“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” the writer of the Acts of the Apostles writes. It is a passage that typifies life in the early church with its exuberant mood, and spiritual vitality. These are people who applied their faith to their everyday lives. They were convinced that they were equipped with the Holy Spirit. They set about in their daily lives to live it out.
Not that it was an easy task! We need to remember that this was a persecuted church. Peter’s letter is obviously written to people under siege. “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it,” he writes, “you have God’s approval.” He is speaking to some early converts, servants, slaves in local households who have converted to Christianity. He is not saying that suffering is right. He is not saying that it is necessary. He is attempting to bring meaning to the persecution that they are going through. He relates their suffering to that of Jesus. They are suffering for their faith.
Henry Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest who worked in the l’Arche community in
Those early Christians had learned to live under the blessing. They have given us a wonderful grounding for the faith. From that first community has emerged a world wide Church that has survived centuries of persecution. It survived and prospered because of the commitment that people made to one another and to the Risen Christ! What is more, it is a church that grew exponentially. Last week we heard that on hearing Peter’s sermon three thousand converts were baptized.
There is good reason for the growth that was experienced in the early Church. It is not rocket science. It grew and spread because those who believed prayed. They spent time together in the temple praying. And more than that, they put their prayer into action. They remembered God with grateful hearts. They shared what they had with others so that no one went without. They gave praise to God. Theirs was a radical spirituality that transformed not only their lives, but the lives of those around them.
Society mistrusts such people. We find labels for them, labels such as “hippie” or “communist”. But the label we should have for them is “Christian”, and it should be the label we strive for in our daily lives.
“Will you devote yourself to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers?” Bishop Colin asked that of eight members of our congregation last week as they were confirmed or reaffirmed their faith. He asked it of all of us who witnessed their commitment. It is asked of each of us every time there is a baptism in our church. It is part of our baptismal Covenant.
We have the same call as those early Christians. But many are not hearing that call. It is a blueprint for the modern church, an ideal, a vision. If we were following it, we would be a growing church. We need to ask ourselves why we are not growing exponentially.
This Sunday focuses on Jesus, the Good Shepherd. It is a wonderful image of our loving God. It is one that so many of us get wrapped up in. Even though we are far from our agrarian roots, it still speaks words of comfort to us through all the chaos and confusion of living in what seems to be an increasingly violent and troubling era.
Is that the message we are intended to hear? Should we be hearing it more as a wakeup call? Consider! The shepherd is the protector, a wall of strength and security for the sheep. Jesus as shepherd says that he is the gatekeeper, the one who provides access to God. How badly humanity needs those who can open the way against the gigantic burdens of inhumanity! The image of shepherd is one that demonstrates that God includes all those in society who are without power, the little ones, the lowly, the no account, the expendable, the least, the uncared for – these are all children of God. These are the ones that need access.
The question remains, do we let them in? Our view of a gate is something that limits access. Jesus is not the gatekeeper at a toll booth that we have to pass under in scrutiny. We do not have to have enough money or the right address or be wearing the right clothing. We simply have to come with open hearts and minds. We have to open ourselves up to the workings of the Holy Spirit. We have to make a commitment to pray and to act and to be open to God’s Spirit. We need a radical spirituality that transforms our lives.
How do we live out our brokenness under the blessing and not under the curse? It is something that I ask of myself all the time. It is something that I have been painfully aware of these last few days. It is not always easy to live in this ecumenical setting. Our shared mission and ministry is so easily forgotten. What should be a lively sharing of faith, an opportunity for prayer, a supporting of the mission of the church, becomes a scene of mistrust. We put up walls and barriers.
The current situation is not something that needs to become a burden to members of this congregation. You do need to know that it stems from the financial problems of the Lutheran congregation. It requires the active prayer of all of us. If we are to grow within this place, there needs to be amongst all of the congregations a sense of peace and unity. We need to have, not only our own vision, but a shared vision of what this community of faith could accomplish. It is on my heart right now that we need to pray for God to be at work in this place. We have not done that enough. We have been too concerned with our own survival.My challenge to everyone in our parish is to put prayer into action. Pray every day for St. Francis and for the other two churches in our building. Pray for a spirit of reconciliation and unity. But also do something about it. Get to know someone from one of the other churches. Invite them to our coffee hour, not with any idea that they should become an Anglican. They are already people of faith. Simply invite them so that we can get to know them. Drop in on their coffee hour. This is about healing rifts. That needs to happen. This is a wonderful congregation that should be a dynamic and living entity in this community. Yet too much of our energy goes into survival. The Spirit can change that. Let us live under the blessing! Amen