They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
I was telling a colleague the other day that I need to put a moratorium on using Barbara Brown Taylor and Brene Brown in my sermons, in the last year they’ve crept into more sermons that I’m proud to let on. But alas, it’s hard when these very wise women always seem to have delved deep into the landscape of God that we’re traversing.
And today we’re traversing into the land of community and connection. So, I begin today’s sermon with a quotation from Brene Brown because this is just her, ya know. If you haven’t read any Brene Brown, do it.
She talks about community and connection like this: I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.
She goes on in this book, The Gifts of Imperfection, and in her research to talk about how we’re wired for that kind of connection. How we’re created for relationship and community.
We are designed for relationship. We’re not just better for it. We don’t just muddle through a little less worse for the wear. We’re MADE by God for relationship--maybe marriage or friendship or family or colleague. We’re made to need and be needed by other people. We are made to connect.
And this, dear friends, sounds a lot like the passage from Acts 2 that we read this morning. Giving and receiving. Living in joy and not judgement. Getting strength and sustenance from relationships amidst believers who care for each other. You can almost feel the connection energy Brown is talking about in this passage-- Luke says the goodwill of all people flowed amidst them. The Spirit was there and it was joyful. As Brene Brown says it was and is meant to be.
Luke tells us a bit how the early church got there: They eat together. They share. Generosity is part of the DNA of their relationships both with each other and with the things they “own” like money, time, attention. They learn together. They let themselves be healed by each other! They make sacrifices for each other, they feel the pressure of sacrifice. They practice gratefulness together, call out and name the good stuff of life that God provides and encourages. They know each others’ needs. They’re in each others’ homes.
What we get from Acts 2 is that this community took the time and the joy of being in each others’ lives seriously. This is the good stuff that we hope for, that Brene Brown hopes for, that the Spirit calls us to live into.
And I’ve seen this among us. For our leadership team meeting last Sunday we made New Year Resolutions, and they sounded a lot like this passage. They were resolutions to hang out more, guys night, book clubs, parents group, SAND meetings, hanging out with each others’ kids. We aspire to be this kind of community.
And I’ve seen it in meals made for each other and meals shared in each others’ homes. I’ve seen this community listen to each other and value each others’ experiences in our Sunday small groups. I hope we see the ways we are and the ways we can be like this Acts community more and more.
But before our high expectations take over and our perfectionism drowns us from experiencing real community, I want us to push back a little bit against Luke’s description of this new community, this new church. See, when I was reading commentaries on this passage (commentaries are books by scholars who go verse by verse or passage by passage and fill you in on the details you might have missed or what it could mean), when I was reading the commentaries every single scholar used the word “idealized” when dealing with Acts chapter 2 verses 42-47. Every single one. Some of them also added the words “utopian” or “wishful.” The scholarly consensus on this passage is that the new church emerging in the first century may not have ever really looked totally like this. This is a tidy package in Acts 2 that leaves out some of the messier details of community, of doing life together.
One scholar actually brought in some organizational theory to talk about the impossibility of the first Christian community actually organizing such a healthy and happy group in such a short amount of time. Mostly, you just can’t organize, get consensus, build trustworthy leaders, garner high levels of support and trust, in such a young community. Yes, with God anything is possible, but there are hints in the rest of Acts that things aren’t quite as neat and tidy as Acts 2 would have us think--we’ll get to those in future weeks. But this passage, in its utopian state, is something to aspire to, but perhaps isn’t all the way honest.
Perhaps Luke, in writing his book fell into the trap of nostalgia. Brown talks about nostalgia being a dangerous form of comparison. “Think about how often we compare our lives to a memory that nostalgia has so completely edited that it never really existed.” We read what happened in that first community, we read the best practices that helped people flourish, but what about the messy bits, the stepping stones and stumbling blocks that did the hard work of getting them there.
I’m not sure about you, but it’s a little overwhelming when I only read about the good stuff in people’s lives, like we read in this passage. When I read this passage I start comparing myself and my communities with this community in Acts. I go into perfectionism mode or achieving mode and feel some guilt and shame that my own faith communities are not like that all the time in every place on every day.
In my frustration with Luke, I rewrote this passage to reflect what could have been some of those missing pieces.
