For several weeks now the first readings in the season for Easter have been from the book of Acts. Acts of the Apostles is the second in a two volume work on Christian beginnings by the person we know as Luke. Volume I is the gospel of Luke and is focused on the life of Jesus. This second volume begins with Jesus ascending into heaven and Pentecost, and then describes the activities of the first Christian communities. Volume II, or Acts of the Apostles, may be divided into two sections. The very first chapters describe the beginnings of what was known as The Way. A second section tells the story of Paul and other missionaries in the expansion of the faith by establishing additional communities to the north and west in Greece and Asia Minor.
At first one might look at Acts as a history book, and in some ways it is an historical record. But as one looks closely at it, one senses that the history has been highly massaged to reflect a particular point of view. For example, in the struggle between traditional Jewish Christians and acceptance of new Gentile members, the author seems to be on the side of the new Gentile converts. And the document emphasizes the growth to the north and west and does not really address the similar growth taking place at the same time south and west into Africa.
All that said, this morning we have a fairly short passage which summarizes Luke’s interpretation of how the very first Christian communities organized themselves. The work may be highly idealized as it lifts ups the values of Luke. Luke is writing about sixty years after the events took place. Just as we writing today may have an idealized memory of church life in the fifties when everyone came to church all the time after drinking their fill of martinis in turquoise living rooms, Luke may be writing with longing memories for something that he felt was a golden age.
So we are looking at the values of Luke’s Christian community as much as a history. Those values are inserted into this historical account with more than a bit of nostalgia.
With that in mind, we see Luke lifting up four basic values for Christian communities. And in some ways, regardless of the history, these values have become somewhat timeless. Christian gatherings and congregations (1) devote themselves to teaching and learning ministry. (2) They engage in fellowship. (3) They break bread together. (4)They worship and pray. (5) And finally they share things in common. We also see in this passage that they both gather together in public meeting space, usually a synagogue or a public square, and that they also meet and eat in homes.
There are two outcomes of these practices in these places. One is mighty acts of healing. The earliest Christian communities were focused on healing. Some of them may have resembled medical clinics more than our contemporary churches. When one thinks of an early Christian congregation, it would be a place where the sick would gather and where healing and recovery would take place. We might reject the ancient concept of miracle healing, but we all know that the body and mind are connected in many ways, that our attitude makes a difference in our health, that people who are prayed for recover more quickly than those who are not, that our blood pressure drops when we think about God, and that people who are cared for recover more quickly and with more certainty than people who are not cared for regardless of what that care is.
Besides healing, the second outcome of these practices in these places was that people flocked to The Way. The church grew. And it grew exponentially. Growth because of the desire for health care is still a powerful force in society. These days it accounts for the growth of hospitals and clinics, and such things as Medicare and Obama Care. This week we were all focused on the future of health care in the events in Washington. Today, we do not turn to the church for health care. We use science, research, money, secular institutions and structures to provide that care. But first century Greeks and Romans did not have these resources. The early congregational gathering provided mighty acts of care, and so of course they grew.
As we think about congregational life, we would still do well to focus on these principles outlined by Luke. Teaching, worship, fellowship, and caring ministry are the four cornerstones of congregational well being. If a congregation is engaged in these four things, it will do well. For us, this is the reminder that our Sunday Assembly in which we sing, think, and pray is the center of our life together. It is important for us to break bread together symbolically each and every Sunday. Adult forums, sermons that reflect current complexities, Sunday Learning Place, and confirmation ministry all still speak to the importance of learning and teaching. Coffee fellowship after worship is a critical expression of our mutual care. Table and pew discussions on Sunday morning and on Wednesday evenings in Lent nourish one another. And that fellowship often extends into friendships that are nourished throughout weeks, years and lifetimes. Caring ministry takes place as we suffer together, grieve together, and as we face the needs of those around us who need shelter or assistance or support. Caring ministry takes place through our Senior Care Team and the visiting they do on our behalf. Let us continue to rededicate ourselves to these efforts at being a well rounded, well founded congregation in the tradition of The Way of Jesus.
