Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Spirit-Filled Church: Unified (Acts 2:42-47)

(This message is the first in a four-part series on the Spirit-Filled Church)

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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.

Over the next several weeks, as this great Easter season moves toward its culmination on Pentecost Sunday, we’ll be spending some time in the book of Acts. Every year, the lectionary readings for the Easter season are from Acts, a chance to reconnect with our forbearers in the early Church. Sometimes Acts is referred to as “The Acts of the Apostles,” detailing the work and activities that were done by those first church leaders.

However, it would be much more appropriate to refer to this book as “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” because the early Church was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit was the one really at work. Every time you walk in this sanctuary, you are greeted with a visual reminder of the extraordinary power and constant presence of the Holy Spirit – that red banner right back there. Red is the liturgical color associated with the Holy Spirit because it reminds us of fire, and throughout the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit has appeared as fire, as the wind, and as a dove. I hope that every time you look at this banner, you pray for the Holy Spirit to fill your heart, and pray for the Holy Spirit to blow through our church with flames of power.

We will be looking at characteristics of the Spirit-filled Church over the next few weeks. Today, we begin with this understanding: in the Spirit-filled Church, Christ’s followers are unified. May we pray.

Linguistics has always been a fascinating topic to me. We think it comes easy, but language is something that must be learned. Think of a baby’s first word – the first time a baby can intelligibly utter that word and correctly identify something in their world – that’s a huge deal! I have a cousin whose first word was “bang!” – and that is all you need to know about her personality!

Typically, baby’s first word names an object. If you’ve never noticed, babies are totally self-centered. They are – they don’t do anything for themselves, and expect other people to do things for them. Not only that, but their first words will be objects that are most important to them: things and people that excite them and make them happy. They will name the things close at hand, things they see on a regular basis, things they enjoy.

But, early in their development, when their vocabulary is still quite small, research indicates that every baby will have two non-nouns in the first 30 words of their vocabulary – “No!” and “Mine!” If you’ve spent any amount of time with a baby or a small child, they understand “Mine!” I’m telling you, babies are selfish! Although, at the same time, if you’ve spent any amount of time with an adult, you know that they are also very familiar with the concept of “Mine!” Adults are pretty selfish, too!

Humans can be a pretty selfish bunch. Our most natural inclination is to take care of ourselves, look out for number one. We can be incredibly self-centered, which is why we pay all the more attention to the picture of the early Church portrayed in today’s Scripture reading.

The book of Acts gives us a glimpse of the early Church. It gives us a guide, a pattern, a shape for what it looks like when a Christian community is filled with the Holy Spirit, and what do we see? A collection of selfish people, each asserting their own dominance, withholding their resources, and marking their own territory, right? Quite the opposite, actually. As described in the book of Acts, the believers were all together and held all things in common. With glad and generous hearts, they praised God and had the goodwill of all the people.

It’s the greatest and most difficult miracle recorded in Scripture. Only the Holy Spirit could cause us to lay aside our inherent selfishness, biases, prejudices, and self-importance to bring us together with such a clear sense of purpose and unity. Community like that – such radical sharing – doesn’t just happen; it’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit forms a Christian community who so whole-heartedly, completely, and joyfully does precisely what Jesus wants us to do, I count that as God’s greatest and most difficult miracle.

Maybe that’s why it was so short-lived. A few chapters later, we read about a couple in the church, Ananias and Sapphira, who sell a piece of property and give the proceeds to the church, but they decide to hold back a portion of the proceeds for themselves (Acts 5:1-11) – maybe a rainy day fund, maybe a little something for the kids’ education, or to make the payments on their boat they used on the weekends up at Lake Galilee.

However, they lie to the church and say they are giving the entire proceeds from the sale of the property to the church. Caught in this lie, they are both struck dead. I love the Bible – you can’t make this stuff up!

It’s not the fact that they didn’t give everything to the church that gets them in trouble, it’s their deceitful actions in lying about what they were actually giving. They wanted people to think they were giving more and making a bigger sacrifice than they actually were. Friends, being deceitful about anything is wrong; it’s particularly wrong when we’re deceitful about what we’re offering back to God. In light of all God has done for us, for us to cheat God but desire for other people to still think highly of us – that’s just bad news! Right before they are struck dead, Peter simply says, “You did not lie to us but to God!” (Acts 5:4).

It took less than three chapters for the early Church to go from “glad and generous hearts” to selfishness and deceit. That didn’t last long! Like babies, our default is “mine.” It continues to be such a problem that St. Paul appeals “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you. It has been reported to me that there are quarrels among you” (1 Corinthians 1:10-11). Quarrels and fighting and selfishness – now THAT sounds more like church!

Sometimes, Christians get confused. We make claims over things that just don’t belong to us. The church is something we like, something close at hand, something we enjoy, and just like a baby, we claim it as “mine!” “My” church! “My” worship service! “Mine! Mine! Mine!”

Just one problem with that. The church doesn’t belong to any of us; it belongs to God! You ever watch a child throw a temper tantrum when a toy that belongs to another child gets taken away from them? Likewise, have you ever watched an adult throw a temper tantrum when something in the church didn’t go their way? I’m embarrassed for them when Christian adults like that. We can call the church “mine” all day long, but it’s God’s! Calling the church “mine” leads to quarrels, due to confusion about who the church belongs to, when we each want the church to conform to our desires instead of being shaped by God’s desires.

God’s desire for the Church is that we would be unified. On the night in which he gave himself up for us, Jesus prayed in the garden. He prayed for several hours, and one of the things he prayed was that his disciples – all of us – would be unified. “I ask . . . that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21ff).

