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.

Take the Stairs Out of the Basement Shame Lounge

Since then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4, NIV)

A century ago, the English novelist, G.K. Chesterton, observed that in the house of life, many people are content to live in the cellar. In fact, they assume the cellar is the only room in the house. Cellars and basements have certainly changed in the past one hundred years, yet Chesterton’s observation still holds true – that people often seem content to dwell in conditions far beneath what they could experience. 

Maybe the basements of today provide a way to extend Chesterton’s metaphor. Rather than take the stairs and dwell in the house itself, we create spaces in the basement, game rooms and family rooms, to avoid dwelling in the main part of the house. We might even make the basement a shame lounge, complete with old purple shag carpeting, dimly lighted with a lava lamp, and stocked with cheap $2 a bottle wine. Its where we go when we are down on ourselves.

It’s hard to be joyful in the basement, especially when it’s a shame lounge, because it is a place where people hate themselves because of their failures, are disappointed with God for what has been allowed to happen in their lives, and blame others for their sadness.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossian Church to lay a solid foundation of teaching on who Jesus Christ is and what he has done (chapters 1 & 2); and to give some solid encouragement and exhortation on what that theological foundation means for daily life (chapters 3 & 4). 

The Colossian believers were to avoid getting sidetracked by false teachers telling them they belong in the basement of life, in the shame lounge, and that the only way up the stairs and out of the cellar is through a crazy, circuitous route of constant rule-keeping.

The truth Paul wanted the Colossians to grasp is that Jesus has made the stairway clear through his cross and resurrection. Those who believe in these redemptive events are full participants in the death and life of Jesus. Christ rising from death is not merely a doctrine to believe; it is a powerful reality to be lived! Christian doctrine always has the upward trajectory of changed lives. Paul gave three reasons why we must live upstairs instead of hanging around the shame lounge….

1. We must take the stairway out of the shame lounge and live upstairs because Christ’s resurrection makes it possible.

Paul made up a word that takes five words for us to communicate in English (συνηγέρθητε – “you have been raised with”). It is meant to communicate the truth that we have a vital connection and union with Jesus (co-raised with Christ). Jesus has so closely identified with us that it is as if we are his body. 

The bond existing between Jesus and the believer is so intimate and so close that when Jesus was raised from death, we took part with him in that event. The incredible implication of this is that our life is to be the life of Christ. Our task, then, is to live up to who we are in Christ. 

Paul exhorts us toward that end by telling us to set our hearts on things above. Today, on Easter Sunday, is the day to get our hearts out of the shame lounge and live upstairs with Jesus, who is seated at the right hand of God. 

Empty Tomb by Anneli Anderson

Being seated at the right hand is a symbolic picture that the work of Jesus on the cross is finished. Therefore, the only work left to do is to believe, and to participate in the life of Christ. We do that by living upstairs with Jesus. Christ’s heart was set on giving us eternal salvation from sin and death, and he accomplished it. 

Now, Jesus Christ has his heart set on seeing us experience freedom from the habits of shame and addictive practices which keep us from living upstairs with him. Jesus wants our hearts. Christ does not want us getting headaches from smoking nasty cheap cigars in the shame lounge any longer because his resurrection has made it possible to be with him in the clear bright sunshine of grace. 

We are to set our minds on things above, not on earthly things. We must get our heads out of the cellar and get them upstairs with Jesus. If our heads are not in the main part of the house, shame thoughts will fill the void. The shame lounge becomes a prison because our thoughts do not rise above the bad circumstances we have experienced. You, however, have been raised with Christ. We can ascend the stairs of grace and enjoy life.

The believer in Jesus will follow him up the stairs and dwell with him in God’s house. The Christian will develop the life of the mind by being seeped in the living water of Jesus and not the cheap wine of shame. The follower of Jesus will take the stairs with a heart of prayer that talks to Jesus on a regular basis, instead of sitting in the shame lounge, mumbling speeches to oneself.

The person raised with Christ will take the stairs and serve the Lord with all their heart, mind, and strength because staying in the confining walls of the basement shame lounge prevents the believer from seeing the immense need of people in the neighborhood who are lost, sick, dying, hurting, hungry, depressed, and longing for someone to show them the stairway of grace out of the hopeless basement they are in.

So, take the stairs!

