My favorite part of our home is our staircase. Or rather, it’s the gallery wall, filled with photos, carefully arranged along the path of our stairs, where sometimes amidst the up and down, coming and going, carrying a child to bed and then running back upstairs 2 mins later when they’ve called out for water, every now and then I find moments to stop and really see these images of us through the years.
I guess many of us are taking time to look at such photos today — Father’s Day — on walls or in albums or on our phones. Jenny, my wife, is a photographer, as many of you know, and she specializes in photos of children and families — lifestyle photo shoots, trying to catch families in their element. When I bump into people who have had a Jenny Sherouse photo shoot, the number one thing I hear is: “Ohhh… our kids were sooo terrible. Did Jenny tell you?” Jenny never tells me, but they go on to describe their children pulling their clothes off, or moping in the corner, or crying into their blanket, or rejecting every desperate bribe the parents offer… and that’s just the teenagers at the photo shoot. “I’m sure the photos aren’t going to be any good,” the parents say.
But, invariably, something happens. Between all the cries and commotion, the artist that she is, Jenny captures a moment, frames it just right. Sure, much is cropped out. There’s much more to family life than what can be caught in a single frame. Still, one day flipping through an album, or scrolling through some digital files, or maybe walking by a wall in a home, you can look at a photo and see those smiles, or catch that moment when your child looked at you the way they always did, or smirked just so with that gap-toothed grin. You see the dimple on the cheek, the cowlick in their hair, and the photo let’s you remember that whatever else has happened since, “That’s how it was. That was us.”
Tom Long has compared the book of Acts to a family album, filled with images of the church in its earliest years. (1) If that’s the case, then Acts 2:42-47 might be the most picturesque image we have, this image of how they devoted themselves to teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, the prayers. Many wonders and signs were done. They held things in common. They sold their possessions and distributed to any as they had need. Through all of this, day by day, people were being saved.
Sure, there was much more happening, and much that’s happened since. There is much outside what’s framed here. But the story let’s us remember this happened. This was real, this was true. We look at it and know that as the church of Jesus Christ, there was a time when this is who we were.
The word for it is koinonia, and it’s one of the most important concepts in all of the New Testament. It’s the heart of what it means to be church. Paul uses the word frequently, and says that without koinonia there is no church. It’s usually understood as community and translated as “fellowship,” but as we see in this passage, it also means “sharing.”
This early church shared all things. They shared a devotion to a common story and teaching. They shared at the table together and in the breaking of bread. They shared a sense of devotion, as they “persisted steadily” towards their vision v. 42 tells us. They shared a sense of awe and wonder, or even downright fear at the power of God. They shared their possessions and their finances to ensure that all needs were met. As we can see in this early image, to be the church is to share our lives with one another, which is both the best of who we are, and the hardest part of what it means to be church.
A modern-day fable is told about sharing that finds two brothers sitting at the kitchen table 5yrs old and 8yrs old, with only one cookie left on the platter between them. The older boy – wise to the ways of the world – reaches out quickly and grabs the cookie when his father says, “You are going to share aren’t you?” The 8yo sits for a moment and then breaks the cookie in half, but of course – as cookies tend to crumble – one piece is bigger than the other piece. Seeing the dilemma the father looks at the older boy and says, “Well what would Jesus do?” And the older brother hands his younger brother both pieces of the cookie. And then he says, “Yoube Jesus.”
Yes, we want the benefits that community can give, but so often we resist what such sharing asks of us. Maybe that’s why this image of the early church seems so picturesque and idyllic — something to admire, but not to emulate. We see it as a utopia that rarely hits the ground – at least not our ground, at least not in a way we have never learned to sustain. And so we pass by this image somewhat quickly in all of our up and down, coming and going, forgetting it, or dismissing it as quaint and idealistic.
Biblical scholar Rita Halteman Finger has written a book on communal meals in the book of Acts (2), and in one chapter she looks at the range of interpretations throughout history that have concluded that Christians should not take the ethic described in this morning’s passage as literal. Interpreters since the Reformation have proposed that Acts offers a hyperbole or exaggeration; that these verses describe practices that were necessarily short-lived and limited in scope, and that such practices are simply unworkable today. “A lot of us resist this description” Finger says. Because we recognize that such an image asks a lot of us. We have a lot to lose. Sharing in common. Distributing to all as they have need. So much tempts us to dismiss these verses as not at all representative of a realistic incarnation of the Christian life.
Then again, some 100 years after these events described in Acts, the Therapeutae — a Christian community near Alexandria — are described living with the same practices described in Acts.
Then some years later, a generation or two after the events described by Luke, the theologian Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) writes of the Christian community: “We who once took most pleasure in accumulating wealth and property now share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with men of different tribes because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them and pray for our enemies.”
