Acts 2:42-47 – A Changed Community

We Are All One in Jesus Christ by Soichi Watanabe, 2009

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. (NRSV)

You’ve likely heard the old saying, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” It is a wise saying. Yet, what if we don’t know something is broken? What if we keep living our lives with something out of whack and don’t even realize it? Or, worse yet, what if we don’t care?

The ancient church after Christ’s resurrection and ascension was on a mission to live communal life together different from how they lived before Jesus came into their lives. Today’s New Testament lesson gives us a glimpse of what that life together consisted of.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Rumi (13th century Persian poet and scholar)

We know something needs to change when it doesn’t quite match up to the life depicted by our ancestors in the faith – a life of fellowship, of glad and sincere hearts, and of concern for the common good of all. We never just change or alter something for change’s sake or because we like or dislike something. No, instead, we adjust our lives according to whether it lines up with the relational dynamics of Holy Scripture.

I had just one grandparent when I was growing up. My Grandma was seventy-nine years old when I was born, and she lived to be ninety-seven. I always knew her as an old lady. Although quite aged, she had a lot of spunk to her, all ninety-five pounds of her. 

I remember Grandma had an old wooden cutting board in her kitchen. I don’t how old it was, but it was probably purchased from Methuselah’s Kitchen Outlet. It was cracked and nearly falling apart. The board had deep furrows in it from the thousands of cuts made on it. Grandma liked her cutting board.

For Mother’s Day one year my Dad bought her a nice brand-new cutting board. After thanking my Dad for the gift, Grandma proceeded to put the new board in the back of her cupboard and continued to use her nasty old cutting board. Whenever my Mom or sisters helped her in the kitchen, they were not about to touch that old board because it was like a bacteria trap with its deep grooves. 

Grandma didn’t care about anyone’s concerns about her cutting board. When my Dad finally asked her why she did not use her new cutting board, she simply answered, “Oh, it is much too nice to use.” We all knew that was Grandma’s way of saying that she liked her nasty old cutting board and nobody was going to tell her she can’t use it.

Sometimes folks, including Christians, can be like my Grandma, bless her stubborn old heart. They just like the way they do things, and really don’t see what others see who aren’t Christ followers. They fail to consider or realize that non-Christians have no emotional attachment to the cutting board. All they see is an antiquated old board they would never use and find it weird anyone would ever want to use it.

Christians may forget or lose sight of how overwhelming and even intimidating they can be with those outside the faith. Because Christianity is familiar to Christians, we don’t see what others see when they view us from the outside. 

I remember once walking into a beautiful new church building and sitting down and seeing a huge old pulpit that was literally falling apart. Since I’ve been around a lot of churches, I quickly discerned it was likely the old pulpit from the old church building. I asked someone, and it was. But as an outsider to that fellowship, I had zero emotional attachment to the pulpit, and it was a distraction because it just looked like a big old ratty collar on a new little puppy.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The point I am making is this: The decision to change our lives, or not to change, must come from a motivation of biblical and human values. The Christian’s mission and purpose are the Great Commission (make disciples) and the Great Commandment (love God and love neighbor). We express those values through our daily devotion to teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Such life together is attractive and winsome to a watching world.

If people matter, including those who don’t think or believe like us as Christians, then we will make decisions based upon that value. Nothing need be fixed or changed if the mission is going forward with biblical values driving it. However, if people stay away, or know nothing about our shared life together, then we have a prime reason to change. If this has gone on for years, even decades, I suggest that the fellowship of people is eating meat prepared from a cutting board full of bacteria and it is making everyone sick.

Whenever a faith community is focused on trying to keep people from leaving, instead of reaching people with an outward focus, then that community has lost its sense of spiritual values.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

The main verb contained within the Scripture verses for today is the word “added.” Those who accepted the message of repentance and faith in Jesus were baptized and about three thousand were “added” to their number that day. We then get a string of participles, that is, words connected to the main verb of “added.” The result is this: The Lord “added” to their number daily those who were being saved.  Please understand the text makes it quite clear that the driving force of Christ’s church is to reach people.

