Saturday, May 2, 2020

Where is There a Church Like That?

Acts 2:42-47
Easter 4
May 3, 2020
William G. Carter

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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 those who were being saved.

The book of Acts is a story of what happens after Easter. It begins in Jerusalem, with Jesus returning to the heaven that sent him. The story expands to the edges of the known world. Luke, the writer of this story, declares the Word of God is given for “every person under heaven.” The Word pollinates through the preaching of Christ’s resurrection. Greater than any virus, the Good News spreads. It takes root in receptive soil. The Gospel is nourished through the ongoing retelling of who Jesus is and how he lives among us.

And this Word takes flesh again in a community called the church.

Imagine the look on my little sister’s eyes. We were listening to a sermon in the congregation where we grew up. Sermons had to be endured, even though we frequently heard outstanding Bible teaching and preaching. To get through a long sermon, the kids in our row would take a pencil, fill in the O’s and Zeros in the worship bulletin. Sometimes a roll of Lifesavers would be passed up and down the pew.

One day, the preacher spoke a line from a letter of Paul: “You are the body of Christ!” My sister looked up from the art project on her lap, looked up at him, and turned to me. In a not-quite whisper, she exclaimed, “I thought the Body of Christ was that little chunk of bread.” Well, that’s what we say about it, because that’s what Jesus says about it. “This is my body, given for you.”

But that’s also how the church understands who it is. We are Christ’s continuing Body for the world. We are the ones who give his words flesh and blood. We are the eyes that see the needs of the neighborhood. We are the wounded hands that extend in service. We are the feet that bring the Good News of peace, the announcement that God rules over all.  

The book of Acts confirms this through the stories it tells. Jesus restored the legs of a crippled beggar; the church restores the legs of a crippled beggar. Jesus cast out an oppressive spirit that enslaved one of God’s children; the church casts out a spirit enslaved one of God’s children. Jesus spoke joyfully of God’s dominion; the church speaks joyfully of God’s dominion. In every story, on every page, it is clear. The church continues the life and work of Jesus.

Or to borrow that phrase from the apostle Paul, “You and I are the body of Christ.”

Now, this is one of the secrets of the Gospel. It is a secret because it’s not always obvious. The young woman stood to sing, introducing by saying, “I just want to sing a melody that the Lord has laid upon my heart.” As she begins a performance that could best be described as “out of tune,” there are sideways glances, and a music critic snickers, “The Lord giveth but she taketh away.”

Or the teenagers tag along to a church meeting after Mom says, “This won’t be long.” Pretty soon, some self-proclaimed expert pontificates on how 37 dollars intended for the candle fund have been misappropriated to buy office supplies. He won’t let anybody go until he gives his fourteen-minute harangue. The teens look at Mom with eyes that say, “Do we ever have to do this again?”  

The body of Christ? Doesn’t always look that way.

I have been a Church Insider for so long that I could keep you all morning with ghastly tales of how the church of Jesus Christ can devolve into a diseased, leprous caricature of what it was intended to be. Like the lady who counted the offering money; she put half of it in the church bank account and the other half in her son’s college fund. Or the guy who always volunteers to be an usher who hugs the women a little too long. Let’s confess some creepy things have been done in the name of God.

If you read the history of the early church, there is nothing new about any of this. Among Luke’s stories in the book of Acts is the story of a magician named Simon. He used to dazzle people with his tricks. Simon pulled out his wallet to buy a dose of the Holy Spirit, so he could perhaps make a few bucks selling it to others. It reminds me of the guy who joined my church in Allentown, so he could use the membership list to sell his Amway products.

Or there were the confused believers in Ephesus, who thought baptism was all about repentance and getting ready for Jesus, and not about the grace of Jesus who is already here (19:1-7). Ever since, there have been finger-wagging Christians who assure others that they will never measure up.

And from the beginning, there have been well-intentioned Christians who have quibbled about who belongs and who doesn’t belong, in the name of Jesus who welcomed everybody. That happened in the early church. In some places, it is still going on.

