One of the hardest things for us to get our heads around,
as 21st century Christians,
is that the church hasn’t always been
the way we know it to be.
It’s all too easy for us to forget
that the church, in fact, didn’t emerge full grown
as soon as Jesus rose from the dead
–far from it.
After Jesus’ resurrection, after his ascension,
Jesus’ followers were left
with as many questions as answers,
and it took years, centuries,
for the church we know to develop.
In the season of Eastertide,
the time between Easter Sunday and the feast of Pentecost 50 days later,
our lectionary readings focus on what it was like
in the days following the resurrection
for the disciples and the others who flocked to hear Jesus during his ministry
as this process of making sense, and making community, began.
Our gospel readings have told the story
from the perspective of the disciples
who encountered the risen Jesus
in the upper room, on the beach,
and on the road to Emmaus.
Meanwhile, our readings from the Acts of the Apostles
have chronicled what life was like for the community of believers
who gathered in Jerusalem,
trying to figure out how to proceed
in the absence of the one on whom
they had pinned their greatest hopes.
We’ve heard how they gathered,
how they received the Holy Spirit,
and how so many were moved by Peter’s preaching
that 3000 were baptized right away.
And we’ve heard how they asked questions
and pondered what they had seen and heard
and supported one another day by day.
Can you imagine, even for a bit,
how hard it must have been for them?
I mean, we struggle today
with “how to be the church in the 21st century”
and we have 2000 years of history and tradition,
written scripture, a prayer book,
and volumes of theological treatises to guide us.
The earliest believers, the ones referred to as “people of the Way,”
had to make it up as they went along.
The Acts of the Apostles is the closest thing we have
to a history of the earliest church,
and it is on our reading from Acts this morning
that I want to focus.
The principles laid out in today’s reading from Acts,
the ways the earliest Christian, the people of the Way,
came together as community,
have much to teach us
as we go about shaping our own lives
as people of faith,
as we struggle to be authentic
and vital congregations.
Their tasks, in fact, were not so different
from those that we face us today.
Although we have a rich body of history and tradition to fall back on,
we are still called to figure out what it means
for us personally and as a community.
What’s more we live in a time
in which being Christian is often taken for granted,
even as the influence of Christianity is on the wane.
And while we claim to center our lives on so-called Christian values,
we privilege some values as being more important
– obeying the 10 commandments, for example –
even as we neglect to step back and look at the big picture;
we fail to realize that living as faithful Christians
in a complex and changing world
requires us to be mindful of all that we do;
we focus on our individual salvation
even as we fail to place our community in the center of our lives.
So what exactly does Acts tell us this morning about life in community?
Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… 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.
It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
Teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, prayer,
sharing resources to care for the needs of all;
as we all know, however,
the simplest things can also be the most challenging.
In the earliest days,
teaching likely meant passing on the words and traditions of Jesus,
keeping them fresh in the minds of the faithful
and introducing them to newcomers to the faith.
Our task is both easier and more difficult;
It’s easier because we have a huge body of accumulated knowledge to draw from;
We have the gospels, the letters of Paul and others,
the writings of the Church Fathers and Mothers,
of theologians both ancient and contemporary.
We have a wealth of riches to feast upon.
And it’s more difficult because in a world
in which Christianity was long the dominant religious and cultural influence
we often assume we know more than we actually do.
And some – perhaps much –
of what we and the larger world assumes
is misinformed, incomplete, or just plain wrong.
For example – the notion that God helps those that help themselves?
Not scriptural at all.
Likewise the idea that all good things come to those who wait,
or that cleanliness is next to Godliness,
or that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle
– none of these is based in the teachings of Jesus
or anything else in scripture.
Then there are the misunderstanding that arise
in how scripture is read and understood,
and for many of us, the problems that abound
in how Christianity is portrayed in the press.
If we are going to stand firm in our faith,
and live our faith honestly and authentically,
we must immerse ourselves in scripture,
we must read and study and reflect
individually and with one another on what it contains,
and we must think critically
about how it informs us in our daily lives.
Hopefully we get that in sermons, but we can’t stop there.
Fellowship—we think we are good at this
but fellowship extends far beyond coffee hour.
True fellowship demands that we extend genuine hospitality
and welcome to each individual
who crosses our threshold, for any reason,
whether it’s to join us for worship, to seek prayer,
to get food from the food bank,
or to attend AA or a scout meeting.
True fellowship demands
that we treat one another as individuals worthy of respect,
that we address conflict with one another directly,
that we refrain from destructive behaviors.
True fellowship requires us
to love our neighbors as ourselves
in word and deed.
Prayer – that seems self-explanatory, but perhaps it isn’t.
We are called to steep our lives in prayer;
To immerse ourselves in God’s presence,
not just in this building,
not just in worship
not just on Sunday morning
but everywhere and all the time.
Prayer is what keeps us mindful of God.
Prayer is what maintains our connection to God.
Prayer is what binds us together
in a web of love and concern for humanity and for the world.
Prayer is where we express our gratitude to God
for all that we have,
and give to God the honor and glory that is God’s due.
Sharing resources to care for the needs of all.
This may be the toughest part of this passage
because the notion of selling our possessions
and pooling our resources is so foreign
to our understanding of how the world works.
Scholars and theologians through the years
have gone to great lengths to point out
that if the Acts community actually followed this practice,
it was short-lived.
Nonetheless, I believe this principle still applies,
even if we live it out differently.
Jesus reminds us over and over
that our one of our primary tasks is caring for others.
Loving our neighbor is the second great commandment;
feeding and clothing the stranger is like feeding and clothing Jesus;
caring for the least amongst us,
serving others with humility,
placing ourselves at the bottom of the ladder
instead of the top are all behaviors Jesus preached and modeled.
And, I would argue, that all the rest that we do
– the teaching, the praying, the fellowship –
are nigh unto meaningless
if caring for others is not at the heart of it all.
Perhaps we are not called to sell everything and pool our resources;
It bears remembering that the Acts community
thought that Jesus’ second coming was imminent
and so felt no need to prepare for the future,
a very different understanding of the world than ours.
Even so, we are called to recognize
the abundance that we share,
And we are called to live generously with that abundance.
This applies of course to our practice of stewardship,
but it applies even more to how we construct our lives,
as individuals and as a community of faith, a church.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
Jesus said in his sermon on the mount,
but rather store up treasures in heaven.
And finally, the breaking of bread.
It’s not clear in Acts whether this applies to shared meals or to the Eucharist
but it is likely that it referred to both.
In fact, the act of breaking bread and sharing it
as Jesus had done
often occurred in the context of a meal.
What is clear is how central this act became in the life of the community over time,
and how central it is to our lives
as people of faith
and living in community.
In this sacramental act,
this remembering of Jesus
offering himself for us
we are bound together
and we become more completely
the people we were created to be,
the image and likeness of God.
In this sacramental act,
in the receiving of the bread and wine,
the body and blood of Christ
we are nourished, restored,
strengthened for all that we are called to do,
all that we are called to be.
In just a few minutes we will come to this table to receive the bread and wine.
As we do so, may we be strengthened by Christ’s presence,
and may we go back into the world,
to live lives of faith,
inspired by the people of the Way,
and the great communion of saints who have followed.