They learned together, new things, hard things, liberating things. They hung out with the leaders and learned from them things they didn’t know and taught the leaders a few things as well. Some of the leaders were a little over-rated. They ate together, sometimes with china and sometimes with paper plates. Some were better at cooking than others, and sometimes the kids refused peoples food and it was embarrassing. But they prayed together and that helped calm their nerves and connect them with God’s grace.
Cool things happened in their relationships and in their communities and they were amazed. They spent time together with like-minded individuals because they felt cared for by them and needed to know they weren’t crazy. They shared the things of their life--food, money, childcare, shelter--to anyone who needed it and it was exhausting sometimes and they had to take breaks, especially the introverts. They did it daily and the extroverts over-functioned.
They sacrificed time from other things, which was hard, in order to dedicate a lot of time together in holy places, showing up for God and for each other and for themselves. They spent a lot of time together in their homes, clean homes and messy homes, eating and being happy and crying and being generous with each other because that is how God wanted their relationships to be. They were so grateful to God for all of this, although resentfulness occasionally sneaked in. Yet in all of this, God gave them more and more friends.
There, I feel a little bit better, do you?
It probably wasn’t all potlucks and childcare swapping.
Community, true community, community like Acts 2 doesn’t happen because everyone gets along with everyone else all the time. It happens because of things Luke has left out of this particular picture, things like working through leadership disappointment and betrayal (side-eye Judas). Community like this happens when you experience death together. These people have witnessed the traumatic and public death of Jesus, someone they love. Communities like this have seen each others’ poverty and messy houses and terrible parenting mishaps and they’ve stepped in. This community has been embarrassed together, think about last week and everyone assuming they were drunk. This community looks like Acts 2 because it has been through the rough and tumble of the Gospel of Luke together. It looks like Acts chapter 2 because it has experienced Acts chapter 1.
So if things were going this well we cannot assume it’s because they were perfect or that we have to be perfect to be like this. What we can assume is that they are enjoying some of this connection because of the very hard and real and messy things they’ve gone through together. And that is good. That, Brene Brown would say, is connection.
I’m not sure how many of you have heard of the Church for All Sinners and Saints that Nadia Bolz Webber pastors. It’s a new (well now it’s like 7 years old) lovely diverse and inclusive and creative Lutheran church in Denver. Nadia speaks all over the world about the unique sense of community and connection that they have at church. Krista Tippet interviewed her at the Wild Goose festival a few years ago and their conversation obviously came around to how this church experiences such joy and connection and community, basically, how does it experience some of this Acts 2 magic.
Nadia was beautifully honest with Tippet and with the listeners. She told them about these newcomer brunches that they do every so often for people who are interested in getting more deeply connected into the church. Nadia starts that brunch by announcing this: “I’m glad you love it here, but like at some point, I will disappoint you or the church will let you down. Please decide on this side of that happening if, after it happens, you will still stick around. Because if you leave, you will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness. And it’s too beautiful to miss. Don’t miss it.”
If Luke leaves out the cracks please let me tell you, maybe even comfort you, and acknowledge that those cracks are really there--the disappointments, disagreements, the complexities and risks of relationships are all there, they are all here, but if you can stick around, if you trust the Spirit and the commitment God has to you and to each other, the brokenness becomes beautiful, the brokenness creates the beautiful. It isn’t absent, but it is part of our story not a distraction from it.
It is the good AND the messy and hard parts of our lives that make connections and relationships truly what God intended them to be. It’s the yummy dinners shared over wine where space is made for hurt and vulnerability and making mistakes.
It is both the beauty of Acts 2 and the reality of the cross that makes God’s community one that I want to be a part of. One without the other just isn’t going to cut it.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend I thought I’d wrap up this time with a quotation about his idea of the beloved community, as Chris has already started up on this path. King was not naive about the hardships of true community--he knew that along with the peace he saw in his dreams, there was a lot of work toward truth telling and reconciliation. In a speech from 1957 he described what it takes to be a beloved community, an Acts 2 community if you will:
Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method...is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community...Yes , love-which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies-is the solution.
As King preached 50 years ago, God’s beloved community isn’t a miracle and it isn’t naive. We don’t just show up with smiles and everything is fine. It is the work of the Spirit through the beautiful and the hard. Through both affection and the work of reconciliation. It is the redemption with love in the midst of and out of the hurtful. It is Acts 2 AND the rest of the story which we are living out now.