January 20, 2019 - The Heart and Soul of the Church: Community.
How many of you have visited Shaker Village, just outside of Harrodsburg? How about New Harmony, Indiana, in southwest, Indiana? Both Shaker Village and New Harmony were attempts to create a utopian community, and both were based, at least in part, upon the example found in our Scripture text for this morning. That Scripture text comes from a passage in the book of Acts telling of a time in the early church when there was an atmosphere of community that could be described almost as a utopia. Luke writes of how the sense of unity and community in the early church was so strong that no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. That example has been so powerful that, throughout history, there have been numerous attempts to recreate that level of community, such as Shaker Village and New Harmony. Shaker Village was established by the religious group known as the Shakers, who reached their peak in this country in the mid-1800s. If you have never traveled to that community, I would highly recommend that you visit there. It is a beautiful and peaceful location, and you can also get a good meal there while visiting. New Harmony lasted, as a utopian experiment, only a couple of years, while Shaker Village lasted longer. The Shakers founded communities that spread throughout the eastern and northeastern areas of our country, eventually growing to a point of thousands of followers. Since their peak years, the Shakers went into decline and there are now, I believe, only two Shakers still living.
The desire for community is one of the most powerful longings that God instilled in humanity at creation. While we all need our times of solitude, none of us can survive without being part of some kind of community, and the image of Christian community as shared by Luke in the book of Acts has become the model for an ideal community. Follow along with me as I read that passage, Acts 4:31-37 –
31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.
33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all
34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales
35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”),
37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
This morning I want us to consider the idea of community in relation to three qualities that define Christian community, as found in the early church.
The first aspect of this passage that jumps out is the amazing level of care that existed in the early church. There was an incredible level of sharing that took place, where people sold their possessions to care for those who were in need. The early church created what did not exist at the time – an infrastructure for support. We are blessed to live in a time and in a society where there are many “safety nets” for those who are in need. Safety nets are provided by our government, by churches, and by a number of civic groups and private agencies. During the time of the early church, the Roman Empire had no such social safety nets. If you were in need, you had better hope you had friends and family who would look after you. It was a tough time in history to be in need, and there were many, many people who were in great need. The early church provided what was not provided anywhere else, and that is an atmosphere and a commitment to caring. There was in fact, so much care that was offered, that Luke was able to write in verse 34 that there were no needy persons among them. Wow! Can you imagine? That is quite a statement Luke is able to make about the level of caring that was found in the early church.
Caring, whether for physical needs, emotional needs, or spiritual needs, has always been one of the very core ideals of the church, and has been so from the beginning, and the willingness and the demonstration of caring is one of the defining characteristics of any church. Churches that demonstrate a caring spirit are not only ones that reflect the spirit of Christ, they are the churches that will thrive and will remain tied to the purpose for which they were called. Churches that do not demonstrate care, well, the outcome for them will be much different, sadly. When we fail at caring – either corporately as a church, or as individuals – it can be very hurtful to those who are in need. All of us have probably been on both sides of that equation, either neglecting or overlooking opportunities to care or to be the one who felt neglected or overlooked. Some of my greatest regrets not only in ministry, but as a person, are the times when I missed, or neglected, opportunities to care.
As a congregation, we work hard to bring all of what we do back to the call to care. Every one of our ministries is built upon the foundation of the call to offer care. On the first and third Thursdays of each month our Stephen Ministers gather for a time of continued training and teaching. The Stephen Ministry motto is Called to Care. Laine Kephart leads us in this ministry, and Laine is amazing in her leadership. I have come to very much appreciate those times that we gather. For me, it is like a small group time, and I appreciate being with those who gather, not only because of the fellowship, but because of what we learn and because of the example of caring that each one of those Stephen Ministers exhibit. Laine asked us a question this past Thursday night, asking us to think of a time when we were in need, and then asked if that need was met or not met. The line between those two responses makes all the difference in the world. A need that is met can change a life. A need that goes unmet, in comparison, adds to the difficulty a person is already suffering.
It is interesting that, after this passage of a utopian-like community, we read the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife who both died after misleading the church about the gift they offered (Acts 5:1-10). Remember, the books of the Bible were not originally divided into chapters and verses; each book was one long piece, with no divisions like we have now, which results in the separation of stories. I say that as a reminder that the story of Ananias and Sapphira is a part of the longer story from which our Scripture text for this morning comes. One of the points of that story, I believe, is that Ananias and Sapphira had not simply misled the apostles about their gift, but their dishonesty brought about a disruption in the spirit of community in the early church, causing that sense of community to be seriously damaged, which then damaged the ministry of the church, specifically damaging the ministry of care. Being dishonest about their resources and the giving of their resources was a very big threat to maintaining the spirit of community that allowed the high level of care to take place.
We have a lot of geese that fly over our neighborhood, and I enjoy watching the beauty of them flying in formation. You have probably heard the illustration of the way they work together as they fly. Researchers tell us that they fly in the V formation because it helps to create an air flow that supports the geese that are flying further back in the formation. Those geese, because they have had to exert less effort to fly, are then rotated to the front, where they take turns in leadership. The one in front, taking its turn as the leader, must be able to handle turbulence and headwinds, which comes from being in the lead. After a turn in the lead position, each of the geese is then able to move to the back of the formation to receive rest. While in flight, the others are honking out their encouragement to the one in front as they are flying. At least that is what I have read. Personally, I think some of the ones in the back might be honking out something else, such as I think you are going the wrong way,orcan we stop and take a break?
