Sermon, May 3

Acts 2:37-38, 42-47: Now when they heard Peter’s preaching, the crowd were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 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 in one house after another 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’m going to start with a question. How does it feel to stub your toe? … Pain; suddenness; surprise; shock…  

So I’m preaching today on this passage from early in the book of Acts. Remember, Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke – written in the same voice, carrying forward many of the same themes. This passage comes shortly after the Pentecost story, which we’ll share at the end of May. It’s describing the common life of the first Christians in Jerusalem: A growing community of believers, united in practices of study, prayer, sharing their possessions, and breaking bread together. 

We are several steps away from what we would recognize as the Eucharist, but this breaking of bread is very clearly a holy meal that evokes Jesus’ presence. We know that because if we think of Luke and Acts as one book, then the Emmaus story we JUST had last week, when Jesus is made known to the disciples in the breaking of the bread, was about a chapter and a half ago. 

So: Breaking bread together is a central practice for this new faith community – and I really love how it’s described here. They would meet at a different person’s home each week; and they would break bread and eat together with glad and generous hearts. 

Now, the NRSV, our usual Bible translation, is doing something it often does: it’s choosing to be clear rather than literal. David Bentley Hart, who tries to stay close to the Greek syntax, renders that phrase as “gladness and simplicity of heart.” One of our prayers after communion follows the King James translation: “Gladness and singleness of heart.”

When you see a word variously translated as generous, simple or single, you start to wonder about that word. So I looked it up. It’s a great word. It’s only used once in the Bible; this is it. And what it literally means is, Not stubbable. Nothing to stub on. Nothing to cause that moment of shock and pain and interruption. 

“Gladness and unstubbability of heart.”  This early Christian community, sharing food and homes and possessions gladly, growing in numbers and faith, had nothing to stub their hearts on.

I don’t know about you but that really sticks with me because I feel like there is so much to stub our hearts on, right now. We’re going about our business and suddenly something brings us up short, with a sudden jolt of pain. Ouch. A loss; a need; an impossibility; a memory of Before. 

I keep asking myself, dear ones, whether to continue preaching to this season – or whether I should try to preach as if we weren’t in these circumstances.  I can imagine that some people might want a break. Eight to ten minutes of not thinking about it. But I can’t figure out how to do that. At least, I haven’t yet. So, here we are. Remembering Before, wondering about After. 

Which actually situates us well to think about this Acts text. This is a text of nostalgia. Of looking back on the good old days. And it always has been, from the moment it was written down, perhaps forty to fifty years after the events it describes. 

This text said to its first readers exactly what it says to us: Back at the beginning, we really had things right.  People were joining the church like crazy; we couldn’t baptize them fast enough; and MAN, you should have seen our potlucks. Everybody came to church every week, and showed up for Bible study too; and everybody was kind and faithful and generous and happy. 

(If nothing else, this text tells us that churches have been looking back on their own good old days for as long as there have been churches!)  

And then… stuff happened. Things got messy. Church got complicated. Christian communities became fractured by many things: persecution without, divisions within – and even by success, which led to growth, which led to institutionalization and the loss of the intimacy and spontaneity of the early years. 

This is a text that looks back fondly on a remembered past. And that means that it is undoubtedly smoothing things over – making the past simple and pure and good, as we often do. Forgetting the hard moments and rough edges and awkward growing pains; keeping skeletons safely locked in closets; romanticizing our memories in ways that sometimes run the risk of making the past the enemy of the present and the future. 

But while we have to read texts like this with several grains of salt, they can also tell us something. They tell us what we, and those who went before us, have chosen to remember; have held onto, through time and change. The stories we tell, the memories we treasure and carry with us and pass on to the next generation, are themselves formative.

And when we’re carrying those memories into and through real change – as the early church did – they tell us what was important enough to try to continue or restore or re-imagine. 

The truth is that we’re always living in an After. We’re always deciding – as individuals, as households, as communities or institutions – what matters enough to carry it forward and pass it on. We’re just more likely to notice this process, in times of swift and unwelcome change. 

So, what are we carrying forward? 

One thing is what we’re doing right now: trying to hear how a Scriptural text speaks to us, and then carry that beyond this set-apart time into the rest of our lives.  (I realize with all due humility that my rambling may or may not be part of that process for you in any given week!) 

How we show up at church, and what we do the rest of the week, has changed a lot for many of us.  But we still need to gather to be reminded who and whose we are,  to find our place in a story that is both ancient and ever new, and to find direction and meaning for our daily living.

One of the things we do in our Compline gatherings, borrowed from the youth group who borrowed it from somewhere, is to read a passage of Scripture and ask ourselves and one another if there is something God is asking me to be or do or change.

Now, the Holy Spirit can speak to our hearts through Scripture in many ways; but one answer this Acts passage fairly SHOUTS is, Share. In these few eloquent verses, this writer holds up generosity as a fundamental way of being for the early Christian community. 

Some scholars think this might be why Christianity grew – this weird little sect that said that God was a human being and sometimes they eat him – pretty weird! But on the other hand, they really look after each other. And if you come to them, they’ll look after you, too.  

Generosity, sharing, is a practice – in the sense of a thing we do, and in the sense of a thing we get better at the more we do it. It’s one of many faith practices, which help form us into the people we intend to be – the people we believe God has called us to be.  In our current circumstances, attention to our faith practices can help us feel connected to deeper values and a bigger picture. They can remind us that despite how it may feel, we still have agency – we still have scope and capacity to choose and to act. 

So this week, in response to this text, in solidarity with our long-ago faith ancestors, in bold affirmation that even scattered, isolated, and afraid, we are still God’s people: I am inviting you to try out one intentional act of sharing, of generosity. Yes, I’m giving you homework, but it shouldn’t be a burden. 

It doesn’t have to be big; I encourage you to think small! It could be letting your little brother use some of your crayons, or giving your partner a bite of your chocolate, or taking time to check in on someone and hear how they’re doing, or picking up some trash in your neighborhood park, or finding someone who would really appreciate those puzzles that are gathering dust in your basement, or chipping in $10 or $5 or $2 to an agency or fund that’s helping those in need. 

What I’m suggesting is some small act of generosity that is a step beyond what you might otherwise do; and that you do with intention, as a follower of Jesus and an offering to God. 

What I want for us to feel and know, dear ones, is that even in these strangely small days, we remain a people chosen and called; a people blessed to be a blessing to others; and a people loved, upheld, and empowered by grace. 

Does anyone have something in mind already as a small act of sharing you might do this week?…