Texts:  Psalm 23;  Acts 2:42-47

First a word about the Scripture that was NOT read this morning:  the passage from John 10, and I Peter 2:19-25.   The 10th chapter of John has been used and abused in so many situations to proclaim the exclusiveness of Christianity over other religions that to deal with it in an appropriate manner would take more time that I think we would want to give it this morning.  It might be a passage that we could address either in Bible study or in several sermons.

The passage from 1 Peter, chapter 2,  is likewise problematic for modern day Christians because, by exhorting slaves to submit to abuse from harsh masters, and Christians to endure sufferings and persecutions, it raises the issue of whether some passages of Scripture have more authority for our life together than others, along with a host of other concerns.  This text, too, was greatly quoted by Americans of the South in the deeply conflicted days before and during the American civil war 150 years ago.   Given the joyful nature of our last several Sundays, I’m not inclined today to dig into stuff that is problematic and too difficult to address in 12-15 minutes.  Another time…if you wish.  I encourage you to go home and read the 10th Chapter of John’s Gospel, and the last couple of paragraphs in I Peter, chapter 2.   Then let me know if, and how, you would like me to address these Scripture passages.

Our reading today from Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, constitutes one of several “summary” passages in Acts that serve as transitions to new stories about the life of the early church.

In the verse immediately prior to the verses with which we began today, in verse 41, we learn that in response to Peter’s first sermon, some 3000 people were baptized.  In the first chapter of Acts, when the successor apostle to Judas was selected, we learn that there were about 120 believers.   Then follows the verses which were read which describe the spiritual development of this new community.   So this sermon could be titled, “How to grow a church.”

Luke tells us that four spiritual practices characterized this exponentially growing group of Christians:  1) devotion to the apostles’ teachings—which we might today hear as study of Scripture;  2) fellowship, in Greek:  koinonia—or having a sense of being part of a caring community where the dignity and worth of each person is respected and participating regularly in community activities; 3) breaking of bread—harkening back to the story of how Jesus became known to the two disciples on the road to and at the inn located in the everywhere village of Emmaus; and 4) prayers.

Moreover, the passage makes clear that the group considered themselves to be still part of Judaism, because day by day, they spent much time in the temple.   So the prayers were Jewish prayers, and Jewish rituals that helped shape their worship life.  So ritual, and a liturgical calendar with its regularity and its repetition, can shape our lives in profound ways.   Ritual transfers the  fleeting and momentary into the eternal in our hearts and souls.

Out of those four activities, there developed among those people a sense of “awe” because of the many signs and wonders being done by the apostles.  This awe and wonder may remind us that authentic fellowship with God includes a humbling awareness of God’s holiness, of the very sacredness of every day affairs, in the midst of human limitation, finitude, mortality, and the ways in which there are continuing revelations of God’s actions interrupting the ordinariness of time and life.

One of the problems that I have with many of the so-called “contemporary” worship services offered nowadays by many churches, where people come to church in their blue jeans and shorts and flip-flops—as much as I appreciate that God cares more, as one wit put it, about the dudes than the duds–, but also where the music, if one might call it that, is without any theological depth, and certainly little musicality; where there are power-point teachings—rather than the drama of a sermon that might elicit a sense of God’s holy spirit present among us—is that they fall so short of evocations of awe and mystery.

The world, as Shakespeare Wordsworth said, is too much with us, and mystery seems necessary to elicit from me a sense of hope that this old world is greater than it seems and has possibilities beyond its current state, and that a redeemed creation is someday possible—and here and there breaks through in moments of joy and wonder.

The passage also suggests that people sold all their private assets and held their wealth in common, but it is more likely that Luke is painting, in summary language, the reality that they took care of one another.  Later in the book, Luke tells us that the Gentiles began to complain that their widows and elderly were being neglected in the distribution of food amongst the community, so that they created the office of Deacon to help make sure that everyone was taken care of an no one, regardless of their background or situation, was neglected.

And so it has been in churches across the ages:  people in the fellowship have looked after the widows and orphans, the elderly, the frail.  Churches founded hospitals—a word that means literally—a place to give room and space to someone who needs it.  Hospice—as room for people to die with dignity—was advocated and pushed until it has become a mainstay of helping people in the last stage of life’s journey all across America.  Hospice is something relatively new—the very first hospice in America was founded by Ed Dobihal, my professor of pastoral counseling, in Hamden, Connecticut in 1968.  Churches have founded orphanages to look after children whose parents died in war or epidemic, and now who are the refuse, the throw-aways, of too much societal dysfunction.  The church I served in St. Louis had a historic connection to a children’s home nearby, and every Sunday, the children came to Sunday School and worship; and the congregation worked hard to help those children—the throw-away kids of our society—know that they were loved and respected.

And I have no doubt that even in our little congregation, were one of us to fall into terrible need that we would rally and share to lift them up in that time of need—however that might be necessary.

Luke also notes that those early Christians not only spent a lot of time together at the Temple, but that they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.

With the growing focus on protecting the earth, and on eating more naturally grown foods, the spirituality of eating itself has become a theme amongst Christians.   What we eat; how we eat—whether savoring the foods and reflecting on their production and those who made the food on the table possible—or gobbling it while driving somewhere in the car—become theological acts in and of themselves.

Finally, Luke says that the early church had the good will of all the people.   In other words, those who aligned themselves with this young movement of followers of the Jesus way, were respected in their communities for their integrity, their decency, their acts of public service.

I’m sure that many of you have heard the story about the monastery that had fallen on hard times.  The abbot had become a good friend with the rabbi at the local synagogue.   The monastery was not attracting new monks, and those who were there, were—in the opinion of the abbot—rather shallow and lifeless.  Confessing his fears to the rabbi, the rabbi comforted the abbot and said:  there is a wisdom from the Jewish community that you need to know:  the “messiah” is one of us, and so the messiah is one of you.

So the abbot goes back to his monastery and begins to look at each of his monks, with all their particular foibles and faults, in new ways—as if one of them will be the savior of the monastery, and even more, as if one of them is the messiah returned.  Eventually the word spreads throughout the monastery that the abbot believes that the messiah is among them.   Soon the whole place was alive with vitality, hope, kindness, worship, grace.  Prayers were rich and passionate.  Soon the villagers began to come to the services and noticed the change.  And then, slowly, the monastery began to attract new novitiates.

The story ends with these words:  “They say still, if you stumble across this place, where there is life and hope and kindness and graciousness, that the secret is the same:  “The messiah is one of us.”

Of all the things about which I am uncertain, I am certain of this truth:  the Easter power that turned the world upside down wasn’t that a human being had been resurrected from the dead, but the Easter truth experienced time and again—and not just in those 50 days after the first Easter— that the Messiah is among us, is one of us, is all of us.   So may we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts and minds to learn and discern the sacred in our midst, and the willingness to be followers of that holy way.  Amen.



Sermon: How to Grow A Church May 15, 2011

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