We are not so different from that first Christian community. We live in a time of chaos – a time of great change – a time perhaps of social upheaval. Yet we keep meeting together as a community, and when we do, we find something life giving and Spirit filled in those gatherings. God is in this place – and we have all experienced that sense of divine presence.
Message by Rev Jenny Carter
April 8, 2018
Acts 4:23-37, John 20:19-31
If you are on any kind of social media, you know this to be true. Everybody you know, and everybody you don’t know, but your friends know, has a better life than you. They have more fun. They go more places. They never fight with their families. And they eat amazing food… all of the time. We know this to be true because we have seen their pictures. We see the pictures of them heading off on vacation – and everybody is smiling and happy, happy, happy. We see the pictures of the amazing meals they have prepared, and the lovely table they have set. We see the pictures of the kids smiling broadly as they look adoringly at their parents, all in matching sweaters.
And as we sit hunched over our computer in our less than tidy office space, scooping forkfuls of Kraft Dinner, and remembering the latest dust up at the last family gathering, we can feel like a bit of a failure. We can’t help but think if life handed out report cards, ours would read a solid C-, while everybody else’s would have a great big old A+.
Except that’s not true. We all know that the pictures we see on social media are not the sum total of those people’s lives. Nobody whips the camera out in the middle of a family fight – but we all do when we go on vacation and everyone is smiling. And nobody takes pictures of the kids fighting and crying because they have to wear matching sweaters in the family photo. Oh no, the camera only comes out once things have calmed down and whoever thought it was a good idea to wear matching sweaters has won the argument, and the rest of the people fall in line and put on the darn sweaters.
Here’s what is true: everybody has good times, and difficult times, and none of us are perfect and neither are our lives – no matter what the pictures that appear on our Facebook page might suggest. It is silly to compare our lived reality with some false ideal of how another is living theirs. Everybody hurts. Everybody struggles. Everybody wins from time to time.
Our reading from Acts this morning is a first century equivalent of a picture on Facebook. My, what a beautiful community. Truly. Everybody was of one heart and one soul. They shared everything that they had – they held all things in common, and no one was left in need. Their leaders preached with great power as they testified to the faith. People sold their houses and gave the proceeds to the community. Even the Levite, Joseph (who they nicknamed Barnabas – which means “son of encouragement”) sold a field and laid the money at the apostles’ feet.
There is a utopian quality here – it is an image of a perfect community. And if we lay our lived reality of our community alongside of the one we heard about in Acts, then what we have is a perfect recipe for a host of failing grades. At least we feel a bit like failure if we just read these verses.
Yet if we read the verses that come before this passage, and the ones that come after it, in fact if we read the whole book of Acts, a more balanced picture begins to emerge. There was no perfection in the early days of the church. At the beginning of Acts, Jesus’ disciples were hiding behind locked doors, they were so afraid of the religious powers of their day. It was only after experiencing the gift of the Spirit, that they left the safety of their rooms. Only then did they go out into the city and began to teach and to heal and to encourage people to love one another and to follow the Jesus way. Only then. And once they started to live and preach the gospel, they were often harassed by the priests and scribes. In fact, just before this morning’s reading, we hear how Peter and John had been arrested and kept in jail for preaching sedition and for healing a man who was lame since birth.
There was no perfection in the early church. There was chaos, and a “making it up as they went along” kind of thing happening. To be clear, they had no clue that they were starting the Christian church. From their perspective they were a group of people seeking to live according to the teachings of Jesus. They were seeking to share what they knew, share what they had with others, and do what they could to alleviate suffering. They may have realized fairly early on that they were starting a movement – but as the story unfolds in the Book of Acts – it is clear that they didn’t have a strategic plan. The author of Luke makes no mention that they bought books on how to grow the church in 5 easy steps. There were no consultants hired that would tell them how to start a mega church. There were no praise bands, or projection screens, or even good old hymns to sing.
What they had was a powerful and dynamic experience of God among them. And because of that, they sought to “be” different, and to “do” differently. Another way of saying this is that they had stumbled upon their purpose for being a community – they had discovered their mission. The combination of their experience of God and their wanting to respond in faithful and loving ways, gave rise to a spirit of generosity and courage and thankfulness. That is the beauty we see in the passage from Acts that was read. We see how living as a purposeful community leads to the spirit of generosity, courage and thankfulness.
We are not so different from that first community. We live in a time of chaos – a time of great change – a time perhaps of even social upheaval. Yet we keep meeting together as a community, and when we do, we find something life giving and Spirit filled in those gatherings. God is in this place – and we have all experienced that sense of divine presence. Sometimes we sense it in worship. Sometimes we sense it when we gather for Easter Sunday and a birthday party breaks out, and little children come in droves and sing and dance and makes their presence felt, and when a choir sings the most joyous anthem ever! Sometimes we sense God’s presence when someone notices we are sad, or have missed a few Sundays, and reaches out in concern. Sometimes we sense God’s presence at a Community Builders or a Board meeting. And of course, we often sense God’s presence in the quiet moments of contemplation, when we partake in centering prayer or walking the labyrinth.
So we have the powerful and dynamic experience of God among us – but what about the responding in faithful and loving ways? What about the spirit of generosity, and courage and thankfulness? What about our mission? How are we doing with those things?
Well, again, we are very much like that first community that gathered in Jerusalem. We too are a group of people seeking to live according to the teachings of Jesus. Just like them we are seeking to share what we know, share what brings life, share what we have with others, and do what we can to alleviate suffering. In response to the God we have met, we want to “be” different and “do” differently.
I wonder if all of you are aware of all the things we do as a community of faith as we seek to live according to the teachings of Jesus. Considering our size as a community of faith, we do a lot! Mission, our mission as a community of faith, is at the centre of our communal lives. We have fed hungry people, welcomed the lonely, reached out to the hurting and the dispossessed, begun our journey of reconciliation with indigenous people, and implemented a wellness program which promotes emotional, spiritual and physical healing. We have sought to care for creation by partnering with groups working to promote environmentally friendly energy programs and care of our natural world. We have reached out to youth and young adults and will be hosting a group in September who want to engage as a faith community. And we have begun building a sense of community with people who we would not otherwise meet on a Sunday, but with whom we have a lot in common.
Some of this we do as First United Church, some of it we do through our contributions to our denomination’s mission and service work. I am so excited about all of the ways we live out our mission as a community of faith, and I want you to know about it too. While you may have a general sense of what we do, I want to share with you the details of what we do. So beginning when I return from the Holy Land, we will be having a series of small group gatherings where I can share information, and where you can ask questions. In the meantime, the CBT has put together a mission education package for you, so I would encourage you to take it home and read it.
That first faith community in Jerusalem sought to be a community that made a difference – and we seek to do the exact same thing. Just like them, living in times of great change, calls for a “making it up as we go along” – but when we seek to share from our dynamic experience of God in our midst, and to follow the teachings of Jesus, we cannot help but be a source of life for one another, and for the world and the times, in which we live.