  • Take the stairs and leave the shame lounge behind with its anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language (Colossians 3:8).
  • Take the stairs as God’s chosen people who dwell in the upstairs grace by embracing the house rules of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another in love. (Colossians 3:12) 
  • Take the stairs to forgiving whatever grievances we have against one another because the Lord has forgiven us. (Colossians 3:13)
  • Take the stairs to love, which binds every good virtue together. (Colossians 3:14) 
  • Take the stairs into the large living room of peace, since as members of one body we were called to peace. (Colossians 3:15)
  • Take the stairs and let God’s house shape you as we enter the rooms of teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom; singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in our hearts; and doing all things in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him for raising us up with him. (Colossians 3:16-17)

Take the stairs and live the resurrected life!

2. We must take the stairway out of the shame lounge and live upstairs because we possess new life in Christ.

We died, and our lives are now hidden with Christ in God. The shame lounge is now dead to us. We can ascend the stairs and live a new life. One of my friends in college was a party girl; she partied every chance she got. Then, she became a follower of Jesus. She received an invitation to a kegger and sent this response back: “I regret to inform you that I will be unable to attend your party because I have recently died.”

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, NIV)

Since the shame lounge is dead to us, take the stairs and then burn them behind you so that you not go back there again. The basement may feel safe and familiar, but as a believer in Jesus, you and I now belong to God. Our security is firmly with Jesus upstairs, not downstairs.  God has called and gathered us upstairs out of the shame lounge.

Don’t go back downstairs. If we don’t burn that old stairway we will eventually go back down into the basement. Then, someday, someone will find your lifeless corpse down there. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to the shame lounge: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)

3. We must take the stairway out of the shame lounge and live upstairs because of the future glory that awaits us.

Christ is coming again. When Jesus returns, the believer will share in God’s glory forever.  Christ has not returned yet because he wants to live through us here on this earth for a while longer. Jesus desires to spread good news of grace and forgiveness through us. Jesus Christ wants others to have the chance to ascend the stairs and live a new life. He is patient, not wanting any to perish in the cellar, but for all to experience the resurrected life. The Apostle Paul himself struggled to put all his energy into living the resurrected life:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:10-14, NIV)     

Move to another level. Leave the shame lounge basement behind. The first step up the stairway of grace is always a step of surrender so that our heart, mind, soul, time, possessions, and energy are revitalized to new ways of living.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He has given us new life and hope.

He has raised Jesus from the dead.

God has claimed us as his own.

He has brought us out of darkness.

He has made us light to the world.

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Psalm 71:1-14 – Tuesday of Holy Week

O Lord, I have come to you for protection;
    don’t let me be disgraced.
Save me and rescue me,
    for you do what is right.
Turn your ear to listen to me,
    and set me free.
Be my rock of safety
    where I can always hide.
Give the order to save me,
    for you are my rock and my fortress.
My God, rescue me from the power of the wicked,
    from the clutches of cruel oppressors.
O Lord, you alone are my hope.
    I’ve trusted you, O Lord, from childhood.
Yes, you have been with me from birth;
    from my mother’s womb you have cared for me.
    No wonder I am always praising you!

My life is an example to many,
    because you have been my strength and protection.
That is why I can never stop praising you;
    I declare your glory all day long.
And now, in my old age, don’t set me aside.
    Don’t abandon me when my strength is failing.
For my enemies are whispering against me.
    They are plotting together to kill me.
They say, “God has abandoned him.
    Let’s go and get him,
    for no one will help him now.”

O God don’t stay away.
    My God, please hurry to help me.
Bring disgrace and destruction on my accusers.
    Humiliate and shame those who want to harm me.
But I will keep on hoping for your help;
    I will praise you more and more. (NLT)

Today’s psalm is a lament. It is included in Holy Week because the Christian can imagine Jesus saying these very words in the last days of his earthly life and ministry.

Lament is both important and necessary. Without lament our grief comes out sideways, inevitably harming others with our snarky vitriol. Lament gives expression to our deep grief. It enables us to come to grips with what has happened or is happening to us and within us.

  • A lament is an expression of personal grief to any significant change or loss; it is the normal emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational reaction to that loss.
  • Lamenting is an intentional process of letting go of relationships and dreams and living into a new identity after the loss or change.
  • Expressing grief through lament is personal; there is no one-size-fits-all.

