Originally Preached at Alger First UMC on 5/7/2017
The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, CEB)
My Dad’s a United Methodist pastor – many of you know that already, I’ve kind of unintentionally been following after him. Many of you already know that United Methodist pastors are moved around a lot, so that means that I grew up in several different places. I was born in Lima, then we moved to Toledo when I was really young. Right after first grade, we moved down to Hamilton near Cincinnati. Then after eighth grade we moved to Circleville, south of Columbus. My parents now live in Findlay.
I remember that move to Circleville being really difficult for me. One of my best friends lived in Hamilton and the church had a great youth group, and it was a great church overall. I had really good friends in middle school, we’d been looking forward to going to the high school together. But then my family had to move away the summer before high school. So then I had to start my freshman year at Circleville High School as the new kid in town not knowing anybody. That’s not how you want to start high school.
So I felt excluded and separate for a long time that first year. All of my friends were in Hamilton, and my family moved to Circleville during the summer so there wasn’t really a way to get to know anyone my age before school started.
Now, I want to make sure I say this: the move to Circleville wasn’t bad. Some of my best friends are still in Circleville, it was a great high school there, and I have a lot of great memories there. But for the first several months, I felt like an outsider most of the time.
I think we’ve all had an experience of exclusion like that. Maybe we moved to a new place and had to start at a new school like I did. Maybe we had to change jobs or change locations and had to work around new people. Maybe we get that feeling of exclusion even from people in our lives who we feel we should be close to. Maybe there’s a certain branch of our family that we’ve never really gotten close to and they leave us out of conversations and decisions.
I think that all of us have an experience like this. We all have some area of life where we weren’t allowed to sit at the proverbial cool kids’ table. We’ve all had the experience of being on the outside, looking in at all the fun the inside people are having. It’s not a good feeling, is it?
But in that story we read from Acts, we hear about a community full of acceptance. It’s all about inclusion, not exclusion. I love this passage. Everything that comes before this in Acts seems to be leading up to this story: the community of Jesus’ followers is steadily growing and increasing and the energy is steadily growing, bit by bit.
It’s after Easter. Jesus ascended to heaven, and now they’re all hanging out in Jerusalem, the 12 apostles we normally hear about, then at least 120 others with them. It reads like there was this big community and movement that had gathered around Jesus, and now they don’t really know what to do.
But then the Pentecost event happened. They’re all filled with the Holy Spirit, they make all this commotion, a crowd gathers, and Peter starts preaching to that crowd.
And from that event, we read that God brought 3,000 people into the community that day. Immediately following that, we have this passage from Acts we’re focusing on today. So this passage is all about the community life of these 3100+ Jesus-followers.
So we read this description of the community, and it’s beautiful right? We read that “they devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.”
God was active in a real, tangible way in this community. Everyone was filled with a sense of awe. God was performing all these wonders and signs. “They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”
This was a community of believers who were known more for who they include than for who they exclude. They’re known for their love, acceptance, and welcome. They’re known for what they do right instead of what they do wrong. In their world, just like in our world, there were so many reasons to exclude someone – they’re too poor, they’re lower class, they have the wrong job, they’re from wrong hometown. But this community of believers accepted everyone who came to them. So new people kept rolling in, every day.
Earlier this week, I saw a commercial from the Heineken beer company that was a great illustration of this.
The commercial starts with these videos of individual people expressing their views. First, there’s a man who says that feminism is all about man hating; but then there’s a video of the woman saying that she’s 100% feminist and she’s wearing a shirt that says “smash the patriarchy.” There are a couple other pairs, but you get the idea. They’re people on opposite sides of the political and social spectrum.
Then it cuts to a scene of the pair entering a room and there’s a caption saying that this is an experiment and neither of them knows the other at all. So they’re told to sit down next to each and ask basic “get to know you” questions. Describe yourself in 5 adjectives, name three things each of them have in common, name positive qualities of the other person after knowing them for 5 minutes, questions like that.
Next, they’re told to watch the videos from the beginning of each of them stating their polar opposite views. They’ve gotten to know each other, worked together, they’re feeling good about each other, then, for instance, the man who thinks feminism is awful sees that he’s working with a 100% feminist and wearing a “Smash the Patriarchy” t-shirt.
