Life Together by Rev. L. John Gable
March 19, 2017
If you were to ask me who my best friend is, not counting Kris, she is in a class all to herself, my impulsive answer would be JP. JP and I met at a mutual friend’s birthday party when we were in elementary school and have been best friends ever since. While we have never lived in the same community, in fact we went to rival high schools in suburban St. Louis, as kids we spent countless hours together, as best friends do. After graduation, we went off to different colleges but our friendship continued. JP was one of the first persons I wanted Kris to meet when we started dating and he stood as my best man when we were married. But truth be told, while I may still refer to JP as being my “best friend” I haven’t seen or talked with him in at least five years, perhaps it’s been even longer.
You ask “Why?” was there a falling out between you? Not at all. Life just kind of got in the way. After college we got in to graduate school and marriage and children and careers and we simply drifted apart. Not a very good way to be related to one I would call my “best friend”, is it?
Yet interestingly, that is the way many would describe their relationship with God or with the church. Do you believe in God? Of course I do, I just don’t show it and I haven’t talked with Him in a while. Are you a member of a church? Of course I am, I just don’t go very often, like not since Easter of 2004. Was there a falling out of some kind? No, life just kind of got in the way. You know, college, then graduate school, then marriage and kids and my career. You know.
“In an unchurched society most unchurched people have been able to separate the miracle of faith from the act of congregational participation” cites Alan Klaas, in his book, In Search of the Unchurched. “Virtually all research on attitudes of unchurched people has yielded the same findings. Between 70-85% of unchurched people identify religion as being important or very important in their lives, and between 40-60% report praying to God daily or weekly. These people identify themselves as having faith but choosing not to participate in a congregation,” which makes perfect sense to them, but admittedly is very confusing for those of us in the “churched” society. And I believe the witness of Scripture is on our side in this. As people we are designed and intended to live life in relationship with others, and as Christian people we are designed and intended to do this life of faith together.
Look closely at the account of life’s beginnings in our lesson from Genesis and we will see that God created us to be in a four-fold relationship: with Himself (God walking and talking with them in the garden), with the creation (Adam naming the animals and selecting from a wide variety of ample fruit), with others (God created Eve as a partner to be with Adam) and with ourselves (they knew they were naked but were not ashamed). That is the way God intends life to be for us, in right relationship in each of these ways. That story is told in Genesis 2, however we know by Genesis 3 that all of that falls apart through our act of willful disobedience. Suddenly we are at odds with the creation: at enmity with the animals and needing to work hard in the soil; with one another: Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, and the serpent doesn’t have a leg to stand on (I’m sorry, I just had to throw that in); the man and the woman both seeing themselves as being naked and they were ashamed, not even comfortable any longer in their own skin; and worst of all, when they heard the sound of God in the garden, they hid. It was God who had to come searching for them, calling out, “Where are you?” If ever, or whenever, you think it is up to you to search for a God who seems to be hiding, reread this story. From the beginning, God has been on a desperate search for you. God desires to be in a relationship with each and every one of us, and for us to be in right relationship with Him and one another. When we are, we are undoing the effects of the fall, but when we are not, we are perpetuating its curse.
This understanding forms the second leg of our Vision Renewal statement. Last week we spoke of the importance of Greater Faith which leads to a commitment to Deeper Relationships. To this end, “Tab will be a catalyst for deeper, loving relationships that embrace differences for the sake of fellowship and service.” Admittedly there are many barriers which keep us from enjoying the kind of fellowship we desire, and that God desires for us: a congregation dispersed over a wide geographical area; separate worship services under the same roof; physical space and a schedule not always conducive to community gatherings or meaningful, informal connections; a pervasive understanding of the faith that promotes a personal, private focus and draws us away from the community experience; ever increasing time constraints of daily life; cultural, racial, economic and preference distinctions which highlight differences rather than commonalities; as well as a myriad of other factors which work against our establishing deep relationships and a closer sense of community. But we must be committed to work against these as strongly as they work against us. We were created to be in community with God and with one another. We were designed to do life together, particularly the life of faith. In short, to choose Christ is to choose to be a part of His community.
In the second chapter of Acts we get a glimpse in to life in the early church. The passage we read this morning is at the end of the chapter telling the story of the day of Pentecost, the day God poured out the Holy Spirit and the apostles spoke in tongues, the day Peter preached the first Christian sermon, and 3000 people came to faith. Wow! What a day! That would have been a great place for Luke to end the story, on that emotional, spiritual, revival high, but he didn’t, because he knew, because God knew, that enthusiasm wanes. If this faith was to be life-changing, and eventually world-changing, it would have to be translated from enthusiasm (which is all good, the root of enthusiasm is “en – theos,” in God), but if this faith was to be life-changing it would have to be translated from enthusiasm in to embodiment. It would have to be lived out and put in to practice, and that would best be done, not as individual believers in Jesus, but as a community of Jesus followers; that is as true now for us as it was then for them.
