Monday, June 07, 2010

life together (acts 2. 42)

After Easter and the resurrection, what next? After the Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, what next? After baptism and confirmation, what next? After saying yes to Jesus, what next? The short answer is that we become a part of a community. This was built into the design of the Christian way of life from the beginning. Jesus, who is Emmanuel, God with us, lives upon this earth as a person for a particular span of time. Then he is no longer with us, but he calls us to be his witnesses and servants, to the ends of the earth and until the end of time.

So, what happens next? His followers become a part of a community. They get together, and the description of their common life is found in the last verses of Acts 2, the culmination and overflow of the Day of Pentecost:

They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teachings and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.

These were the commitments and practices of the earliest disciples. After the experience of emotion or enthusiasm or clarity or faith, what happens next? Well, most of us cannot continue along the path in our own strength---we get lost, we stop moving, or we go back. Maybe it does not take a village, but it takes a community. What were the essential marks of the community, to which these men and women were devoted, in which, more accurate to the Greek language of the New Testament, they persisted?

First, the apostles’ teaching, the teachings of the apostles about the life, death and resurrection. The emphasis is not on the teacher, or the credentials of the teacher, but on what is being taught, the content. Years ago I served as a pastor of a congregation in a city with a very strong Jewish presence, and each spring we would take our congregation to the synagogue to hear the rabbi and learn about our ancestors. There were usually a couple hundred souls at the Friday Evening Sabbath service; this year there had been rumblings from within that community, and I heard the rabbi would be leaving. We arrived for the service, with about one third the usual number there to welcome us. I asked a friend, a member of the synagogue, why the rabbi had left (I had liked him). Now it is usually the case that when a minister leaves a church, there are the typical reasons: she does not have relational skills, or he is a dictator, or he neglects visitation, or she is never around. Why had the synagogue and rabbi decided to end the relationship? “Most people felt that he was weak in his teaching of the Torah, the Law.”

I wondered: would a Methodist Church ever ask a minister to leave because he or she was weak in teaching the Bible? This is related to the core practice that really is at the heart of our common life: the apostles’ teachings, the substance, not the style, the truth, not the way we package it. The conviction is that if the word is taught, it has its own power to transform us into the people God created us to be. Someone has said that the Bible does give us the answers, but it helps us to ask better questions! I like that.

Where does the Apostles’ teaching happen in Providence? In Disciple Bible Study, in studies led by men and women through the week, in Sunday school, and in this service. If we are present, we learn the teaching; if we are absent, we miss it. To be present and to have a pattern of being present is to persist, to be devoted to the Apostles’ teaching.

Second, the fellowship, from the Greek word koinonia, literally, our social relationships. This is a deep sharing of life. And so church is not so much a crowd as a community, as a communion. Why is the fellowship essential? We really do need each other---we need the support, the accountability, the encouragement. And it is also true that these first two marks reinforce each other: without formation in scripture, our fellowship becomes a club of people who agree about politics, whose kids pursue the same activities; and without social relations, the scripture becomes a “head game”---something we figure out intellectually, a collection of ideas and questions that are intriguing, but not much more.

At its best, the church is a fellowship, a set of social relationships among flawed human beings---the Bible calls us sinners----who are finding redemption and wholeness in a relationship with Jesus and other people who are trying to follow him. Sometimes we come empty, needing to be filled. Sometimes we are enthusiastic, and our purpose is to be there for someone else.

A word about our fellowship: one of my favorite spaces in the world is our atrium. It is everyone’s space, it is a space where we come together, to listen and laugh, to embrace and encourage, to console and comfort, yes, to sell things (!), but mostly to strengthen our fellowship. I am very grateful for that space, I am very grateful for our fellowship. I urge us not to take it for granted. I love the words of the twentieth century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

It is true that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters is a gift of grace, a gift of the kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let the one who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brothers and sisters.

