This morning’s Scripture offers us a snapshot of the early church – in those first days after Resurrection. The followers of Jesus – they’ve traveled with Jesus throughout his ministry. Jesus loved them, he taught them, he healed them. Jesus spoke truth to power, and he was arrested, and crucified. And on the third day, they experienced the Risen Christ – and the power of Resurrection Life.
And then 50 days after that, the Spirit has come to them at Pentecost – empowering them to see visions, and dream dreams. In this snapshot, just days just after that – in their bewildering world – they continue to gather behind closed doors– now in their homes – now enlivened by the Spirit of the Risen Christ – figuring out how to live life in community.
This snapshot gives us a glimpse of that.
And what a glimpse it is. They gather in their homes and break bread together. They pray together – they persevere in the teachings they received from Jesus. They live out signs and wonders that have the world around them amazed. They share everything in common – including their property, their means of survival. When someone has a need, they sell what they own to meet the need. They praise God, and they enjoy the favor of all people – day by day, welcoming more people to the table – every day drawing the circle wider still.
It is a lovely snapshot of their life together – in those hard days. It’s almost... too good to be true. I mean, they sold what they had, whenever anyone had a need... Did it really happen like that?
But you know what? As soon as that question comes to me – did it really happen like that?I just don’t think that question matters all that much. I don’t need to know the answer to that question. This story that they told is true in a way that is so much more important than that.
At some point – years after all this – they looked back – and wrote these stories down – they said to each other and to the world – do you remember – this is what life was like. We could think of the whole of Scripture as a photo album– each story a snapshot – with our ancient siblings in the faith saying to us – this is what life was like – with God and with each other. This is what life was like.
These stories convey to us some powerful memory – some powerful memory of a powerful experience that these sisters and brothers – these siblings of ours – lived out – and clung to – and told again and again and again – about how they experienced Jesus in flesh and bone, and then about how they experienced Jesus in each other – and they wrote these stories down – and then sent them down to us, over the centuries. And we tell them now.
These stories that they told – the stories that we tell –
they are part memory – and part hope.
They tell us something of who we once were,
something of who we are, and
something of who we hope to be.
So let’s take a closer look at this snapshot, and notice a few things about the community we find there.
First, they are an innovating community. What they are doing here is a new thing. Their world is changing before their eyes – almost moment by moment. Keep in mind this is just after Pentecost – maybe 60 or so days after the Resurrection. So just 60-some days ago -- they were with Jesus – then Jesus dies – then Christ is risen – then the Holy Spirit comes. Shock upon shock. And this life that they are living together now, they are making it up as they go along – creating it and re-creating it because the world around them keeps changing.
I’m reading this amazing book by a colleague, MaryAnn McKibben Dana – God, Improv, and the Art of Living. McKibben Dana takes her experience doing improvisation – improv – and her experience as a pastor – and she writes and frames our life through the lens improvisation. She says that Scripture is full of “stories of people in an ongoing state of improvisation – making do with meager provisions, building on situations and surviving on their wits – all in relationship with a God who improvises right back.” “When faced with a world that they wouldn’t necessarily have chosen for themselves,” she writes, God’s scrappy and resourceful people come up with a new way forward.
McKibben Dana recommends an approach from Improv that faces each new day with a “Yes/And.” The Yes is a Yes to the world we find – what we can’t change. The And is what we make of it. We enter the world each day as we find it – YES – AND we add something new to it, we create something new.
In this morning’s Scripture, this community has said YES to the experience of Resurrection and Pentecost. It is not a world they would have chosen – they wouldn’t have chosen this path that has taken them through trauma upon trauma. But they have said YES.
What we see here in this snapshot is their AND. AND, we continued in Jesus’s teaching. We kept going to the Temple, AND we also started gathering in our homes, sharing that meal that Jesus shared. AND, we held all we had in common – we paid attention to each other’s needs – AND we prayed.
This may be true for other faiths, but Christianity is always innovating on a tradition. This snapshot is the start of that. Across Christianity – around the world and through the centuries – we have leaned into God’s saving love in Jesus Christ – that loves us beyond what we could ever imagine – and that saves us from everything that does us harm. And in every time and every place, those who follow Christ have improvised on that core truth – expressing the life and teaching of Christ in the lives they live, and in the times they inhabit – in the lives we live, and the times we inhabit. That’s why church might look different in California than it does in Korea than it does in Geneva – different this year than it did 20 years ago or 50 years ago – AND, throughout time and around the world, it’s the same Jesus, the same Good News, the same unconditional, unending, un-shake-off-able love of God for the whole world. We are always innovating on a tradition to bring the truth of Jesus to life in us in each new day.
And that’s so important to say now – because look at us. Just pause for a second – and think of one new thing that you have learned in the past two months – and not just in church, but in our families, in our work life, in our community life. One new thing. I know – “Just one???” Think of one innovation that you have been a part of – saying YES to the world as it has come to us – and boldly saying AND, here is how we will make the most of this – this is how we will love each other and the world, in the name of Jesus, in this new day – holding on to what matters most, and bringing it to life right here, right now.
