Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 9/11/2016
This is the first sermon in a 5-week series entitled “A Missional Community.”
I don’t know if you can believe it church, because I can’t, but it’s only 5 weeks until the 2016 Missions Conference! Anyone excited? We have some great speakers this year, I know your missions committee and leaders have been working hard on it, so I’m really looking forward to it.
But it’s kind of become a tradition to spend the weeks leading up to Missions Conference on a sermon series themed around missions. 2 years ago, I preached a series about several people in the Bible who were given impossible missions which God made possible. Last year, we unpacked evangelism specifically for several weeks.
But this year, I want us to take a broader lens, zoom out and look at the bigger picture. We talk about mission, and specifically God’s mission, a lot, but I’ve been wondering – what exactly does God’s mission look like? And we talk a lot about following God’s mission, but I’ve been wondering – what does it actually look like to be a community who follows God’s mission? What does a missional community look like?
I hope you ask those questions too, or that you’ll start asking them this week. Because it’s necessary for us to step back and take a good hard look at what we’ve been doing. What does the big picture of God’s mission look like? What does a community who follows God’s mission look like, in general? As a congregation, we think of ourselves as a church who’s all about mission, so I think it’d be very appropriate for us to take a few weeks to make sure that the mission we’re following is God’s mission, and that we as a congregation really do look and act and talk like a missional community.
Now, I’ll say this up front. I am not an expert in missions. And this sermon series won’t be a comprehensive look at God’s mission and missional communities – there’s not time for that. But the important thing is that we’re asking these questions – what does God’s mission actually look like? What does a community who follows God’s mission actually look like? And do we as a congregation line up?
So because of this focus, we’ll be spending our time in the Book of Acts for this series. And we’re going to begin by reading Acts 4:32-35.
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. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35, CEB)
Since we’ll be spending our time for the next 5 weeks in the book of Acts, let me give you a brief overview and explain why I chose the book of Acts.
The book of Acts was written by the Luke – you know, the Gospel. The same author wrote both Luke and Acts, and the two books were probably meant to be read together, like a part 1 and part 2.
Luke part 1, or the Gospel of Luke, talks about Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ends with Jesus’ ascension into heaven, leaving his disciples behind in Jerusalem.
And Luke part 2, or Acts, picks up where part 1 left off. Acts shows how the 11 remaining apostles of Jesus and all the others who followed this wandering Jewish prophet, teacher, and healer named Jesus became a whole movement that we now call the church.
Acts tells the story of the Christian church’s first steps into the mission of God. The mission began in Jerusalem at the beginning of Acts with Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples. Then the mission is extended into the areas immediately around Jerusalem – Judea, Samaria (basically all of modern-day Palestine) and Syria, then it’s extended into what the Bible calls Asia Minor, aka Turkey, and even into Greece. And Acts ends with the Apostle Paul extending the mission all the way to Rome.
Ok, so now that we know that, let’s unpack the passage I read for you earlier. This passage is a picture of an ideal Christian community, made up of the earliest believers in Christ. And it’s a radical picture, right? The passage describes this early Christian community as being of one heart and mind. They didn’t really have any possession that were private, there was kind of a communal ownership and sharing of everything, and there were no needy people among them.
It’s a radical picture of a deep community, and it obviously had a big effect on Luke. I picture Luke sitting down to write the long book of Luke and Acts together, after he’s researched and gathered all the information, and maybe he looks back fondly on his younger years with the Jerusalem church – the community depicted here. The memories of the community he writes about stayed with him strong enough for him to paint this beautiful picture with words.
So for me, that begs the question – What was it about this community that made such a big effect on Luke and made the memories stay with him? What was it that made him think it was important enough to write down?
As I see it, Luke remembered the Jerusalem church like this because deep community was practiced. It wasn’t like other communities.
This was deep community. By ‘deep’ I mean that membership in this community affected all areas of life for each of its members, even their “private” possessions. This was a community like no other. It was a community of people invested in the lives of each other and in the worship and work of the community. It was a community of people who truly cared for each other’s bodies and souls. It was a community of people who are all about following Jesus together. You remember deep community like this.
Now, Luke wrote Acts like he did for a reason. This wasn’t just a private memoir, it was meant to be read by others and communicate a certain message, so why did Luke highlight this deep community like he did?
