“Awe and wonder came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles,” and “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Wow. Friends, I love those verses, but I have to say that every time I read them, I have the same reaction: How did those disciples get from where they were to here? I mean, think about it: we all know that the twelve were not exactly learned men; they were in fact, a rather rag-tag group of fishermen, tax collectors, zealots and at least one thief. Moreover, throughout scripture we find out they most definitely had their flaws and quirks of personality.
Peter was bold and impetuous; John, although he was known as “the beloved disciple,” he was ambitious by nature, apparently had a fiery temper and could be rather intolerant (Jesus himself gave John the nickname of “the son of thunder!”). Thomas was, of course, the resident doubter and was often bewildered at what was going on; Philip was considered to possess both a warm heart and a pessimistic head; and Simon the Zealot, along with Jude, were more than likely Jewish Nationalists who believed that world power and domination by God’s chosen people could only come about by violent means. And then there was Matthias, who wasn’t even part of the original twelve, but was voted in as a replacement for Judas after he took his own life in those hours before the crucifixion.
They’d all left everything to follow Jesus three years before; they’d gone into hiding after he’d been hung on the cross, and even in those days after the resurrection, they were still a bit uncertain as to what was going to happen next; but here they were now, at the center of a movement unlike anything anyone had seen before! “All who believed were together and all things in common,” we’re told; they sold their possessions and goods and then gave all the money they made to poor, and scripture tells us that not only was there a daily discipline of worship at the Temple, they shared meals together, “every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God.” And what’s more, they had “the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
I’ll say it again: Wow! And understand, friends, that, this is no mere historical footnote to the gospels; scripturally speaking, this handful of verses from the Book of Acts represents the place where the Christian Church begins! It’s one of our first evocations that the church, as Christ has established it, “is not a place or a building or an organization in the first instance, but a people;” in the Greek, “the ecclesia, the called out people of God.” It’s what Christian writer and pastor Gilbert Bilezikian calls “God’s ultimate achievement – a biblically-functioning community, a center of warm, pulsating, effervescent, outreaching Christian love, a place with all of its components united to become a force in this world instead of a farce.”
And it’s what creates the standard and sets the pace for us who continue to be the church in this time and place; and yes, that includes you and I who make up this little piece of the ecclesia here on Mountain Road; this “blessed community” of faithful people we know as East Congregational Church.
Of course, this isn’t to say that we’ve totally fulfilled this vision of the perfect church, because most certainly and very sadly, we have not; although, to our credit we do try hard, and sometimes, despite our best efforts, we’ll actually get it right. Truth be told, sometimes I think that as a church we have more in common with the “before” picture of the disciples than we do with the “after;” in that much like the original twelve, we too are this rather disparate and rather motley assortment of ordinary people who in the midst of all the joys, sorrows and challenges of daily life are just trying to figure out what it all means; and ultimately to discover what our true purpose in living happens to be. Like them, along the way we’ve tended to struggle from time to time; sometimes we lose ourselves in the effort and sort of forget what (and who) it was that drew us together in the first place! But what we always end up discovering is that when we’re gathered together as disciples of Jesus Christ we’re a whole lot closer to where we should be than we ever are when we’re out there straggling along the journey by ourselves.
No, we’re not perfect; but we also know that without this community that is the Church we are far less than what we were before. In community, you see, there is blessing; and we know this because we have experienced it: in community we are surrounded by grace; in community we can know and be known; we can love and be loved; we can forgive and be forgiven. In community we are blessed both to celebrate and to be celebrated; to be moved, to be challenged, to be affirmed at times, and others reproved; sheltered from the storm but also sent out into the wilderness.
“Day by day,” we are indeed blessed in this place: by shared worship that is both reverent and filled with joy; with having the burdens of life and living mutually borne by kindred hearts through common prayer and in true fellowship; in being able to learn and grow in faith in the company of others who are also seeking to walk in the way of the Lord; and in having the opportunity to serve God by our outreach, even as there are those who are serving God as they reach out to us. When we are gathered as the people of God, beloved, we are more than what we were before: we are people of “glad and generous hearts;” people who are unabashedly alive and filled with passion; full of awe and curiosity and wonder at everything God is doing, and who dare to defy the world’s standards and practices for the sake of following Jesus.
