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.

Ephesians 4:17-5:2 – Living in Truth

truth

So, I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin.” Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (NIV)

Okay, a collective confession from the get-go: We know today’s New Testament lesson is the proper way to live. There’s no need to convince you that we must live and speak the truth in love, avoid angry tirades, keep a lid on our wagging tongues, keep bitterness out of our hearts, forgive others, and be compassionate to people. So, what is the real issue? Why, despite knowing better, do we as people have such a doggone hard time following God’s example of holy speech, pure words, and radical forgiveness?

If there was a simple answer/solution to the acerbic tongues of people, it would be easy to avoid using our words like a hot knife through butter and toast others with subtle digs and cranky words. Simply telling ourselves (or others) to stop their bellyaching is only a manifestation of our own belligerent spirit running amok. No, we need a solid practical approach to those nagging white lies we keep putting out there and the bending of truth to suit our own selfish purposes. Neither sheer willpower nor hackneyed homebrewed prescriptions will get the job done.

When we go to the doctor, we want them to be honest with us about our true condition and health.  If we have a clean bill of health, we are glad for that truth.  If, however, we have something wrong, we want to know what it is and how to deal with it. Doctors who avoid the truth so to not make us feel bad or hurt our feelings are performing malpractice, not healing. We need a solid diagnosis and prognosis framed in a caring way. Trying to grow spiritually without hearing the truth about ourselves from a spiritual doctor is like trying to do heart surgery on yourself.

The truth will set us free. Yet, before it will free us, it will make us uncomfortable. We all have a real need to hear the truth spoken in love and wrap our heads and hearts around it. Truth is: People are to be open, honest, and real with each other because we belong to one another. We are to stop being dishonest, and start being truthful.

truth cross

What is truth?

The Christian tradition teaches that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is to be shaped around the person and work of Christ.  Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus together, we are to share a common life together. That life is to revolve around the truth of Jesus. That means we will put off non-Christian ways of relating to each other and put on a Christian way of relating to each other.  We will speak truthfully because we belong to each other – we are responsible for one another.  Just as Jesus so closely identified with us in his life, death, and resurrection, so we are to so closely identify with each other that we take responsibility for each other.  My problems are your problems – your issues are my issues. This is a stance of connection, not division.

We are to put off lying and put on truth. Too often, we are in the habit of pretending and being plastic.  Pretending we are okay when we are not, or even acting like life is hard when it is not is an untruthful presentation – it is a lie. Secrecy and deception are tools of Satan, not God. Therefore, we must put off the bad habit of pretension, and put on the good habit of speaking truthfully to each other.

Why do we not speak truth?

Habits of lying come from the enemy of our souls who whispers in our ears that being truthful and transparent is too traumatic – we can’t do it. Buying into that snake oil thinking believes we cannot be open, honest, real, vulnerable, and genuine because it is not worth the risk. We become convinced that we will be rejected, lose face with others, or be a victim of gossip.  In other words, we let shame take the steering wheel instead of speaking truthfully to one another.  So, we avoid the truth and, so, end up avoiding others.

Why are we to speak truth?

We speak truth because we are responsible to one another. We are not meant to hide in the shadows but to step into the light and forsake all fakery and be truthful.  When Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Apostle Peter, they were judged severely because they betrayed the community (Acts 5:1-11). Lying undermines and erodes true community.

truth 2

How do we speak truth?

We speak truthfully by making and keeping promises to each other because that is what God does with us.  Faith communities which love truth will make a safe place for the awkwardness of confession, forgiveness, and healing.  There must be assurance that members will not abandon one another as they reveal their sins and weaknesses and fumble forward toward maturity and holiness.  Truthful communities are sacred spaces of encouragement and hospitality where we are safe to be real.  No one should ever have to suffer in silence, cry alone, or wonder whether they will be forsaken.  We must have a refreshing openness with each other since we belong to one another.  The late author and psychologist, Lewis Smedes, said in his book The Power of Promises:

“Yes, somewhere people still make and keep promises. They choose not to quit when the going gets rough because they promised once to see it through. They stick to lost causes. They hold on to a love grown cold. They stay with people who have become pains in the neck. They still dare to make promises and care enough to keep the promises they make. I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God.  What a marvelous thing a promise is! When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.”

Where do we go from here with truth?

I harbor no delusions: Being transparent and real is scary. Yet, if we are to be the true humanity we are deigned to be by our Creator, we will speak truthfully and not put up a false front.  We will neither hide nor hurl.  We will neither pretend everything is okay when it is not, nor project our problems onto others using untruthful accusations. We will do the hard work of learning to communicate by speaking the truth in love.

There are two tendencies that may plague us going forward: complacency and mediocrity. When it comes to relationships, we are too easily satisfied with a minimum amount of effort, words, and commitment.  We need to make and keep promises to God and to each other; live into our baptisms; and, renew our covenant of care and commitment to each other.  This means we will allow God to invade our hearts; we will let our mouths say what needs to be said and be open enough to let others in.

Some folks have putrid spiritual abscesses from either hiding the truth or hurling truth without love.  Spiritual healing comes through spiritual surgery. God the Father sent God the Son to die on a cruel cross for all our unhealthy ways of relating to each other – and together sent God the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to form a new community of believers around truth.

Putting off and putting on – that is the prescription for realizing truthful speech and life. It is not easy. It is hard as hell. And it takes us all as a human community to do it. Sometimes things are messy before there is order and peace. That is the price of authenticity and truth – and that is okay.

Lord God Almighty, the Creator of all that is good and true, help me so to put aside falsehood and put on truthful living and speaking that love and compassion shine in and through me to the glory of Jesus Christ, your Son, my Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reign forever together in a Holy Trinity of Truth. Amen.