I think he did this because it was from this deep community that God’s mission arose. God’s mission arose out of this deep community. And we can see that from where the rest of the book goes from here. Soon after this picture of the early church, Luke tells us about Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The Jerusalem Council killed Stephen, and that began a wide harassment and persecution of the Jerusalem church, which then led to large portions of the community fleeing. But that led to all of these people who had experienced this deep community that Luke writes about bringing the Gospel to those outside of Jerusalem, extending this community to all these other parts of the Roman Empire.
You see, they had experienced the vital difference that faith in Jesus Christ, an experience of the Holy Spirit, and life in a missional community could make on their lives through this community, and they obviously thought that it was important enough for others to experience it. In other words, they brought this experience of deep community out to the rest of the world, for everyone else to experience it.
Now this deep community wasn’t just something that happened in the past. There are a lot of more modern examples of deep community leading to God’s mission. In fact, the United Methodist Church has our roots in deep community. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in the 1700’s, organized the early Methodists into deep communities called class meetings. These were groups of 7-12 people that ranged from those just inquiring about the Christian faith all the way to those who were committed followers of Christ. They would gather weekly with their class leader to, as Wesley says, “watch over one another in love.” They would support and encourage each other in their faith, and they would follow Jesus together. Specifically, they would have conversation around essential questions that John Wesley gave them. How is it with your soul? How is your life with God? How is God at work in you? Every week, the members of each class meeting would embark on a very vulnerable, honest search of their soul with everybody else in their class. John Wesley saw that these class meetings were so important that he actually required anyone who wanted to be a member in the Methodist societies to be part of a class meeting.
And because of this deep community that Wesley called class meetings, Methodism has been known throughout our history as being engaged in God’s mission – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, bringing the Gospel to those who haven’t heard it. And it all arose from deep community.
Now, why does any of this matter? Well, as I said earlier, we’re preparing for Missions Conference over these next 5 weeks by spending time in the Book of Acts, looking at what God’s mission looks like and what the community that follows God’s mission looks like. But I think Luke is telling us something important in this passage, a message that is needed before we look at God’s mission and missional community. I think Luke is telling us that the mission of God arises from deep community, like what Luke tells us about in the passage, like Wesley’s class meetings.
The mission of God arises from deep community. So if we’re going to be about God’s mission, then we need to be in deep community. And by that I mean that deep community is necessary if we are going to do God’s mission well.
As a congregation, you talk a lot about God’s mission. We’re going to unpack what that looks like in the next few weeks. But you who are talk about God’s mission, are you paying attention to what is really needed first – deep community? You see, as Americans, we have a tendency to rush off and just do stuff, get to work now, and not wait. So as Christian Americans, we have a tendency to think of our mission like “The lost world is in need of the Gospel NOW so I need to get out there and be about God’s mission NOW. But before you rush off, are you in deep community?
This is more than being “The church that cares.” Caring is important, but it’s deeper than that. You see, I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency among people who’ve grown up in Northwest Ohio to hold yourselves back from each other, to not invest yourselves too deeply in anyone or any group. But the Christian life is not meant to be lived in solitude. God’s mission is not meant to be taken on your own.
So are your lives invested in each other? Or are you holding yourself back? I know that many of you care about the physical lives of those sitting next to you in the pew – who’s sick or in the hospital, and that’s great. But I’m talking about something even deeper than that. Do you care about the spiritual lives of each other?
Are you invested in this church? Are you invested in the mission of this church and what God is calling this church to do and to be? Or do you say “That’s the pastor’s job. That’s the Home Missions committee’s job. That’s the Commission on Mission’s job. So I’m just along for the ride.”
Are you watching over one another in love? Are you following Jesus together? Is this a community where you feel like you can really bring your whole self and bear your soul, no matter what it contains, and receive nothing but love and grace and encouragement? Is this church a deep community? Because it will be hard for this church to follow God’s mission if we are not a deep community like what Luke tells us about, like what John Wesley created.
Is your life marked by deep community? Are you rooting yourself in a deep community like what Luke tells you about? Because we won’t follow God’s mission well without doing that, and nothing I say for the rest of this series will make much sense without doing that.
So over the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about what God’s mission really looks like, and what the community that follows God’s mission looks like. Now I want to be that kind of community and follow God’s mission. I hope that you do too. And if we’re going to do that, we all need to find ourselves in deep community.
Now thankfully, we’re already in a community of some sort. The fact that we are here means that we have decided at some point in time to lay claim to this church community, this congregation and call Alger First “home” of some kind. So let us invest ourselves here, with the people sitting around us, with the worship and the work of this church community. Let us be the kind of church that watches over one another in love. Let us be the church that follows Jesus together. Let us form deep community here, and from there go out on God’s mission.