Sunday, May 11, 2014

What Do We Have in Common?

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! We’ve been saying that in church for what, four weeks now? In our world today, that feels like an eternity. In our BTDT culture we are on the lookout for something new--the newest restaurant, movie, artist or song. The more obscure the better. We don't want what is common because then WE might be common. Instead we seek the out of the ordinary, or, if we can afford it, the extraordinary

But this week's Bible lesson is all about what we hold in common. In the beginning of the book of Acts we read a church story that’s almost too good to be true. Peter gives a sermon and bam—thousands of people believe, devote themselves to the apostle’s teachings and the change the way they live. Day-by-day the church was growing as God added to their number those who were being saved. Those of us in dwindling congregations read it with a sigh.

We wonder how we can make this happen in the congregations we serve. Are the apostles being rewarded for their faithful work of teaching and praying? Should we do more Bible study? Are people impressed by the way God is working through the apostles with signs and wonders? Should we have healing services?Are flocks of poor people being baptized because in the breaking of bread they know they can get something to eat? Should we open a food pantry? 

The explosion of the church’s growth could be due to all of these or none of these. At the end of the passage we see the expansion is not the work of the apostles, but the work of God. God at work in the world.

If you look closely at what the apostles are doing, they are mimicking their leader. They are doing many of the same things Jesus did while he walked the earth-- teaching and praying, feeding people, doing signs and wonders. Just as God decided to share our common humanity, food and experiences, the early church had important things in common with Jesus.

This snapshot describes a church that is incarnational. A group of people who are embodying Christ in the world. Even without Jesus physical presence, the word of God is being embodied—the key focus of loving God and neighbor are being lived out in the context of Christ's resurrection. We see the repetition of theme in the Bible. 

God caring for people ---> Jesus caring for people ---> Church caring for people

In many Old Testament stories, God is set apart and unapproachable. The God on high cares for his people by providing a garden, leading them out of slavery and into a land of milk and honey. In the New Testament, God is no longer on high but touchable as Jesus. God walks, eats, talks, heals and even experiences death just like we do. Christ's church is to continue his ministry.

The fact that God, the ultimate creator, chose to have something in common with you and me is breathtaking. The story of Jesus’ resurrection is amazing and inspiring. The fact that through Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection we are able to come closer to God is an awesome story. The Jesus story was attractive and powerful. We see this in Acts. The Jesus story is attractive and powerful today. But we no longer see it that way.

So many of us in churches have heard it over and (yawn) over again. Week after week, year after year. The same old story. What we have in common these days is our ambivalence about the very thing that makes us a church.  We have lost the devotion and awe at the story of our redemption in Christ. Our time and energy are consumed by other things.

Instead of remembering that God came to the world for our salvation, we remember who sits where and which families have ongoing feuds.

Instead of remembering and acting out the teachings of Jesus, we remember and reenact our own traditions and feed our own desires.

Instead of doing the signs and wonders of ministry with boldness and confidence, we look and the signs of decline and wonder how many years we have left until we run out of people or money.

As an established church, it’s so easy to move Jesus out of the center and put the church building or programs or a hot button issue there instead. I know firsthand it’s easy to let the bills and personnel and programs and ads in the paper and building needs creep to the center.

But you know what? Our part of the world doesn’t need any more church buildings. The world doesn’t need another cleverly marketed worship service or VBS curriculum. The world needs more people who love God and act like Jesus.  The world—and the church—need people like those who are mentioned in this passage. People who are devoted the Word, filled with awe, joined together in Christ and willing to share what they have with others.  We need to be those people.  

As a lifelong Presbyterian, I think I have been devoted more often than not. I have been willing to share on a lot of occasions. And I’m sure you have, too. But I also know it’s easy to lose the awe and amazement over the years. Today, there are things about my faith that I take for granted. When you hear the story of Christ’s salvation 50, 100, 200 times it’s easy to tune out or assume you know it. Jesus becomes common in the worst sense of the word.

I remember several years ago my husband and I went out to an expensive and fancy restaurant in Pittsburgh to celebrate our anniversary.  The food was amazing. It looked exquisite on the plate.  The waiters attended to every detail. It was an exquisite and sublime experience.  We were in awe.

But, there was a couple dining next to us who had obviously been to that restaurant many times before. The manager was talking to them and while they were pleased, they made comments about how this could be better or how that other dish was tastier.

I said to Matt, I don’t ever want a meal like this to be common. I don’t want to eat like this so often that I can’t appreciate what the chef and the staff have done.  I want to keep that awe. 

How can we do this as a church? How can we do this with our faith? How can we show up week and week and be continuously amazed by the work that God has done and is doing?

I think that the answer is in the passage. First, the people devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship. In order to be continually amazed by God, we have to continually learn about who God is and what God is doing. We need to hear the deep truth in the stories about how God worked in the Bible and the common stories about how God works in our own lives. God’s word is alive and the Holy Spirit is busy among us. When we talk about it, we make our extraordinary experiences common knowledge.

Also, the converts are breaking bread and participating in prayers. While we think of breaking bread as communion with a bite of bread and shot of juice, the communion and prayer of the early church was different. It was an actual meal. Those who had food in abundance brought food in abundance. Those who had nothing brought nothing. They put it on the table and shared it so that all were fed. They healed people, provided for people and would actually sell their stuff to share the radical, tangible love of God. They made sure nobody was in need.

As an mainline church, we are good at fellowship and meals, but if Christ isn’t at the center and we aren’t learning and praying together, our gatherings are nothing more than social time. If we’ve confined Christ to a chair in the back or prayer to a thoughtless blessing, we need to examine why we are doing it.

When we don’t know God, we can’t be awed by the work God does. When we ignore Jesus, we don’t know what God is calling us to do. When we don't pray, we don't know who God is calling us to bread bread with. When we don’t hold things in common with the people around us, we begin to think that we are set apart from the rest. But that’s not God. That’s not Jesus.

Jesus was and is willing to be anywhere. He kept some questionable company in his life. He found things in common with people who are nothing like him--because, really, who is like God? 

That is our call as well. We need to discover and embrace what we have in common with people who may not be like us. We need to share as if we are on a common journey. We have to realize that what we have in common isn’t how we look or act, but who we are. 

Because at the most elemental level, the most common thing we share, is that we are God’s beloved people

We are the people that Christ died for. Each of us. When we recognize this and start treating each other that way, we are doing the work of Christ, the will of God. When we recognize this and start treating people we don’t know this way, people respond with awe and amazement.

Each of us is made in the image or our Creator. There is no Gentile or Jew, slave or free, man or woman, rich or poor. Christ is all, and is in all. Christ is what we have in common. How awesome is that? 

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