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.

Luke 15:1-7 – One Lost Sheep

The Shepherd and the Lost Sheep
“The Shepherd and the Lost Sheep.” By Peter Clarke, 1969

A lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They grumbled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their complaining triggered this story:

“Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue. (MSG)

Lost people matter to God.  They matter so much to him that one lost soul found is the grounds for a big celestial party.  Please note this simple observation of today’s Gospel reading: If there is rejoicing in the presence of angels in heaven over one sinner who repents, then who is doing the rejoicing?  God!  God himself is crazy giddy with joy over one lost person being found.

Celebration is an important activity for the Christian. God throws the best parties, filled with plenty of joy and recognition of persons restored to fellowship. As people created in the image and likeness of God, we are hardwired for celebration. If God can go uncorked with joy and celebration, I’m going to say with confidence that open unabashed blowouts rejoicing over people’s transformation and new life is welcome and expected. Folks baptized in pickle juice can join the grumbling of all the high mucky-muck dudes who smugly look down on the marginal persons among us. Hopefully, the party-poopers won’t be heard because of all the noise at God’s party.

This parable of Jesus is meant to give us a glimpse of God’s own heart.  He would do anything to find a lost person, to restore and reconcile a person back to himself.  God would go dumpster diving and wade through the stinky nasty garbage to find that one lost valuable person.

Why should reaching out to marginal people with the grace and love of Jesus Christ be a high priority?  Because restoring lost people is a high priority for God.  God has placed the highest of priorities on recovering those who are spiritually lost and wandering around life without a purpose or a place to call home. Such people matter so much to him that God sent his Son, the Lord Jesus, to this earth.  Jesus went to the greatest lengths possible through enduring a cruel death on a cross in order to reconcile a broken lost relationship between people and God.

I can still remember what it felt like to be separated from God and estranged from the church – it was lonely and sad, like being in a deep black hole with no way of getting out and no one around to help.  But God, in his great mercy, sent spiritual commandos to extract me from my captivity of the soul. So, my greatest desire is to live my life basking in the grace shown to me, grateful for new mercies which come every day, and giving that same grace to others – especially those considered as the lost, the least, and the lonely in society.

In leaving the ninety-nine and going after the one sheep, God gave preferential attention to the lost. So, because of this, I ask a sincere and probing question which I believe needs to be asked:  Can you live with that?  My own answer is: “I sure can, because I was once that lone lost sheep!”

Jesus, you are the Good Shepherd.  Thank you for going after me when I was lost.  Help me to remember that you will often leave my pasture to go after others. I’ll be willing and happy to go with you when you do. Let’s also take the Spirit with us.  Amen.

Click Compassion Hymn by Keith and Kristyn Getty to remember the lengths of love God went to in restoring us.

Luke 15:1-10

            Lost people matter to God.  They matter so much to him that one lost soul found is the grounds for a big celestial party.  Please note this observation of the text:  if there is rejoicing in the presence of angels over one sinner who repents, then who is doing the rejoicing?  God!  He is absolutely giddy with joy over a lost person being found.  These parables of Jesus are meant primarily to give us a glimpse of God’s own heart.  He would do anything to find a lost person, to restore and reconcile a person back to himself.  God would go dumpster diving and wade through the stinky nasty garbage to find that one lost valuable person.
 
            Why should reaching others for Jesus Christ be a high priority?  Because restoring lost people is a high priority to God.  Lost people matter to him.  They matter so much to him that he sent his Son, the Lord Jesus, to this earth.  Jesus paid the ultimate price of a cruel death on a cross in order to reconcile a broken lost relationship between people and God.
 
            I still remember what it felt like to be separated from God, and estranged from the church – it was lonely and awful, like being in a deep black hole with no way of getting out and no one around to help.  But God, in his great mercy, sent people into my life to share the message of salvation with me.  In leaving the ninety-nine and going after the one sheep, God gave preferential attention to the lost.  Can you live with that?  I sure can, because I was once that one lost sheep.
 

 

            Jesus, you are the Good Shepherd.  Thank you for going after me when I was lost.  Help me to remember that you will often leave to go after others.  I’ll go with you when you do.  Let’s take the Spirit with us.  Amen.

What’s In a Name?

My family and I have lived in several diverse neighborhoods over the past twenty five years.  In one of those neighborhoods I would often go into the backyard of my house and spend time praying.  One day as I was talking to God, I turned my thoughts toward the neighbors around me.  “Lord, I pray for my African neighbor, my geeky educated neighbor across the street, my agnostic lady neighbor, my lesbian neighbors down the way….”  As I was praying, I was gently interrupted by God.  “Why do you refer to your neighbors by race, gender, religion, and orientation… they are just your neighbors.”

One of the things that sets humans apart from the rest of creation is the ability to name.  When God created Adam, he brought all the animals before him to see what he would call them.  And Adam named each and every one of them.  He even named the first female Eve (which means “woman”).  Then sin entered the world.  Ever since the Fall, people have had a knack for not only naming, but misnaming others.  The ability to name is a power unique to humans.  It can bring life or it can bring death, depending upon whether we name rightly or wrongly.

What God called me on in the backyard was the reality that I insisted on giving names to people which set them apart from me.  My naming exposed my heart.  I saw the people around me not so much as human beings created in the image of God as much as I saw them as impersonal beings, as objects which needed something.  This happens in the church as much as anywhere.  We see a depressed person, a sick person, an ornery person; we see needy people and insecure people.  We look at the world around us and see children dying, sex-trafficking, and people without clean water.  And then our misnaming comes:  “Someone should do something for them.”  In one succinct statement we have detached ourselves from others.  We keep people at arm’s length through calling them the name “someone”, and ensure our inaction through saying that “something” should be done.

The only way to cease misnaming others is by moving in a deliberate relational direction into another’s life.  Why is it that we call a group of people “those liberals” or “the ones on welfare” or “all those Hispanics”?  Because we don’t know one person from the groups we name.  We have never taken the time or effort to establish a relationship with one of “those people.”  So, we stay in our holy huddle and kick our names out, hoping that one of those people will not infect our community or influence the way we like to do things.

Jesus died on the cross for people, all kinds of people.  In God’s great mercy he gave us a new name and calls us children of God.  We are no longer strangers and aliens, but are adopted into the family of God with loads of brothers and sisters who are both alike and different from us.  And it is all good and right.

Church ministries need to get beyond heaping adjectives before the names of people.  When we name people a certain way, we arrogantly believe we know what those people need.  But when we see people as people, we will take the time to move in their direction and get to know them.  We will seek to listen and let them describe their own needs and the needs of the people they interact with every day.  Then, we will minister to them out of the context of relationship and not out of the context of distance.  In the church we will listen to one another, take the time to ask questions, and help others based on our shared humanity.

Try and become conscious of the labels and names you are inwardly assigning to people you see, especially those who are in situations of need.  Try changing the names you ascribe to them and see how it changes your perception of them.  Have you ever been wrongly named by another?  How did it affect you?  Who is someone you have wrongly labeled?  What do you think the impact of that naming has been?