The stained glass window behind me depicts Jesus praying in the garden. Anybody like this window? I love it too, because when Jesus prayed in the garden, among the things he prayed, he prayed for us. He prayed for our unity, he prayed that we would all be made one. On the night before he met with death, he prayed that we would be unified. The window reminds me that Jesus has been praying for us. Every time I look at this window, I join my prayer with his, that we would all be one. That we would be unified, that our hearts would be glad and generous, that we would spend our time praising God and gaining the goodwill of ALL people.

That’s the picture of Spirit-filled Christian community – where everyone is fully in love with God and fully in love with their neighbor. Verse 42 gives us the stuff that true Christian community is made of: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.”

Authentic, true, Christian community is marked by this sort of devotion – devotion to a relationship with God, and devotion to relationships with each other. Authentic Christian community is a place of unity, a place where we throw off our natural, selfish inclinations, a place where we devote ourselves to following Jesus and doing what Jesus wants us to do. A group of individuals who, as babies, mastered the word, “Mine!” was filled with the Holy Spirit and shaped into a community called the Church, and that Spirit-filled church was unified.

As evidence of this, we only need to keep reading. “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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” (Acts 2:43-45).

Praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. That sounds familiar, that sounds like something else I’ve heard before – “love of God and neighbor.” Who was it who told us about the importance of loving God and loving neighbor? Seems like it was someone important – oh that’s right, it was Jesus! When he was asked which commandment in the Old Testament law was the most important, Jesus held up two instructions and fused them together as opposite sides of the same coin – to love God with everything we’ve got, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). The early Church spent their time praising God and having the goodwill of all the people; they were living out Jesus’ command to love God neighbor.

Some smart-mouthed person in the crowd said, “OK, Jesus, I’ll love my neighbor, but who IS my neighbor?” Jesus responded by telling the story of the Good Samaritan, an example of who is a neighbor and what a neighbor looks like. According to Jesus, neighbors are not only people of the same social class, of the same religion, who live in the same country, people like us, people we like, people who like us. No, everyone is a neighbor. Jesus says, “Love your neighbor,” and when we realize how broadly Jesus uses the term “neighbor,” we realize that Jesus commands us to love everyone. No exceptions – everyone is a neighbor.

That sounds simple enough, but once you start to actually interact with other people, you realize it’s far from easy. We all have biases and prejudices. Does Jesus really want me to love all people? Besides, a lot of people are just jerks! Jesus tells us to love our neighbors – well, clearly Jesus doesn’t know my neighbors. Nobody could love my neighbors! Certainly, Jesus doesn’t expect me to love those people!

There will always be people who rub us the wrong way. There’s no way that, on our own, we can love them!

That’s precisely the point. You can’t do it. I can’t do it. Nobody can. But with the Holy Spirit’s help, we can. Jesus gave us the command to love God and love neighbor, and then he promised that he would send the Holy Spirit who would help us and guide us in that task. When the Church – any church anywhere, is filled with the Holy Spirit, everyone is fully in love with God and fully in love with their neighbor. And in the 2nd chapter of Acts, the Holy Spirit has just been poured out on the followers of Jesus; they spend their time praising God and enjoying goodwill relationships among the people.

Incidentally, this is also the place Japanese cars are mentioned in the Bible. If you’re reading verse 46 in the King James Version, it says they “were all in one accord.” Considering that the early Church, this Spirit-filled community, numbered around 3000 at this point, getting them all into one accord is pretty impressive!

But there’s no way we can get together on our own. We can’t unite on our own. On our own, we keep resorting to that word we learned so early in life – “Mine!” Even so, Jesus prayed that we would be one, indicating God’s desire for the Church, and if we’re truly going to get together, it’s going to take the Holy Spirit to do it. For this reason, every Christian and every church should be constantly praying for the Holy Spirit to fill us, to transform us, to make it possible for us to do what we cannot do on our own.

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). What were the most important commandments Jesus gave? To love God and neighbor. So, in essence, Jesus is saying, if we love Jesus, then we will love God and neighbor.

But then Jesus continues. “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). So then, the Holy Spirit comes to us to empower us to do the things that Jesus said were most important – loving God and loving neighbor.

It’s about love. What are the strings of unity? Love. What are the chords that bind us together? Love – God’s love, a love that is poured out by the Holy Spirit, a love that expresses itself through praising God and personal goodwill, a love you can see on the outside when our hearts are glad and generous on the inside.

The Christian song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” The Captain and Tennille said, “Love will keep us together.” I don’t think they meant it quite this way, but we’ll steal the sentiment anyway.

Love will keep us together, and we need the Holy Spirit to recognize that. The Holy Spirit bears witness with my spirit and with your spirit, and unites our hearts. The Holy Spirit allows the Christ in me to recognize the Christ in you, and it says, “Hey, you both are on the same team!” The Holy Spirit will bear witness within us that we belong together, because the love of Christ dwells within each of us. And so, we rejoice over each other and celebrate each other – Christ is alive in the hearts of his followers, and that reality unites us!

For too long, in too many places, and over too many issues, the Church has quarreled. We’ve fought, we’ve argued, we’ve picked sides, and there are always winners and losers. Historically, we’ve spent a lot of time, we’ve spilled a lot of ink and blood fighting over things that just don’t matter that much. For what? To win an argument? To prove a point? To assert our dominance or flex our theological muscle?

What a waste. If churches would stop arguing and focus on loving, just imagine what could be accomplished.

We are called to unity. In the Spirit-filled church, hearts are united. We are in one accord. We share freely with each other, we hold things in common, we spend our time praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people, and our hearts are glad and generous. In the power of the Holy Spirit, love really will keep us together. We are called to unity; and this is life in the Spirit-filled church.

If the love of God’s Holy Spirit swept through this church, just imagine what we might look like.

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