A few decades later, the historian Tertullian (c. 155–220) says of the emerging movement known as Christians: “Our care for the neglected and our active love have become our distinctive sign. . . they say of us, ‘Look how they love one another…”
Even in recent years, the preacher Fred Craddock once shared a letter he received from a minister out in Oregon – “one of the naïve sort who never finished seminary,” he says – who told his congregation of the command of Jesus to “sell all you have and give the money to the poor.” And do you know, they actually believed it? They started to bring their things to the church that afternoon. $2 million in all. One couple even sold their car.
Sometimes the ideal does take form and shape, and if even for a moment, you can see it: the church of Jesus Christ, sharing life, sharing resources, sharing needs, sharing responsibility. And when that happens, it’s because we are sharing above all else in another thing: the power of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 2 and the story of the earliest church is not the story of remarkable people. It’s not the story of extraordinary character and strength. It’s the story of the Spirit. It’s the story of people who before the coming of the Spirit, couldn’t even bring themselves to walk outside their upper room, yet after the rush of the Spirit in their lives and in their fellowship, they’re seeing visions and dreaming dreams, speaking boldly and acting recklessly in the name of Christ, giving themselves fully to the ideals that defined the life of Jesus. See, the virtues of justice, mercy, compassion, the proclamation of the gospel, the bold demonstration of faith, these are only possible through the power of the Spirit of God.
It’s a Spirit that we remember especially today, traditionally known as Trinity Sunday in our church calendar, as we recall that the sharing and fellowship to which we are called is also present in God’s own self. The traditional doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that God exists not in isolation, as one, not in competition or dualistic relationship, as two. God exists as three — which is an interconnected, mutually dependent relationship — Creator, Christ, Spirit..
Richard Lischer is a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School and among his books is a beautiful memoir Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey through a Country Church, which tells about his early years as a Lutheran pastor in the farm community of Cana, Illinois. He says this: “In Cana we baptized our babies, celebrated marriages, wept over the dead, and received Holy Communion, all by the light of our best window.” What Lischer calls “our best window” was a stained-glass depiction of the doctrine of the Trinity, set high into the east wall of the sanctuary above the altar. A large central triangle labeled “DEUS” was surrounded by three smaller triangles, marked respectively “PATER,” “FILIUS,” and “SPIRITUS SANCTUS.” Thinking about the relationships formed in the light of this window, his ministry, and the life of his congregation, Lischer observes, “We believed that there was a correspondence between the God who was diagramed in that window – our best window – and our stories of friendship and neighborliness. If we could have fully taken into our community the name Trinity, we would have needed no further revelations and no more religion, for the life of God would have become our life.”
We are created in the image of such a God. And through the power of the Spirit, the life of God can become our life. When we gather in this room each week and turn toward God in worship. When we sing, when we devote ourselves to the teaching and to the prayers. “God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven” we pray, and then sometimes we give ourselves to that prayer, sharing openly and freely of our resources. When we share together in fellowship. When we lovingly look on a new baby, and reach out to touch and to bless as they pass by. Then when we extend that blessing to the waters of baptism, as we shared just last week, finding that it splashes out onto all of us. When we see that blessing returned to us through the leadership and gifts of our children or youth. When we break bread together with glad and generous hearts on a Wednesday evening, sitting around tables where we are known. When devote ourselves to the Apostles teaching, which comes to us through Holy Scripture, in Bible Study. When we hold loosely the things we have, ready to give to any who has need. When we believe that even now God can, through us, add to the number those being saved, rescued, finding new life where there had once been death. In all of this, the life of God becomes our life. Or in the language of Acts, “Awe comes upon everyone, because many wonders and signs are happening right there among them.”
Oh, the church can move so far from this ideal, what with all of the challenges we know well — buildings, budgets, programs and structures, struggles with change, obstacles to community.
Even in Acts, those early Christians can move far away from this early image.
“They would sell their possessions and distributing the proceeds to all as any had need,” Acts 2 says. But then, it’s just 3 chapters later that we’re told about Ananias and Sapphira, who withhold some of the profits from a piece of property they sold, and when confronted by Peter, they fall down dead.
“They broke bread together with glad and generous hearts,” in those earliest days. But thenActs goes on to share about all these times where the church stumbles deciding exactly who was allowed to break bread together at the table, signaling all the controversy, councils, compromise that has stayed with us sense as we seek to welcome all to the table.
“They had the goodwill of all people” at the start. Of course, just ahead is the story of Stephen, and then so many other accounts in Acts of people giving themselves fully to the call of Christ, and being arrested, beaten, attacked, even killed with little sign of goodwill and peace.
Yes, we can feel so far from that time, that place, so different than that image. But slow down as you pass by. Amidst all our action and motion, let’s just pause and look, and really see: see them all together in one place, the awe coming over them, the needs met, the life shared, the resources held in common, the people being saved.
“That’s how it was. That’s who we were.”
And if that’s who we were, then that’s who we can yet be, through the power of the Spirit.
- As shared by dear friend, Rev. Scott Dickison, “The Scandal of Community” (May 7, 2017).
- Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts