230507 – We Are Church

Yr A ~ Easter 5 ~ Acts 2:42-47

Last week we started this short sermon series by saying “I am Church!” We looked at the idea of church through the lens of each of us as individuals – our personal embodiment of being God’s holy temple, our identity as an individual within a larger body. Today we wield a different lens and think about us as a group. We Are Church! It’s much more familiar, isn’t it? We prefer to think of church as a group, a corporate body, a ‘we’. Flip through our hymn books and you’ll be hard pressed to find very much ‘I’ language – it’s all ‘we’ language. That’s great, but if I’m always a ‘we’ I can sometimes fool myself into thinking, “Oh, that’s a church thing – ‘we’ are doing it – so I guess ‘I’ don’t really have to embody it.” That’s why I started with the “I Am Church” idea. Now we get to take the next step, and we’ll do it by looking at a snapshot of the very first church ever.

Snapshots are interesting things. They can tell you a lot. But they are also limited. A single moment in time can look a certain way, and that way can be absolutely true, especially in that moment, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it is that way forever. What we have in today’s reading from Acts 2 is a snapshot of the earliest Christian church ever. And I gotta say, the snapshot is heavenly. We can’t stay frozen in a snapshot forever, but we can definitely learn from it. That’s our agenda today.

Acts 2:42 – They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers – those are the first things mentioned about the first ever church – and those things are the core of what we do here at Faith United too. Right now you’re listening to my teaching – by being together in-person and online not just Sunday mornings but at all the other times through the weeks that we gather we are in fellowship together, caring for and supporting one another – we break bread together in church and out of church – and in prayer and worship here this morning and as part of your own daily spiritual practice we are united as well. Teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers – I will go so far as to claim that those four pillars form the foundation of every healthy church. It doesn’t end there, but it certainly must be grounded there – in teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers/worship.

I want to take a second and talk about the breaking bread part. Ritually, liturgically, we call that communion. But communion is much more than just what we do here on the first Sunday of every month. That’s the time we do our formal communion – but I think we are devoted to the breaking of bread together every time we gather over there for coffee after worship, or at break times on ‘church work’ days, or at things like pot luck lunches (which we are going to do again starting on June 11th!!!!!). That’s all communion too.

Officially, communion is one of our two sacraments, along with baptism. A sacrament by definition is “a visible means of an invisible grace”. In other words, it’s something that communicates God’s grace (which cannot be seen) through something we can see and touch – the water, the bread, the wine. But there’s nothing magical about bread and wine, they’re just symbolic – the point is that these everyday tangible things convey God’s grace and blessing. That’s exactly what happens at coffee time here every week. You gather, you visit, you support one another, you connect more deeply, you ‘break bread’ together (and sometimes cookies!). It’s an absolute blessing (especially the chocolate chip ones!). It is communion in the best meaning of the word. There’s something warm and loving about gathering around a ‘table’ and sharing food, in whatever capacity that might be.

Teaching/learning, fellowship/caring, breaking bread, and prayers/worship. Those are the foundational pillars. They will look differently in every church because every gathering of the body is unique and contextual. Church cannot be a blueprint, because churches are made of humans. We are Church, and we are all different.

And those foundational pillars will probably look quite different in the future, as the ‘way we’ve always done it’ gives way to new forms of organization and expression. But whatever church might look like in the future, at its core will be teaching/learning, fellowship/caring, breaking bread, and prayers/worship.

But that’s just the beginning, the underpinning. Then we get to build on that, and we get to animate it and take action in the world flowing from our strong foundation. Let’s see how that first iteration of church did it.

Acts 2:44 – All who believed were together and had all things in common.

This part’s a little trickier. It sort of reads like they were living as a kind of hippie commune, a kind of living that was not unknown in their era. But that’s unlikely. I mean, it says that 3000 people were baptized and became ‘members’ that day after Peter’s preaching. But did all 3000 live together? Probably not – but the features of their church are still compelling.

All who believed were together (as in all the time) – and had all things in common;

Well, I know that some of you feel like you pretty much live here with all the awesome things we have going on, and the amount of time and energy and passion you offer to this ministry we share, this church of ours. And while no group of humans ever agrees on everything, I’d say it’s pretty fair to say that this collection of Jesus people has the important, value-things in common.