To quote a seasoned pastor who knows a lot of congregations, “You can’t make this stuff up.” This is what happens when a holy institution is tarnished by human foibles. Happens all the time, often with a smile and hands folded in prayer. Not everybody wants to practice forgiveness, but I believe the church is the laboratory where mercy and new life must be worked out.

That’s why it is so essential to hear the brief summary that Luke offers in our scripture text today. It is a snapshot of the church at its best. They had no building, although they frequented the Jerusalem Temple when it was still standing. They had no pastor, for their central leader was in heaven. But they had the Word of God and they had one another.

According to the account, they were instructed. The scriptures were opened, and Christ was proclaimed. The learning happened through a flattening of authority, as fishermen told stories about Jesus. This is what he did. This is what he said.

There were signs and wonders, as the church lifted up those who believed they couldn’t walk and spoke up to those who thought that they could put others down. The church kept doing what Jesus had done. Those were the every-day signs and wonders!

Most remarkably, they shared what they had. They make sacrifices for one another. They refused to clutch daily goods at the expense of those who had nothing. They gave of themselves freely. This kind of generosity is as great a miracle as any other. It counters the natural selfishness that seems to be written in human DNA, and it is a Christ-like thing.

At the core of the church’s experience is a remarkable quality of community. There is one spirit, one mind, one heart. The phrase that Luke uses to describe it is one that we have all used: they had all things “in common.” That’s an everyday word, “common.” It is not flashy. It has no sparkle. It is easily dismissed. But in the New Testament, it is the basis of community. Common, community – at heart, it is the same word.

Community begins in the recognition that we are all in this together. It can’t work if someone is in it only for himself or herself.

With a pandemic going on, we know this to be true. While some have reacted to our circumstances with fear, hoarding the cleaning supplies and grabbing more toilet paper than they will ever use, there are remarkable examples of generosity and friendship. Some of our church families are delivering cookies on doorsteps. You are countering the isolation by calling one another on the phone. You are sending out all those greeting cards that were gathering dust in the closet. You are expressing appreciation and love. You recognize what we have in common.

One of our church members has been recovering from the virus. When we talked on the phone last week, he said, “You know, Bill, our church is truly a family.” I smiled and thought of some of the families I have known; most families have a crazy uncle or a neurotic cousin. Without naming any names, some would say that’s an apt metaphor for the church.

But our friend went on to express his deep appreciation for the care and support he has received: messages from friends, meals dropped off on the doorstep, regular reminders that our lives are never defined by our weaknesses.

Community is shaped by what we have in common. And what we have in is Christ, the Risen Christ, the Second Person in the Trinity who loves us all and desires our common well-being.   

So I am thankful for the church of which I’m a part. And I’m thinking about what kind of church we can be, during this sweep of illness, and beyond it. I believe we want to be the kind of Christian community where everybody is valued, and love is actively expressed. Even on a day like this, when we cannot physically take part in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we can still break our bread and share it with glad and generous hearts.

This is what builds up the household of Jesus Christ. It will catch the interest of those around us because it is exactly what the world needs.

One of my favorite writers is a young woman who died last year in an unexpected reaction to medication. Her name was Rachel Held Evans. She wrote about the church, even though she struggled for years to find a congregation that would accept her as a lamb of the flock. But she never gave up, because she trusted that the love of Jesus was at the center of all things.

Let me conclude with two paragraphs from her book, Searching for Sunday:

(The New Testament) word for church, ekklesia, was used at the time of Jesus to refer to the “calling out” of citizens for a civic meeting or for battle, and is employed in one form or another in both the Old and New Testament to refer to the people of God, assembled together. So church is, essentially, a gathering of kingdom citizens, called out – from their individuality, from their sins, from their old ways of doing things, from the world’s way of doing things – into participation in this new kingdom and community with one another.

She writes,

I’m not exactly sure how all this works, but I think, ultimately, it means I can’t be a Christian on my own. Like it or not, following Jesus is a group activity, something we’re supposed to do together. We might not always do it within the walls of a church or even in an organized religion, but if we are to go about making disciples, confessing our sins, breaking bread, paying attention, and preaching the Word, we’re going to need one another. We’re going to need each other’s help.”[1]

Friends, we are in this together, because Jesus is in it for us. All of us.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015) 255.

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