It could be we take the old cutting board for granted and simply expect other people to use it if they are in our kitchen. If that is the case, there is to be a driving motivation and desire for outreach. There are people aplenty who need the kind of deliverance Jesus provides.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy

If something is off in our faith community, then the biblical solution is to change our lives, change our practices, change our speech, and change our daily behavior by reaching people for Jesus and adding them to the fellowship.

Whenever Christians break bread together at the Lord’s Table, the communion reminds us of our highest purpose and values. Jesus came to this earth for those estranged and far from God and others. Through Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are saved by grace through faith. This reality is made tangible to us in the elements of bread and cup. They are a visible sign and seal of an invisible grace. We are to come to the Table forsaking all personal agendas and embracing God’s agenda of redeeming humanity.

And, by the way, after about a year of sitting in my Grandma’s cupboard, my Dad took out the new cutting board, put it on the kitchen counter and threw away the old board. It was about time.

Philippians 2:12-18 – Think of the Needs of the Group

Photo by Ingo Joseph on Pexels.com

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act to fulfill his good purpose.

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So, you too should be glad and rejoice with me. (NIV)

Here is what I would like you to do. Go back and read these verses for today….

Now, I want you to read them again, but with this understanding: Every pronoun in the verses is plural, not singular….

Did that last reading make a difference for you? You see, we all tend to read with certain lenses. Reading with American glasses usually means we read such biblical passages, like our New Testament lesson today, with individualist lenses. But this would be a misreading of the text.

These words from Holy Scripture are directed at the community. They are meant to be read with a collective understanding. So, when the Apostle Paul told the Philippian church to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” he wasn’t aiming it toward individual persons. He meant everyone together was to help one another live out their common salvation. In other words, deliverance is more than an individual affair – it is also a communal concern.

This also shapes how we understand the admonition to do everything without being a grump and a complainer. The community works together to encourage each other and weeds out all arguing and bickering. Practically speaking, no one individual is going to get over being a crotchety curmudgeon without the help of the group. Since people are hard-wired by God for community, always trying to be radically independent will almost always end in being a faultfinder and bellyacher.

Group work is human work, and vice versa.

Interdependence with others is the proper road to travel, without veering into either ditch of independence or dependence. Community dynamics are necessary to life. Mutual giving and receiving are a must. Both sharing and accepting need to occur for any sort of relational health.

The reason the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippian Church was because they weren’t getting along, weren’t playing well with others. Christianity is a team sport. Everyone must work together, even when it comes to salvation. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell – salvation from guilt, shame, disconnection, and relational separation from both God and others – is a matter for the collective community. That’s why no one is baptized alone or observes the Lord’s Table all by themselves.

Today’s New Testament lesson is not a text dealing with individual salvation but is an ethical text dealing with the outworking of salvation in the believing community for the sake of the world. Paul’s present concern was with a group of believers being God’s people. Individuals were to stop their selfish in-fighting and get along with each other.

To do that, the entire group was to set aside selfish ambition and put the concerns of others ahead of their own personal agendas. Everyone is to think of the needs of the group. When we do that, we then discern that murmuring and grumbling are simply not helpful. And, what’s more, such an attitude can damage, even destroy a group through bitterness resulting in gangrene of the church body.

Instead, we are to be blameless and pure in all our dealings with one another. Here are a few basic ways this communal concern works itself out practically:

  • No one cries alone.
  • No one suffers in silence.
  • No one falls through the cracks.
  • There is always someone present to share joy with.
  • There is always someone around to hear your story.
  • There is always somebody there to pick you up.

When such a dynamic dominates any group, then it will be hard to find any grumblers, any sort of in-fighting, and little discontent. Rather, there is a great deal of carrying one another’s burdens, a lack of judgment toward others, and a settled hope that, even though the world might be going to hell in a handbasket, we will be okay because we have each other.

So then, the church is to be an inclusive community, inviting persons into a hospitable space of care and support. Church as factory cannot do this. Church made up of special interest groups is not able to do this. Church as simply a Sunday affair will never get it done.

