Below the fold is a text version of Jenny’s sermon from Sunday, May 7, 2017, on Acts 2:42-47 on the church community past and present.
Acts 2:42-47 (NRSV)
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, 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.
I have always found this to be an interesting passage. There are not widespread accounts of this and it doesn’t seem to have lasted very long, but at least here in this passage, we hear how all the believers were together, sharing things in common, selling what they had or made or grew, and distributing the proceeds as any had need. In other words, they took care of each other to an extent we find hard to imagine. They were not just taking care of themselves, they helped one another and shared what they had so that all would have enough and no one would be in need.
God calls us to take care of one another, to give as we can and to look after those who are the most vulnerable. Here we have an example of the early Christians doing just that. Living together and sharing what they had was how they interpreted this call of God upon their lives.
As we read this passage we not only hear about an instance where the early Christians lived together and shared what they had with each other, but we also hear about the great numerical growth they experienced.
Just before this passage, we hear how 3,000 people were added to the believers that day after Peter addressed the crowd! And at the end of our reading today, we hear about the daily growth they experienced. Lots of incredible things were happening in the early church. And as we read this passage we may get nostalgic… Nostalgic for the days of the early church as we see their growth and how they cared for one another… Nostalgic for the earlier days of this church when we remember a particular program or the numbers we used to have.
Abilene First United Methodist Church is the biggest church that either John or I have served in our 20+ years of ministry. It’s considerably bigger than any church we previously served. The smallest church we ever served had 11 in average attendance—and they were a very faithful 11. It was easy to tell if someone was missing, and it was easy to follow up with them to check on them and see if they were sick or just visiting someone out of town.
When we came here, we heard stories of how much bigger this congregation used to be. We heard laments of how many people you had lost over the years, whether it was to death or to deciding to go to another church or simply not coming anymore for one reason or another. To some of you, this church was shrinking. To us, this was a big church.
I know some of you worry about church attendance quite a bit, especially if you’ve been here a long time. And if you are one of those people, know that you are not alone. Many people do. You may look around and notice that there are a lot of people that used to be here that aren’t here anymore. You may see the numbers of high school seniors graduating and the number of confirmands we have and the number of deaths we have in a given year and you may worry that we’re not keeping up. If you are worried, I might put your mind at ease a bit by letting you know that over the past few years, our average attendance has been growing slightly, up from 206 in 2014 to 208 last year. That may not sound like much, but consider that over the same time period we had 10 active seniors graduate who went away to college and we had 32 previously active members who died.
The story from Acts is a remarkable story. We may read the story and say we need to get numbers like that. We need to bring in lots of new people to keep the church going. But I would argue, that if we are just worried about the numbers, then we’ve missed the point. What if we have huge numbers of people coming to church, but no one grows in their faith? Even in our story today, the focus is not on the numbers, but about what the people do in their life together to be faithful disciples and to grow in their faith.
I think an interesting thing for us to think about is that both the account of the early Christians sharing all things in common and the numerical growth they experienced were effects, not the cause.
One commentator pointed out that when we get nostalgic for times when things were going well—instead of looking at their outcomes and just trying to replicate them, we need to look at what was being done to form the Christian community in such a way that these things happened.
For the early church, if we look at the first verse of our reading, we hear how, 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Four things are mentioned here: Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.
#1: The Apostles’ teaching. As we gather together, we learn from the apostles’ teaching. We hear scripture read. We tie in scripture to our everyday lives. We learn from the stories we hear of God’s people throughout the years. The prophets call us to repentance and action. Stories Jesus told tell us how we are called to live. Through worship, through Bible studies, we learn about God’s love and God’s justice and who we were created to be and what we were created to do. These stories shape our lives, mold us as God’s people.
We may learn alone or in a group. But as we live in the world, we encounter others. And God calls us not only to love God but also to love others. As we gather for worship and small group ministries, we encounter others—and we encounter different beliefs. Sometimes we encounter people we like, sometimes we encounter someone who frustrates us, sometimes we look forward to seeing people, other times we may dread it. The church gives us the opportunity to practice loving others, even others very different from us. We do that by getting to know one another and learning from each other.
#2: Fellowship. A healthy church is one that not only welcomes everyone but one in which everyone feels included. We have several people who are a part of this congregation now who were not a part of the congregation when we came four years ago. In a congregation this size, it takes awhile to get to know everyone. And even if you have lived in Abilene your whole life, and gone to church here your whole life, there are undoubtedly people here you don’t know.
You may have noticed that every first Sunday of the month we have communion and every first Sunday we also wear name tags. We started the practice of wearing name tags each month for communion Sunday when we first got here, to help us remember names as people came forward for communion. But the name tags provide another function as well. Name tags are a form of hospitality. A way of getting to know one another. A way for us reinforce a name we’ve heard. To help us remember.
Hospitality is important. It is easy for us to get stuck in talking to our same close friends every week. Nurture of the community helps us feel like we belong unless it becomes exclusive. Hospitality is important for others to feel welcome, included, and to experience God’s love. Is there someone here you don’t know or don’t know well? Say hi. Get to know someone new. It strengthens our relationships, our fellowship, with one another.
#3: Breaking of the bread. Today we share in Communion, we share in the breaking of the bread. Whenever we celebrate communion, we remember what God has done and what God is doing in our lives. Through communion we experience forgiveness. We are called to live in peace with one another, to grow closer to God and neighbor. As we receive the bread and the juice, Christ becomes a part of us. We are nourished for our journey and strengthened as disciples of Christ as we promise to follow where God calls us to go. Communion can be seen as just a ritual that we do once a month. Or it can be a meal in which you encounter the living Christ and renew your relationship with God on a regular basis.
#4: Prayers: Anyone can pray. And we can pray in many ways. We pray together when we gather for worship. We pray alone at home or at school or while we are doing a task at hand. Prayer is not like asking a genie to grant wishes, rather, prayer is communication with God. Talking to God about what is going on in our lives, our fears, our joys, our pains, our hopes and our dreams. Through prayer, we are drawn closer to God. We are shaped by God.
The early church 42 devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
They did these things and they grew. They were being authentic and others were drawn to it. They didn’t focus on the growth but rather focused on being faithful and reaching out to others. Growth happened as a result.
God wants to be in relationship with us. And God wants us to be in relationship with one another. As the early Christians did this, they found that they could live this out by sharing what they had with those in need.
May we take a cue from the early church in the formation of our Christian community. May the time we spend together nurture and shape us so that others experience God’s unconditional love through us wherever we go and whatever we say and do. Amen.