Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 30, 2023

Acts 2:42-47 Commentary

Every once in a while when surveying the sometimes messy, untidy nature of church life, someone will say to me “If only the church today could be more like the Early Church in Acts.”  My typical, semi-cheeky retort to this is usually, “Have you read The Book of Acts?  We already are like the church in Acts!”  Because whether it’s Ananias and Sapphira, debates over the place of Gentiles in the church, squabbles among some of even the apostles, Acts is pretty realistic and honest about those earliest years of what was at first known as “The Way” and what we now call the Church.

Except in this passage in the Year A Fourth Sunday of Easter Lectionary.  Here Luke gives us a veritable Norman Rockwell painting of that first Christian church community.  It does not get more idyllic than this.  If you had to compose a musical piece to serve as the soundtrack for what we see here, it would definitely need to be on the sentimental and even the hokey end of the spectrum.  I mean, this looks just about perfect.

It reminds me of a scene from the TV show M*A*S*H years ago.  The doctors and nurses who made up the 4077th MASH unit set during the Korean war often did not get along, they squabbled, they pranked one another.  But then they had a visitor one week and it was rumored he was there to break up the unit.  To avoid that fate everyone agreed to make nice and so at dinner that night in the Mess Tent, everyone was practically tripping over themselves to be polite and kind to one another, to beam with smiles and kindness.  The visiting officer knows that something is up and so says to the commanding officer, “Just one big happy family, eh?  Almost too good to be true.”  And it was to good to be true.  They were faking it.

But there is no fakery in Acts 2.  There is nothing but genuine happiness in the Spirit, devotion to the apostles and to one another, a sharing of resources and well, it was just all so wonderful that it seemed everyone in Jerusalem could not say enough good about these folks.  Not just a few folks and not just some folks held these early Christians in high regard.  No, they were favored by ALL the people.  And God favored them 100% too.  Almost too good to be true.

As already noted, this is not the sole characterization of the earliest days of this community.  Acts itself will be honest enough to mention fissures and sins eventually.  And certainly we know that as church communities proliferated in places like Corinth and Galatia, eventually Paul’s epistles to those congregations would reveal problems aplenty.  Indeed, basically the entire letter of 1 Corinthians is one 16-chapter-long response to more conflicts than Paul could shake a stick at.  And Paul gets only about two sentences into his letter to the Galatians before he explodes in angry frustration at their having abandoned the true Gospel he had preached to them.  And let’s not even talk about what Jesus says to most of the Seven Churches who get a memo from Jesus in the early chapters of Revelation.

The New Testament is honest that the church is definitely a “warts and all” enterprise.  Like Jesus, the church is on the one hand fully divine but on the other hand also fully human only unlike Jesus, in this case the human side is not without sin.

So what do we do with this initial ideal portrait of a community that seems to have been immaculately conceived?  Well, we see it as a portrait of hope perhaps.  We see it as an aspirational (and inspirational) picture of what the Holy Spirit ideally can and should do in all of our lives and in our collective life together as the people of God in Christ.  As we sometimes say when we see people doing something amazing and unexpected: When donkeys fly, you cannot fault them if they don’t stay up there too long.  It’s just amazing they can fly at all.

And by the Holy Spirit of Pentecost who launched the church in the first place, all through history our feeble, flawed, and faulty congregations have pretty consistently managed to do a whole lot of things right by God’s grace and mercy.  The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof used to write that so often when he looked at church communities in the United States, he saw so much brokenness and even at times corruption and an almost sectarian-like ability to marginalize the most needy among us.

Yet when he traveled internationally and saw the wider church at work, he fell back in wonder at the Christ-like work that gets done in Hospices and Christian hospitals and among Christian missionary doctors and nurses in some of the most poverty-ravished places on earth.  He saw inspiring work in church-run shelters and Mother Teresa-like homes for lepers and for people no one else ever dared to touch or reach out to.  If what we sometimes see in our churches makes us wonder if there is anything special about the church at all, spectacles like these reveal a power at work that can only be chalked up to God’s divine work by the Holy Spirit.

Every once in a while—even if in only brief Camelot-esque moments—many congregations manage glimpses of an Acts 2-like idyllic nature.  And because the Bible shows that the Spirit is faithful and more than able to work even through some of the worst of our brokenness, this is the kind of thing that will simply keep happening over and over until that day when the kingdom fully comes and when the New Creation will look like Acts 2:42-47 all the time.

As someone once pointed out, the stubborn witness of the Old Testament is that despite everything that went wrong with Israel, God refused in the long run to be Israel-less.  And in the New Testament God shows this again only this time in regard to the New Israel that just is the Church.  Our God in Christ will not be without a people faithful to him and filled over and over by the Spirit of Pentecost.

If we are tempted to see the almost pristine portrait of Acts 2:42-47 as a cause for despair over how the church today too often really looks, don’t give in to that temptation.  See these verses instead as our shining hope.  This is what God can do, what God has done, and what God will do again.

Illustration Idea

In his ministerial memoir Open Secrets, Richard Lischer talked about the first congregation he served in a rural community near the Illinois-Missouri border.  The book is filled with lyric and moving vignettes.  One of the nicer images Lischer invokes involved his presiding at the Lord’s Supper.  The communion ware for this particular congregation included a large silver chalice for the wine.  Each time he presided at the Table and after pouring the wine symbolizing Jesus’s blood into the chalice, Lischer would lift it up over his head and dedicate it to the Lord.

People in the church were not sure why he did that, and a few worried it seemed a little too Roman Catholic as sacramental gestures go.  But in the memoir Lischer revealed his real reason: the underside of the shiny silver chalice was like a convex mirror and when Lischer lifted it up, he could see the whole congregation reflected on the underside of it.  He liked the idea of seeing all these people—who did not by any means always get along with each other—reflected as a single unity in the one cup of Christ.  It did not always look that united, but once in a while it was good to be reminded of the spiritual truth that in Christ, they are one.


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