May 11, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Did you know that churches have “mystery shoppers” nowadays? Yep, you can find websites that publish church ratings. The mystery guest rates the church on friendliness, the sermon, the music, how they felt, and what happened after the service. Imagine reading a review of this church – it would be five out of five stars, wouldn’t it? The church you are about to hear about was very highly rated by the author of Luke-Acts. This congregation was among the first Christian communities. This comes right after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit roared into their lives like wind and fire. Jesus has died, and been raised, and gone back to heaven, and now the people are Easter people. A new church has been born. Listen to a review of the early church in Acts 2: 42-47.
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 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. 47 And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Did you know that two thirds of Americans surveyed report that they do not feel satisfied with their friendships? They feel their friendships are not deep enough, strong enough. They don’t care anymore about high-school standards of popularity, about who is attractive or can help them get ahead. They don’t even care if their friends share their religious or political beliefs. They just want genuine, caring friendships with people they can count on. They report that they lack a sense of connection with people who are good and decent, friends who really like them, people who will be there in a crisis, people who are fun to be with. People yearn for community, for connection, for deep friendship. And two-thirds of them don’t have it! Put this information in your pocket for a minute and let’s take a closer look at scripture.
They devoted themselves, the Bible says, “to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This earliest church, the people of the Jesus way, were Easter people. They were a resurrection community. They were gathered together as followers of the Risen Lord, and they became a fellowship – the Greek word (you’ve probably heard it) is “koinonia.” It means “common life.” And they DEVOTED themselves to that koinonia. This was no casual commitment. It was complete and total dedication. They were disciples, in the true sense of that word, -- they were devoted.
They were devoted first, the text says, to the study of God’s word, to teaching. To Sunday School! They were dedicated to Bible study, to listening and learning – not just on the Lord’s Day, but on ordinary days.
Second, they devoted themselves to fellowship – the common life. In that fellowship, they held much in common, but no individual was common – each one, as now, is unique and gifted and called to specific service. The Holy Spirit had come upon them – upon ALL of them, not just a select few. And each on had something to share, something to give, something to receive. That’s what the Easter community does. It is how we live.
Third, they dedicated themselves to the breaking of bread – not only the shared bread and cup of the communion table, but the family table of regular meals, where they shared their joys and sorrows, where they laughed and wept together, where they learned how to be together, and how to put up with each other! Most of them had families, had separate lives, and they broke bread at home as well, but the connection they gave themselves to was the family of faith, their brothers and sisters in Christ, who, in his death and resurrection, had made them his family.
Fourth, they were committed to prayer. Their prayers were not occasional pious-sounding recitations for public events or special occasions, like Thanksgiving prayers to show off for Grandma. They were fanatical about prayers – praying with and for each other. They shared their prayers and they shared their lives – they even shared their possessions, when needed. Their hearts were glad and generous. And day by day, the scripture says, God added to their number “those who were being saved.”
There are some Christians who understand salvation as a one-time event. They have a one-dimensional understanding of God’s salvation in Christ, and they have a formula you have to follow. They figure you “get saved” and that’s it. A lot of them then want to make sure everyone knows that THEY are saved and others are NOT. They are going to heaven. You, on the other hand, are going to hell.
I had an Uncle, Uncle Glen, who was one of those Christians. Every year at the family reunion, he’d clap his big hand on our little shoulders and peer down into our terrified little faces and say “Are you saved?” I wish I had known then the answer that I know now. When someone asks me now “When were you saved?” My answer is, “Every day. Every single day.” Because while Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection three days later are once and for all acts of saving grace for everyone, our salvation as individuals is a process, a process that we work out in community, with other believers. From the first days of creation, when God looked at all that God had made and said that it was good, God also said, “It is not good for the human to be alone.” The triune God, a god of relationships, knew that we need each other. You can be a Christian in isolation, but you can’t be a very good one.
