On Being Church

May 1, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Leviticus 26: 9-13; Acts 2:41-47

As you know, we are awaiting the birth of our third grandson. Rachel and Christopher have been preparing their other two boys for Beau’s arrival. Kane was just 2 ½ when Mace was born, so he doesn’t remember the adjustment of not having mommy available to him the second that he wanted her. Two weeks ago the family went away for a few special days together, a celebration of family before big changes happen; and despite all of the talk about what it will be like having a new brother, the joy of it, and the adaptations that will be needed, like doing more for themselves; it will be only when they hear the crying at night and smell the need for a diaper change will really get it.

I want to focus on community this week as we too prepare for our growing family; as the snow bird members of our church start to return. We will be pleased to see them, and they will bring us joy just like when we see our first real feathered friends return to the area after months in a warmer climate. But as much as we’ll be happy to see them return, the church will change from our small, intimate year-round group to larger, more active, more boisterous gatherings. And the change will likely be more dramatic for those returning. When most of our “summer people” left, Jan was still the pastor here. When they come back to their church, they won’t see her at the pulpit. In addition, there have been changes that you all have experienced gradually, over a period of a few months. These changes will likely be more dramatic for those returning, as they experience them all at once.

So I’m cheating this week and not taking the gospel reading in chronological order. We will celebrate Pentecost on May 15th; so for two more weeks those disciples are still pretty much huddled in the upper room. But today I skipped ahead to Acts, chapter 2 when the disciples of Jesus are filled with the spirit and spreading the good news, building the early church. I’m doing this so that we can learn from them as we prepare to grow in number and as we continue to grow, as in develop, as a church community.

When I read the account of the early Christian community described in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, the church appears to be perfect. When my daughter-in-law, Rachel had her sonograms and called to say that the baby whom she was carrying looked perfect, that meant that he was in good health and progressing normally, but still not fully developed. He was not ready to survive outside of his mother’s body. He needed to continue to grow and mature. That’s what the Jerusalem church is like. It is a wonderful church, populated with many new Christians and it is moving in the right direction. Nevertheless, there are some ways in which it has not come to maturity. While the Jerusalem church here seems to gather daily this practice will not continue indefinitely. Later on, by Acts 20:7 and in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, we read that the church met weekly. This church seems almost totally dependent upon the apostles. Later on, we will see elders and deacons and a diversity of spiritually gifted people functioning as a body. Here we read of the members selling their possessions and laying the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. In a while, they will set money aside on the first day of the week, as they are able. And thus far the church has no formal missions program. It is a very new church.

Today’s reading in Acts is the first of several assessments of the state of the church. The text begins and ends with a statement about its unusual growth, and lists and describes four of the activities to which the church devoted itself; teaching, fellowship, breaking of the bread, and prayer.

As we ourselves continue as an evolving church, as our mission statement describes us, and as we prepare for growing numbers, it’s helpful to consider each of these four activities of the earliest church, which are introduced to us as priorities. These activities were the result of a genuine conversion to a life in Christ.
Teaching: We would suppose that “the apostles’ teaching” was the same subject matter that we find in Peter’s sermons in Acts 2 through 4. In other words, the content of the apostles’ teaching was the gospel. Since the audience was Jewish, there would be a good deal of emphasis on the fact that the saving work of Jesus was the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies. Though they were teachers, the apostles still had a great deal to grasp themselves. It is apparent from Acts 10 and 11 that Peter did not understand that the old Jewish food laws would need to be set aside. That’s because this church did not see yet that it would in time be composed of Jewish and Gentile believers. The issue of circumcision and law-keeping for Gentiles would have to be tackled later; in what would be the Jerusalem Council.

The apostles’ teaching has been preserved in the New Testament Scriptures, so that we as well as the early church have their instruction. One can hardly over-emphasize the importance of sound, biblical teaching. The Word of God is the foundational to Christian life. Yet, authoritative does not mean all-knowing. Just as we saw in the scriptures during Lent where Jesus had a growing awareness of his call, here the leaders of the church will have a developing understanding about what it means to be a Christian church. Now these are culturally and to a large part religiously Jewish people who also have a belief in the risen Christ. And they are doing things the way that they always did them and expecting that those who join them also do these things.

One way to put ourselves in their shoes is to consider the discussion that goes on here each year about a half-hour change in the time of our summer Sunday service. Imagine the Apostles meeting in the court of the synagogue for an executive committee meeting with the issue of changing the day of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday on the agenda.

Like the early church, learning, or Christian formation, is one of the central tasks of a congregation. Marcus Borg states, “All of us have been socialized into a culture that sees reality and life very differently than the way Jesus talked about it.” The current central values of American culture are comprised of what he calls the “three A’s”—achievement, affluence, and appearance. “Most messages of our culture reinforce this, and these values are so different than anything biblical or Christian. Formation is about re-formation, re-socialization; Centering oneself in God, as known in Jesus.” Borg goes on to identify four areas on which our re-formation should focus: Compassion, economic justice, active non-violence about which he says, “The two greatest causes of human suffering in the world are economic injustice and war. We must work to address both.” The fourth area on which he encourages us to attend to is “courage to change/transform the world.” No small thing! As we continue to evolve as a church, we would do well to explore ways to address these four areas in our planning and decision-making and be open to opportunities to continue to learn how to apply gospel values in all of our affairs. Like the early church we are invited as individuals and as a faith community to grow in our understanding about what it means to be a Christian church; something that needs our ongoing attention.

