Readings: Acts 2:42-47 , Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25 , John 10:1-10 Today’s reading from the Book of Acts (2.42-47) provides a glimpse, just a snapshot of the earliest church life. If you’re looking for a job description about what makes church, the Church, then this is a pretty good place to begin: (1) the apostles teaching (including the teachings of Jesus), (2) fellowship, (3) breaking of the bread (in Communion), and (4) prayers.
From the very beginning this is what makes the Church tick, and this how people have been welcomed into the life of the Church. So it’s interesting to see how Christians treat these features - or “marks” - of the Church today. There’s really two popular options. First, some Christians strip away everything but these four marks. They say if you add any ritual or tradition besides these four things - well then you’ve muddied the water and you’ve become something less than the Church.
This option seems more popular in new churches, independent churches that have sprung up in the past couple of centuries. You know, if you’re starting something new then you start with the basics. You major in the majors. So these four marks are front-and-center. And maybe some of these new churches break bread in the Eucharist only once per month (maybe even just a few times per year); maybe they sing rock-and-roll songs that don’t have a lot to do with these four marks; but they know that this is what it’s all about. These four marks are how it all began and they are still the anchor. So even if these churches get really excited about novelty and even if they only see “dead rituals” in ancient Christianity, they still know these four marks are the anchor of Christian life.
At the other end of the spectrum are Christians who have dressed up these four marks so much, they’ve piled so much onto their plate, that they can barely see where it all began. After a while some people just show up and do the church routine without ever really connecting with the live wire of Christian faith. Maybe they don’t even know why they go to church at all. They just do it because, well, that’s what they’ve always done.
This option seems more common in churches like our own; churches that include some of the earliest Christian beliefs and practices in our worship. For us, Christian worship is more like a script that we enact, or more like a treadmill that keeps us in shape. We use the same words and phrases every week. Regardless of how we’re feeling, they’re printed right there in the service bulletin. At the beginning of church we don’t just say, “hey, how’s it going?” We say, “The Lord be with you”; “And also with you.” It’s like a mantra, drilled into our subconscious. And if you’ve been going to a church like this since you were a kid, well then you say it without even thinking. And unless we’re really paying attention, it’s like verbal wallpaper. It’s just there in the background and we stop even noticing. Every week we repeat the Nicene Creed, we basically say the same prayers, and our celebration of the Eucharist includes a big ol’ prayer that repeats some of the earliest Christian beliefs about Jesus.
These are the two popular options when it comes to practicing the apostles teaching, fellowship, breaking the bread, and prayers. And you know, we can actually learn from each other. For Christians that are always excited about novelty we Episcopalians can say, “I’ve got some good news! The Spirit of Jesus has been active for more than 2,000 years - in fact that’s how our tradition began!” The ancient liturgy is a gift because it allows us to be formed by the prayers and beliefs that have shaped Christian identity from the very beginning. It’s like stepping on to a Holy Spirit treadmill every Sunday. And because God’s Spirit is there, there will always be new life in the ancient traditions of the Church.
Maybe that’s something we can share with younger churches. But they also might have a few lessons for us. They might look at the Episcopal Church and say, “I’ve got some good news! You can actually pray to God - using your own words. You can spend time with God, you can talk with God, and you can worship God with (heaven forbid) contemporary language, and music, and styles.” In fact, new forms and new styles of worship can be a powerful way to connect our daily lives with God.
God’s Spirit is alive and moving in the ancient traditions of the Church - and God’s Spirit is alive and moving in new places today. So I don’t think it’s really about choosing the “right way” to practice church, to do church - there’s different strokes for different folks, and I’m glad that you’ve joined us today. However I do think it’s supremely important to make these four marks the objects of our devotion. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2.42). It’s not so much a church manual for how we line up at the altar. It’s a description, like a map, for where we find life.