A third mark of the church: the breaking of bread. About eight of us in the church are sharing a meal recently, and a friend says, “My neighbor is a Baptist, and she said, “all Methodists ever do is eat”. We laughed, admitted it was true, then someone said he didn’t think Baptists were all that different….and I thought back to this verse from Acts 2. They persisted in breaking bread together. Social relations are strengthened as we share meals together, husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters in Christ.

In my first three months here, seven years ago next month, I wanted to meet as many people as possible, and so I asked earlier in the spring for the Staff-Parish Committee to schedule conversations with a broad cross section of people--- different interests, length of membership in the church, age, and so forth. Many of these conversations were over meals, breakfasts, lunches or dinners in homes, or at places like Lupies and Greg’s and Phil’s Deli and Hotel Charlotte and Eddie’s Place, and I could go on. Last Sunday I had lunch with two friends in this church at Mexican restaurant I did not know about. It was a great meal, and we reconnected.

How do you get to know someone? In the breaking of bread. How do we get to know Jesus Christ? Do you remember the journey on the way to Emmaus, after the resurrection? Luke also told this story in the 24th chapter of his gospel. They walk with the stranger, the day comes to an end, and then, the scripture says, “he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread” .

And so today we experience Communion with God through this meal. I love our practice of communion once a month in one service and every other week in the first service. I need to receive God’s grace in this way. It sustains me. It really is that basic.

Robb Webb, who will be ordained next weekend, told a wonderful story two Sundays ago in a group that was honoring him. He leads the Duke Endowment’s Rural Church Division, and in that capacity helps rural churches (in communities of less than 1500 people) in a variety of ways. This involves going to meetings in country churches, talking with their leaders, and sometimes they have covered dish suppers, they would call them. One evening Robb was in a church down east, in very out of the way place, and one of the leaders, maybe the chair of the church council, asked him, “Why do you do this work?” Robb began by talking about Mr. Duke and his commitment to the rural church, but that was not getting across. He talked about how all Methodist churches were connected, but that was not getting across. Finally he asked the leader, “Why do you think I do this kind of work?” The leader quickly replied, “you do it for the food!”

Now if you think this is a rural phenomenon, last Sunday I was leaving the first service and someone said, “come to our Sunday School class today, we are having brunch.” I usually teach during the middle hour, but I was not on this day, so I went into the class. They welcomed me, put a plate in my hands, and more than one person asked me, “did you get any of Carolyn’s cheese grits?”

Something caught my eye, in corner wall of that room, a white board, with a list of names. You can guess where I am going with this. They persisted in the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. It was a prayer list. When people are shaped by the scriptures, when we share deep social relationships with each other, when we break bread together, we get to know each other, and we get beneath the surface, and the mask comes off, and we are no longer strangers, no longer isolated individuals. We have somehow become the body of Christ:If one member suffers, all suffer together with it;If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

We are connected through prayer. When I was a college student, I spent a two summers working as a counselor in a Christian camp in the mountains of western North Carolina, about three hundred miles from my home in south Georgia. One evening I was playing in a basketball game. Our camp staff was competing with the staff of a nearby camp. I was playing defense against a fast break, moving backward, trying to get into position before the other player’s shot was taken. As I was moving backward, another player collided with me.

This is my last memory of the accident. I was taken for surgery to a nearby hospital, and the recovery lasted several days. Thirty years later, I have two memories: the presence of my family in the hospital, and a letter from the small choir of my home church. I was a part of the choir, and had developed friendships with several of the members. The letter simply stated that they were remembering me in their prayers, and then each person had signed the card.

I was fairly new in trying to live an intentional Christian life, as a young adult, but this struck me as being what the New Testament meant when it portrayed the church as a community of people who prayed for each other. It was real. And what happens when you find, or help to create a community like this, a community that persists in the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. What happens next? Well, Luke tells us, in the concluding words of the second chapter of Acts, for me, the true miracle of Pentecost..

Awe came upon everyone, because many signs and wonders were done by the apostles. All who believed were together, and they had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they much spent time together in the Temple they ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the favor of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2. 43-47).

Source: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.


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