The second element that characterized the early church was fellowship. The term for “fellowship” in our text is a much broader term than our English word.” Fellowship” with other believers is described in a number of ways throughout the gospels and epistles , including the partaking of meals and engaging in prayer. Essentially, “fellowship” means “joint participation” or “sharing something in common. It is thus a kind of partnership. In Galatians 2:9, fellowship is described as a sharing together in ministry. We had a perfect example this form of fellowship this past week when Eve suggested that we have a shared common period of prayer for Lisa. Though I am the acting pastor, in this situation Eve was the leader. I wrote a short prayer that could be used, Paul sent it out to all of you, and many of us took time out at the same time to pray. We, as a church shared fellowship; shared in the ministry of leadership, compassionate care and prayer.

One of the outcomes of fellowship is group cohesion. Group cohesion is defined as the extent to which influences on members to remain in the group are greater than the influences on members to leave the group. Group cohesion is determined as each member assesses the desirable and undesirable consequences of group membership. Highly cohesive groups are more effective in achieving the goals of the group, are a source of security for group members, serve to reduce anxiety, and serve to heighten self-esteem.

We can measure group cohesion to a large extent. It is indicated in several ways: Attendance, punctuality, trust and support among members, the amount of individuality accepted in the group, the amount of fun members have and also by asking members whether they like one another, want to continue their membership, and think that they can work effectively with other group members. As cohesiveness increases, members put more value on the group’s goals and become more committed to them, accept assigned tasks and roles more readily, conform to group norms more frequently, and are both more likely to influence one another and at the same time are more open to influence from others in the group. Members of a highly cohesive group are more willing to endure pain and frustration on behalf of the group (including the discomfort of working through conflict), are more willing to defend the group from external criticism, and are more satisfied with group achievements. Just as the early church was not a perfect church, neither are we. But as I listed the signs of cohesion, I’m sure that you felt very positive that we are in a healthy place. Still, groups are living organisms, and as such, need to keep growing or they slide backwards. It’s helpful to be attentive to the basic membership needs that foster cohesion. They are three: inclusion, control and affection. By inclusion we mean, who’s in and who’s out. It’s the need persons have to keep satisfactory relationships between themselves and others in terms of belongingness and interaction. This need differs from member to member. Some people like to be right in the thick of things, and know everything that is going on. Others prefer to be on the periphery. Both are fine. It’s important, however, that we all take responsibility for everyone feeling welcomed and invited to be as involved as they choose to be. Soon I’ll be putting out a sign-up sheet for those who are interested in reading scripture at our Sunday services. I count on you to let me, the deacons , or committee chairs know how you want to be involved. All are welcome, not just at our services, but in all of our activities.

The second need that requires attention for group cohesion is the need for control. The questions to be answered are, “Who has influence in the group? Who has authority?” I’m not talking about control over, but rather control to. We join groups because at some level we understand that we can accomplish what we want in the group better than we can on our own. We can pray alone – we come together to pray to experience something that we can’t on our own. We are part of a church community because at some level we know that we can achieve something through this community that we can’t on our own. So we all want some control or influence that this happens. Again, it’s all of our responsibility to create structures and processes so that all members have that influence.

The third need for group cohesion is affection. This has to do with how close relations are in the group. It is based on the building of emotional ties and like the other two needs, the degree and way in which individuals want to experience this is different. Karen received a lot of attention from members of our church, as Lisa is now. We all need to ensure that every member feels just as special.

A common expression of “fellowship” in the New Testament is that of sharing financial resources; giving. In today’s reading, Luke writes about what fellowship looked like in the newly-born church in Jerusalem, when he described the fellowship of sharing one’s material goods with others. “All who believed were together and held everything in common, and they began selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need.” Many work very hard in our various mission commitments, in contributing funds and in creating and working on fund-raisers so that we can continue as “the little church with the big heart”, open to the needs of an ever-widening community and responding generously to those needs.

Since 1918, today, May 1st has been an important public holiday in much of the world. First an ancient European spring holiday, it became known as Labour Day in Europe, the Day of the International Solidarity of Workers, in the Soviet Union, and simply as May Day in the People’s Republic of China, North Korea and Cuba. In all of these places it is a celebration of laborers and the working classes that is promoted by the international labor movement, socialists, and communists. May Day originated out of general concern for the social problems that were associated with capitalism. Those of us who grew up during the cold war and were given the message that capitalism is all good and socialism all bad may be a bit uncomfortable thinking that May Day has anything to teach us. Today, however, with the continuing shrinkage of the middle class, the increasing gap between the wealthiest people and the poorest, and the growing number of large, publicly owned businesses whose goal is to gain and continually increase profits for shareholders, often at the expense of quality, safety and fair wages and benefits to workers, we might do well to re-read today’s description of the early church; not necessarily selling all of our possession and putting them in a general pot, but looking long and hard on the needs of our community and asking what can be done to help bring about change in the unfair structures and processes that keep so many in need.

The third activity that distinguished the early church was the Breaking of the Bread -“the breaking of bread,” used here in Acts 2:42 referred to the observance of the Lord’s Table, or Communion. Breaking bread is not always a reference to Communion, however. The expression sometimes refers simply to the eating of a meal. In Acts 27:35 we read, “Paul took bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all, broke it, and began to eat”. In this instance the text is simply describing what took place when Paul and many others were caught in a devastating storm; all of the ship’s passengers were eating something before they struck shore. This was not a Communion service. In the early church the sharing of a meal was an intimate form of fellowship one could have with other believers. In the scripture passages that use the term “breaking of the bread” it’s sometimes hard to know whether he is referring to the simple eating of a meal, or to partaking of Communion as a part of the meal. Perhaps it’s significant that it’s difficult to tell if the early Christians are experiencing the presence of Christ as they share a meal with each other or if they are experiencing the presence of Christ in a religious service. God is present when we worship together and receive communion and God is present when we interact in a loving way, socialize, sharing enchiladas and ourselves with each other.

The fourth regular practice of the early church was prayer. This section of the scripture passage holds guidance for us not only as we seek to learn from it how to continue to evolve as church but also when we think about selecting new Bibles; which we will do in the near future. Some bibles paraphrase older texts using language more familiar to us. Often these versions are beautiful and touch our hearts in ways that many of the traditional language text doesn’t. This is especially helpful when using a bible for prayer; hearing scripture in today’s parlance can sometimes be particularly moving. That’s why, when asked which Bible I wanted as an ordination gift from all of you, I asked for one of these modern translations. I also wanted it soft-sided, not too big, but with readable print. I wanted it as a prayer bible that I could take outside with me. And what you gave me is perfect. Sometimes, however, these modern scripture texts change the wording in such a way that we lose the historical or cultural significance. To understand what is going on, a more accurate translation is helpful. For example, in the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version we read, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” However, The New Revised Standard Bible and the Jerusalem Bible, my old standbys, which are translated directly from the Greek text, use both the definite article “the” and the plural form of prayer “prayers”: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. These two words show that in its very early days the Christians in Jerusalem diligently persisted in the observance of the stipulated times of Jewish prayer at the temple. Again, these were newly-converted Jewish believers who were just beginning to appreciate the significance of converting from Judaism to Christianity. This early church in Jerusalem is very much a Jewish church, worshipping in most respects as they always had. This is not a church that has “arrived;” it is a church that has a good start and is moving in the right direction. It is a church that loves God and others. It is a Spirit-filled church that is moving toward closer expression of the Gospel mandates. But it is not a perfect church and to develop it will need to change.

We are in transition and when we have a good thing, change can seem dangerous. We don’t want to lose what we have. But if together we keep focused on what is important and consider changes that protect and promote what really matters; all will be well.

So like us, the early church was evolving through the use of scripture, fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers. The gospel passage also describes the spirit in which this was done. A “New Testament church” is not just doing the right things; it has the right attitudes and is working to have right relationships. “Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number.” New believers were not begrudgingly giving up their possessions nor sharing their meals with others. There was a constant mood of celebration in all that they did. The Greek word, “agalliasis”, means more than ‘joy’; it is a kind of spiritual enthusiasm and exaltation. This is the spirit we want to see in all of our activities and in all of our gatherings. And this is what I believe we do experience together.

Finally, in Acts 2:47, we are told that the church had the good will of all the people. The church was respected and esteemed. Union Church has that same admiration in the community, and I for one am so proud to be a member. But we need to be careful not to be complacent. God calls us always into closer union as individuals and as a people, and we can always respond to Jesus’s message more fully.

Joan Chittister states, “Discipleship casts every fragile new Christian community in tension with the times in which it grows. In the early church to be a Christian community meant to defy Roman imperialism, to stretch Judaism itself, to counter pagan values with Christian ones. It demanded very concrete presence; it took great courage, unending fortitude and clear public posture. Real discipleship meant the rejection of real things: it meant the rejection of emperor worship, the foreswearing of animal sacrifice, the inclusion of Gentiles, the elimination of dietary laws, the disavowal of circumcision, the acceptance of women and the supplanting of law with love, of nationalism with universalism, of a chosen people with a global people – YOU!”

This church in Jerusalem may not be the perfect pattern for all that we do as a church today, but it is an excellent example of a church that is marked by love – love for God and love for others. I pray that our church continues to do the right things, as acts of genuine love, for God and for others. May we be characterized by the devotion, awe, generosity, and joy that we find in the early church, to the glory of God. If that be the case, then no matter the change in leadership or in some of the ways that we do things, all of us here now and those returning will be able to rejoice that we, together, are church.