“The Fabric of Community”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (NRSV)
Today’s text is brief, only six verses, but everything that happens through the first and second chapters of Acts culminates in this moment. Jesus ascends. The disciples choose Matthias to replace Judas. The Holy Spirit sweeps in upon the disciples who then proclaim the Gospel in every known language. Peter preaches a powerful sermon to those who think that Jesus followers are nothing but a bunch of day drinkers. Afterward, the number of followers swells from a mere handful to thousands. All this heady stuff crests in a community of transcendent wonder, gratitude, and generosity.
Maybe it’s like hikers reaching a campsite on some high country bald along the Appalachian Trail, their boots glistening with already-fallen dew. Their legs burning from the climb. Their shoulders and hips aching beneath the weight of their packs. They’re tired and hungry, and yet, when they look on one side of the panoramic view, they watch the sun setting. On the other side they watch the moon rising. And in between, a few bright stars shimmer in the darkening sky. Below them, deep in the forest, the rhythmic call of a whippoorwill is a voice reaching from back in time. That voice, in that place, reminds the hikers that the very stuff of their own bodies is as ancient as the rocks in the mountain beneath their feet. Mesmerized by this holy moment, they stand in speechless awe of the Creation’s beauty and their fleeting place in it.
Wherever our “mountain tops” may be, these blessed plateaus become moments of Shalom, and oases of numinous community.
When the fabric of a community includes experiences of collective awe, and celebration of things mysterious and eternal, people often find a profound capacity for gratitude in their human lives and generosity with material things. Such was the case when the infant church began to grow by leaps and bounds. Having devoted themselves to studying the apostles’ teachings, to intentional spiritual fellowship, to the celebration of a new ritual called eucharist, and to praying with and for one another, the followers of Jesus found themselves overwhelmed with a richness that wealth could not deliver and a confidence that power could not promise or protect.
For Luke, all these spiritual practices, shared in community, become catalysts for grateful and generous response. And all this together is the substance of discipleship.
Now, the almost utopian scene Luke describes at the end of Acts 2 is a rare experience. It does seem to me, though, that many people within the Church want and even expect it to be the norm. And bless their hearts; those folks are neither happy nor fun to be around. It also seems to me that many people outside the Church judge the community because it is a place where everything is not always peaceful, where people are not always kind and welcoming, and where people are, and I admit my failure in this, far too possessed by their possessions to part with excess and give with joyful abandon to those who are in need.
Our brokenness and hypocrisy are more provably real than the presence of Christ in the Sacraments we celebrate. That’s why we begin worship humbling ourselves in confession. We know that we do not live up to God’s calling.
The early church struggled, as well. In Acts 5, we meet Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who sold a piece of land and withheld a portion of the profits for themselves. When the truth came out, Peter challenged them saying that they had not lied to anyone but God. Terrified, Ananias immediately dropped dead.
Who among us would sell a possession of some sort and feel obligated to share more than ten percent of the profits, if anything at all? And if, as Paul says, God loves cheerful givers who give “not reluctantly or under compulsion,” (2Cor. 9:7) would God even want us to give under duress, or out of pride, or fear?
One point of the idyllic scene described in today’s text, is that living more gratefully and giving more generously than we imagine are community-creating gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Sure, what we do matters. The extent to which we show grace to each other, welcome the stranger, care for the poor and the forgotten, the extent to which we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” with God (Micah 6:8), all this matters a great deal. In it we witness to our faith that real life and true humanity are found in loving as Jesus loves. In all this, we witness to our counter-cultural conviction that the world’s selfish ways and violent means may build nations for a time, but ultimately, those ways and means destroy the very things they build. What lasts is beyond human capacity to create. As disciples, we simply participate—for a brief time—in that which is eternally creative, holy, and true, but we do not own it. Indeed, the only way to experience spiritual gifts is to give them away. Like a candle flame, the joy of God’s grace and love is made brighter and warmer only by sharing it.
One reason that these days of isolation are so difficult is that we’re being forced—and, let’s be honest, we’re being forced not by leaders or laws, but by love of neighbor and the gift of human reason—to withhold from sharing expressions of grace that we so enjoy when we’re together. Our community, though, is not being destroyed. If we approach this season of separation as a kind of spiritual retreat, we will find ourselves and our community strengthened. When we return, there will be differences in our gatherings that we can’t anticipate. And if we don’t expect the unexpected, we will have learned nothing through this difficult but potentially transforming experience. And that would be a terrible loss.
So, even now, “day by day,” with “glad and generous hearts,” we continue engaging scripture (through Facebook worship and Zoom meetings). We continue to enjoy fellowship (by telephone, cards, and brief visits from safe distances). We continue to break bread around this table and at our homes (alone or with only the people closest to us). And, without restraint, we continue to pray for one another and for all Creation.
When we return, there may be an Acts 2 moment, a period of peace and joy to match that of the disciples in Jerusalem and the hikers on that Appalachian bald. There will also be a new beginning, a new calling for us. I don’t know what it might ask of and offer to us. I simply trust that whatever it is, just as the Holy Spirit has held the Church together for two millennia, that same Spirit is holding us together now, and will be in our midst, creating in us and for us new joy, gratitude, and generosity.