Let’s look together at the practices of the early church because each one of these leads both to GREATER FAITH and to DEEPER RELATIONSHIPS. First, “they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching.” As we spoke last week, if we are going to grow in our knowledge or understanding of any given subject it is absolutely necessary that we commit ourselves to our study and examination of it, the same is true in our relationship with God. In order for new believers, then or now, to grow in their faith and in their understanding of God, it is absolutely essential for them, and for us, to sit under the apostles’ teaching. This is what we do each and every week, in worship and in Bible study, we are sitting under the apostles’ teaching as we study the Word of God. I know that you do not come to hear what I have to say about what I have been thinking about. You come to hear what God has to say, so while I may be the one talking, together we are sitting under the authority of Scripture being instructed by the work of the Spirit. This kind of teaching and learning is essential to growth in the spiritual life, but it can’t end here.
It is insufficient for us simply to come in, listen to a sermon, gain some knowledge and nod our heads in agreement, as though we were attending a lecture in preparation for a test. No, the intention of what we do in here is so that we can live it out, out there. In here we learn about the implications of our faith, out there we make the applications. So the first step in translating spiritual enthusiasm in to authentic embodiment is to “devote ourselves to apostolic teaching.”
The second principle they put in to place was “fellowship,” the Greek word is “koinonia.” Some will say, and I tend to agree, that this is the real miracle of Pentecost. Recall, those 3000 who came to faith that day were from “every nation under heaven” (2:5) which means, they had absolutely nothing in common, save one thing, a new found faith in Jesus Christ. They were from different nations, spoke different languages, had different skin colors and accents and currency and life experiences; yet somehow they set those differences aside and committed themselves to “koinonia,” to fellowship with one another, as one body, one new community in the name of Christ. Whenever we allow our differences to be diminished and we enter into fellowship with others who we or our culture identifies as being “different” than ourselves, we are living in to the promise and power of Pentecost; and conversely, whenever we allow those differences to separate us and keep us apart from “the other,” we are saying our differences are more important to us than Jesus is. May those who have ears let them hear.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship and to the breaking of bread.” The breaking of bread, the sharing of a common meal, with someone who is somehow “different” than you are is a tangible, visible expression of the work of the Spirit of Christ in your heart. Eating together then was a sign of unity, of acceptance and fellowship, of solidarity and deep friendship. Notice in the Gospels, one of the most consistent and harshest criticisms against Jesus was over the kind of people He was willing to sit at table with and eat. Sharing a meal, breaking bread with another is a tangible, visible sign that social barriers have been, are being, broken down. Think for a moment about who you “break bread with.” When was the last time you “broke bread” with someone who is “different” than you, not as a project or an assignment, but out of friendship, as an act of fellowship? You are invited to join us in that opportunity any Monday, Wednesday or Friday downstairs at the Open Door. Come have lunch with us and meet a neighbor.
And finally, those new believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” “The prayers,” meaning they continued their Jewish tradition of attending the temple, of worship and prayers, perhaps what is called “praying the hours” at designated times during the day.
Each of these, and all of these together, are marks of the authentic embodiment of the Gospel. They represent what it means to “do life together,” in community, in deeper relationships.
In the preface to his commentary on Acts Bible translator J.B. Phillips makes this observation. “It is impossible to study this remarkable book…without being profoundly stirred and, to be honest, disturbed. The reader is stirred because they are seeing Christianity, the real thing, in action for the first time in history. The newborn Church, as vulnerable as any human child, having neither money, influence or power in the ordinary sense, is setting forth joyfully and courageously to win the pagan world for God through Christ…Yet we cannot help feeling disturbed as well as moved, for this surely is the Church as it was meant to be. It is vigorous and flexible, for these are the days before it ever became fat and short of breath through prosperity, or muscle-bound by organization. These first believers did not make ‘acts of faith’, they believed; they did not ‘say their prayers’, they really prayed. They did not hold conferences on psychosomatic medicine, they simply healed the sick. But if they were uncomplicated and naïve by modern standards, we have ruefully to admit that they were open on the God-ward side in a way that is almost unknown today.”
They were “open on the God-ward side,” the result being, “They enjoyed the good will of all the people, and day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Greater faith and deeper relationships lead to a stronger community, and about that we’ll talk more next week. By the way, after finishing working on this sermon yesterday, I called JP.