Becoming the Easter Community – A Sermon for April 11

Texts: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133

God, inspired by the psalmist, we ask for the gift of unity. In a world where scapegoats are made and the vulnerable are exploited, grant us the gift of solidarity, even as the cross expresses your solidarity with us.

Today our central reading is from the book of Acts. We’re going to stay in this book for a few weeks. As you probably know, the book of Acts is a continuation of the story Luke began in the gospel that bears his name. Both books are written to someone named Theophilus, a name that means “loved by God.” So the Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus, and the book of Acts begins the story of Jesus’ impact upon the world.

What we’re diving into, then, is an account of what Easter meant to the first Christians. Without the resurrection, the life of Jesus would have meant something quite different. Now, before we begin thinking about the story Luke tells in Acts, I want to put a question in front of us. It’s this: What do we hope people remember about our community of faith from this moment in time?

The truth is, we find ourselves in a difficult moment. Yes, some of us have been able to receive vaccines, and the situation looks brighter in the future, but in the present the situation remains difficult. That’s especially true here in Ontario. There is the pandemic, of course, but there is also the conflicted response to it. Many of us hear opposing voices and see opposing actions each and every day. I don’t want us to dwell on our circumstances, all I want is to remind us of the moment in which we are reading these biblical texts. What do we hope people remember about our community of faith from this moment in time?

Let’s turn to the book of Acts. You’ll probably remember that the opening chapter tells us about the ascension of Jesus. That is, Jesus ascends to a position of authority and power. Or as Luke interprets it, Jesus was “exalted at the right hand of God.” That’s a key part of Acts chapter 1. In Acts chapter 2 we read about the dramatic manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit. This happened among Jesus’ followers, just as he had promised. Jesus is gone in body, but remained present and active in spirit. And as a result the faith community became magnetic. Their numbers grew “day by day.”

The word community is so overused today that we sometimes forget how little it actually communicates on its own. Every community has it’s own values, goals and key practices. Criminal gangs are a community, and so are some racist organizations. So it isn’t enough to say that the group we are reading about in Acts was a community. If we’re going to reflect on the way they responded to the resurrection, we need to notice what type of community they are.

Thankfully, this isn’t hard to figure out. Luke makes it clear. In Acts chapter 2 verse 42, we read that this community was shaped by four things: Devotion to the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Pope Benedict XVI referred to this as “the fourfold adherence” (Called to Communion).

The apostles’ teaching was probably something pretty basic like how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies about God doing a new thing and how the resurrection of Jesus, to which they were all witnesses, showed that God had conquered death and certified Jesus’ way of being as the way of God.

In addition to being dedicated to the apostle’s teaching, the early Christian community prioritized connection with each other. We read that in those early days they met daily in the temple. They shared meals in their homes. They praised God and prayed together.

I don’t know if you’re the type of person that worries about the future of the church. It’s easy to get anxious about it. And some communities flail a bit trying to remain relevant. I think that coming back to this “fourfold adherence” is a simple way to recalibrate. How should we live out the drama of Easter in our own day? A good place to start is always to ask, how are we devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to breaking bread, and to prayer? As we continue to find ways to do those things, the rest will come into focus. The passage from Acts 4 shows what I mean.

Remember these lines from the reading? “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”

What we think happened was that as these believers gathered together, broke bread together and prayed together. They noticed that some of them had much and others had very little. And they thought, if Jesus has torn down the walls that divide us, if Jesus has shown us that death isn’t a threat to our legacy, if Jesus has demonstrated God’s care for those we love, if Jesus has enacted true, servant leadership—why would we not share the gifts we have been given? Why would we collect for ourselves? Why would we hoard instead of give? If the Holy Spirit has truly made us a new family, why would we not help our brothers and sisters?

For the early Christian community, Easter made a difference. It changed how they lived.

Those of you who have studied Anabaptist history know that these passages were significant for some of our spiritual forebears. Some of them were communists—this is long before Karl Marx of course. Jacob Hutter is the most famous. He was an influential 16th century Anabaptist leader, and along with his followers, he took these passages from Acts as more than mere description of the early church. They took them as normative instructions. The early Anabaptists had an intense and drawn-out debate about whether or not they should hold all their good in common. Neither side won. Hutter’s followers still exist. However, most Anabaptists around the world do not hold everything “in common.”

And, yet, I think this passage from Acts should still provoke us. The early church did not think that Easter’s impact was only spiritual. The early church did not think that the resurrection only changed how they thought about death. “There was not a needy person among them,” Luke reports.

Imagine how this would have felt for those first-century believers. There must have been a deep sense that something in the world had changed. Their pattern of life was one way before Easter, and another way after it. Their experience of the world shifted. There really was a different way of being community.

Just think about this: the word the New Testament often uses to name the community of faith is ecclesia. It’s a Greek term used to refer to the assembly of political decision-makers or judges in a city. The ecclesia was the group of people called out from the masses to make decisions. In the Greek world the ecclesia did not include women or children. Yet for the early church the ecclesia included everyone who was drawn to Jesus and baptized in the triune name. It was quite a change. Easter had an impact.

Sharon Daloz Parks is a Quaker writer from the state of Washington. She has the curious distinction of having had research positions at both schools of divinity and business. She makes the observation that many of us suffer from something she calls “toxic economic anxiety.” She explains that we “feel bloated with cumber and guilty about [our] standard of living.” Cumber is word the old Quakers used to describe the way stuff, titles and career commitments keep us firmly entrenched in the same pattern of life.

Jesus fed the hungry, which contradicted the assumption it was the rich who had found God’s favor. That move fostered a new way of looking at things and shifted the social reality. Daloz Parks suggests that when it comes to managing the economics of our common household we would do well to move in the direction of two things: simplicity and mutual aid. She points to Mennonites, along with Quakers and some influential Catholics, as exemplars of both.

Here at OMC, when we reflect on our history we remember how this community once helped young men whose conscience’s prohibited them from serving in war, how this congregation promoted fair trade to encourage good work for people in developing countries, how it contributed to early ecumenical relationships in our city, how it assisted vulnerable newcomers to Canada, how it has been a place of connection, and, over the years, how this congregation has been a place where those with more have shared with those who have had less. In the past God’s Spirit has shown us how to become the Easter community.

Sometimes when we read the book of Acts we look for timeless truths about how the church should be structured or how genuine faith looks. As I see it, the truth is that the church community is something that is always coming into being. It looks a little different in each new place and in each new time. As God’s Spirit breaths life in places marked by death something happens. It’s something we determine together.

So, what do we hope people remember about our community of faith from this moment in time? The answer to that question is something we create together. We create it each time we gather around the teaching of the apostles, each time we pray, each time we break bread, and each time we fellowship. We create it each time the story of Easter prompts us to take a second look at the way things are and the way God wants them to be.     

 Oh, God, grant us the grace of sensitivity to your presence. Show us what Easter changes. Amen.

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