Sunday, April 10, 2016

Unity in the Body (Acts 2:42-47)

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

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.  Their first words will be objects that are most important to them: things and people that 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!”

“Mine” is one of the earliest concepts we grasp.  And grasp we do!  Think of the instinctual way a baby will grasp at the things in the world around them.  No one has to teach them this.  The concept of “mine” comes to each of us quite naturally.

It’s our default mode.  You’ve seen where two kids are together in a room full of toys, and they will both want to play with the same toy.  Even if there are other versions of the same toy in the room, they will want to play with the same exact toy.  The point here is not to pick on babies, but to understand that we all start out in this world completely self-centered and self-absorbed.  And for some of us, we simply never outgrow it.

How many human conflicts, are at their root, simply a fight about “mine?”  From kids scrapping on the floor over a toy, to countries at war over borders and territories and resources, we see how the concept “mine” drives so much human conflict.  Because, if we both have our eye on the same thing and only one of us gets it, conflict is sure to follow.

Growing up, every Monday was grocery day in our house.  As a matter of principle, my mom would only buy one box of kids’ cereal a week – you know, something sugary with cartoon characters on the box.  The rest was “healthy” cereal.

Cereal was not a snack in our house, it was only for breakfast, which meant that the first opportunity to have some of that delicious kids’ cereal was breakfast Tuesday morning.  And so, with four kids in the house, every Tuesday, my sister, Megan, who, on most mornings could not be pried out of bed with crowbar, would wake up extra early and single-handedly eat the entire box of Lucky Charms or Froot Loops or Apple Jacks or whatever it was, and leave none – none, zero – for her three siblings.  And after 25 years and a whole lot of therapy, I can now talk about it without getting too upset (although, I’m still talking about it 25 years later, so maybe that should tell you something!).

But, the way the world works is that everything is in limited supply.  Only so much to go around; early bird catches the worm; you snooze, you lose; too bad, so sad!  We go through life with a scarcity mindset, always grasping at what is “mine” and what we want to be “mine,” convinced that there will never be enough to go around, someone will always get the short end of the stick, and so it may as well not be us.

But as people of faith, we’re called to live differently.  We’re called to live better.

Today’s Scripture reading gives us a glimpse of Christian community as God intends.  These few verses provide us with a beautiful picture of what church life is supposed to look like: everyone devoted to the teaching of the apostles, to sharing, to breaking bread together, and to prayer.  A place where everyone pools their resources, and gives freely and abundantly to anyone among them with need.  A community of worship and wholeness.  Gladness and generosity.  Simplicity and kindness.  Awe and wonder.  This is the picture of Christian community, and it’s a picture of unity.

To me, this is the most remarkable and amazing miracle recorded in Scripture.  To think that God could start with individuals whose natural inclination is to take care of themselves and look out for number one, and knit them seamlessly together into a community of great love and grace and sharing and simplicity.

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.  When each of us stops worrying about and grasping for what is “mine,” we are formed into a Christian community who so whole-heartedly, completely, and joyfully does precisely what Jesus wants us to do.

We touched on this last week, that the unity to which we are called is never unity for its own sake, but always unity in Christ.  Christ is the head of the church, not you, not me!  He’s the brains of the operation, he’s the one in charge, he’s the one calling the shots.  The church doesn’t belong to you or to me, it belongs to Jesus, to do the things in the world he wants, even more than the things you or I might want.

Vance Whicker was telling me last week about a friend of his who is in a business where he sells to a lot of different organizations.  He said his two most difficult clients are country clubs and churches, because each member thinks they own the place, and each member thinks they’re in charge.

We can forget quickly who we are, and to whom we belong.  We revert back to “mine” pretty quickly.  But, friends, let us never forget that we belong to something that doesn’t belong to us.  The church belongs to Jesus.  One body with many members.  Each member doing its part for the good of the whole.

That’s how different people with different opinions and preferences and perspectives and dreams can come together into a unified whole.  The Holy Spirit empowers us, not to lay aside our differences or overlook them, but to allow our differences, whatever they are, to be secondary to our unity in Christ.

John Wesley said, “If you heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.”  He didn’t say, “If your music is like my music,” “If your skin color is like mine,” “If your politics, or your age, or only if you come to the 9am service or the 11am service,” no – if your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.

The heart of a disciple of Jesus is simply one who loves God and loves neighbor.  The church in our passage from Acts is described as “continually praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  When 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 and love neighbor.

And what happened?  The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, everyone was part of it – it took the whole community, everyone contributing according to their own means, and united in Christ, of whose body we are a part, whose church this is.

You see, we’re not “owners” of the church.  We are stewards.  To be a steward is to take care of something that doesn’t belong to you.  It’s entrusted to you, you may be able to use it and enjoy it and enhance it, but ultimately, it belongs to someone else.

The Psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.  The world and all its people belong to him” (Psalm 24:1).  Don’t let that one slip by too easily – this is pretty important!  The earth and everything in it belong to whom?  To God.  The world and all its people belong to whom?  To God.

Even we belong to God.  If there were a tag on you, it would have “Property of God” written in permanent marker on it.

Your hands and feet, your intellect and skills and all the things you have used to make a living, those belong to God as well.  The title to your car should really be in God's name, the deed to your house should have God listed as owner, and your bank statement should have God listed as the account holder, and you as the custodian of the account.  It all belongs to God - everything we own, everything we have, everything we are - it all belongs to God.

Now, here is the fun part - God loves to share.  So yes, it all belongs to God, but God freely shares everything with us that we might enjoy it.  God is generous, gracious, radical, and conspicuously abundant with everything God has, and invites us to be the same.

It's like when you soak the stem of a white carnation in colored water, and after a day or two, the color of the water shows in the petals of the carnation.  If our lives are soaked in the generosity and blessing and abundance of God, eventually those same characteristics are going to start showing up in our lives, as well.  We may start out grasping and fighting over what is “mine,” the character of God overrides the system, and so we become generous and gracious and loving, just like God.

Ultimately, it’s God who shapes us and forms us as a community, but always with our cooperation and commitment.  God works in and through people who are willing to teach and be taught, who are open to the gifts of God in others, and who give themselves to God and to one another, who are more interested in being in right relationship than just in being right.

Maybe the first thing is to resist the temptation to so neatly divide the world into yours and mine, us and them.  We’re all on the same team, thanks be to God, and we’re all in this together.  Rather than worrying about what belongs to us, would we remember that we belong to Jesus, and because of that, we belong to each other.

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