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Empowered by God’s Spirit…

San Williams

May 15, 2011
Acts 2:42-47

05-15-2011 SermonThe current issue of The New Yorker magazine contains an article by Lauren Collins on the recent royal wedding in England.  In the article is the sentence:  “Republicanism [which in Britain means anti-monarchy] in Britain is normally regarded as a harmless and mildly embarrassing pursuit, much like morris dancing or Presbyterianism.” Not being familiar with morris dancing, I went to Wikipedia, where I learned that morris dance is a traditional British folk dance whose practitioners dress in lavish costumes, and jump and skip about to music while clicking sticks together.  Presbyterianism, the article said, like morris dancing, is a harmless and mildly embarrassing pursuit. Ouch!

 Of course, ragging about all that’s wrong with Christians in general and the church in particular is commonplace these days. Everybody, it seems, has an opinion about what’s wrong with the church. Leander Keck, retired dean at Yale Divinity School, rightly observed that “Diagnosing the malaise of the mainline church has become a growth industry.” 

But rather than add to all the chatter, let’s shift our gaze all the way back to those first century Christians that Luke described in our reading today. They were anything but harmless and mildly embarrassing.  To the contrary, their courage, compassion and generosity gained the admiration and good will of those around them.  

In Luke’s brief snapshot of the early church, we see a radically open and hospitable community.  For one thing, the simple act of eating together—which is mentioned twice in our brief reading today—signified the radical openness, hospitality, and inclusivity of the early church. Recall that, in that society, Jews did not eat with Gentiles, the rich avoided the poor, the healthy separated themselves from the sick, and men did not mix in public with women.

But these first Christians—Jews and gentiles, rich and poor, men and women—all were together.  They viewed one another as equals, shared everything in common and sat together at one table. In short, their life together had become a mirror of Jesus’ life.   Jesus, you recall, had eaten with outcasts; he had included the excluded, mingled with the poor, fed the hungry, and healed the sick.  Now Luke shows us how this same Spirit of compassion, inclusion, and love was evident among these first Christians.

Sociologist Rodney Stark, now at Baylor University, has written about how the practices of the first Christians often clashed with the values of the Greco-Roman society in which they lived. For example, under Roman law, fathers could, and often did, commit infanticide.  Yet Christians picked up—and cared for—the abandoned babies who were simply left in the gutters to die.  “These Christians were conspicuous,” Stark declares, “because they cared for those who were expendable: widows, orphans, the aged and infirm.”

Admittedly, Luke has given us an idealized snapshot of the first Christians.  We know from subsequent chapters in Acts, and from Paul’s letters, that there were also incidents of discord and division from the beginning.  Too, we know that the first Christians’ practice of selling their private possessions and holding all things in common was actually short lived.

Nevertheless, it’s very clear that the early Christians were not merely admirers of Jesus.  No, they lived as followers and friends of Jesus.  Like him, they cared for the most vulnerable, devoted themselves to prayer, the breaking of bread and fellowship, while offering extraordinary generosity to those in need.  No wonder, then, that the world took notice and found their love for one another and those in need irresistible, maybe even dangerous.  Whatever else they were, “harmless and mildly embarrassing” they were not!

Time, though, to swing our attention forward, from these early Christians to our lives as disciples today. Last week Judy and I attended a reception for the alumni of Austin seminary.  Jane Johnson saw us come in, and she quickly sought us out.  You’ll remember that Jane’s husband, David, led our all-church retreat last month and Jane had come with him.  “I just want you to know,” she told us, “that David and I were amazed by the quality of fellowship that was so obvious in the way your congregation interacted with one another.  I’ve seen such depth of genuine fellowship in a few small congregations,” she continued, “but to experience it in a larger church was most unusual.” 

We are by no means a perfect Christian congregation, but it was encouraging to hear an outsider’s observation.  Our UPC mission statement begins, “Empowered by God’s Spirit…”  Whatever we are, and whatever we will become, will follow from the conviction that the same Christ-Spirit that gave vision and vitality to the early church is  at work among us today.

In a new book comparing Christianity and Buddhism, Paul Knitter contends that the single most distinguishing aspect of Christianity is its concern for those people who have been stepped on, pushed aside, neglected, or exploited.   “Christianity,’ writes Knitter, “is a religion that reminds its followers and all other religions that to know God is to be concerned about the victims of our world and about how we are to reconcile victims and victimizers.”    

As we at UPC welcome the poor and hungry into our building—feeding them, befriending them,  helping them insofar as we can—we are participating in the Spirit of Jesus.  A single mom who came to us for assistance one Tuesday morning later wrote a thank-you letter, in which she said,   “The Spirit of Jesus is in this place.”   

And so prompted by the Spirit, we will seek to be as hospitable and inclusive in our day as the early church was in its day.  This past week, our denomination, by a majority vote of the Presbyteries, struck down the barrier that has prohibited gay and Lesbian Christians from serving in leadership in the church.  Some interpreted this move as a capitulation to culture.  But it wasn’t a capitulation to culture! It was a long overdue response to the good news of God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ—a love that breaks down dividing walls and welcomes the excluded.  Presbyterians took a step this week toward acknowledging that God’s love is broader and deeper than anything we have yet imagined or fully practiced. We Christians offer the world good news.  But the world will not respond, will not be much interested, unless it can see the Gospel actually reflected in the life of the church.

Friends, we are quick to admit that we are not yet as loving, generous or harmonious as the Church depicted by Luke in the second chapter of Acts. But neither are we bereft of the Spirit’s presence and power.  Presbyterianism, at least in this place—is not like morris dancing. Instead, it is a joyful, challenging, and life-changing participation in the love and justice of Jesus Christ.