A sermon preached on Sunday, May 6th, http://www.briarwoodpresbyterianchurch.ca
“…Individual material progress and the desire to gain prestige by coming out on top, have taken over from the sense of fellowship, compassion and community. Now people live more or less on their own in a small house, jealously guarding their goods and planning to acquire more, with a notice on the gate that says, ‘Beware of the Dog.”
“Community is only being created when [people] have recognized that the greatness of man is to accept his insignificance, his human condition and his earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness….”
– Jean Vanier, Community and Growth
Let us pray.
Startle O God, with your truth. And speak your word into our lives today. You, in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.
How many things are there in our lives that we can live without? I mean, things, that if we took them away, we would continue to live quite well. Things we don’t really need? That seem quite useless?
I was recently shopping for a birthday present for someone and I found myself walking around a very large kitchen store. I was looking for some pots. The salesperson took me around, carefully showing me the pot section. And you wouldn’t believe the number of different pots you can buy these days. My favourite turned out to be five inches wide and about a foot high, with a metal mesh inside it. No idea what that was for. So I asked. The saleperson said to me very happily – proudly – O that pot is for boiling asparagus! And I am like, really, do we really need a pot just to boil asparagus! How many things are there in our lives that we can live without? I remember as a kid, a neighbour’s parent bringing home an appliance for the countertop. It was one of those electric can openers that you screwed to the under neath part of the cupboards. It had a magnet that held the can, while another piece twisted around, cutting the metal lid. Really? There are, I’m sure, a whole long list of things in our lives that we could live without. Would hardly miss them if they were gone.
But there are some things we need. That we really need.
And up there on the list,
right beside oxygen,
is a little word
we all know:
Larry Crabb, a Christian counsellor in the U.S., tells of visit to Miami. He says how he and his wife journeyed down the beach strip, with the luxury hotels and hot sun. Finally understanding while everyone wanted to vacation there. Then they went one street over, where the shops weren’t quite as nice, where the busses and taxi zoomed by, a loud street, not many of the beautiful palms. Not the post card Miami. At one point they came along a wooden boardwalk ten feet deep, sixty feet long, where they saw at least one hundred chairs in neat rows and columns, “none touching, each exactly the same distance from the others”. And in each chair they noticed some motionless retired man or woman, staring straight ahead into the street. He doesn’t remember any of them moving. Even when a car zoomed past, or a walker cross in front, he remembers seeing no heads turn. They noticed that none of them read a book or a newspaper or sipped coffee. None of them spoke. There was no conversation, no sense “that any of these people had been created by a relational God”. Each person a separate unit, apart. And Crabb remembers thinking this thought:
“All their lives everyone on this porch worked hard in Detroit or New York with the dream of retiring in Florida. And now they’ve made it. But look. Everything they’ve lived for has come to this. Lord, deliver me from living in a manner that will leave me one day sitting in a chair next to other people who are also sitting on chairs looking straight ahead never into another person’s eyes, never knowing anyone, and known by no one.”
It’s a description of a life without community. Something we need to live.
As the book of Acts develops, and we start to see how the early Christian movement begins to take shape, we come across a few descriptions of something that is strong and central to these first Christians; that marks them. And that is their practice of being together. As if their lives depended on it. As if there was nothing else they wanted to do. Their focus was this new bond among them.
Peter and John are at the heart of these chapters, where this sense of community is described. Peter, has just given the first sermon. Peter and John go to the temple and teach and pray with their Jewish brothers and sisters. One day, they go and they heal a man who was lame. And they’re called before the religious council. And those leaders recognized something in them, after hauling them up front to be question – they describe Peter and John like this in chapter 4 v. 13: Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were…ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.
These two leading figures in the early Christian movement witness to what is at the heart of the early Christian communities in Jerusalem — they were companions of Jesus.
You see, all these early Christian communities centered around something that had happened and that had changed their lives: they had met Jesus. The risen Jesus lived among them by the Holy Spirit. And this risen and living Jesus was the center, the core, the bond, the reason, the foundation of their community.
We all know there are different kinds of things you can build a community of some kind around. Sailboats. Train sets. Knitting. All wonderful pursuits.
But the kind of Christian community we find in the book of Acts, and kind we long for in the church today, is different. It’s a spiritual community that consists “in what Christ has done for…us.” (Bonhoeffer).
It’s not the kind of community where only those who share the same interest get together, when they want to. It’s not the kind of community that is a hobby, like any other. The Christian community is one where we recognize in the other – Jesus died for this person. And the other recognizes in us – Jesus died for this person. A recognition that transcends our varied interests.
And has the power to transform lives in Jesus name.
Now, the marks of a Christian community in Acts were pretty simple. The devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2:42
The apostles’ teaching? We know that was a teaching of proclamation – proclaiming that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins and rose again to new life for us.
The fellowship? We know that this meant knowing each other by name, inviting each other into homes, caring day and day out what was going on in the lives of their brothers and sisters, taking care to support the widow, the orphan, the needy. Or in the words of one North American church goer: “I feel so heavy every time I walk out of church. My burden doesn’t life. It gets heavier. I just want to talk to God and hear Him talk to me. And I want to talk to a few friends.” When we have fellowship with each other, when we listen to each, it is like the heavens opening. And we start to form a spiritual community. Fellowship.
The apostles’ teaching. Fellowship. Breaking of bread. It’s pretty clear that at the heart of the spiritual community of the early church was this simple, physical reminder – that on the night Jesus died he took bread and broke it. This is my body given for you. It’s pretty clear, that as they gathered and ate meals together, someone, a leader, at some point would gather everyone and break bread and pour wine, and something wonderful, sacramental, happened. They experienced the grace of the risen Jesus. Or in the words of chapter 4:33 – great grace was among them.
And the prayers. O the prayers. They were communities that prayed. As if their lives depended on it. Would you like to hear one of the early prayers of the first Christians? We actually have one, amazingly, thanks to an ancient manuscript that was discovered called the Didache. It’s an amazing find, because we get to read some of the prayers from the first Christians! Here’s one, likely prayed in a house, in a community:
“We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you have made known to us through your son Jesus; to you be the glory forever. As this broken bread was once scattered on the mountains, and gathered together became one, so may your congregation be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom….
We thank you, holy Father, for your holy name, which you have caused to dwell in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality which you have made known to us through your son Jesus; to you be the glory forever. You, Almighty Master, created all things for the sake of your name, and give men food and drink to enjoy, that they might give thanks to you, but to us you give spiritual food and drink and eternal life through your son. Above all, we give thanks that you are powerful; to you be the glory forever. Remember your congregation, Lord, to redeem it and perfect it in your love; and gather it together, the one that has been sanctified, from the four winds into your kingdom which you have prepared for it; for yours is the kingdom and the glory forever. May grace come…. Hosanna to the God of David! Maranatha. Amen.”
The teaching. The fellowship. The bread. The prayers.
It is simple to build a spiritual community, isn’t it. But we can get distracted. We know we can. And part of the invitation from God’s word this morning is for us to reconsider how everything in our lives, how everything in our church, how it is about being a spiritual community: the teaching about Jesus, fellowship where we’re known by name, communing with God together, prayers & worship.
It is simple, but we know Christian community to be powerful and lasting and life-giving.
One writer tells of Jean Vanier gathering in Rome between with several bishops. Vanier was invited and he brought with him Armando, who lived in a Christian community there, and who was severely disabled. He couldn’t walk or eat or dress for himself, and wasn’t able to carry out long conversations. Vanier recalls the bishops being fairly tough individuals, used to a lot of political wrangling and not presenting themselves as very open to wide open interaction. He took Armando around to each one, until one of the bishops asked if he could hold him. So he did and held this disabled boy in his arms. Vanier hovered around, thinking this wouldn’t last very long. Eventually, a half hour later, Vanier came back to see the bishop and Armando laughing and smiling together. He asked the bishop he wanted him to take Armando back now. He said, no. Somehow in his honestly, and littleness and contact and attention, Armando had welled up between them a sense of gratefulness and love.
Vanier remembers listening, and Armando would just say this to the bishop, “I love you. I love being with you.”
Not bad words for us, for each other.
You see there’s something about that kind of living, that has lasted so long. From the heart of God in Jesus & the Spirit, to the early Christians, to Armando, to us.
It’s almost as if the community we invest it in now
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.