Building Community: Things in Common
Today, we’re beginning new sermon series called, “Building Community.” We’ll be focusing on some readings from the Book of Acts. The book is actually “the Acts of the Apostles,” and it is a collection of stories about how Jesus’ first disciples, his apostles - his sent-ones - began to build what eventually becomes the church. How do they go from a small group following Jesus around and listening to him teach to a group that has a vision of sharing his message with the whole world, and building communities of people who are committed to living and serving in the same way? The Book of Acts traces what is truly an incredible story, and each week this month, we’ll think about some aspect of the early church community, and how the church became the church.
As we follow the birth of the church in Acts, we’ll be thinking about our own community of faith. What makes us who we are as a congregation? What are our strengths, and where are our growing edges of learning and change? How can we make sure we are building a grounded community that is ready to serve and love in the name of Jesus? Next month, we’ll be looking more in depth at some particular language we’ve been using that describes how we think we can be about the work of intentional discipleship here: meeting Jesus, following Jesus, serving Jesus. But before we get there, we’ll spend some time thinking about what kind of community we are, and what kind of community God calls us to be.
We get one model for building a community of faith right near the beginning of Acts. Our text today comes from Acts chapter 2. In fact, we are still on what we call the day of Pentecost when the passage begins. The disciples, who had been in a kind of waiting-mode after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, are suddenly filled with the promised Holy Spirit, which is giving them the boldness to speak up about Jesus, calling others to become his followers too. When the crowds, who are gathered in Jerusalem like the disciples for the harvest festival wonder at the strange behavior of these disciples, Peter speaks up and preaches about the work of Jesus in the world. We start at the conclusion of his sermon. He tells the crowds that the promises of God in Jesus Christ are for them, for their children, and for all people. And the people apparently like what they hear. Thousands, Luke - the author of Act - tells us, are baptized. And all these new Jesus followers devote themselves to the teachings of Jesus, and to building community with the other Jesus followers through praying together and sharing meals together.
Luke paints a beautiful picture. He writes, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day 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, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Wow! What a vision! Can you imagine being part of a community like this? I have to admit - I can hardly imagine it. And not only that, I find myself a bit skeptical. It seems impossible. All things in common? Selling our possessions and sharing the proceeds for the good of the group? And then just spending all our time praising God, sharing meals together, and looking out for the good of all people. Maybe when they were a brand new thing, a brand new church, full of such hope and idealism, something like this was possible, but not for us. And it’s not just me who’s skeptical. A lot of books and articles about healthy churches suggest it is easier to build the faith community you want if you start from scratch - if you start a new congregation altogether - than if you try to take your existing congregation and transform it into the community you’re feeling called to be. Well, we’ve been around since the 1800s. (N. Gouv?) So do we just throw in the towel? Is there hope for us in building a community of faith that, while perhaps not functioning exactly like this Acts 2 community, draws on the values that shaped the early church?
As I’ve studied this text, I’ve been drawn to the phrase “things in common.” Luke writes, “All who believed were together and had all things in common.” He’s speaking more literally about shared possessions and property, but I’ve been thinking - what is it that we have in common that makes us a community of faith? Common ground is an important part of building community, and we only have to look at the state of our nation to get a sense of how painful lack of common ground, or at least perceived lack of common ground with a each other can be for the whole. So, what is it that we have in common as a church? As this church? Or what things in common should we be cultivating?
Throughout the writings of Paul and demonstrated in Acts we see that community thrives with a common goal of building each other up. We’ve talked about this before - our call to build each other up. And we see here in Acts that the early church builds members up very tangibly - with the sharing of concrete resources. How do we build each other up? I think of the South African concept of Ubuntu, a word from the Zulu language. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_philosophy) It means something like “I am because we are,” or “A person is a person through other persons.” We have in common first and foremost our basic human identity. We are children of God, part of the body of Christ. We exist not alone, but as a people. We don’t exist in a void. And even if we like alone time, we don’t exist well without others around us. Our nature is to be in relationship with God and others, and we draw meaning from our shared identity in God.