However, Church poured out as an offering to the world will get it right. Church as oriented toward faithful service for the common good of all has it. Church as the community of the redeemed, living out their faith together as one people of God cannot be stopped or restrained from blessing the entire planet.

Do you want to go it alone? That is what Satan did, and it hasn’t worked out so well for us.

Will you think of the needs of the group? That is what Jesus did, and it resulted in our salvation.

We are to work out that salvation, together, so that our collective faith is strengthened, and the world is delivered from its great loneliness. So, put your best foot forward and think of the needs of the group.

Holy God, we your people come with deep gratitude for our common call as believers for the life of your big world. Draw us into communion with you and all creation. Living with intentional awareness and openness to change, we seek to expand the expression of our collective obedience to the mission of Jesus to love God and neighbor, inviting others to walk with us in sharing our gifts. Free our hearts to recognize and attend to Christ in hidden and unexpected places. We renounce and reject societal barriers created by the misuse of power and authority by selfish individuals. Transform us to listen deeply to one another and to the brokenness of the world. Bless our efforts to be the change we want to see in the world, through the enablement of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 Corinthians 3:10-23 – The Ultimate Sacred Space

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”

So, let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (NRSV)

You have an incredibly special position and status which no one can ever take away.

We were made by and for God. In the beginning, the creative activity of God achieved its pinnacle in the formation of a man and a woman. Only humanity carries within them the image and likeness of God. People are unique, special, and set apart as the creatures who can enjoy a close relational fellowship with their Creator.

However, humanity fell into disobedience, which introduced sin and death into God’s good world. Ever since that time, God has been on a rescue mission. The Holy Scriptures are an unfolding drama of redemption in which a heart-stricken God goes out of the way to make and keep promises to a sinful people. The Israelites, a people set apart from all other people, were meant to be devoted to God in such a way that the world would be drawn to their relationship with the Lord and with the created order.

Yet again, even with an impressive temple where people met God in sacred rituals and activities, the people went astray and followed their ancestors into worshiping other gods. God, ever the gracious Lord who does not forget the divine covenant of love, sent his Son, Jesus, as the ultimate fulfillment of all the good promises made.  Through the redemptive events of Christ’s cross, resurrection, and ascension the deliverance from all that is wrong and broken in this world is reversed. We are blessed with pardon and redemption from the slavery of sin.  We are given a renewed status as God’s people.

If this were not enough, God has given us the Spirit to help us. Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, are never alone. A merciful God makes us a holy people and the temple where the Lord dwells by means of the Spirit. In the Old Testament, the sacred space of worship was a physical building. Approaching the holy God meant entering a holy temple, set apart for connection between the divine and the human. The midpoint of history in which all events hinge is the cross of Christ. His redeeming work has transformed the world. 

Now, we are the temple of God, the sacred place where God meets with us. The glory of God is to be found, once again, in human beings. It is in this rich understanding of God’s activity and humanity’s new status that the Apostle Paul appealed to with a pointed rhetorical question: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”

“The church is not a religious community of worshippers of Christ but is Christ himself who has taken form among people.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Corinthian church was in grave danger of doing the thing that all lost humanity had done through the ages.  They were breaking down into divisions and conflicts and were not thinking of others as God’s special people.  Paul named them collectively as God’s temple. They were not individual temples but one holy sacred temple together. This theology and anthropology were meant to teach, persuade, chastise, and encourage the Christians that there was no place for special-interest groups in the church; no room for following pet teachers and preachers; and no reason to ostracize others who didn’t agree exactly as you do.

Believers in Jesus Christ are collectively the people of God, the temple in which God dwells. This makes them a holy people, set apart for the exclusive worship of the triune God. We are to live up, not down, to who we are in Christ, in the Spirit, in the realm of God’s kingdom.

