After my mother died and my father had a stroke that caused him to move to skilled nursing, my siblings and I were left with the task of cleaning out our parents’ home. As a pastor I have watched families split over the division of family heirlooms. I once did a funeral where the family sat in two adjoining rooms because of a fight over a dresser. So I was nervous. I love my siblings and I didn’t want us to behave that way. So before we began we made ground rules. We couldn’t bring our spouses and we had to go round robin in choosing things. Plus, I had another voice ringing in my ear. As Bryan drove me to the plane to join my siblings he said, “Please, please, please don’t bring home too much. I already live in your family’s museum.”
With Bryan’s admonition and our game plans things went along nicely for us. We would clean out a large cupboard onto the dining room table and go round-robin. Whatever was left we would donate. It was laboriously slow but it was working. Each night I would go to bed feeling relieved that my siblings and I knew how to do this hard work together.
Then one afternoon we had placed items from one of the cupboards in the kitchen onto the dining room table. On the table was the teapot my mother always used to serve tea and it was the only thing on the table that I wanted. So when it was my turn I chose it and I said, “This is all I want from this table.” My sister chose something and said, “This is all I want from this table.” My brother said, “Okay. I will take the rest of it.”
My brother didn’t say anything wrong but I remember being instantly upset. I had already decided that I didn’t need anything else on that table. But suddenly I said, “Wait. I want to look one more time.” I was shocked with myself. Where does that feeling come from? I didn’t want my parents’ things to cause bad blood between my siblings and me and yet there was a strong need to get my fair share.
Our scripture today describes the early church shortly after Pentecost. It appears that they had no problem sharing everything. It starts out with this sentence:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.
Really? Could this scripture be true? This scripture is enough to break your heart. I can’t even let go of things I don’t want. They held everything in common and they were of one heart and soul? People have been trying to achieve this level of community for years with all kinds of grand experiments.
The church today, and by that I mean the whole of Christianity, is far from one heart and soul. We sure don’t hold everything in common. Plus, the scripture says that there wasn’t a needy person among them. That is not true in the church today.
David Kinnaman of the Barna Group in his book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity writes about what research shows regarding the way 16 to 29 year olds think about Christians. This age group feels that the church is anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, too political, out of touch with reality, insensitive to others and boring. This doesn’t come from young people who are basing this feeling on superficial stereotypes but from people who grew up in churches. You can argue that our church isn’t any of those things or at least not all of those things but it doesn’t really matter. This feeling is so prevalent among this age group that if you say you are a Christian you will be instantly covered in all those negative assumptions. You might as well tattoo all these negative things on your forehead. You are lumped in with all other Christians. In fact, Kinnaman says that it would be hard to overestimate “how firmly people reject – and feel rejected by – Christians.”
How did we get from “those who believed were of one heart and soul” and “there was not a needy person among them” to being seen as the judgmental-homophobic-insensitive to others-religious group? Didn’t I tell you that this scripture would break your heart?
I want you to think back about how the early church got started. Let’s start back with Maundy Thursday. Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter denied Jesus. Then when Jesus was crucified his followers ran away and hid behind a locked door. These followers of Jesus were a mess. But then eleven of them met the risen Christ and they began to get it together. Then Pentecost happened and suddenly this diverse group of people who were gathered could understand each other. And that’s when the early church got busy. They sold their possessions and gave the money away. They started breaking down all the social barriers that had been handed to them in the form of religious rules. They brought together the ritually clean and unclean, the poor and the wealthy, the Gentile and the Jew, the circumcised and uncircumcised. They got rid of the social hierarchies associated with ethnicity, gender, religion and wealth. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” They believed what Jesus taught them and they lived it.
What really defined the early church to its critics was the response of Christians to two plagues that hit the Roman Empire: the Plague of Galen and the Plague of Cyprian. The sick and dying were everywhere so the governmental officials and wealthy decided they needed to get as far away as possible and they literally headed for the hills. But the Christians formed themselves into task forces and stayed behind to care for the sick and the dying. They became known for their response in times of crisis. Emperor Julian, who hated the Christians, wrote this: “The godless Galileans feed not only their poor but ours also. Those who belong to us look in vain for help that we should render them.”
These “godless Galileans” sound amazing, don’t they? I am mesmerized by the selfless love and community of the earliest church. It sounds like an impossible dream. And yet, what I hear in this scripture isn’t how hard it was but the gift of the connection…of the community…of the collective working together for good. It isn’t that they thought they were giving up something. It sounds like they were gratefully becoming something. They gave away what they had amassed and in solidarity became a part of something bigger than themselves and it was awe-inspiring….for them and for others.
It wasn’t that they were perfect. If you read the rest of the Book of Acts you learn that they were involved in one struggle after the next. As the church was forming and working hard to follow in the footsteps of Jesus they were also battling it out to be the one’s to define Jesus’ message. Dawna often reminds me that two things can be true at the same time. The early church was of one heart and soul and they were having a very difficult time figuring out how to be a church together.
There are two things about this scripture that amaze me. The first I’ve already mentioned which is the true, community these post-Pentecost people created. The second thing that amazes me is that all these centuries after Easter, we still have Christian community at all. Think about it. From the times Christians have been persecuted to the times they did the persecuting; from one heart and soul to a multitude of schisms and fractured denominations; from theological hair-splitting to rules about unimportant things the church has continued trying to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Through all the eras and times; all the prophets and naysayers here we sit striving to continue the work of Jesus…the work of serving, loving, sharing….the work of breaking down barrier walls….the work of justice and peace. I don’t know about you but that is amazing to me.
I think we are still here because the One who could not be stopped by death; who came like tongues of fire to shatter the divisions of languages at Pentecost; who helped the early church release its tight grip on private property is still alive and present in our world today. We are here because we believe and have experienced that God is love…that Christ is alive…that the Spirit is present and because of that the church is still here, resurrecting itself over and over again in solidarity with a world in need.
Our unity is not perfect because, alas, we are not perfect. Yet, in our best moments we hear the call of Christ and we seek the mind of God that we might be the ones who carry the love of God to everyone with whom we come in contact. It is a gift…this community of believers. In this toxic, individualistic culture that pits us against each other we choose to come together for the glory of God and our neighbor’s good…for such is the gospel. The question we must ask ourselves today is how far are we willing to go to create a more perfect communion of saints? How much are we willing to give up to be the servant church? We owe it to the early church to ask ourselves this question.
Blest be the ties that bind us to those flawed and courageous prophets who went before us….who kept the servant church alive for us. We are accountable to them to keep this dream alive.
Blest be the ties that bind us to the ones in this room—these people who hold us up in times of trouble and doubt.
Blest be the ties that bind us to those outside this sanctuary that we might join together in breaking down the barriers that divide.
Blest be the ties that bind us together – the tie which is the Spirit of God is alive in the world.
Let us reclaim our identity in the world… a servant church bound together in sacrificial love. Amen.