Several years ago (April, 1999), I joined a group of people for a church construction project in Mexico. We were the finishing team. So after our long journey from Washington, DC to Mexico we arrived at an unfinished construction site, and we discovered a bare steel frame waiting for completion. Our mission included the following: (1) lay 3,500 cinder block, (2) install a corrugated steel roof, (3) hook up the building for electricity, (4) and pour a cement floor. You might say those were the four marks of our mission.
My first assignment was helping with the roof. There I was, standing at the foot of the building and shuffling up large sheets of corrugated steel to workers who screwed them onto the beams. Thankfully there were several skilled laborers on the trip. I was not one of them. So my job was not very complicated, but I couldn’t do it alone. We needed more than one set of hands so I partnered with one of the local church members who was helping us on the project. As we passed these sheets of steel up to the roof, we had lots of “down time” without very much to do.
Before long we found ourselves staring at each other and smiling during our down time. I mean, what else are you gonna do? I spoke English. He spoke Spanish. And I thought, “This is gonna be a long day.” It was hot. And it was dry. Eventually I realized that, even though seven years had passed since my last Spanish class, it might be a good idea to see if all that studying had paid off. I started nice & gentle. I tried a very simple phrase. I turned to him and I said (in Spanish), “Nice to meet you. What’s your name?” He replied (in Spanish), “You speak Spanish!” I said, “Just a little.” Now, that’s what I said. Apparently, what he heard was, “I am fluent in your language so please speak very rapidly and say whatever you would like.” He unleashed a verbal flood! Surprisingly, I understood most of it. And thankfully, my new friend Juan Carlos knew a little English. So we pieced together a conversation. I asked him about his church. He said that the property had been their church home for seven years. They began with nothing, just a couple of trees on the property. Every Sunday they gathered in the shade for worship. Two years later, they heard a message from God. Juan Carlos said that God had promised to send a group of people (like us) who would build them a building. I did the math in my head and I said, “Juan Carlos, you’ve waited five years since that message. That’s a long time to wait.” He said, “Yes, but with the Lord a thousand years is like a day.” I said, “Oh yeah ... right” (that one’s in the Bible). We kept working. I had my American outfit: nice jeans, a clean T-shirt, and some sturdy boots. I also had some good work gloves. Juan Carlos did not, so I noticed that his fingers were injured. There was a lot of skin missing and it wasn’t very pretty. I asked, “Juan Carlos, what happened to your fingers?” He told me that he helped construct the steel frame for the church. During construction one of the grinding blades had broken. As the blade came off the grinder it struck Juan Carlos on the hand, shaving off large chunks of skin. And that wasn’t all. The blade ricocheted toward his rib cage, leaving a three-inch gash (which he showed me by lifting his shirt). Finally the blade bounced off his ribcage and struck a nearby building, leaving another large gash in the wall (which he showed me).
So after lifting my chin off the ground, I said “Juan Carlos - can I get you some ointment? Maybe a bandage? Is there anything I can do to help?” He smiled and said, “God protects me.” He wasn’t too worried. He just scrubbed his wounds with his toothbrush - yes the same toothbrush he used for his mouth! He scrubbed his wounds once or twice per day, and that was enough.
By that point, I was thoroughly impressed and humbled. You see, it didn’t matter whether he was facing a spiritual issue (like trusting God’s promise) or a physical issue (like recovering from a brutal injury), Juan Carlos and the rest of that church was devoted to God. And it was from that devotion to God that signs and wonders began happening in their church. And awe came upon everyone - myself included. They prayed together, they shared together, they ate together. They committed themselves to God, and to each other. And I bet you they all didn’t even necessarily like each other. But they devoted themselves. “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2.47).
After just one week with those people I left Mexico knowing that I had seen the Church. I had seen the Body of Christ in all of her glory, and power, and wisdom. And it didn’t even matter what their particular style of worship looked like. It didn’t really matter how they lined up at the altar. But here’s what did matter, and here’s what we’re called to today: they devoted themselves to God and to each other. And I wonder what would it look like to see that kind of devotion in our church today. Amen.