The next verse causes a certain amount of discomfort though. Acts 2:45 They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

I always find it funny that our sibling churches who would tend toward a more literal interpretation of scripture never seem to quote this verse as having any bearing today. Other parts of the bible they’d see as inerrant and indisputable but this one, not so much. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Gasp! – that sounds like…socialism! (or maybe, Love.)

Technically it doesn’t say they sold all their possessions and goods – so it wasn’t like they liquidated all their assets and threw it together into one common pot. But it does say that they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. In other words, they supported one another tangibly, financially, noticeably. Maybe not a commune, but certainly a very generous and selfless way to live – in close, caring, sharing, compassionate community. We are church!

So how does Faith United do at sharing our resources? I’d say very well. I know nobody likes to talk about finances but as you can see from the very beginning of ‘the church’ money was an issue. It’s because money is a spiritual concern. How you choose to spend the resources you have been blessed with is a matter of faith. That being said, a couple of chapters after today’s reading there are some pretty ugly and heavy conflicts around money in the early church, but it’s important to see that in that snapshot moment when they began, their ideal was generosity.

Then it says, Acts 2:46 – 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.

Spending time together in church-based things. Yes. We are church! We do lots of churchy things together. And what do we get for it? I hope it’s “glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people!” (“All the people” there probably means their own people, as in within the church.) But the glad and generous hearts part sounds spot on to me. That’s the vibe I get from Faith United – that it’s filled with people with glad and generous hearts.

And then comes another part that we struggle with. Acts 2:47 And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

We see ourselves, rightly, I think, as a vital, vibrant, and viable church. We are church. Together. We love God, love people, and love one another. We have glad and generous hearts, growing ever deeper in the Way of Jesus. So why isn’t ‘the Lord adding to our numbers’? That is a very complicated question.

Part of our challenge is our perception. As we’re emerging from our Covid exile we’ve noticed that our in-person worship has changed. It has become smaller than it was in the before-times, and it seems to be ‘older’ than it was before. I’ve talked about this before, but we need to keep thinking about it. It’s true that there are only 70-80 people here on a given Sunday, when we used to have 130 or so – and that those here generally tend to be in the older demographics. But, we keep forgetting about what we can’t see – that in our online congregation there are another 100-150 people each week, they just don’t all congregate at 10:30 on Sunday mornings. Again, we are actually reaching more people with our Sunday worship gathering now than we did when this building had more people in it. I know, it’s counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

Now, a large online congregation comes with a host of challenges. One is that it’s hard to get a sense of who we are as a body when we don’t know exactly who those hundred or two hundred out there are. We’re working on some strategies about that. Remember the 4 pillars? One of them is fellowship. Fellowship is hard to build when you aren’t in the same room all at once.

Most of us here in this room have a long history of church participation. We like this stuff. This paradigm works for us. It feels right. So our challenge is that we need to stretch our thinking and come to understand that the emerging online paradigm works better for a whole lot of people. And for you folks online, your challenge is to figure out how to find ways to be connected, how to find ways to participate in our shared ministries, how to find ways to serve.

Remember, there is no church blueprint. We have some foundational pillars – and we are called to build on those and animate them in our own place and time. Well, today’s place and time is different than it was just a few years ago. The ground has shifted. It ain’t goin’ back to how it was.

So here we are, faced with a challenge, and an opportunity, that none of us has ever faced before. We are church, but we are also learning how to create new ways to be church. Before Covid our online church numbers could be counted on two hands. These days, by the end of a week or two after a given Sunday, that livestreamed recording typically has 120 or more views. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

We are church. We’re just not the same church we once were. No church is. And we aren’t yet the church that we will be in the coming months and years. But we are most definitely still a wonderful expression of faith, growing glad and generous hearts, together.

We make a real difference in our community.

We are a beacon of love and acceptance and inclusion in the face of those who would steal pride flags and vandalize Affirming signs.

We are a model of loving support as we rally together in countless ways to care for one another in times of struggle.

We are a diverse and passionate group of followers of the Way of Jesus as we faithfully immerse ourselves in teaching and learning, in fellowship and caring, in breaking bread together, and in prayers and worship.

We are all those things, together. We are church.