Grounded in that shared identity, we’re called to build each other up. As I was writing my sermon this week, I happened on one of those facebook videos that shows animals doing something cute or unexpected. This video was from a man who kept honeybees, and apparently, one of the bees had fallen into a bucket of honey. The bee was completely covered in honey, and there wasn’t much the man could do himself. But he did pull the bee from the honey, and set the bee on on the entrance to the hive. And then he started filming on his smartphone, because what happened next was that several bees quickly came over to the one soaked, unable to fly or do anything because of all the honey, and they began to clean him off thoroughly. It took about 30 minutes of work. But at the end of it, that bee, who otherwise would have died, was able to fly away. Now, some folks commenting on the video suggested that perhaps the other bees just didn’t want any honey to go to waste. But in a bee colony, everybody has to work together. A single bee can’t do much by itself. But together - bees are incredible! So it doesn’t seem out of character, so to speak, for bees to work together too when it comes to taking care of one of their hive members.
Building community means we build each other up, because wow, do we need it! We need building up. Sometimes it feels like we have fallen into a vat of honey and we can’t move and can’t breathe and there is no hope. And sometimes we see that that has happened to someone in our community. And we can ignore them - or we can get to work, helping them heal, helping them return to wholeness, helping until that person is ready to fly again. I know what the first followers of Jesus would choose. Can we choose that too? Part of our common life as disciples must be in consistently and persistently building each other up. I noticed this week on facebook an image shared by our own Amber Ormasen - all these artistic blocks posted at the middle school with messages from teachers(?) about why they teach. The blocks say things like, “I do this because I believe in all of you,” and “I do this because I love the feeling I get when I help others learn and grow,” and “I do this because everybody needs somebody.” It is a tangible, visible reminder to students in the midst of middle school, which can be such a hard time of life to feel good about yourself, that they are loved and supported and have all these adults who want to see them become the best people they can be. That’s one thing our schools are doing to build up our students. What are we doing to build community in the body of Christ?
The early church not only kept their stuff in common, but they shared their lives with each other too. They spent a lot of time together. They worshiped together, they prayed together, they hung out together, they ate together. When I think about our church camps, and think about why they are consistently places in the life of our church where our children and youth find it easiest to feel close to God, I think it isn’t just about finding God in nature, in the beauty of the outdoors. It’s because campers are modeling the community of the early church in ways that we don’t often get to in the “real world.” They spend all day, every day with each other. They eat together, and bunk in the same cabins, and worship together and study the bible together and swim and boat together and do crafts together and eat together around the table. It’s no wonder campers can become fast friends, enduring friends after only a few days. They’re experiencing a life in common with each other like Jesus’ first followers did.
Most of us don’t get to live at summer camp year round. And most of us can’t live together and hang out together and eat together and work together all the time. But I think we can make a commitment to nurturing our common life together as much as we can. This time we spend worshiping together is so important - not just because we need to worship the God who created all we know - but also because we need to do that together. Praising God together in the congregation draws us close to God in ways that are unique from our private time with God. Sacraments - baptism and communion - are things that only happen in community. We can only fully experience these most precious gifts from God when we’re with each other. Our spirits thrive when we commit to our mutual worship life. But it’s more than that. We can and should study the scriptures on our own, but we learn in other ways when we come together and explore and question together. We have potlucks and coffee fellowship time when we can not just because Methodists are born knowing how to make a good casserole, but because sharing food together is sharing our lives with each other. We nurture our compassion, our ability to forgive and share God’s grace, our capability for love when we share our lives in common with each other.
In the coming weeks, we will explore the boldness of the early church, the struggles they faced, the work they did to remove barriers from their community, and their heart for service. But before we move on to all of those things, let us seek the common ground. Together, we are God’s children, members of the body of Christ. Together we worship. Together we learn. Together, as much as we can, we live. We build each other up. We make a community. We nurture the things in common that matter most. Amen.