September 13, 2015
Acts 4: 29-35
Peter and John have been arrested by the high priests and religious leaders for preaching about Jesus, and for healing a man. Can you imagine being arrested for healing someone? They brought them to trial but couldn’t find any reason to keep them in jail, so they released them, but told them that on no account were they ever again to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. Obviously, that warning went unheeded.
It couldn’t have been easy being a First Century Christian. Like Christians in parts of the Middle East today, they were threatened, persecuted, and sometimes killed for their beliefs. They were ostracized for modeling their lives after one who had instructed them to teach and to heal in his name.
And yet, somehow, what was to be known as Christianity survived, even flourished. Chapter 2 of Acts tells us “… day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Over the ensuing centuries, some would say the church has strayed off course; immersed itself in dogma, doctrine, creeds, rules, liturgical stagnation, and right beliefs - the heart of Jesus’ message somehow getting lost in the (mire). The church’s teachings becoming more about right belief than right living.
And yet, somehow Christianity has survived - survived endless schisms - and reformations about every 500 years, which drastically transformed the face of the Church. We are in a New Reformation today, and nobody knows what Christianity will look like a decade or two down the road. Where do we go from here? That question is being asked in many circles today.
Some say we need to go back - back to those early followers of Jesus who lived so close to the source, who lived imitating the one they had followed around the hills of Galilee, who heard first or second hand his message about how to create the kin-dom of God here on earth.
Why did Christianity grow and flourish in those early, difficult years? What can we learn from them? For answers, let’s go to the Book of Acts, Luke’s account of life in the early Christian communities.
They lived in a world where a very few people had the majority of the wealth, while most people lived in dire poverty. Some things are slow to change. As Reebee said in her sermon last week, they knew that God’s love was for all people, that God cared equally for us all. So, after being released from jail, Peter and John gathered their followers and they all prayed together. And this is where the scripture begins today: Acts 4: 29-35.
“And now, Lord, look at their threats, grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
Their vision, their life’s work, and lifestyle, grew out of their relationship to God and to Jesus. They prayed for guidance. They prayed for strength. They’re telling us it’s with God’s help that we can make this world a better place. We can heal the world. It’s with God’s help that we can become fearless like Peter and John.
Would you join me in singing the first verse of “Be Thou My Vision.” NCH 451. The words are printed in your bulletin.
Be now my vision, O God of my heart;
nothing surpasses the love you impart --
You my best thought, by day or by night,
waking or sleeping, your presence my light.
“When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”
Rev. John Dorhauer, the new General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, began his address to the National Church Leadership Institute last month with this question: “What if we were meant to fly? What if the breath and the wind of the Holy Spirit was intended to lift us up? And in the lifting up, gave us new things to dream, new aspirations to soar towards?”
It was the Spirit that filled those early Christians and gave them the confidence to know what God wanted them to say and do. It is that same spirit that we need to tap into today. The church is in need of new dreams, new aspirations to soar towards.
Richard Rohr said in a recent devotional, “The genuinely new or different is always a threat to the small self. Unless there is something strong enough to rearrange our worldview, call our assumptions into question, and also engage our heart and body, we will seldom move to new interior or exterior places. God has a hard time getting us to join Abraham and Sarah in ‘leaving your country and your family for a new land that I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1-2). Yet that is our foundational paradigm for the journey of faith.”
Growth and transformation comes about by challenging ourselves to try something new. That is how Christianity is reborn during a reformation.
Through prayer and an opening to the Spirit, those early Christians were given voice to speak boldly the word of God. Two weeks ago I quoted Rev. Yvette Flunder, pastor of the City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco. Her words bear repeating. She accused mainline Christians of the sin of passivity. “We need to admit that one of the reasons the world is in trouble is that we are not in proper Covenant with God. It’s a two sided thing. When are we going to do our part and stop waiting for God to fix it? Peace loving people are woefully silent. When are we going to be as loud as the haters and drown out their voices to lift up the voice of God?”
Please join me in the second verse of “Be Thou My Vision”
Be now my wisdom, and be my true word;
ever within me, my should is assured;
Mother and Father, you are both to me,
now and forever your child I will be.
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul”,
You notice it doesn’t say ‘heart and mind, or heart and intellect’. It says “heart and soul.” Even the apostles were of different opinions or mind sets when it came to many issues - not so different from those of us here today at Eliot. The power and passion of the apostles to go out and heal the world, did not derive from their education or social status. It was mediated in the name of Jesus, and came from their hearts and souls.
Those who have analyzed the writings of St.Francis have noted that he uses the word Heart 42 times to 1 use of the word Mind; Love is used 32 times as opposed to12 uses of Truth, and the word Doing rather than Understanding at a ratio of 175 times to 5.
Rohr, who’s a Franciscan, says, “Only near the poor, close to the ‘tears of things’ as the Roman poet Virgil puts it, in solidarity with suffering, can we understand ourselves, love one another well, imitate Jesus, and live his full Gospel.” In that world of haves and have nots, those early Christians stood with those who had little.
“and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
This more radical form of Christianity has never thrived for long. Chapter 5 tells of Ananias, with his wife’s consent, selling a piece of property and keeping back some of the proceeds. Change is difficult, especially when you are sitting comfortably on the top rung of the social ladder. But Jesus called his followers to come down - to touch the poor and the pain around them, not only to be helpful, but to transform their own lives. Love and suffering are the paths to transformation.
Please join me in singing verse 3:
Riches I heed not, nor life’s empty praise,
you, my inheritance, now and always;
You and you only are first in my heart,
great God, my treasure, may we never part.
I sat with a couple of adult guests over lunch at one of our cookouts this summer, and listened to why they had left organized religion - both Catholic and Protestant. I listened to them talk about the hypocrisy of the church today and how it had impacted their lives. They were hurt deeply by the church, and they are not alone.
Today we are living in a culture where “nones”, people who self-identify as atheists and agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular”, make up roughly 23% of the US population - where another large segment identify as spiritual but not religious - finding their spiritual nourishment in yoga and meditation classes, small support groups and community service organizations.
What makes the church different from a social club, yoga class or a secular non-profit? What do we have to offer that they do not? These questions need to be answered as we find our way through this New Reformation into becoming vital churches of the 21st Century, as we put on our wings and prepare to fly.
Looking back at the early Christian communities, they have much to teach us about what it means to be church. David Lose, President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, chimed in on this topic in a recent article he sent out to pastors. Let me share it with you.
“Might we on this day, Dear Partner, invite our congregations to imagine that they will be renewed in mission and energy and spirit when – and I’m tempted to say “only when” – they identify those persons around them who need their advocacy and care? I am convinced that congregational renewal does not come from figuring out what hymns we – that is, those still attending – want to sing, what programs we most want, or what pastor we really deserve. Rather, congregational renewal comes when we look around us – to our households, schools, communities, and world – to discern who needs us, what they need from us, and how we might leverage our resources to be their advocates before God and the world.”
That’s what the early Christians were doing, and that’s what we need to do too. Let us sing the final verse.
Sovereign of heaven, my victory one,
may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, what ever befall,
still be my vision, O Ruler of all.