by Ellen Sims
2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 2:43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.2:44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 2:45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need2:46 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,2:47 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.
Today’s reading from Acts gives us the first glimpse of the early church. You want to talk about authentic Church? Start here and observe the apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit, having crawled out of that upper room where they’d hidden themselves after Jesus’s death and out into the streets of Jerusalem where the Spirit resurrected THEM and launched them Into a ministry of inviting new Jesus followers to join them. I’m going to comment on each of the six verses in today’s lection from Acts 2, and as I do, consider this brief passage not just as a summary of the earliest Church’s practices and purposes but also as a model for and a measure of our attempts to “be the church.”
2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
It sounds so simple. I mean, how hard is it to study the first apostles’ teachings, hang out with one another, eat together, and pray? The challenge for the church is to deepen our understandings of Jesus’s teachings and persist in fellowship, meal after meal, conversation after conversation, imperfect action after imperfect action; to share intimately—like siblings—in the everydayness of shared meals and shared prayers. Our culture, unlike Jesus’s, makes fleeting relationships easy and superficial relationships the norm. We can rack up literally thousands of Facebook friends, most of whom know nothing about our inner life. To devote ourselves to the teachings Jesus handed down to the first apostles requires serious commitment and large helpings of forgiveness, but that is the work of the Church.
2:43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.
It’s easy to imagine that the apostles’ “many wonders and signs” were performed like magic tricks to make the crowds ooh and ahh. Are Jesus followers today expected to perform miraculous “signs and wonders”? Note that the emphasis of this sentence falls on the first word “awe.” What marks the church is the awe of the people. The writer emphasizes that the result of the disciples’ healings is awe. An authentic religious life is characterized by our response to the work of God in our midst. Taking in the salty air, white sand, and crashing waves of the Gulf brings most of us to a state of gratitude. The delight in another’s company can warm our hearts. A kindly word can turn the day around for a discouraged person. We can’t manufacture “awe,” but we can cultivate appreciation and attend to the beautiful and the good and the rare. We can humbly bow to the power of love and truth. We can train our eyes to see goodness. Awe is a cousin to gratitude, but awe is more visceral and instinctive. To stand before God in awe is a wordless prayer that encompasses praise, love, thanksgiving, repentance, joy, and even something approaching fear. Awe is an admission of something infinitely larger than self, yet also intimately connected to you and connecting you to all. Practicing awe puts one in proper relationship to the world. Awe is an expression of our longing for The More. Practicing awe with others is the work of the church.
When I began inviting folks to join me in founding a new church, I had no denominational support, no experience at starting church from scratch, no detailed plan. But I had a longing. And I thought maybe others, not many but some, were feeling this longing for something big enough to claim our lives and transform our community. I thought that even though I didn’t have a map to follow or a mission statement to start with or one cent of financial support, I had this . . . longing, which this quotation from writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery captures best for me:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
You may think my job as a church planter and your pastor has been to preach sermons and teach the Bible and lead meetings, to baptize and marry and bury you, to counsel or comfort or confront, to engage us in community outreach and actions for justice and care for our neighbors. Not so. My chief job has been to hunger for God and stand in awe of that enormous force for love: “To long for the endless immensity of the sea.” My job is not to explain the sea to you. It is to long for the endless immensity of the sea. That mystery. That dark and dread and beautiful force. That unfathomable vastness that draws us to it and into it.
I’m not here to help you navigate the sea but simply to yearn for it with you. We have no sextant. We have no charts. Maybe just the stars to steer by. Maybe.
Besides, the church is continuing to evolve. Progressive Christians must be adaptable, experimental, visionary. We listen to the pulse of the culture. Not to be “popular” or edgy but to recognize how ideas evolve in response to scientific knowledge advancing and technology affecting our interactions and diverse cultures mixing in new ways to reshape our understanding of the world. You and I are curious about how the church is changing in the midst of these other rapid changes rather than being worried the church we’ve known will likely cease to exist and the church we are longing for does not yet have a model we can follow. As I was midwifing this church, I saw Jesus as revolutionary, and God was by then, to me, evolutionary. God keeps growing and expanding. God is not static. God is force, movement, a verb not a noun. And the expanding galaxies of God captured my heart as much as they stimulated my thinking. Awe . . . Awe . . . Awe . . . was at the heartbeat of my catechism. Love and awe would be our sermons. Awe would lead us in “being the church.”
2:44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 2:45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Interestingly, the most literal of biblical literalists seldom read this verse literally. Most who have quoted other scriptures to justify sexism, heterosexism, slavery, and war have been quick to skip over this passage that clearly depicts the early Christians as selling their possessions to live sparely and communally.
Few sects of Christianity have invited their adherents to take vows of poverty and live an ascetic life. Yet one trajectory that Christianity took around the 3rd century and which led to monastic movements that still exist today was begun by the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers, men and women, abbas and ammas, who sought a spartan life of prayer in Egyptian and Syrian desert places. At one time it’s believed these adherents numbered in the thousands and contributed to early Christian practices and wisdom writings that continue as a source of inspiration to this day. My point is this: if we’re going to read the Bible literally, we should emulate this passage in Acts “to the letter.” As many in the infancy of Christianity did.
What most Christians have derived from this passage in Acts is an appreciation for the early church’s devotion to the apostles’ teachings and to practices of fellowshiping, worshiping together, eating together (both meals of friendship and the early-on ritualized meal of Holy Communion. But especially First World Christians skip over the records that the early church held all things in common. Once Christianity gained acceptance by Rome, Christianity went mainstream and only the fringes retained the commitment to Christian communism. But the first Christians who held all things in common flourished.
2:46 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, 2:47 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.
These meals and praise to God and hearts full of goodwill SAVED people? Saved them from what and for what? If the means of salvation was learning together, fellowshipping together, eating together, and praying together, perhaps folks were being saved from sick theology, from loneliness, from literal and figurative hungers: saved from their hunger through meaningfulness and friendships, saved from a life lived for self alone, saved from narrowness of vision. The physicality of Christian spirituality makes our current physical distancing especially challenging for churches!
The early church’s aim wasn’t to add members. Adding “to their number” was an outcome but not the goal. The goal was and is to learn together, to fellowship and eat together, to pray together. Focus on that and folks will be saved in body, mind, and soul.
The basics of life shaped the basics of their communal life and eventually a Christian theology: learning, loving, eating, praying, and sharing their possessions in common. The Christian life, from the beginning, exists in community. Although each of us has at some point been hurt by another person within a faith community, Christianity is not something we can practice in isolation. It is a communal experience. And it is a “day by day” practice that helps us cultivate gratitude and generosity and good will for ALL the people (2:46-47). The Jesus Way is not a set of things to believe; it’s a way to live.
The earliest church gives us a pretty straightforward but ambitious model to follow, it turns out. So let us aim to be bold rather than big. Let us focus more on increasing our compassion than our financial resources, valuing orthopraxy (right actions) over orthodoxy (right belief), creating community rather than doctrine, being a movement of justice and love rather than an organization.
At times we do need to gather wood and perform tasks and do hard work in order to build the boat. After worship today your church council will be doing some of that when we meet to plan what wood we need to gather in the coming days to keep building our boat. And because we are a new church, we have been are building this boat WHILE sailing it—-a challenging feat. Thank God there are times when a new gust of awe billows our sails and takes us out a little deeper.
Because what will inspire us and form us and bind us and delight and sustain and provoke and connect us and what is our truest vocation—-what will really float our boat—-is a shared longing for the endless immensity of the sea.
O Voice that calls us out into the deep, keep luring us farther out into your beauty, your love, your life of oneness. Amen.