But for just a few moments I would like to focus on one of these four principles: the teaching ministry of the apostles, and to explore three of those ancient teachings and what they might mean for us now. In the three readings together, we sense three different ancient teaching themes which still instruct us.
From Acts we should consider the principle of sharing things in common. From I Peter we have the teachings regarding undeserved suffering. And from John we have the teaching of gate keeping or thresholding.
Communal Life: One of the ancient teachings of the church was about economics. It is simply stated here. Life, possessions, and things were held in common. This is actually a form of primitive communism, probably best described as communal living. Actually urban Christian communities in the cities of the Roman Empire probably practiced a hybrid economy. Within the group, things were shared and individual property was discouraged. However the group itself probably sold things like fish or tents or food or medicine to the larger society for profit in order to support the community. Within the German and Scandinavian Protestant and Lutheran traditions, this approach to communal living was expressed by Mennonite, Finnish, Amish, and Shaker traditions.
On the one hand, we all recognize that we generally cannot be communal in this ancient way. Our economy is vastly different. But this ancient teaching regarding economics reminds us that capitalism without some sort of sharing mechanism may not lead to the ultimate economic good. An economy is only as good as it provides for the common good. And capitalism according to this ancient teaching should always be tempered so that it limits human greed and provides for those who are in need. An economy exists not to only to enhance wealth, but also to enhance the well being of all. Ancient Christian communal life calls us to strive for the economic good of everyone, and to modify our economic systems and behavior gradually and continually so that through the biblical miracle of sharing we experience exponential growth.
Undeserved Suffering: A second ancient teaching is found in I Peter. This document, written even later than Acts, indicates that Christians who are facing suffering, persecution, and struggle are wondering why these bad things are happening to those who are leading good lives. This is still a matter that faces us. What are we to say about undeserved suffering?
So much could be said here, but it is clear from this reading, that the ancient church wondered about unmerited suffering, especially in times of persecution. The teaching in I Peter is that undeserved suffering is sacred. It is a sacred path, experienced by Jesus in the story of his execution. It is the sacred way walked by Jesus. In undeserved suffering we find ourselves walking with Jesus or rather Jesus walking with us. And as Jesus is walking with us in the suffering, he is leading us through it, into a new ending, a new hope, and a new possibility. Sometimes that suffering leads us into a new mission for this life, as people who recover from cancer or alcoholism or whatever help those coming after them. Sometimes that suffering leads to new life in Jesus Christ through death. Either way, whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. We are made sacred through the suffering we share with Christ.
Gate keeping and Thresholding: This ancient teaching is not from the tradition of Peter, nor from the tradition of Luke, but from the tradition of John. This tradition came to fruition later than the other two in the area of Asia Minor. John’s language is complicated, filled with metaphors, and difficult to understand at times. Johns is a mystic writing for a monastic community. Mystics are always hard to understand. This teaching is that Jesus, the risen Christ, is a gateway, or a threshold. One way to understand this involves exclusion. One could say I suppose that in the mystic mysteries of John, Jesus is the only way, the only gate, the only threshold which one might use to draw close to God.
But I’m not thinking about that. What gate keeping and thresholding involves is not certifying the number of gates, their position, and width as if we were some sort of theological auditors, making sure everyone has punched their Christian tickets in order to get to heaven. Those days may be over.
John teaches that Jesus is the gateway, a threshold into something: something deeper, richer, fuller, broader, and greater. This something transcends suffering, struggle, hopelessness and sorrow. It transcends even death. Jesus is a gateway into new life, life in this world and beyond it. For example, in light of the teaching on communal living, as we cross this threshold into a new way of thinking, it might no longer be said that I own a particular piece of land. We might no longer be able to even say, humans own any land. What we would say as we cross through the gateway into a new life is that we belong to this land, this sacred space in this wonderful world, in this vast universe sustained and cradled by a God of compassion who loves us still.
Gate keeping, passing into the mysteries of new life; the mystery of undeserved suffering; and holding things in common are three ancient teachings that still speak to us. One time, a long time ago, these earliest Christians dedicated themselves to the teachings, to prayer and worship, to fellowship. They healed. And people saw what they did and came. Their faith brought them into a new world, a new life. And we still shape ourselves on these principles of healing and hope.