Maybe we have to start in small ways, person by person, day by day, as we open ourselves and share our lives together. As we live out what it truly means to follow Jesus, community comes naturally.
This week I talked to Sharon Strohmaier. She is the director of Iowa Religious Media Services, a media lending library. We often use resources from IRMS in our church school classes.
I called to ask Sharon about resources for our theology class and she told me about an experience she had recently – and she said it was OK to share this story.
Sharon was having lunch with a friend, and at the next table was a mother with an exceptionally fussy child. The kid was whiny and crabby and apparently very tired. He was doing his best to make the experience unpleasant for the other people at his table. But Sharon had noticed how patient this mother was. She was very kind and comforting and kept his unhappiness from escalating.
The mom got up to leave and Sharon, sitting at the next table, spoke to her. She said, “I just want to tell you what a great mom you are. You have been so patient and so caring with your child.” This young woman looked at her, kind of stunned, and said, “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. Can I give you a hug?” And Sharon said, “Sure.”
Our worship this morning is important. When we worship, we remember who we are and whose we are and we offer praise to the God who created us and loves us and cares for us. Worship is important.
But what follows our service is also important as we share a meal, share time together, share our lives. So often it is the little things, like a kind and encouraging word to a stressed mother, that can make a world of difference. That mother probably won’t forget those words anytime soon. It is that kind of sharing of our lives together that truly makes us the church.
For those early Christians, the most important word was, “Together.” Maybe that should tell us something. Amen.