The Good Ol’ Days
April 12, 2015
One of the most frequently repeated comments that I hear from you – UUMC members and friends – is how much you appreciated Pastor Bill Chu’s benediction. (I’ll bet you know it!) “Sisters and brothers, you have been to church. Now go and be the church!”
It’s a great benediction. I might have to borrow it sometime when he’s not here. (Oh wait…)
Now retired Bishop Ken Carder has a story that also makes us think about the difference between “going to church” or “having church” and “being the church.”
During his years as an active bishop, Bishop Carder says he was usually preaching somewhere on a Sunday morning. If it was a church he had not visited before, he says he would try to arrive early, find the church, then drive around the neighborhood to get a sense of the place. Often he would stop at a gas station or a party store to ask directions, just to see what people would say. He was amazed at the number of times the neighbors didn't even realize the church was there.
One Sunday he saw a man out sweeping his sidewalk, so he pulled over and asked for directions. He could actually see the church from where they were, but the man didn't seem to recognize the name of the church, so he pointed at the steeple down the street and asked, "Well, what about that church down there? What do they do?" The old man looked up and said, "Ah, they don't do nothin' but have church."
A story to break a pastor’s heart.
This morning’s reading from the Book of Acts, in contrast, describes how the earliest Christians didn’t just have church, they were the church. They so fully and completely identified themselves with their faith community, it’s possible they wouldn’t even have understood the phrase “to go to church.”
After the risen Jesus had appeared to them, the Holy Spirit descended upon each one of them, giving them a new boldness and a refreshed spirit. They shared a vision of the universal intent of Jesus’ gospel message; it jolted them from their fear and exclusivism…and the church started growing exponentially.
How that shared Pentecost experience bound the early Christians together and how they gave expression to it is the emphasis of the second half of our reading. “They devoted themselves to…fellowship,” our translation says. The Greek word is Koinonia (after which our room adjacent to the kitchen is named). Koinonia is built on the root word koinos, which means “common.” Not as in “ordinary,” but as in “shared.” They devoted themselves to the community, the fellowship of ordinary people, which enabled some pretty extraordinary things to happen.
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, 47 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.
A wonderful picture of Christians at their best. Why aren’t we like that anymore? Oh, for the good ol’ days!
It does seem like an utterly unrealistic description, doesn’t it? Maybe it was possible for those who lived so close to the time of Jesus to live in unity and harmony…but it’s clearly out of our reach. This vision of justice and mutual service, where no one is in need and everyone has a glad and generous heart… it sounds great, but you know it’s just pie in the sky.
It might be our modern, American individualism that makes it hard for us to consider seriously this idea of radical community life. We who place so much value in individual achievement and self-sufficiency find it easier to think of “my faith” rather than of “our faith.” We’re more accustomed to thinking of faith as “my” relationship to Jesus rather than our life together, or “my” spirituality rather than our life as a people.
But over and over again in the Bible, in the Old Testament and the New, stories of conversion – like Paul on the Road to Damascus or Moses and the Burning Bush – develop into stories of community. Moses meets God in a flaming bush that never burns up, and returns to Egypt to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery. Paul meets the Lord in a flash of light that blinds him for three days, and begins planting churches and nurturing fledgling Christian communities all over the Middle East and Mediterranean. God changes lives in order to create communities; and communities change lives in order to change the world.
Rev. Anthony Robinson says that “being about the work of changing lives and then changing the world would seem to be the core purpose of the church. In fact, that’s almost exactly the mission of our denomination, the United Methodist Church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But, Robinson says, the mission of the church today often seems to be less about making disciples and changing lives to change the world than it is about satisfying the members of the congregation – keeping them happy by meeting their social needs and providing comfort and services.
And one thing that doesn’t make us happy is this idea of selling our possessions and distributing the proceeds to all. It sounds to us a lot like communism, or at least socialism. Most of us here recognize how much we would lose in that situation. As much as this passage about the early church makes us yearn for the good old days when church was really church and everyone was of one heart and mind, we’re also skeptical of that nostalgia. The idea of community simultaneously attracts and repels us. We long for the life-affirming benefits that genuine community can bring; we view it as a sign of God’s kingdom; but we resist the demands that it would make on us. No wonder we don’t know what to do with this passage!
These words in the Book of Acts - like most of the Holy Scriptures – do not constitute a proposal for public policy. They do not lay down specific structures for Christian living that apply to us in exactly the same way they applied to the first hearers and readers. Divinely-inspired as it is, to treat the Bible like an instruction manual for all time and all places is to do it a great disservice. It is to treat it literally, rather than seriously.
What is being offered to us here, in this description of the earliest Christian community, is a picture of Christian life together. A word-drawing of life under the reign of the resurrection Lord, in which mutual service embodies justice. The very first churches expressed, embodied and sustained a new way of life in Christ. They were communities that were all about change: about changed and changing live, about sustaining those changes, and about inviting others to share in changed life.