In this snapshot, they are an innovating community. And so are we.
Second, they are a sharing community. This snapshot says that they owned everything in common, and they sold what they have as anyone had a need. The first time I heard this Scripture was back in Birmingham. It was at a Wednesday night Bible study – and the pastor Eugenia Gamble read this Scripture – and Wallace McRoy, one of the elder elders in the church raised his hand and said, “Eugenia... they sound like a bunch of communists.” And Eugenia responded, “Well, Wallace, I reckon they were.”
Biblical scholar Margaret Aymer Oget uses the term “Communitarian” – a way of structuring life that puts community at the heart of us – together, thinking of the needs and well-being of each other, and meeting those needs in community. As it is described in Act, it feels radical to this preacher who was raised in American capitalism. They held everything in common, and they sold their property, and gave to those according to their need. They innovated a new economy based on human need.
It may feel radical, but we can see things in our life that are like that – maybe not to that degree. This is the Sunday when we take up our the Deacons Offering. Every first Sunday, we take up an offering that the Deacons administer confidentially – to meet real needs that arise in our community and for folks who come to us for help. I’ve been moved in my time here by the steadfast quiet beauty of this ministry – as I see those requests come in. But you know what – I checked with the Deacon leadership to make sure about this – we haven’t received any requests for help from this fund since we’ve been sheltering in place. So I just want to say this – in these times of pandemic – in this crisis – if you’re hurting and you need help, that’s what this fund is for – and please feel free to let us know. As a community we have shared what is in this fund, and it is there to share – to help out with need. You can contact me, or Phyllis Schlobohm, or Mary Waetjen.
That’s just one glimpse of sharing. But if we think more broadly in our community and in our nation -- in these times of pandemic, where the economic disparities already in our world are made even worse – this “communitarian” approach is something that churches should really be thinking about. What are the needs we see? How shall we meet them together, in community?
Third, they are an inviting and welcoming community. As this Scripture describes the quality of their life in community – the love and the resources they share – the ways that they gather and break bread in their homes – it also says this: Daily, people were added to their number.
They live in a world of need. And they are responding to that need. And as a part of that, they invite people in, and people respond. We live right now in a world of deep need – a world of economic need – also a world of isolation and distancing – a world where our spiritual need for connection and belonging has come to the fore. We’re living into that need here – and in other ways that we have figured out to connect, in ways that transcend the walls and the doors of our shelter.
We have something to share. Something to invite folks into. A steady place in a world of trauma and change. A place of connection in a world where folks feel isolated and alone and uncertain. We can share this – by sending a link – or an email – or making a call. Come join us as we look for life behind closed doors. Wherever you are on your spiritual journey there is a place for you here. All are welcome. We are glad you are here.
We see in this snapshot a community that is innovating, and sharing, and inviting people in – embodying the welcoming love that they have come to know in the Living and Risen Christ. This snapshot and the stories we tell – they are part memory and part hope. They say something about who we have been, who we are, and who we hope to be.
A little over 7 weeks ago now, we set out on this journey together through this world of pandemic and sheltering in place. We didn’t ask for this world. And given a choice, we wouldn’t have chosen it. But here we are. As we took the first steps on this journey, at first we may have thought it would be a matter of weeks, but now we know, as Governor Newsom says, that we are on this journey for a matter of months, not weeks.
What this Scripture tells us is that by the power of the Spirit of the Risen Christ alive in us – we can do this. We can move through this together – and not only that, we can create with God something that is worthy and loving and beautiful and true. We can greet each day – and whatever it brings – and say YES – and move into it with our AND – innovating new ways to serve the world together, even from our places of shelter – remembering who and whose we are and creating new ways – for each new moment – to do the things that have always mattered –
· welcoming neighbor and stranger,
· feeding the hungry,
· making music to cheer the weary heart,
· sheltering the vulnerable,
· working for justice and for peace,
· mending the earth,
embodying God’s love for the whole world in Jesus Christ,
for such a time as this.
Now, having said all that, there’s one detail in this snapshot from Scripture that I don’t quite know what to do with – but I know that it is powerful and true. In this snapshot, we see that way back then, in those first days of Resurrection, they gathered in their homes and they broke bread together. And here we are, two thousand years later, standing on their shoulders, gathering in our homes, breaking bread together.
Stories like these give us a glimpse – of who we have been – and who we are – and who we hope to be – in Jesus Christ – folks gathered from our homes, from our separate but connected lives, breaking bread together, embodying in community God’s love for the whole wide world.
© 2020 Scott Clark
MaryAnn McKibben Dana, God, Improv, and the Art of Living (Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI, 2018). Id.at 44-45. Margaret Aymer Oget, Commentary on Working Preacher, May 7, 2017, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3237