5/7/17: The Scandal of Community, Acts 2:42-47
The Scandal of Community
Fourth in the series: Scandalous Good News
First Lesson: Psalm 23
Second Lesson: Acts 2:42-47
Rev. Scott Dickison
Perhaps you’re like me and found yourself rolling your eyes a little bit during the reading of these verses from Acts describing the early church. It’s not just that this rosy description doesn't sound like any church I’ve ever known, it’s that it doesn’t even sound like the church we read about in the rest of the book of Acts!
All who believed were together and had all things in common…selling their possessions and distributing the proceeds to all? It’s just 3 chapters later that we’re told a married couple, Ananias and Sapphira, withheld some of the earnings from a piece of property they sold, and when Peter confronts them about it, right there in the middle of the offering at church, they both fall down dead!
Breaking bread together with glad and generous hearts? Acts reports on several occasions that the process of deciding exactly who was allowed to break bread together at the table was a major controversy in the early church. Councils and debates and compromises and everything.
Having the goodwill of all people? Acts is littered with stories of the apostles and other believers getting arrested, beaten, and even killed! What’s going on here? What’s Luke up to?
Luke is well aware of the many, many ways that the early church fell short of this description and others like it in Acts. But as far as he’s concerned, this is the image that tells who the church really was. Of all the snapshots we get of the early church in Scripture, Luke is telling us that this is the one to remember.
And we all know how this works—just think of taking family pictures, especially with young children are involved. You get everyone dressed up, try to get them all to look at the camera, but one’s picking his nose while another is crawling away. The other parent collects the runner, put’s him back down, then goes back to dancing around, jumping up and down behind the camera trying to get everyone’s attention, meanwhile the person taking the picture is just clicking away—hoping for something useable. Later when you scroll through all the pictures, there may be a hundred of them but you find that one that’s just right. It’s the one that tells you: “This is how it was; this is how I want to remember them.”
Yes, it’s good to have all those other pictures—but this is the one you frame and hang on the wall, the one you send to the grandparents or post Instagram. But even more, this is the one when you look back, months, maybe years later, that defines this season of your life.
This is the shot Luke holds up for the early church. The one that shows them at their best, and he’s clear that they were at their best when they were together. (1)
Koinonia is the word here, a word we usually think of as “fellowship” or “community,” but it really means “sharing,” and outside of “resurrection,” it’s probably the most important word in the New Testament. Paul said if you don’t have this, you don’t have a church. A commitment to living in community, to share in life together, richly and deeply, was the defining feature of the early church. They shared a story: the teaching of the apostles about who Jesus was and who they are, who God was calling them to be. They shared their stuff—one off the more uncomfortable descriptions of the early church; the way they gave up individual possessions and “held all things in common,” even church pews, I’m told. They shared meals, they shared their time, and also their prayers: their joys, their celebrations, their concerns, their hopes, their fears, their doubts. Their faith.
And that’s it. So simple—especially when held against all the things we add to the mix: the programs, the budgets, the initiatives the denominations, the divisions. Luke holds up this snapshot and reminds us the church was at its best when they shared in their lives together before Christ. And it still is. We still are. The church is at its best when we’re truly living in community—when we’re sharing our lives in all their fullness and complexity. Showing, in some small, imperfect way, how it will be in the Kingdom of God. The Christian journey can only be walked together. The church is at its best when we commit ourselves to doing this.
Now, this is also when the church is at it’s most frustrating, and at times most infuriating and even disappointing—living in community is hard. It’s so hard. It’s hard to make decisions together, and work out hard truths, and clear a way forward together. It’s hard to think of the needs of others as equal to your own, or if the gospel is to be believed, even above your own. And we have times when we fall short of this covenant to share in the life of Christ together, to see Christ in each other like we should. Of course we do. But I’m here more than just about anybody, besides Dexter, and I can attest that we’re at our best here at the First Baptist Church of Christ more often than we’re not.
