Text: Acts 2:37-47
Can you recall a stranger, more unexpected, more unsettled, more crisis-filled time in our society? Just a few months ago, we could not imagine being in this place.
We could not imagine schools and business and churches closing to try and slow a global pandemic.
We could not imagine so many people out of work and struggling and a world-wide recession not seen since the 1870’s, I just read this week.
We could not imagine people rising up all over the country to protest racial injustice. And not just in large cities, not just in Ames, but in places like Boone.
Just a month ago, no one would have dreamed of NASCAR banning the confederate flag. I mean, who saw that coming?
Earlier this year, we could not have dreamed that we would be trying to coordinate our face masks as a fashion accessory.
We could not have imagined our choir getting into the business of making music videos.
And we could not have imagined closing the doors to the church and somehow at the same time improving our worship attendance.
This is an uncertain time and this is absolutely uncharted territory for the church. But it is far from the first such time.
We have spent a few weeks in Acts, leading up to the story of Pentecost in the first part of Acts chapter 2. Acts is focused on the church – a brand new phenomenon, birthed at Pentecost. Acts tells the story of how the church navigated uncertain waters, experienced setbacks, improvised and responded to a variety of changing cultural realities, and through it all grew in faith and grace and love as an expression of the continuing work of Jesus, and spread the gospel through the Mediterranean world.
I had planned a look at Acts as a follow-up to the Easter season, and as it turns out it is perfect for where we now find ourselves. What better time to look at how the church has faced crisis and change? We will be following readings from Acts in the coming weeks, seeking wisdom and guidance and insight from these stories of the early church.
Our scripture for this morning, coming immediately after Pentecost, is an account of the church at its very beginning, established as a response to Pentecost. At this point, they did not have buildings or clergy or tax-exempt status. They did not have copy machines or hymnals or a sound system. They did not have a Sunday School. They were making it up as they went along – they did not have a guide book or church manual. At this point, there was no New Testament to guide them. 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 instructive for us today.
As we look at this early Christian community, what were the distinguishing characteristics?
First, it is a learning community. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship.” They were open to new truth. They understood that they didn’t have all the answers. And that went for the apostles as well as anybody.
In the Book of Acts, we will find the biggest names of the early church, Peter and Paul, coming to entirely new understandings and making radical changes. They were all learning.
It was a caring community. Perhaps more than anything else, the quality of caring shines forth as we read about this church. I am impressed that these early believers were able to set aside their own needs and wants and perhaps natural proclivities in order to truly sacrifice for the sake of the other. They did not simply live for themselves.
Writing around the year 125, Aristides wrote of a Christian community:
They walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them, and they love one another. They do not despise the widow, and do not grieve the orphan. Those who have distribute liberally to those who have not. They bring the stranger under their roof, and rejoice over that stranger as if it were their own brother or sister... if there is among them one that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessities, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food.
That is caring, sacrificial love.
And then, this was a praying community. Which would come naturally: when you really care about each other, you pray for each other. This life of prayer arose from their relationship with God. Prayer centered the community on God and undergirded all the church did.
It was a worshiping community. Worship was a daily part of life. God was real to them. Worship was 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. There was a sense of expectation, of awe, of reverence, of power.
This was also a joyful community. It is not that they were without problems, because they were. It is not that these people did not know heartache – it is clear that they did. There was persecution. Many lived in poverty. The fact that they pooled their resources to meet needs and the fact that so many seemed to have such needs is a reflection of the difficult situations many found themselves in. But through all of this, a sense of joy just leaps out as we read the passage. And again, sharing meals seems to be very central to the life of the community
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 and had such a deep fellowship 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 of 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. Of course they grew.
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.
Now the argument is made that this is a very idealized view of the church. You could argue this community was a gift of the Holy Spirit every bit as amazing as the Day of Pentecost – and indeed this glimpse of the church can be seen as a continuation of Pentecost. This model of holding everything in common in order to meet needs did not become the norm in the early church. But that does not mean we should not strive for the kind of caring and nurture and compassion and shared life exemplified by this community.
In this uncertain time, we could do a lot worse than to seek to build the kind of community and shared concern modeled by these early believers. Like them, we are called to build a church, led by God’s Spirit, that looks after everyone, where everyone matters and everyone belongs. A church that offers true and deep community in Jesus Christ.
I was reading Fortune magazine yesterday. Now, I am not an avid read of Fortune. I had some frequent flyer miles that were going to run out and I did that deal where you can use airline miles for free magazine subscriptions. Unfortunately, the magazine I subscribed to apparently went under so they sent me Fortune instead. Whatever.
So I was eating lunch and looked for something to read and there it was. I was reading an article on how the pandemic will change business. It was talking about how consumers feel a loss of control, how many people were in dire straits, and how all of this would have a long-term impact. Ulrike Malmandier, an economist at Cal-Berkeley, said, “We will be different. We’ll make different product choices, consumption choices, human capital choices. This is beyond economics; it’s neuroscience. A crisis experience is deeply emotional, and stronger emotions get anchored more strongly in our memories. Our hard wiring changes.”
The article was about business, but this time we are in will surely affect churches. Not just in the short run - which it is clearly doing - but in the long run. What will the effect be? To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t think any of us do. As I said earlier, we are truly in uncharted territory.
But we can take a cue from these early Christians, whose lives had been changed and who found themselves in a new situation. They forged a powerful community of faith, led by the Spirit. It was a learning and caring and praying and worshiping community, a community of joy. A community that drew in everyone. Our expression of church may be very different today, and we surely face uncertainty going forward. But when we are led by the Spirit, these qualities will still be at the heart of it all. Amen.