It seemed exotic to me growing up in the great plains of the Midwest to claim that the color and excitement and passion of sunny Italy runs in my veins. My mother’s maiden name is Jenia. And this fact always seemed to surprise people, given my almost translucent lack of color. How did we account for all this paleness? --By saying that my maternal grandmother was a redhead with freckles and of English stock. Grandmother’s genes must have been stronger, we reasoned.
A few weeks ago I was in Florida visiting my parents, and one day, engaged in the kind of chatter families are famous for, my mother informed me that one of my cousins had recently done a DNA test. And guess what? We have no Italian ancestry at all! Now how Irish, Scottish and English people were ever named Jenia is one of the great mysteries of the universe!
Well, this shook me up. All this time I thought I knew who my people were. All this time, I had an interesting narrative to explain who I was based on where my people had come from. But after I got over the initial shock, I realized that it is much better to know the truth about those who came before. The truth, even when it is not what we have believed, will always set us free.
Now everyone loves a good origin story, especially the surprises. Prequels to beloved movies and books almost always do well because we are endlessly fascinated with beginnings. Knowing the beginning somehow makes sense of the present and sometimes predicts the future.
Today’s lesson from the book of Acts is our origin story. It’s all about how Broadway United Church of Christ came to eventually be.
But to understand today’s lesson, we need to backtrack in the story just a little. Luke, the author of the book of Acts writes that on the Day of Pentecost, some followers of Jesus gathered in an upper room to pray. Suddenly something like a great wind blew through that room, tongues of fire appeared above people’s heads, and they began to proclaim the greatness of God in languages they had never learned. All of this created a great commotion and soon a crowd gathered. And Peter, being a preacher, was not about to ignore a built in audience. And so he preached about Jesus and the Resurrection. He preached and 3000 people joined the church in one day! Now that is a minister’s fantasy!
And it is at this point that today’s lesson begins and we get a peak of where we came from, a insiders view of the earliest Christian worship practices. And what were they? Well, Luke reports that the early Christians devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. This they did in people’s homes. And because the early Christians were practicing Jews, they spent a lot of time in the Temple at worship.
But here’s something even more interesting. Our forbears practiced a kind of communism. Luke writes that they “held all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Centuries later Karl Marx said that he had been inspired by this passage to say things like: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
So this is where we come from. But early Christian communism had already faded by the end of the book of Acts. We don’t know why. And the miracles and signs that the apostles did in the name of Jesus also seemed to be a passing phase. So the flashy bits faded, but the meat of early Christian practice is still practiced by people like us. Or at least it should be. But are we doing it well? Do our Christian practices transform people’s lives?
The early Christians devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching. A lot of those teachings became the basis of our New Testament. So a modern way to say this would be that effective Christian communities are immersed in Scripture. A few years ago I had a conversation with the Rev. Dr. Nancy Taylor, pastor of Boston’s historic Old South Church. Nancy has been very successful in reviving a fading congregation and I wanted to know the secret of her success. When I asked he, she sort of laughed at my compliment, but then said something like: “James, our lack of engagement with the Bible will be the death of Congregationalism. Tragically, we have come to believe that our great contribution to society is democratic governance. But we forget, to our peril, that our ancestors were people immersed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.” In other words, the democratic governance that we gave to this country came from the minds of people immersed in the Scriptures. The early Christians devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching.
The early Christians were also devoted to deep fellowship. In Robert Putnam’s 2001 book Bowling Alone, he documented what he called a growing “social capital deficit” and described disconnected and isolated people who long for “more collectively caring communities.” Church can offer that to folks. I once heard the tale of an older widow who never missed a church service. The pastor assumed it was because she was so devout, but when he pressed her, she replied: “I come to church because this is the only time all week that anyone ever touches me.” Touch and kindness and deep listening is transformative. And so our ancestors in faith were devoted to the practice of fellowship.
Likewise they were obsessed with the breaking of bread. Scholars debate whether these were church dinners or the Eucharist. Most think that that it was both – that communion happened in the midst of a shared meal, sort of like what we did on Maundy Thursday this year. But why was that so important? Because the early Christians took seriously the idea that the Risen Jesus could be found in broken and shared bread. I know we look for him at this Communion table, but the more interesting question is, will we look for Jesus at Coffee Hour today? Do you expect the Christ to show up whenever food is shared with kind and generous hearts? Our ancestors did.
And finally, the early Christians devoted themselves to prayer. Now I will be the first to admit that the practice of prayer is not easy. That’s why we call it a practice. I have always struggled with it. But maybe that’s the point. How can one not struggle with a human vehicle that tries to interact with the divine? That’s hard work. But somehow it seems to be easier in community. With voices on either side of us, we are brave enough to speak to the air and trust that the Creator listens to every word. With people we trust and love, we speak out our longings and our fears and our hopes and our joys together.
I don’t think this account from Acts is a rigid formula for the way we have to be; the way we have to do things. A lot has changed in the last 2000 years. But the human need for connection to God and one another has not changed.
So how are we doing? What can we do differently? What can we do better? What gets in the way of the kind of abundant life that Jesus promised could be found right here, in the person to your right and your left?