Here is something very significant about encouragement – it is not only very much needed, but a little bit makes a tremendous difference. Something as simple as a kind word, a friendly greeting, or a reminder to someone that you are praying for them can serve as a great source of encouragement. Imagine the encouragement it was when someone in need received care from the early church. Imagine the encouragement it was for the one who was hungry to receive food. Imagine the encouragement it was for the one who was lonely to receive fellowship. Imagine the encouragement it was for the one who was mourning to receive comfort. And on and on we could go. In verse 35 Luke tells us of Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement). Joseph, or Barnabas as we know him, became a living example of the power of encouragement. Imagine the difference Barnabas must have made for many, many people, as his name was changed because of the power of his encouragement.
Community is very important, and very necessary for all of us. We all want to be part of a group. It was the English minister John Donne who wrote those immortal words that sum up the human condition –
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Indeed, none of us is an island unto ourselves. We were created with a powerful need to belong, and that need to belong is one of the primary reasons why people become a part of a church congregation. Beyond the larger gathering in worship, people find their place to belong in a Sunday School class, a ministry, or some other smaller group which allows us to get to know one another better.
And when we speak of belonging, here is something important about which we must speak – there are no membership requirements in the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God, and by extension the church – there are no requirements for membership and belonging. I have been a member of various civic clubs and community groups and they all have some requirement in order to join, but that is not so when it comes to the kingdom of God. Churches should not have membership requirements either, although some do, which I find rather unbelievable. Whenever I get the opportunity, I like to wander around church buildings. I like to look at their sanctuaries, Sunday School rooms; I enjoy looking around church buildings. When I do, I often read the literature that is in the foyer of the buildings. In recent years when I have done so, I have found, on more than one occasion, applications for membership. Can you imagine, an application for membership in a church! I cannot fathom such a thing. The applications ask for all kinds of information, including the applicant’s position on various theological questions, and then will state that the candidate for membership must also submit to an interview by one of the ministers or lay leaders in order to judge their fitness for membership. One of the reasons why some churches do this, I imagine, is to enforce an orthodoxy upon every member, I find such a practice to be very objectionable. God’s kingdom has an open door policy! It is a kingdom where everyone can belong and that extends to the church as well!
In the Roman Empire, life was much better if you were a Roman citizen. The problem, however, was that most of the people who populated the Roman Empire were not citizens of Rome. But that worked in the church’s favor, because people needed a place to belong, they needed a place where others would care for them, they needed a place where they would be encouraged, and they found that place in the church. Because the church was open and welcoming, and because the church gave people a place to belong, scores of people came into the church. The early church was often criticized, however, because they welcomed everyone and because they were egalitarian in nature. It did not matter if people were male or female, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, or any other distinction. None of those differences mattered, because the church welcomed everyone and gave everyone a place to belong. The Shakers were also looked at with great suspicion, because they were a place in society – in the 18thand 19thcenturies – where women and people of other ethnicities were treated equally. A lot of people didn’t like that about the Shakers, just as a lot of people didn’t like the free and open welcome that the early church offered. In my first message in this series I talked about the Council at Jerusalem, from Acts chapter 15, where the leaders of the early church joined together to discuss whether or not there would be restrictions and requirements placed upon those who wanted to become part of the church. Thankfully, they rejected the idea of placing any restrictions and requirements upon people, which makes me wonder how churches today can justify having an application for membership.
Those lines of separation are created by humanity, not by God. In God’s kingdom, everyone belongs. We are now in the 30thday of a shutdown of our federal government. I’m going to say something about that shutdown and it is not meant as a political statement as much as a spiritual statement, so please do not mishear me. Humanity is obsessed with borders and boundaries, and as much as humanity is obsessed with borders and boundaries, God is not. Borders are a political issue, not a spiritual issue, because there are no borders in God’s kingdom; borders only exist in earthly kingdoms. I realize that does not answer the questions about security and other matters related to politics, so please don’t read into what I am saying what I am not saying. What I am saying is this – as humanity has a tendency and a desire to create walls and borders, God removes walls and borders, because walls and borders are not conducive to community and to belonging. We are too easily conditioned by the ways of the world to think that borders and boundaries are a natural part of life, but they are not part of God’s creation. Humanity was created to be in fellowship and to live in community, not to be separated from one another. If we desire to truly live in community then we must recognize that we are part of one community – God’s community, which is a community that is not about boundaries and exclusion, but about inclusion and belonging. While humanity too often draws boundaries to demonstrate who is not included, God’s kingdom is about the reality that all are welcomed and included. We must not allow ourselves to be conditioned by exclusionary tendencies of humanity. We must, instead, be shaped and molded by the inclusionary will of God.
We live in a time when people are desperate for authentic community. In God’s kingdom, and the church, we find that community. Let us do all we can, at all times, to be that authentic, welcoming, caring, supportive, and encouraging community as was the early church!