Indeed, the whole witness of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, can be seen as the story of God’s intention to form a people, a people who will be light to the whole world, a blessing to all the other peoples of the earth. So here in Acts we see God at work to create a people who do not define themselves by the old categories of race or language or gender or social class, but who are united in their witness to the resurrection and in their way of living together.
This picture of the early church rests on a fundamental insight: strong communities create security and abundance. Communities in which life and goods are shared are safe, secure and abundant. And where community is diminished, there is impoverishment – if not in dollars and cents, then in our sense of being secure, being valued, being at peace. Acts is telling us that there is a correlation between the strength and generosity of our communities, and the peace and well-being of our personal lives. We may accumulate a great deal of wealth as individuals but a sense of impoverishment and insecurity will continues to dog us, nipping at our heels, so long as our social bonds, our communities, and our relationships are in jeopardy or at risk.
On this Sunday before Tax Day, some of us who are old enough might remember Leona Helmsley. Helmsley, former president of the Helmsley chain of hotels, was convicted in 1989 with her husband Harry for income tax evasion. They had fraudulently claimed millions of dollars of extravagant personal purchases as business expenses.
Mrs. Helmsley spent 18 months in prison. She died in 2007, and left in her will $5 million each to two of her four grandchildren, with the proviso that they visit their father’s grave at least once a year. The two other grandchildren received nothing “for reasons,” the will stated, “that are known to them.” Helmsley’s dog, Trouble, received a $12 million trust fund.
If there was ever a lesson in the impoverishment of personal life and its connection to the absence of any sense of community, Helmsley’s is it. A housekeeper remembered Leona once saying to her “Only the little people pay taxes.” Not even the national community made a difference to Leona Helmsley, much less a community of family or friends.
None of us, I think it’s safe to assume, is going to leave $12 million to our pets. But we are subject to the same temptation to keep what we have; we feel the same relentless push to have more and get more. In Extravagant Generosity, the book we used last fall as part of our Stewardship Campaign, Robert Schnase reported that everyone answers the same way when they’re asked how much they need to earn to be happy. “People of all different incomes answer the same” he writes. “If they could only earn about 20% more than they presently do, they would finally be happy. Persons earning $10,000 dream of reaching $12,000; those earning $100,000 believe that with just $20,000 more per year they will be happy; and people earning $500,000 believe that when they earn $100,000 more they will finally be content.
We pine for what we cannot possess. We wallow in abundance while suffering from a self-proclaimed scarcity. Despite the fact that we earn more money, live in better houses, drive nicer cars and enjoy greater conveniences than 90% of the world’s population, we never have enough. Without a community that counterbalances it, we are subject to the authority of greed: the voice of scarcity becomes loudest of all, teaching us we never have enough.
We gain freedom from that authority, we are given the power to turn off the voice of scarcity, when we heed Christ’s call to give and to share. “By provoking us to give,” Schnase says, “God is not trying to take something from us; God is seeking to give something to us.” That’s what the Book of Acts is trying to teach us; that’s its message. Lives of faith, meaning and purpose are lived in communities of generosity and justice. Communities of faith, meaning and purpose support individual lives of generosity and justice.
Generosity is not a personal spiritual attribute that one can acquire with the actual practice of giving. You can’t just think about it, or say that you value it, or pray for it. You have to actually do it. Every time we spend money, we make a statement about what we value.
In our worship services and in our Gateway Bible study and fellowship groups, we’ll be exploring the Book of Acts from now until the Day of Pentecost, May 24. That’s a long stretch, but it’s a long book, full of stories of communities and individuals and the effect of God’s powerful and holy Spirit on them.
Some of the stories, if read literally but not seriously, can be real bummers. Check out the story of Ananias and Sapphira in chapter 5: a couple struck dead by God for withholding money from the community and lying about how much they have. Ouch.
I don’t know of anyone instantly slain for their refusal to share, but I do know people – and maybe you do too – who have clung to their money so tightly and with so much anxiety that it killed them. I know them from newspaper stories, like Leona Helmsley, and I know them personally. People whose lives and relationships drained away for lack of a community in which to share what God had given them.
“In order for people to let go of anything,” Anthony Robinson says, “especially money and possessions and the security they represent – they must have taken hold of, or have been taken hold of by, something else. Something else, namely the Spirit, is filling their lives and hearts, thus allowing hands to freely share the goods and possessions that we so often imagine will fill and secure our lives.”
Even as we can see the nostalgic desire for the good ol’ days in the Book of Acts and its description of the early church community, we can also hear its serious message: generosity is possible as we recognize how generous God has been to us. The followers of Jesus were ordinary people, subject to human trials and temptation just as we are. But they understood themselves as united in purpose and identity: disciples of the risen Christ, changed by God in order to change the world.
May that be our mission as well, so that our life together shows and shares God’s powerful Spirit with the whole world.
Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall. Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day. Eerdmans, 2006.
Robert Schnase. Practicing Extravagant Generosity. Abingdon Press, 2011.
Matt Skinner, Commentary on Acts 2:42-47. Posted on Working Preacher, April 13, 2008. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=52
Gary L Carver. Acts 2:42-47. Review and Expositor, 87 no 3, Sum 1990, p 475-480.