*Friending. A couple of weeks ago, we began this series called “Friending.” We heard Jesus say, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) This is beyond Valentine’s Day chocolate and roses love. This is extraordinary tolerance and forgiveness love. This is “you are more important than me” love. The basis of the kind of love we’re talking about is the love of Jesus living in us when we have faith in him.
Then we looked at how one friendship changed the course of history. Saul the murderer of Christians (he also went by the name Paul and yes, this church is named for him) needed a friend, and God sent him Barnabas. If Barnabas had not been willing to forgive and trust Saul, and if Saul had not been willing to trust and open up to Barnabas, we might not be here today, gathered in this way. Barnabas stood by Saul as he came to into the friendship circle of the church – a group of people who had every reason to fear him. We all need to be willing to offer friendship to that unlikely person God sends. All of us are one friend away from changing the course of one person’s history. The impact of that relationship could ripple out in ways we can’t imagine.
Today, we’re going take a look at the environment of friendship that God wants to create in the church. We each have a part to play. There are people in our lives, in our town, and in our world who need a community of friends. They need more than just one friend. They need a collection of people fueled by the love of Jesus. Together, God gives us a mission to change the culture that lives on the streets of our town from apathy and mistrust into friendship of the best kind. We are one community away from changing the world.
I’ll bet each one of us has at least one memory of some significant experience of friendship that happened through the church. I’ll bet you could tell a story. Or two. And maybe you should tell that story! I’ll bet you could also talk about a time when you realized you were part of something powerful that was bigger than yourself.
I have to confess that sometimes, as I look at what we do to be God’s Church (and I don’t necessarily mean just here at St. Paul’s on Main Street in Manheim, PA), I wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind. I’ll bet you’ve occasionally had the same thought.
There is an old Norwegian joke I like, and I’m not sure if you have to be from Wisconsin or Scandinavia to appreciate this (I have no idea where this came from – if you know, send me a message! firstname.lastname@example.org). Maybe it’s funnier up by the Arctic Circle. And I don’t know exactly what it is about Norwegians that makes this funny; it must be something about their ethnic personality.
It seems Uncle Knut was shipwrecked, all alone, on an uninhabited desert island. No people, no sheep, no cows – just him, all alone. Being a good Norwegian, he put himself to work and he worked hard. He loved to build things, so that’s what he did.
One day, a ship appeared and he was finally rescued. His rescuers were amazed at his good health and asked him, “How did you keep your sanity, living here all alone?” Knut said, “It wasn’t so bad,” and he gave them a tour of the island to show off the things he’d built. First, there was the house – a fine house with a second story balcony (he’d always wanted a house with a balcony!). Then, there was the cottage on the other side of the island (he’d always wanted a cottage!). Then there was the barn, the outhouse, and the workshop.
As they made their way to the ship, they walked past a building Knut hadn’t said anything about. It also looked like a church. One of the rescuers asked what it was, and Knut said, “Oh, that’s the church I used to go to.”
Now, that does not sound like the church that’s described in the Book of Acts:
Acts 2:42-47. 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. 46Day 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, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Sometimes, I’ll take a key word from a scripture reading and do an internet search for images. If you do a search for “Fellowship,” this is one of the first things that comes up: “The Fellowship of the Ring,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s story about a group of humans and creatures who join forces to defeat evil. Tolkien was a Christian and he wrote that story as a word-picture of the Christian life. The church is a group of misfits working together to defeat monstrous evil. And the hero is the one you would least expect.
I have to confess that that real-life story from Acts is one of my favorite moments in scripture. To get the most out of it, we’re going to do a little Bible study this morning.
Luke says that there were 3,000 believers in that group, some of whom may have actually been in the crowd that was demanding the crucifixion of Jesus just a few weeks before. Talk about a change in their crowd mentality.
The Spirit of God working in them had defeated the evil, the hatred, the anxiety. And it was just the beginning of the adventure.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)
There’s a formula here. They devoted themselves to being taught by those who had been with Jesus. They devoted themselves to fellowship – to being together, to knowing and supporting each other. They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. This can mean the sacrament – communion – or simply sharing food with each other. They devoted themselves to the prayers. Not just any prayers – the prayers. This was not some new thing – they practiced their Jewish faith with a different sense of purpose. They were worshipping the Jewish Messiah God had sent to them.
In the mix of all that – the teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, the prayers…
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. (Acts 2:43)
Awe. It was jaw-dropping awesome. Miracles, healings, amazing stuff; it’s almost as if you-know-who never left. They are impersonating Jesus. They are Jesus. It’s God the Holy Spirit living in them. God the 3-in-one, the God of the Universe, is living through them. They vessels of God; they are channeling God’s Son, the Messiah, Jesus.
When they were together, this is what was happening: There were many wonders and signs being done –miracle moments like healings, maybe demons being exorcised. Incredible, special God moments!! What were they? What happened? What did exactly they do? Maybe it was all happening so fast Luke forgot to write it all down. Or, there was too much to write down. Or, those miracles paled in comparison the next thing that happened, the next miracle.
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. (Acts 2:44-45)
This group of people became selfless. In the truest expression of what it means to be a believer in Jesus and have the Holy Spirit living in you, they became selfless. They gave themselves to each other. They were on a mission to make sure everybody was okay.
Behold the miracle. I read somewhere that for a true revolution to take hold in any place, among any group of people, it changes the economy – the way they use money and the material things of their lives. Form a few weeks ago – they share what’s in their barns, the stuff they had stored up for themselves. For most people, when God starts to change the economics of their lives, there’s no doubt that something significant has happened. They had all things in common. They shared. They created balance.
One of the apostles makes a blind man see, everybody says, “Wow.” The crowd sold “their possessions and goods and distributed the proceeds to all.” Jaws drop. Luke, the writer, can’t believe what he’s seeing. Nothing like this had ever been recorded in scripture before.
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. (Acts 2:46-47)
The amazing experience of life these folks were having was happening in several places.
They came together the temple for group worship, but God couldn’t be confined there. The story says that they broke bread at home, but the original wording says they broke bread “from house to house.” I think we get the idea of fellowship and food, but they didn’t just share faith and food at home; they shared homes. I think we get that food is at the center of every healthy church! And every Christian fellowship! But God would also like us to hold onto the truth that limiting the Christian experience to the place where you worship is not a healthy way for the church to live.
Those first Christians were having a great time. And God saw that it was good. Actually, that isn’t part of the reading, but it could be. God speaks the church into being, through the Word; these were folks who heard the good news of Jesus and believed in his resurrection, and through their faith, God did a miracle. The miracle? They loved each other. They saw God in each other. They were able to say, “My faith is a gift from God for you. It’s not about me. Through the Holy Spirit, God comes to live in us, change us, and make us a blessing for other people. And they did it. Every healthy group of Christians, every group of Christ-focused believers still does that: gets their minds off of themselves and on to others. And the love is contagious. And it has to be protected and nurtured because one day…
Somebody from Rome served Italian bread at the traditional communion meal. Hmm. We’ve only been using unleavened bread. Tests my sense of comfort, but okay. You know what, though? I’m afraid it was downhill from there. Then somebody started saying debts instead of trespasses in the Lord’s Prayer (by the way, the original word is sins). But “trespasses” is what I’m used to. Then somebody brought in a new hymnal, and there were some new songs in it. And I said, hey, Jesus never taught us those songs. The Christians over in Greece didn’t want to do the traditional prayers; they made up their own prayers.
We began to discover that just as everybody brings a gift from God to the fellowship, everybody brings an issue, a potential problem. Among God’s children, not all the kids in the family are alike! I don’t know about you, but the kids in our family couldn’t be more different from each other. The list of issues, past and present, is endless. The power of the Spirit working in that early church was probably most obvious in the ways those folks tolerated and forgave each other.
It’s easy to give up. Uncle Knut’s church of one begins to sound very appealing. And I know there are many people who say that they go to church in the woods or some other way of being alone, and not to diminish private ways of deepening spirituality, that’s not church. I mean it. That’s missing the huge spiritual benefit of community, which can be life-changing.
I really do believe that we are a community of God’s people who can change the world; that’s what God needs us to be. God needs each of us to find our part.
There are a thousand reasons to opt out. The opportunities we have to remove ourselves from the core of our faith and the community of change is endless. Satan doesn’t have to distract us from our faith – we do it ourselves!
Jesus tried to make it simple: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… [and] …you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, etc.)
There are people walking the streets of our town who need the God living in us. And God needs us to be strong together.
God gives us each other to make that happen and we are a force. We are God’s personal community of friends.
O God, there is so much we need to learn about you and about each other. We need to learn to love as you do, and then learn it again. We need to learn to listen to you and to each other. We trust you and give ourselves to you. We want to know you and live for you. Show us how. Then show us how to give hope to those who suffer. Show us practical ways we can bring peace, justice, healing to the streets where we live, the places where we go to school, the buildings where we work. All these things we pray in the powerful name of our loving Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
[*Note – This series, “Friending”, is based on sermons given by Craig Groeschel, the Pastor of LifeChurch, Edmund, OK (http://www.lifechurch.tv/okc/) When I quote him, or use words that may be close to his, they will be in blue.]