So how should we live?
Last week we reflected on Peter’s words at Pentecost, calling upon the faithful Jews of the day to recognise their need to change; to repent; to live differently. He called on them to mark this change of life in the symbol of baptism; and we read that three thousand people did so, that day alone.
And I argued that the call to repent was not an invitation to a once and for all event, but to an ongoing change of life; empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit, the people were to be different; to think and act and live differently.
Today’s reading from the book of Acts continues from where we left off, and we get our first images of what that new, different life looked like. When the people of God recognised Jesus as their Messiah, and chose a new direction, what did it look like?
And in just a few verses, the author paints this picture of a community recreated by their shared faith in the risen Lord; a community characterised by that which they shared, that which they held in common, the extent to which they did life together.
A community that actually reflected the meaning of the word “community”.
Look at the number of times, just in these few lines, that the idea of together arises. They were devoted to fellowship; they were together with all things in common; they were together in the Temple; they were together in one another’s homes; they broke bread together.
And these weren’t people of the leisured class, people who had time to spare. The early Church was mostly farmers, traders, fishermen, and slaves. We know from other accounts that they would meet in the Temple for worship before sunrise and meet to break bread together and hear the apostles’ teaching after sunset – because during the hours of day, they were working people. They, like many of us, were people who had full lives; work and family and social responsibilities: but they devoted themselves to these things.
Being together amongst the people God had called into the faith was a priority for them.
Of course, the particular way in which they expressed that priority was shaped by their context, their culture. But when you read through that list of the things they did together, it strikes me that there are four ideas, four theme, four ways of being together, that emerge. And I hear in those four way, challenges to us; to how much the resurrection really has changed everything; to how we should live.
The first, is that they ate together. They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread; they broke bread and ate together at home.
And I really don’t believe that this represents some sort of symbolic meal, like the one that we celebrate at communion. “Breaking bread together” means sharing a meal together. It means getting together for a bring and share pot luck supper. It means inviting one another for a meal.
In pretty well every human society that has ever been known, eating together has been a powerful marker of community. Who you eat with – and who you don’t eat with – is the clearest marker of who you are, who you belong with. Even young kids in the playground at lunchtime instinctively know – it matters who you are with when you eat.
And of course that’s why so many of the stories of Jesus’ ministry are so scandalous – he ate with tax collectors and sinners, with foreigners, with traitors. And the early Church carried the same scandal on; wealthy believers shared the table with slaves, and before long, even Jews and Gentiles would eat together.
There is something powerful that happens in our lives when we take the time to share a meal (or even a coffee!) with others. Something that enables us to move beyond the transactional basis of most of our relationships and conversations, to something more human. For the early Church, it was the first and most basic marker that they were now something new, a new community of faith.
They ate together.
And they also learned together. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. Now this seems to me to be something that we in the modern Church haven’t lost sight of! Reading the scriptures together and reflecting upon what they might mean for us is a pretty core part of what we do each Sunday; and for many, also something we do at other times of the week.
But they didn’t just learn – they devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teaching. No simple academic pursuit, here, no study in order simply to know more – who had time for that? They were devoted to what they could learn because it mattered; it shaped their lives; it changed everything. I wonder if we could say the same – that we seek out opportunities to learn more about God because when we do it changes our lives?
They ate together. They devoted themselves to learning – together – about God.
And they worshipped.
They prayed, they met in the Temple, day by day, spending much time there, praising God. For those of us who have a more activist sort of bent to their faith; those of us who tend to place much weight on how we should live in response to God’s call, how we should work for justice and equality and opportunity for all, it’s a gentle reminder that while God’s people are undoubtedly called to change the world, to advance the mission of the Kingdom of God here on earth, we are also called to be a people of worship. To be a people centred around God, and not around our own activities, organisations, or abilities, however good those things may be.
That the Church is not just a social justice organisation – though it is that – not just a force for change in the world – though it is that – not just a shelter for those in need of protection from the powerful – though it is that – but that it is a community of worship, a community filled with gratitude for the generous love of God that has saved them.
So they worshipped, together. Ate together. Learned together.
They held all things in common.
Now we don’t know a great deal about how that actually worked. We do have other accounts of the early Church that suggest that this was not so much communal living as it was an opening of lives and property and possessions to one another. For the most part, these were people who did not have much, and certainly did not have the luxury of duplication – a spare of everything, possessions kept ‘just in case’; so what they had, they shared.
And where it was needed, they gave. Even though that normally meant they had to sell what they had. The Roseville mission plan calls us as a community to “Extravagant Generosity”; but I suspect that the extravagance of the early Church might put even our stretch goals to shame.
They were together: they ate together, they learned together, they worshipped together, and they gave, generously, together.
This was so much more than a religious gathering, so much more than a like minded group with a common goal, so much more than an interest group.
These were people who saw that the death and resurrection of Jesus called them into something new – into the Kingdom of God, into a genuine community of faith, into the sharing of life that Paul would call “the body of Christ”.
So I wonder how we might find something in this that makes a actual difference in our lives?
Because if you’re like me, you probably look at this community and see something so different, so radical, that it is almost unimaginable. We see the difficulties, the barriers, the cultural differences, and we despair – or we simply declare that that was for another time, another place.
But I’m going to suggest, instead, that we look at the four themes in the passage, and ask how each one of them might actually work out in our lives.
How could I, how could we share meals together more? Invite people to dinner more often, more consistently? Organise a social event, a pizza night, a bring and share? Meet someone for breakfast, lunch, coffee? Or how might I be more radical in my hospitality, reaching out to those beyond my usual circle?
And how could I, how could we, learn together – develop in faith together – more intentionally? Is there a small group I could join – or form – or offer to host?
How could I, how could we, worship together more passionately, more meaningfully.
Or how could I, how could we, be more generous with our possessions, with our money.
How might we be together as a community of people formed in the shape of the risen Christ?
Because when they did, they had the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.