So then they’re given a choice: they can leave the room, or they can open the beer and discuss their differences. And surprisingly, they all stay and discuss. There are no closed doors, no exclusion, they just talk and engage.
I never thought I’d get this from a beer commercial, but that’s the type of community the church is called to be. This passage from Acts calls us to be a community where all are accepted and welcomed, no matter our differences. We’re called to be a community of people united across all barriers and borders where we can all share our possessions, share our money, share our food, share our space and time and love.
Now, this weird to us. In the current political climate in this country, we don’t see many places where that type of open, loving, inclusive community is seen. We would much rather close each off. But we as the church are called to open our arms to all.
This passage from Acts can show us a God who works ceaselessly toward creating a community of love, acceptance, and welcome.
Remember that it was God who took the initiative in creating this community. The Holy Spirit was poured out on them, binding them together and creating this kind of life. And God joined the 3,000 people with this community, and brought more people into this community every day. God was on the forefront of bringing this community about.
I think we all yearn for a community like this where all are welcomed; one where we aren’t excluded and where we don’t have to exclude anyone.
We probably all have a story of being left out or excluded from something. Maybe you weren’t one of the cool kids in school. Maybe you didn’t have the right kind of clothes or the right haircut. Maybe you’ve done something super-embarrassing or weird or offensive that people still hold over your head. Maybe you feel like the political system has left you out and doesn’t listen to your voice. Maybe you’re worried about how the changes that Congress want to make to our healthcare system will affect you or someone in your family. Maybe you’re worried that those changes will leave you or those you love behind and hurt them.
But this community we read about in Acts stands against that. No matter what happens to you from the government, from your family, from anyone or anything else in your life, in this community you are protected and supported and encouraged in a real and powerful and transformative way.
I’m sure we all also have a story where we were the ones excluding someone else and leaving them out. Maybe we’ve excluded someone who looked different from us or talked different from us or acted different from us. Maybe we’ve pushed out someone who had crazy different political opinions from us and have refused to listen to them. Maybe they were from the wrong town. There are any number of reasons we can all make up to exclude people from our communities. But we, the church, are called to be a community where we don’t do that anymore.
Now I know I said that I love this story, this picture of the first community of Jesus-followers in Jerusalem. But the problem with this story is that we tend to romanticize it because this is such a compelling picture of community. But it probably skips over some of the less pretty parts of this community negotiating their way into common life.
I have no doubt the early community of Jesus-followers really did look like this from a birds-eye view. But if we read on in the New Testament, we read about conflicts boiling up in the church, so the day-to-day community life wasn’t as rosy as we read about here.
But because we romanticize this community, we tend to jump straight from reading this story to saying “we should do this, our community ought to look like this and do all this stuff.” But we have to remember that this deep, loving, inclusive, accepting and welcoming community was an effect, not a cause. Here’s what I mean:
God was at work all over the place drawing this community together. God took the initiative here, not the people. And because God was at work, this communal life emerged. The Holy Spirit was at work forming them into a community, and the early church responded to the work by devoting themselves to “the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to their prayers.” The Holy Spirit began this work of drawing the community together and the early church responded to the work with those practices.
The Holy Spirit is right now at work drawing us together as a community of love, acceptance, and welcome. We are called to participate in that work. God is right now working ceaselessly to recreate us here today into a community where all are welcome and where we don’t exclude anyone. God is already working in us toward that end. And we are called to participate.
How can we participate? In the same way the early church did: devoting ourselves to our Scriptures, to our fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to our prayers. These are the essential marks of the church: devotion to our Scriptures and the examples of loving, welcoming community there. Devotion to our fellowship and loving everyone among us, whether or not we like everybody. Devotion of meeting Christ at the common table where we break bread together in Communion. Devotion to coming together in prayer together in worship no matter what’s happened the week before, where we bring ourselves again and again back before God so God can put us back together and reform us again and again into a loving, accepting, and welcoming community.
We are called to display these marks in our life together and participate in God’s ceaseless work toward creating us into a community of love, acceptance and welcome. The good news in all of this is that God is already at work here. We do not get to this communal life through our own sweat and elbow grease. All we can do is merely participate in the work God is already doing in our midst and has been doing ever since this first community in Jerusalem and has been doing ever since the creation of time itself.