Psalms of lament have a typical structure to them, including:

  • Addressing God: Crying out for help. Some psalms of lament expand to include a statement of praise or a recollection of God’s intervention in the past. (Psalm 71:1-3)
  • Complaint: Telling God (said with some flavor!) about our problem or experience through a range and depth of emotional, relational, and spiritual reactions to the change or loss. (Psalm 71:4)
  • Confession of Trust: Remaining confident in God despite the circumstances. Beginning to see problems differently. (Psalm 71:5-8)
  • Petition: Proclaiming confidence in God. Appealing to God for deliverance and intervention. Keep in mind that petitioning is not bargaining with God or a refusal to accept loss. Rather, it is a legitimate seeking of help. (Psalm 71:9-13)
  • Words of Assurance: Expressing certainty that the petition will be heard by God. (Psalm 71:14a)
  • Vow of Praise: Vowing to testify in the future to what God will do with praise. (Psalm 71:14b-24)

I urge you to do the following spiritual practice this Holy Week – set aside some time and craft your own psalm of lament. Choose an event from your past which created grief for you. It can be recent or from years ago. Using the structure of lament psalms, thoughtfully write out each element as I have outlined it. Then, read it aloud to God. Perhaps even take another step by reading your lament aloud to a trusted family member, friend, or Pastor.

Our grief needs the outlet of lament. Grief which is not expressed only sits in the soul and eventually, over time, can easily become putrid and rancid, poisoning our spirit, and compromising our faith. Sharing your story through lament is biblical, practical, and I will insist, necessary. Let me know how it goes…

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 – Gratitude Changes Us

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever….”

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
    O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
    We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
    and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
    up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
    you are my God, I will extol you.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever. (NRSV)

Show me a spiritual sourpuss, and I’ll show you a person who lives without daily gratitude toward God and others. But show me a gracious person who liberally gives thanks, and I will show you a person profoundly in touch with God’s steadfast love.

The psalmist chose to give thanks for God’s goodness and faithful love. I wonder how much different each day would be if we began it with the psalmist’s great call to worship: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” 

There is a misguided notion that only certain people have the attitude of gratitude – that some folks are just naturally ornery, and some are just born happy. But the truth is that gratitude and giving thanks is a practice which needs to be carefully cultivated. As it grows and develops, gratitude bears the fruit of joy. 

Thankfulness is a daily decision of faith to have the kind of attitude which pleases God and blesses others.

We now know so much more about the human brain. Research has discovered that the brain is made up of an estimated 100 billion neurons making a total of 100 trillion neural connections. That’s a lot of neural power! Most of those neural pathways are good and healthy. For example, I didn’t have to think about how to tie my shoes this morning because I have a well-developed neural pathway that automatically makes the connection to do it.

However, some of those neural pathways are not good, even unhealthy. There might be connections in our heads which lead to substance abuse when under stress, or to violently lash out when afraid or hurt, or things like plain old procrastination. If you have ever had the experience of telling yourself that you’re not going to respond a particular way, then end up doing it anyway, it is likely you have a well-worn neural pathway which connects certain events to a set of focused actions.

What this all means is that willpower won’t do the trick in changing behavior. That’s because our brains don’t work that way. The good news is that all those neural connections and pathways, like ruts in a gravel road, can fade away and new ones can be developed. Scientists call this “neural plasticity.”

There are practices which can help unhealthy neural connections go away and create new healthy pathways.

One of those practices is gratitude. Giving thanks changes our brain chemistry! Yet, it doesn’t happen overnight. But if we identify three persons or possessions which we are grateful for and say them out loud at least three times a day over the next three months, then we have developed a new neural pathway in our brain.

So, in the future, when we face a stressful event – whereas in the past we might deal with it in an unhealthy way – now our brains reflexively go to a different place and see the situation in a different way than before. And we choose different actions and behaviors.

Readers of this blog know that I continually encourage reading the psalms out loud as prayers to God. If we make this a practice, it will not only change our brains – it will create new spiritual pathways in our souls which fortify us for those times in life when things are tough and hard.

Spiritual practices have a purpose. And when we use those disciplines, we end up developing connections with the Lord which support us and sustain us for a lifetime – not to mention that we become a delight for others to be around instead of being a tedious fart.

Loving God, this is the day you have made; I rejoice in it and am glad that your steadfast love covers all things. Help me to connect every good thing with your gracious hand upon me so that I will not look and act like I was baptized in pickle juice.  To the glory of Jesus Christ, I pray.  Amen.