Part of the process of being saved is learning to live together in community, in learning, in fellowship, in service, at the table, in prayer, and in common life. We don’t become Christian by putting our name on a membership roll or by making a pledge, or by paying our per capita, although all of those are signs of commitment. We are becoming Christians when we come together, gathered by the Risen Lord, into a community of faith that shares a common life. Together.
Oh –one other item – about that research on friendships that I mentioned: One of the things they discovered is that people who attend [religious] services once a week or more are twice as likely to express complete satisfaction with their friendships as those who seldom or never attend services. More than TWICE as likely to express complete satisfaction with friendships. God had it right at creation, and God in Christ has had it right ever since: the community of faith is where we learn, grow, serve, and become joyful. The community of faith provides friends in Christ, a satisfaction and peace that are beyond our ability to create on our own. That’s who this text describes – friends in Christ, people who are happy together, Christians who are day by day being saved! -- welcoming, loving, working things out together, breaking bread. Everyone together, everyone included. Nobody left out.
Someone once asked Carl Sandburg, the famous poet and Lincoln biographer, “What is the ugliest word in the English language?” Do you know what his answer was? I’m sure you can think of some ugly words, words that denote violence or brutality, words of hate. Carl Sandburg said the ugliest word in our language is this: “exclusive.” Exclusive – that which is restricted, and does not admit others. Scott Peck said this about exclusion, in his book about community: “Groups that exclude others because they are poor or doubters or divorced or sinners or of some different race or nationality are not communities; they are cliques— actually defensive bastions against community.”
There is no such thing as an exclusive community – no such thing as an exclusive church – that is a contradiction in terms. If it is exclusive, it cannot be community! The resurrection community - the church, is not, and cannot be, exclusive. The Easter koinonia welcomes everyone, without exception and without reservation. If you were to listen only to the so-called “Christian” rhetoric on TV and radio, you would not imagine that these verses are even in the Bible. So many of today’s self-identified Christians base their identity on who they exclude. They practice their faith as an elite enclave, and attribute their success to their own efforts. They are competitive, corporate, capitalist cultures that are far removed from this Easter people of the second chapter of Acts. We can be guilty of this ourselves. We may expect our congregation to grow with more people who look like us. We may think that people who join us should already believe as we do. We may try to measure ourselves by a corporate model of success – what do the numbers look like? what’s the balance sheet? what’s our reserve cash account? how many members? how many new members this year? how many children? how many youth? what’s the average worship attendance? None of that is mentioned in the book of Acts, except the number of people who were being saved – brought to God through the witness of the church of Jesus Christ.
In the May newsletter, the devotional for this week invited you to think about two things you can do in your life that would be like this early gathering of Christians. Think about two things you can do, and devote yourself to those two actions. And then, in that same devotional, the wondering question was: How do you think it would be if we lived like the people in this scripture? Would we look like this resurrection community – if you could lift off the roof and see inside the church? Would we be devoted to studying God’s word, to learning, to breaking bread and fellowship, to prayer, to caring for those in need? I think we look like that a lot of the time, but not all the time. But that’s the ideal to which we are called.
And here’s the good news, people of God. Day by day, we are being saved, and God is adding to our number those who are being saved. We may not always feel that way, and we may never see those whose lives are changed through our witness. But we have the promise of the risen Lord – “I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” We were made to be together, a faithful community working toward God’s kingdom, working toward God’s purposes. God has promised us, in Isaiah: “the word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
People of God, day by day, we are being formed into a community, a koinonia, in teaching and learning, in fellowship and breaking bread, in generosity and gladness, in prayer and in purpose, by the one who came as God with us, who lived with us and taught us to live, who died for us and defeated death, who rose again and dwells within us as the church making us an Easter people, a community of resurrection, in which day by day, we are those who are being saved.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
 The Lifeboat Report, 2013, downloaded from http://getlifeboat.com/ Accessed 050914
 Gary L Carver, “Acts 2:42-47” Review and Expositor, 87 (1990)
 The Lifeboat Report, 2013 downloaded from http://getlifeboat.com/ Accessed 050914
 M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, p. 6