We’re at our best when we gather in this room each week and direct our attention and devotion to something greater than ourselves. When lift up prayers and songs—aren’t we at our best when we’re singing? When the organ cuts out and we sing a familiar hymn a cappella and once again fill this old, old space together. When we confess our sins together, when we pray that God’s Kingdom might be on earth as it is in heave together, and that it might be in us. When we deacon of the week lifts up a prayer of gratitude on our behalf and then pass the plates together—aren’t we at our best when we’re giving? When we turn our attention to the waters or to the table. When we welcome a newborn into our midst, and watch them float down the aisles, when we make the audacious claim that “they belong to us,” and commit to love and nurture them no matter who God reveals them to be.
We’re at our best in the hour before worship when we gather as Sunday school classes and go deeper in our faith and our lives together. We heard a fascinating story recently. Julie was visiting Sandra MacMahan, the daughter of Kathryn and the late Don Baker, when she was in the hospital. She's well now, but she remembered to Julie back to just before her father passed away some years ago. As he as losing his mobility, Jack Davis, Sr., a member of his beloved Sunday school class who passed on himself just a couple of years ago, crafted him a beautiful walking stick. And on this walking stick he embossed the names of all the men in their class in silver. Sandra said her father loved that stick. She said it was almost like “the rod and staff” that comforted him.
Aren’t we at our best when we’re shepherding each other?
We’re at our best on Wednesday evenings when we gather in the Fellowship Hall to break bread together with glad and generous hearts. When we here the hospital report and here greetings from our homebound members who’ve been visited through the week. When we sing happy birthday, and then happy anniversary—and before that, when he hear celebrations from our children. We call the children up to come and tell us the good things that have happened to them that week or that they’re looking forward to: good grades, a field trip, a family vacation, birthdays (sometimes months in advance), or even if their celebration is a new joke they learned, which was the trend there for a while, started by little Andrew Chappell—whatever it is, they offer it and we celebrate it with them. And we’ve talked about this recently, how this time of sharing and hearing from our children is so important. We’re always overwhelmed at how poised and comfortable the children are when they lead worship—almost impossibly so. But you see they standin front of you and behind microphone every week downstairs and watch as you so eagerly celebrate their lives.
Some time ago, we had a family who was visiting the church and came to a Wednesday night supper and during the celebrations when the whole crowd was laughing at one of Andrew’s jokes, leaned over to the member they were sitting with and said, “So this is where the church is.” And they were right. Yes, the church is here in the sanctuary, but so much of church happens elsewhere; wherever prayers are lifted, bread is broken and life is shared—in all it’s fullness.
I was with Nola Pursiful and Coach when she was under hospice care earlier this year. She was beautiful and still had her wit and humor. It was a Wednesday and just before I had to go, I told her we would be lifting her up at prayer meeting that night. I asked her if there was anything she wanted me to pass along to the group. She said she wished she could be there, that she missed that time each week. And then she said, “I miss that little Andrew Chappell and his jokes! Tell Andrew to tell a joke for me tonight.”
“Awe came upon everyone,” it says, “because many wonders and signs were happening among them.”
It may not be the first word you would think of it describe it, but what we aim to do here at the churchis nothing short of scandalous.
It’s a scandal to live life the way we hope to live it, and every now and again do, which is to live not completely for ourselves. To live wholly and fully with others. To walk this Christian journey together, knowing that this is the only way it can be walked. This has always been a scandal—there’s always something alarming about people refusing to live solely for themselves. It certainly is today. The idea that in our broken and fragmented world, where we’re so quick to point out and to separate over our differences, where we so naturally choose sides and tribes and parties and prescribed dividing-lines—when this is so very much the norm, that people would come together voluntarily and commit themselves to one another despite their differences, making room for each other, giving grace and space to each other, where else does this happen? It’s nothing short of scandalous. It’s nothing short of the Kingdom of God.
And there are plenty of other snapshots we could frame, 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; that one that gets it right. And we say, That’s it! That’s the one we’ll remember. That’s when we were the church. Amen.
(1) This approach to Acts is inspired by a beautiful sermon I heard Tom Long deliver at the First Baptist Church of Chattanooga, TN as part of the Mercer Preaching Consultation in October of 2015. I believe it was called "Learning How to Squint."