As the church of Jesus Christ, you see, we are truly and wholly blessed in community.
The question, of course, is what we’re to do with that.
For this blessing is not meant to end with us; it is true that we are “blessed to be a blessing;” that all that we’ve received in community is meant to be “paid forward.” To put a finer point on it, we are not to be a “closed” community against the cold, hard world out there, nor should the blessings of our closeness be hoarded and kept from those “outside” who are in need. William Willimon has put it this way; he says that “unless there is some link between our worship of God and Junior’s spilt cereal at breakfast, the boring routine in the office, the monthly collection of bills, the cancer that will not heal, then our worship is not only irrelevant to human need but also unfaithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” At the end of the day – and, truly, at the close of our worship and when our time of fellowship is done – all the blessings we’ve received in community are meant to be transformed into the courage and strength it will take for us to care for God’s creation and to truly love one another as Christ has loved us.
I say this because it seems to me that right now as a congregation, we at East Church have both a great responsibility and a tremendous opportunity before us to take the abundance of blessings that are ours as a church family and extend them outward; to do God’s work of love and justice “in these days of confused situations” and to bring God’s Word of unending hope to Concord and beyond; inviting people to join in the blessings of community as we do.
It’s about our truly being the church, but let’s be clear: to be the church we are called to be does require the good stewardship of our resources both individually and collectively – it will need an offering of our time, our talent and yes, our treasure – and that’s why we’re taking the time this month to reflect on our stewardship, beginning with the informational meeting later on. But I also need to say that even more than this, it’ll require our lives. For our blessing to become another’s blessing takes more than half-hearted commitments and empty promises; it means “devot[ing] ourselves” to our what we know and believe as followers of Christ; it’s to grow in faith and to be persistent in prayer; it’s truly to be “doers of the word,” and not simply hearers; it’s reaching out to those in need and being a beacon of light for those who have only known darkness in their lives; it’s living life – all of life – “with glad and generous hearts, praising God” in what we do and how we live as a community of faith. From its very beginning, this has been the central focus of the Christian church, and it is the first and foremost reason we are here this morning. As we move forward as a congregation, we’d do well to remember that.
A number of years ago in the little town of Island Falls, Maine (nearby where our camp is), an elderly gentleman owned and operated a bottle redemption facility that was located in what used to be the Mobil station in town and across the street from what was at the time a local diner. Now, given that we’re only up there for a few weeks in the summer, I must confess here I never got the full story; but apparently there had been a rising conflict between this old man and the proprietors of the diner, specifically as regards parking space. We know this because all that summer, in the middle of the parking lot of the redemption center stood this huge, handmade, hand-written, two-sided sign that had been placed right in the way of any car that attempted to get in there; and on this sign was written the words (and I quote!): “NOW YOU LOOK! THERE’S NO PARKING IN THIS LOT!”
Now, that sign absolutely made me laugh out loud every time I saw it; and also, every time we saw it, we were compelled to read it aloud just that way: “NOW YOU LOOK…!” And it served its purpose; or else it defeated its purpose, because in the end nobody ever parked in that lot, either for the diner or the redemption center! It was a reminder for me of all the other signs we tend to put out there in our lives that, however unintentionally, have a way of shutting others out and end up defeating the very purposes that God has for us. Sadly, as persons, people and even as the church, sometimes all it takes is a sign that tells others that “we’re not listening,” or “we don’t care,” or “we don’t have time” or “we can’t afford it” to end up losing the opportunity to bring some joy, to make a difference or to change a heart.
That should never, ever be our sign; especially in this “World Communion” of believers with whom we feast at this table today. What we proclaim ought to be who we are: disciples who are called to welcome people into this loving and caring church family; followers of Jesus who work to equip each one with a Christ-centered faith that works in real life; a group of “pretty good church people” who despite their quirks and foibles are relentless in sharing God’s love through compassionate service to others and who are filled with awesome wonder simply by what we continue to experience in the presence and power of Jesus Christ.
How the future unfolds, nobody knows; but in that kind of community, we can be assured that “day by day, the Lord will [add] to our number those who are being saved.”
So might it be, beloved; so might it be.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry