(part 2 of a 3-part series called “The Presence Project”)
Yr A ~ Easter 4 ~ Acts 2:42-47
When we hear this scripture passage about the first church ever I imagine most of us zero in on the part that says “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) I don’t know about you but when I hear that I think hippie commune, or maybe a cult! How long would I last here if I stood up and seriously preached that we should all sell our possessions and redistribute all the wealth among us?
Now, I don’t think they actually lived in a commune, but I do think they’re describing that the earliest church was so tuned-in to God and one another that they actually practiced that “love your neighbour” and “if you have two coats share one” stuff.
But as radical as that seems to our hyper-individualistic Western ears I don’t think it’s the most radical thing in this passage. I think the most radical thing is their spiritual intentionality – that they found a way to be fully present to God, and it impacted the way the lived. I think what we get here is a glimpse of humans finally really ‘getting it’!
It’s interesting to ask people what they think the bible is about – things like: Whose story is it? What’s the theme? What’s it trying to tell us?
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about God’s presence, and that the bible is really a library of stories spanning thousands of years of faithful people practicing presence, but more often stories of self-centred people ignoring it.
How does the bible begin? Where’s God?
God is in the midst of creation.
God is tangibly present with Adam and Eve – walking in the garden with them. Yes, it’s just a metaphorical story, and no God isn’t an old guy with a white beard, but notice what this story tells us: it says that our ideal state is to be fully in the presence of God.
So what happened in that story? Humans put their own stuff first, turned away from God’s presence, and ended up poorer for it. Paradise isn’t about lush gardens and frolicking carefree – it’s about being fully present to God’s Presence.
Think of all the horrific stories in the Old Testament about how God was supposedly helping various people raid and pillage villages and kill all sorts of people. Does that sound like a God of Love to you? Of course not! So did God’s character change over the centuries, or is it more likely that human ambition took centre stage and when it was successful they said “Look, God is on our side!” and when it failed they said “Look, God is absent!”
If you trace through the biblical witness you’ll find that every time humanity put themselves at the centre and tried to draft God onto our side to help us do what we want we floundered, and every time we put God at the centre and let God lead us we flourished. When we practice self-indulgence and self-absorption we tend to spin out negatively, but when we practice Presence there are usually overflowing blessings.
Today we heard a story of the very first Christian church ever. It was probably the one and only time in the history of Christianity that the church lived in complete harmony, believed the same things, and radically supported one another. It was idyllic. And it lasted for about 5 verses. Almost immediately problems emerged and they were because of human self-centredness and self-importance.
But while it lasted it was a beautiful and true expression of church because they radically practiced presence instead of practicing individualism.
Look at how that church was described. Look at how they lived. Look past the hippie stuff and notice what it says about their faith – what they were intentional about.
Acts 2:42 “They DEVOTED themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer.
They didn’t do church like we do exactly, but those four things are still the pillars of what we do – teaching/learning about God, Jesus, and Spirit, fellowship and support, communion, and prayer. So we’re on track so far.
vv.46-47 “Day 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, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
It truly paints a picture of a group of people who really put God first – who shaped their whole lives with their spirituality at the centre. It doesn’t say “they gathered once a week to worship and support one another” – it says “day by day they spent much time together at church AND at home where their spirituality continued to be the focus.”
It was their “day-by-day-ness”, their intentionality, their mindfulness, that created their unique church.
What are the things you do “day by day” to nurture your spirit?
In what ways do you strive to be “intentional” about your faith like they were?
And why would you want to be? What’s the payoff for this focused intentionality?
What was the benefit of their whole-hearted effort to be present to Presence?
Acts 2:43-46 “AWE came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need… And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Day-by-day-ness, intentionality, mindfulness, these are all different ways to talk about practicing God’s Presence. Practicing Presence engenders feelings of awe, and amazing things flow through your life. It’s more than just an inner glow. It moves you to live less selfishly and urges you to share your whole life with others.
It doesn’t say they sold everything and gave everything away, it says they shared their resources so that no one had any needs. They shared their lives. They truly took care of one another. And they were inspired to live that radical fellowship because they were so immersed in their spiritual practice. They didn’t just learn to notice the Sacred; they learned to live present to Presence.
I will go so far as to say that for one brief moment in time, in the afterglow of Easter, as the Spirit was flowing richly among Jesus’ first followers, and they had ordered their lives for maximum openness to the Presence of God, that these people were ‘back in the garden’! (I think it probably didn’t last because living that open and vulnerable is hard work!)
Imagine what that must have felt like!
Imagine how grounded, and connected, and immersed, and enriched, and blessed, and warm, and aglow they must have been as they devoted their lives to God and one another.
Imagine what it would be like to savour God’s Presence so fully!
I love that word – savouring! It’s not a word we usually apply to our spirituality but I think it should be! Think of the things you savour.
You can chug down a coffee, or a cup of herbal tea, or a glass of wine, or you can savour the experience.
You can eat your food or you can savour the tastes – like chocolate!
You can look out the window or you can savour creation.
You can have some music on or you can savour the sounds.
You can sit around with your partner or a great friend, or you can savour their essence, their being, their uniqueness.
To savour someone or something is to enjoy it, bask in it, glow in it, revel in it, allow it to wash over you, flow through you, fill you up, light you up, enliven you…
Close your eyes for a minute.
Are you savouring these words right now?
Are you savouring this feeling of shalom that permeates this sacred space when we gather here?
Are you savouring your breathing, savouring your heartbeat, savouring your aliveness?
In this moment are you fully present?
Are you aware of the Spirit that surrounds you?
Are you present to Presence?
Savour it! Enjoy it, bask in it, glow in it, revel in it, allow it to wash over you, flow through you, fill you up, light you up, enliven you…
(You can open your eyes.)
Imagine what kind of impact savouring God’s presence like you just did might have on your life if you were more intentional about it.
Imagine what kind of impact it would have on our church community if that level of communion and connectedness was our starting place.
I think it might resemble that first church in Jerusalem even more than it does now.
Last week I urged you to give more attention to the world and people around you – to look for windows that reveal and awaken us to God’s presence. Someone shared an article with me this week that talked about school kids doing an experiment to “look for the wow” in their world. Look for the wow! When you find it you’re experiencing God’s presence! You know the wow is there. Our bedrock affirmation is “Surely God is in this place!” – and our prayer for awakening to the wow is “Help me notice!”
So being intentional about tuning-in and sensing presence is the essential first step – and once you do, once you’ve caught a glimpse, once you’ve noticed, once you’ve wiped the sleep out of your eyes and know that you’re experiencing the really real – the next thing to do is to savour that moment.
Be grateful. Be moved. Be present. Take a deep breath. Take the time to really stay with it.
Now, perhaps you’re thinking that’s lovely but you have jobs to do, and a family to take care of, and responsibilities that demand your time, so you can’t be standing around dreamily noticing clouds and flowers all day – and besides, that sounds kind of boring.
Well let me introduce you to one of my heroes. His name is Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence was a simple, lay, Carmelite monk in 17th century France who spent most of his time working in the abbey’s kitchen washing dishes. We know his name because he was so tuned-in to the presence of God that even while he was in the midst of his mundane chores he knew he was experiencing the Sacred.
He was so serene, so grounded, so vibrant, so at peace, so alive, so content, even as he was up to his armpits in dishwater, that people started asking him how he did it. His answer was so simple it confounds us.
He said, “My only prayer practice is attention. I carry on a habitual, silent, and secret conversation with God that fills me with overwhelming joy.”
In other words, he said “I just practice God’s presence.”
His grand, innovative, ground-breaking technique was that he just did it.
He actually did it.
He didn’t just talk about it, or do it once in a while, he made it his constant practice.
He became the king of mindfulness.
After his death a fellow monk gathered up his correspondence and wrote down their conversations and organized it all into what has become one of the greatest books on spirituality ever written: The Practice of the Presence of God.
There is no secret. The answer to how to practice God’s presence is to practice. You don’t have to sequester yourself away in a special building, or become a recluse or a monk, you just have to become more and more and more intentional about savouring God’s presence.
Surely God is in this place! Savour it.
You don’t need to escape from your life to savour God; you enhance your life by savouring God while you’re living it.
You don’t need to stop working to pray; you infuse your work with mindfulness.
You don’t need to set aside your responsibilities; you engage them with joy and passion and commitment because you are savouring God’s presence as you do them.
That was the brilliance of a simple monk who wasn’t supposedly smart enough to become a priest, but who ended up teaching millions of people more than priests ever could. Brother Lawrence (or Brother Larry as I like to think of him!) truly ‘got it’! And from him we learn our second great prayer response. The first was:
Surely God is in this place! Help me notice.
The next stage after noticing is this: Help me savour!