Monday, May 16, 2011

Joyful Community: Acts and now

(A sermon on Acts 2:42-47 at All Saints' Littleton on 5/15/2011)

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

There are a number of insights about the early church to be drawn from this morning’s lesson from Acts.

First, some words of background:

Most people know that The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is the account of the events after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Traditionally, it is understood to haven been written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. Scholars still debate both this person’s real identity, and also whether or not the same person actually wrote both books. What is basically agreed on is that it is written as a continuation of Luke’s Gospel (whether by the same person or not), and therefore written with the vision of Jesus presented in Luke’s Gospel (and thus differs with some of the events of the other three Gospels). It also shares a focus with the Gospel of Luke: written primarily for a Greek and Gentile audience, rather than Jewish one.

Dating Acts is highly disputed. Rather than enter this debate, one can only say for sure that it was written after Luke’s Gospel, and that the author must have had access to it. It is also likely that it was completed before the Gospel of John was written. It also appears that the writer did not have access to Paul’s letters that are found in our Epistles.

This is important for us to understand because a great deal of Acts is devoted to Paul. We get most of Paul’s life story from Acts (his vicious persecution of Christians, his dramatic encounter and conversion on the road of Damascus, the changing of his name from Saul to Paul, and his subsequent preaching and teaching throughout the world), and yet we never hear a letter of Paul quoted. In fact, the Book of Acts never even mentions that Paul wrote any letters!!! It should then not be surprising to us to discover that Paul’s letters has a number of discrepancies with the Book of Acts. (Wikipedia)

What The Book of Acts seems to mostly be about is how the early church gets started by those who followed Jesus.

Now let us turn to this morning’s excerpt. This takes place after Peter has given his first, well received sermon.

What is first to be noticed is that the church is experiencing incredible growth. There is a huge jump of people committed: from a community around our size, 120 people according Acts 1:15, to 3000 new people joining by the conclusion of Peter’s sermon in verse 41. (The results of the Holy Spirit and some mighty fine preaching!)

Much is made about verses 44 and 45: “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.” There are plenty of people who point to this passage as to the way we are supposed to live in community. Others point to this as proof as to why the early church’s vision of living in community is completely unrealistic today. Instead of jumping into this debate (which some would call ideal living, and others would call Communism), the spirit of this verse is that people were dedicated to caring and providing for one another.

Another insight to see is that, while we know that there was some tension and bad behavior between Jews and Christians by the second century, this was not the case initially. “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple”, is just one of a number of suggestions that most Jews and emerging Christians got along just fine with one another. The Christian movement within Judaism was initially only seen as a threat by certain leaders: otherwise, there was close relationship between the two groups. (Emerson Powery in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.2, eds. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p. 425)

What should be most familiar to all of us in this morning’s passage is the opening verse. We hear the phrasing of this verse in question form at every baptism and confirmation. In the baptismal covenant of the Episcopal Church, after we finish with our Creedal questions of believing in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are asked 5 critical questions about how we are going to live out our faith. The first one is this:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

And we are to answer: I will, with God’s help.

Taken right from this morning’s passage, it is no stretch to say that we place great value on this verse from Acts, even if few of us know where it comes from.

Quickly, let us consider the pieces found here...

Apostles’ teaching and fellowship: one could consider the impact of teaching and fellowship separately, but I like that they are linked together. Our learning about God...from our exploring of scripture to our observations from life to be done within the bonds of relationships. Nurturing development happens as we study and play together: within times of serious discussion and relaxed banter. We are informed by the relationship that Jesus had not only with his disciples, but with the crowds in general: bonding with the stranger as well as the known friend.

Breaking of the Bread recalls last week’s gospel, where the two men suddenly see Jesus in the stranger they have spent the day with. It refers to not only our Eucharistic action that we gather for each Sunday, but every time we sit and eat with one another: the intimate sharing of a meal, traditionally restricted by culture and class. Breaking of bread, an action Jesus wished for us to see him in, means breaking the barriers we have between each other. It is opening our eyes to see with our mind and heart connected: letting go of what we think we know about people, and seeing more.

Finally, in the prayers we are called, more than anything, to be connected to each other. Our communal prayers each Sunday are an invitation to awareness: to see that our connection to God flows through our connection to others.

All of these lead to a sense of awe and wonder: for the world and each other. When we look closely at everything, we start to see that the sacred is to be found in everything, and everyone. In the community described in The Book of Acts this morning, we are to see a people filled by joy: connected to each other by a common awareness of beauty and mystery that is found when life is focused on God’s constant presence.

Will we continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Will we see and experience the awe and wonder that defines this precious thing called life?

With God’s help, we will.

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