Some of the Bible’s most intriguing and inspiring stories describe events or phenomena that are exceptional and unprecedented.
In those-remarkable-but rare instances, God’s Holy Spirit in Christ is uniquely present, and like a match set to a pack of firecrackers, the Spirit sparks a chain reaction of explosions that inspire awe and wonder.
Our Scripture lesson this morning from the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles paints a vivid picture of one such moment.
On the heels of the Spirit rushing in on a handful of Christ’s followers at Pentecost, the apostle Peter delivers a rousing sermon about Jesus’s death and resurrection that cuts to the hearts of his listeners (Acts 2:1-36). The attentive crowd’s eyes are opened to the reality that God’s promises in Christ Jesus truly are intended for them. And the threads of joy spun within that life-giving truth knit together a kind of community the likes of which no one has ever seen or experienced!
When 3,000 people join the hundred-or-so followers of Christ, their shared joy immediately inspires them to devote themselves to the Church — not to a building, but to those collective activities that constitute the heart of a resurrected people and give shape and purpose to the community of faith.
I’m reading to you from Acts 2 starting with verse 37.
May the Holy Spirit open your eyes and change your heart, as you listen for the Word of the Lord:
Now when they heard this Good News from Peter, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostle’’ 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. (Acts 2:37-47)
Perhaps you’re like me and find yourself rolling your eyes at this description of the early Church.
Not only does this rosy description not sound like the exact description of any congregation I’ve ever experienced, but it also doesn’t even sound much like the Church described later in the book of Acts.
All who believed were together and had all things in common?
Selling possessions and distributing proceeds to all?
A scene three chapters after this one introduces us to a married couple – Ananias and Sapphira – who withhold some of the proceeds from a real estate deal. When Peter confronts them with their stinginess, right there in the middle of taking up the offering, both Ananias and Sapphira keel over dead! (Acts 5:1-11)
Breaking bread together with glad and generous hearts?
Acts several times describes the process of deciding exactly who is allowed to break bread together as a major controversy in the early Church. The apostle Paul later will devote an entire letter to the Galatians on the subject of who’s welcome at the table.
Having the goodwill of all people?
From beginning to end, Acts is littered with stories of the apostles and other believers getting arrested, beaten, and even killed. And the book ends with Paul languishing under house arrest in Rome!
So, what’s up with this perfectly painted picture of the Church?
Perhaps, in spite of the many ways the Church and its members fall short, this image captures the Church as God intends it to be, and that’s the snapshot that the Lord intends to be burned into our minds as the one to remember.
Maybe think about it like this: Imagine taking a family picture of young children. You get everyone dressed up, struggle to get them lined up, and break a sweat trying to get everyone to look up. Then, right about the time when everyone is finally set, little Sally starts picking her nose, and the twin toddlers wander out of the frame.
As one parent grabs a tissue for snotty Sally, the other rounds up the runaway toddlers, puts them back in their place, and resumes jumping up and down behind the camera in seemingly vain effort to get everyone’s attention. Meanwhile, the photographer just keeps clicking away in hopes of salvaging something useable from the chaos.
Later, when you scroll through the camera roll – maybe a hundred or more pictures, you manage to find one that’s just right – the one that perfectly captures the moment and everyone in it. It’s the one that speaks to your heart: “This is how it was – at least for a moment, anyway, and this is how I want to remember them.”
That’ll be the photo that you frame and hang on the wall, the one you send to the grandparents, or the one you post to Facebook. But even more, this is the one, when you look back – months, maybe years later, that perfectly defines that particular season of your life.
That, I believe, is what this Acts snapshot of the early Church is all about. It’s the one that shows God’s people at their best. And it’s clear that they’re at their best not when they’re apart but when they’re together.
Such unity is what we usually think of as “fellowship” or “community.”
But the original text uses the Greek word koinonia, which means “generous sharing” and “close, intimate relationship.” The apostle Paul later will claim that, if you lack koinonia, you don’t really have a church in the spirit of God’s intent and Christ’s example.
A commitment to living in community – to sharing life together, richly and deeply – is the defining element of the early Church. Its members shared a story: the apostles’s teaching about who Jesus was and is, and about who God’s people are, and about who God is calling them to be – holders in common, givers of stuff, sharers of meals, and lifters of prayer in joy, celebration, concern, hope, fear and doubt.
The Church is at its best when God’s people share their lives and their living together in Christ. It still is, and we still are. You, me and us together are at our best as the Church when we’re truly living in community — when we’re sharing our lives in all their fullness and complexity and demonstrating in some small, imperfect way precisely how life is meant to be lived in the Kingdom of God. The journey in Christ is meant to be walked together, and the Church is at its best when we devote the entirety of ourselves to doing just that.
Of course, walking together also is when the Church is at its most frustrating, and at times most infuriating, and sometimes incredibly disappointing. Living in community is hard. Really hard.
It’s hard to make decisions together, and sift out hard truths together, and clear a way forward together. It’s hard to think of the needs of others as being greater than your own. And we have times when we fall short of this covenant to share in the life of Christ together and to see Christ in each other like we should. Loving your neighbor with all your heart and soul ain’t easy when you find him or her annoyingly different.
But here’s the thing: I spend more time here in this church than just about anyone else.
So, believe me when I tell you that the First Presbyterian are at their best more often than not.
We’re at our best when we gather in this place each Sunday morning and direct our attention and devotion to the One who’s far greater than ourselves. We’re at our best when lift up prayers – even if we don’t always know what to pray, and when we sing songs – even if the some of the notes are occasionally flat and the tempo a beat behind.
We’re at our best when we confess our sins together, when we pray that God’s Kingdom might be on earth as it is in heaven together, and that it might be in us, and when we come forward in generosity to make our offerings.
We’re at our best when attentions turn to the font, and we welcome a newborn into our midst, and delight in their joyful noise, and make the audacious claim that they belong to God, and commit to love and nurture them no matter who or what God reveals them to be.
We are at our best when we break bread together with glad and generous hearts at the Lord’s Table during worship or in the Fellowship Hall before or after worship.
We’re at our best when we visit someone in the hospital or nursing home; when we deliver a bubbling-hot casserole to the friend who’s recovering from surgery or the neighbor who’s grieving a loss; when we open the doors of our hearts to welcome the stranger and the outcast; when we open the doors of our church for community meals, and vaccination clinics, and preschool registrations.
It might not be the first word you’d use describe it all, but what God calls us to do – and what we aim to do here in this place – is nothing short of scandalous.
It’s a scandal to live life the way God intends – and more often than not we do. Which is to live not completely for ourselves but to live wholly and fully for others, and to walk this Christian journey together, knowing that this is the only way it can be walked. This has always been a scandal, and we’ve always had our share of scoffers. Because there’s something alarming about people refusing to live solely for themselves.
In our fearful and fragmented world, where we’re so quick to point out and separate over our differences, where we so naturally choose sides, and tribes, and parties along the prescribed lines of division – when this is so very much the norm, the very idea that people would come together and commit themselves to one another, despite their differences, making room for each other, giving grace and space to each other, is nothing short of scandalous.
But it’s also nothing short of the Kingdom of God.
Sure, there are plenty of other snapshots we could frame – outtakes where the lighting is bad, or someone is missing, or when we’re not all looking in the same direction. But then, there’s that one – the one that gets it right and perfectly captures the divine moment. And we say, “Bingo!” That’s the one we’ll remember! That’s when we are being the Church!
Moments of being the Church are what the Holy Spirit ignites, and those moments of being the Church are what fill us with joy. The Church is not an afterthought or an option. It is the natural and necessary result of the outpouring of the Spirit, the preaching of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the change of heart and mind that leads people to seize hold of the eternal claim that the Lord has laid upon them.
May it be so, as the Lord adds to our number those who have been forgiven and are living lives of joy and gratitude as recipients of amazing grace that’s beyond measure.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during morning worship on Sunday, May 30, 2021. Scholarship and commentary by Doug Bratt, Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Scott Dickison, Tom Long, and Stan Mast inform the message.