We are meant to return to the foundation of the temple. If the foundational works of this great temple of God are the redemptive events of Jesus, with Christ himself as the chief cornerstone of the structure, then we are meant to return in this great season of Lent to Jesus. With meekness and humility, we are to come to God in Christ by the Spirit and confess our many sins, repent of them all, and return to God as the special, holy, and loved people we are.

For far too long Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has been used to poke at people for smoking or drinking too much or generally not caring for our physical bodies. This was not so much Paul’s understanding. He was thinking much more along the lines of church unity, harmony, mutual love, grace, encouragement, and making decisions which are best for the common good of all. To break down Paul’s instruction to individual habits which harm the body is a woefully truncated view of his teaching. 

Instead, we are to have a high view of one another. We, together, are the people of God. We, together, are meant for holy worship of the triune God. We, together, are the complex expression of God’s creative action – a temple set in the middle of a watching world. 

Therefore, we are to be concerned for one another. We are to act as one holy people of God. We are to reflect the love, unity, and fellowship of the Holy Trinity in our life together. Let us then encourage each other toward love and good deeds; upholding the common good; and extending grace in all circumstances. For this is what temple living looks like.

Holy God, you have set us apart together as your holy people. Help so to live up to our status as your beloved creatures that we are continually mindful of you, one another, and the grace you give for all circumstances.  May our foundation be strong in the person and work of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior, as the Spirit dwells in us together. Amen.

Romans 4:13-25 – Christianity 101

It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. Therefore “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (NIV)

Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of why we are here on this earth and what we are really supposed to be doing.  There’s just so much stuff going on around us all the time that it seems like we have spiritual attention deficit disorder and cannot focus on what is most important. Certain people irritate us, we scramble to make a decent living, there never seems to be enough time to accomplish everything, and there is adversity and obstacles all along life’s way.

There’s a lot going on in the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. At first glance, like our lives, it seems complicated. Paul had all kinds of words for the Christians such as hope, faith, righteousness, and justification, just to name a few. All those words and ideas funneled into and pointed toward a singular focus: The Lord Jesus. Everything in life comes down to Christ. 

The church was losing sight of why they existed. Within the church at Rome were both Jews and Gentiles, together as one people of God. They didn’t always see eye-to-eye on everything. The Gentiles thought the Jews were stuck in tradition and needed to move on. The Jews had centuries of history behind them of God working through them. They thought the Gentiles needed some solid Old Testament law to bolster their primitive spirituality. Would the church take their cues on life from the Gentiles, or the Jews?

“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

thomas aquinas

Paul essentially told the church they were headed in the wrong direction. The issues and problems of living the Christian life were to take a back seat to faith in God. To prove his point, Paul went back to Abraham as Exhibit A of what it means to live with and for God. 

It went down like this: God made a promise to Abraham of progeny in his old age; Abraham believed what God said, Abraham demonstrated his faith by having the confident expectation (hope) that God is good for his promise; and God declared (justified) Abraham to have a right relationship with himself (righteousness). 

In other words, the heart of Christian faith and practice is that God makes promises; people respond to God in faith, hope, and love. Law and the willpower to keep it doesn’t even come into the equation.

Christians are the spiritual children of Abraham. All God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ. We respond to God by believing in Jesus. The redemptive events of Jesus make us just and right.  So, what does this mean for you and me?

We are not to get sidetracked with trying to make others be like us. Instead, we are to proclaim the promises of God in Christ so that others might respond by believing and embracing those promises. Furthermore, we have no need to try and get God to like us, notice us, and/or listen to us. God has already made and kept promises to us, demonstrating his love, mercy, and grace through his Son, the Lord Jesus.

Our lives are not to center in our abilities, or lack thereof, to live a godly life. Rather, our lives are to revolve around the person and work of Jesus Christ through faith, with the hope that God will always hold to his promise to be with us, which frees us to love others. This is basic Christianity 101. This is the faith we embrace.

Righteous God, you have made and kept promises to us. Our ultimate deliverance from sin, death, and hell isn’t through our ability to keep the law, but in your Son’s life, death, and resurrection. Help us, your people, to live by faith in Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us, in the strength of your Holy Spirit. Amen.