Community Matters

Acts 4:32-37

Lessons Every Child Should Learn & No Adult Should Forget

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The famous Puritan Minister Cotton Mather, who lived during the American colonial period, once observed a rather interesting characteristic of bees. According to Mather, different swarms of bees had their own scents. As a result, when swarms began to interact with each other the conflicting smells caused the bees to reject those from other swarms. Ultimately, this behavior often led to fighting between the various groups of bees that were present.

Mather’s continued observation, however, led him to also realize that there was one time of year, when this was not the case — it was when the bees were pollinating plants. During this task, the bees became covered in pollen which as you can imagine masked their own individual smells. At this point, the bees began to see each other as coworkers rather than as enemies. In turn, rather than fighting, they cooperated with each other and completed a common task. (Common Things, Preached by George Mason at Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, April 30, 2000)

Acts 4 speaks of a similar phenomenon that happened in the early days of the Christian church. You see just like today, those who made up the church in its infancy came from a variety of backgrounds. There were rich and poor, there were Jews and Greeks, there were the powerful and commoners and there were those from urban centers and small towns. In turn, all of their individual backgrounds and experiences could have easily led the early church to have fragmented and disintegrated into numerous factions. And, truth be told, if you read the New Testament carefully, you see that this danger was always a real threat lurking behind the corner just as it continues to be for the church today. In the language of Cotton Mather’s illustration, the various swarms present in the early church all had their own scent and this could have easily led to bickering and fighting.

But, the wondrous thing is that just like the sweet pollen nectar of Cotton Mather’s story that covered the bees, the presence of the Holy Spirit covered these early believers and caused them to focus on what they held in common rather than on what could have divided them. The wondrous result was that in spite of their unique backgrounds, an amazing fellowship evolved and a profound sense of community developed as none of them had every experienced or the world had every known before. In turn, in Acts 4, as Luke described and wrote about what was happening in the early church, he put his finger on two common pursuits at the center of these believers’ lives that contributed to the sense of community that had developed.

As we have said, our focus this fall is on the spiritual lessons that we need to teach our children and that at the same time we should never forget as adults. These are the guiding truths that should always stand at the center of our lives and help in shaping our priorities.

Today, I want to suggest that at the top of this list should be a lifelong realization of the need for Christian community. Said another way, I want to remind us that a cornerstone of what we teach our children and embrace for ourselves as a core truth is the belief that in the midst of a larger world, we also need a group of committed believers surrounding us and with whom we willingly choose to experience life. Again, Acts 4 helps us to pinpoint the two pursuits of Christian community that lead to it being so invaluable to us all.

On the one hand, Christian community is so important because it provides all of us with a lifelong group to be a part of that is collectively trying to be more like Jesus. Verse 32 says that these early Christ followers were of “one heart and soul” — that is to say that they were unified in the pursuit of the same thing which was the goal of being more like this Jesus to whom they had given their lives. Just like us, they lived in a world where lots and lots of people were not interested in being more like Jesus. And, just like us, they lived in a period where there were lots of competing ideas for their time, their priorities and their allegiance. In this regard the world really never has changed. In turn, if nothing else, they provide for each other support and encouragement as they did their best to understand further who this Jesus was and as they sought to implement his teachings in their lives.

I have shared with you before that I grew up in a small town in Alabama very similar to Laurens. Likewise, I was raised in the First Baptist Church in that town and so like all of us, I was around members of our church on a daily basis throughout my childhood. One of our church members was a teacher at the local elementary school and I happened to be in her class one year. There were other children from our church also in her class and one of them noticed that our teacher had not been coming to church very often recently. As a result, I will never forget the day that one of my classmates and church friends asked our teacher what only a child can get away with asking. “Ms. Jones, I have not seen you in church lately. Why haven’t you and Mr. Jones been coming to Sunday School or Worship recently?” Ms. Jones looked at my classmate and very gently yet very clearly helped the child to understand that one can be a perfectly fine Christian without ever having to go to church. “I can read the Bible on my own and I can pray by myself,” she said. “You see church is fine, but it is not necessary for following Jesus.”

I think there remains a lot of people who buy into this idea today. Church is fine, but it is not necessary for following Jesus. I want you to hear me say that I feel strongly that this is very bad conclusion to reach. Without question we can pray on our own, we can read the scriptures on our own and we can pursue the life of faith on our own. Without question, there are times in our lives when circumstances prevent us for being with God’s people. But, from the time we are young until the time we are old need for Christian community never ever goes away. In a nutshell we simply are not capable on our own of understanding all that we need to know about the life of faith – we need others to help us grow, mature and to learn. We need the questions that others can ask us. We need the wisdom from life experiences that others can share. At the same time, others need us and our thoughts, ideas, questions and life experiences. This need begins when we are very young and it remains until we are very old. We are all just ordinary folks, trying to follow Jesus and we need what each other brings to the table as we pursue this life task.

On the other hand, Christian community is equally important because it is here that we also try to care for each other’s hurts. Verse 32, says that the early church was “of one heart and soul” and that “everything they owned was held in common”. Now, let me say here that lots of people struggle with this particular text because they don’t like the insinuation being made about joint ownership of property and possessions and what that seems to suggest. As a result, we often miss the spirit of what is being said. Now, I don’t claim to know all of the nuances of how this idea was lived out in the early church but I do feel strongly that the overarching point here was their collective desire to care for each other in the midst of their various struggles, difficulties and the hard places that we all experience in life. And, this pursuit of care for each other remains a hallmark of our life together.

We exist to care for each other — to love each other when life gets tough, to cry with one another when death and illness invade our lives, to pray for each other or provide a listening ear when we sense we are losing our way and to help each other when moments arise that we are not capable of navigating on our own. Being a part of a church or a Christian community means that we have made this pledge to each other and we all need this. We need this both from the standpoint of its value to us as recipients and equally for its value to us as givers to others. In turn, the quicker in life we embrace Christian community as the primary place we are cared for and through which we care for others, the better off we will be.

This brings me full circle to the story that began our service today — the story Rod Dreher and his sister Ruthie Lemming. As Susan shared at the start of worship, Rod and Ruthie grew up in the small town of St. Francisville, Louisiana. But, when they became adults, Ruthie embraced their small town and Rod abandoned it for the big city. From his perspective there really was nothing left for him in St Francisville. When Ruthie became sick at 40, though, and began to die. Rod Dreher was amazed at how the community stepped in. There were friends to take her to chemo, a cookout to assist with expenses and the declaration by the town of Ruthie Lemming Day. Living in the big city, Rod realized that no such support network existed for he and his family and that their lives were far less than they could be as a result. The experience led Rod to write a book called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming and further the experience led he and his wife to move from Philadelphia back to St Francisville in search of the community experience that Ruthie had been surrounded by. (Rod Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Grand Central Publishing, 2013).

Let me remind all of us this morning that none of us need to wait for an experience like Rod Dreher had to have such an epiphany. None of our children need to wait until they are in their mid-40s either to learn this lesson. Likewise, one doesn’t necessarily have to take the measures Rod Dreher took. This life is all right here for all of us to enjoy and embrace through Christ’s church. It is not always perfect as we are not perfect. And, it is not always lived out exactly as God would want. But, this life together matters to all of us and it matters much more than any of us realize or could ever imagine. Amen.