April 15, 2012

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2

The fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles provides us with an idyllic picture of the church at the beginning: “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” Now that’s unity! They were “of one heart and soul.” Of course, maybe that’s because there weren’t very many of them yet. They were just a small group of disciples who had a lot in common with each other and managed to keep the same perspective on most things.

Well, no. They weren’t that small a group. Even before the day of Pentecost when the Spirit was poured out on the gathered disciples, there were about a hundred of them waiting together in Jerusalem. And after that, the church grew in leaps and bounds!

And no, they weren’t all fishermen from Galilee. Remember the Jews from all the nations of the world who were in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost? And remember how they heard the disciples speaking in their own various languages? After Peter’s first sermon to the crowd, apparently 3000 believers were added to their number, and more and more every day after that!

By the fourth chapter of Acts, the church must have numbered around 5000 people, and it would have included people from various countries, cultures, languages, and backgrounds. They were probably mostly Jewish Christians – but still, it’s pretty amazing that they were getting along well and unified in heart and soul.

The account tells us that “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. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned land or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

I wonder if it was really like that. I wonder if it really could have been that perfect, or if the description in Acts is more like a “those were the days” memory of the beginning of things. I’ve heard people talk about the “good old days” of the church and the “good old days” of society too. The ministers always preached powerful and inspiring sermons. The children and young people came to church every Sunday, sometimes twice. The women’s group had plenty of volunteers. And the offering plate was full even though the people had way less disposable income to give.

And in society… neighbours knew each other and looked out for each other’s children, and you didn’t have to lock your doors, and people visited each other instead of just texting back and forth, and oh yes, they said the Lord’s prayer in school each morning.

Sometimes it’s nice to look back and remember the good old days. But if we’re honest, we’ll also remember some things that weren’t quite as good… people with disabilities who were treated poorly, women who were not given the same opportunities as their brothers, minority groups that were discriminated against or harassed, Native Canadians who were considered to be uncivilized and were treated accordingly.

Bit by bit, and step by step, we’ve come a long way since those “good old days.” We’ve probably lost some aspects of our churches and society that we believe made us strong, but we’ve also made a lot of changes that are for the better.

And the early Christian church changed too. It wasn’t long before they realized that they weren’t living up to the ideal of “there was no needy person among them.” Soon some of the widows were being neglected in the distribution of food and they had to make some changes in roles and responsibilities in order to fix the problem.

They basically came up with the role of deacons or diaconal ministry in the church – specific people with the task of serving the community and making sure that no one was left out. It would be nice if everyone could just get taken care of automatically, but sometimes these things take some co-ordination so they had to make a change.

I wonder if they argued over the change… It doesn’t say anything about an argument in the book of Acts, but you know how difficult change can be in any organization! Did they bad-mouth each other and blame each other for a while before figuring out a solution to the problem? Or did they just get down to work together to fix it?

By the time the letter known as 1st John was written, there was no doubt that the Christian Church was no longer the perfect, loving, unified community that it once was – if it ever really was like that. By the early 2nd century, the church had not only grown and spread, but it had diversified significantly. There would have been all kinds of different perspectives on God, on Jesus, on how Jesus’ followers should live, and what the purpose of the church should be.

In a very real way, one of the main purposes of the various letters that we read in the New Testament, was to attempt to bring the church together. The apostles wanted to give instruction and guide the dispersed Christians in the way of Jesus. They wanted to clarify what Christians were supposed to believe, and keep them from getting led astray by false doctrines.

Letters like 1st John were written, not for a particular Christian church in a particular town, but they were written as pastoral letters to be circulated through the various churches. As the various communities read these same letters, their leaders hoped that they would come to share in the same faith and hope, and that they would be drawn together in unity.

And so the authors of the pastoral letter wrote: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” They’re talking about Jesus, of course. And they’re claiming the authority of having known him themselves. Christ is not simply an idea, or a Spirit that hovers about. But Jesus was a human person who lived, and loved, and died, and was raised. These authors are saying that they knew him, and saw him, and touched him, and they want to share what they know.

They continue: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us.” They are drawing more people into the Christian community, we might assume. Or perhaps, they are sharing their perspective with Christians from whom they have become estranged. Maybe they disagreed about something and cut off the fellowship. Maybe they had an argument and decided to part ways.

But these early Christians believe that being in relationship with one another is of utmost importance. And the way to initiate that relationship is to begin by sharing their faith in Jesus Christ. They want to have fellowship with their estranged sisters and brothers, and they realize that the way to establish that fellowship is through their shared fellowship with God and Jesus Christ.

If I love God, and he loves God, then we must be able to love one another! It’s like when you get married to someone, you can’t really marry them without coming into relationship with their family, and their best friends, and all those that they care about.

As much as I imagine that these early Christian leaders were pretty content with their faith, they are writing the letter “so that [their] joy may be complete.” The Christian community cannot experience true joy when there remains conflict, division, and estrangement among its members and groups.

The letter known as first John uses the image of God as light – a significant image that the authors probably picked up from the Gospel of John where Christ is the light shining into the darkness of the world. They explain that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” And so, they argue “if we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true.”

Of course, light exposes our deeds. Light reveals the truth. Light requires us to do what is right. If we’re walking with God, we’re walking in the light, the letter writers say. If we’re walking in darkness, keeping our actions secret, doing what we want because no one can see us and call us on it, then we’re not walking with God. That’s all there is to it.

On the other hand, if we will walk in the light, as God is in the light, then our actions will be exposed, and we will be called to do what is right, and we will be able to restore our relationships and enjoy fellowship with one another because we will have put away the sins and errors that caused our conflict in the first place.

Unity does not mean uniformity. And fellowship does not mean that we are all exactly the same as each other, or that we agree with each other all the time. Unity means that we agree on the big stuff, on the broad strokes of what it means to be followers of Jesus together. And fellowship means that we stay together and keep on working out the details together. It means keeping mind that if I love God, and she loves God, then we have to be able to figure out a way to love one another because we share in the same fellowship with God and Jesus Christ.

As a member of an interchurch marriage, I often get focussed on what I believe is the very important task of working towards the unity of the whole Christian church. The disagreements and divisions between the churches throughout history are a scandal, and the churches need to work together to mend the brokenness in the one body of Christ.

But I also realize that there is a great deal of work yet to be done within the Presbyterian Church in Canada – to build relationships between congregations, clergy, and ministries in different parts of the country and perhaps with different ways of doing things.

And there must always be attention paid to the unity of each congregation and community within the congregation. That means developing good communication patterns. It means creating opportunities for input and discussion on important decisions. It means listening to one another, and seeking to understand. And it means engaging with the community in ways that are respectful of our neighbours, whether we agree with them or not.

As the early Christian church was unified, and yet struggled with disagreement and division, our congregation will likely always need to work on living together in unity and common purpose. Bit by bit, we will continue to change (as the early church changed as well) and hopefully, most of those changes will be for the better.

As we continue the journey together, may God’s Spirit give us the power to forgive one another, and to grow in unity as God’s people in this place. Amen.