Saturday, May 19, 2018

“A Tale of Two Churches”

          This Sunday, May 20th, is Pentecost Sunday:  the Sunday when we remember and celebrate the birth of the Christian Church.  The story of the Church’s formation is recorded in the Bible in Acts, chapter 2.  Prior to his Crucifixion and Resurrection, Jesus had promised the disciples that after he was gone, God would send the Holy Spirit to be with them and continue teaching them.  So, Acts 2 opens with the disciples and other followers experiencing the fulfillment of Christ’s promise that God would send the Holy Spirit.  The first Christians experienced the Holy Spirit as a “tongue of fire” coming upon each of them.  They began to laugh and shout and speak with great joy.

            Apparently the disciples caused quite a commotion because they attracted a large crowd of curious onlookers.  In trying to understand what was going on, some of the onlookers speculated that the Christians were intoxicated.  So, the Apostle Peter stood up and delivered the first Christian sermon.  At the end of his sermon, 3,000 onlookers were baptized and became Christians.  These first Christians felt that their lives had been transformed.  They were no longer the same.  Then, the writer of Acts records this account of the first Church:

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 [together, with each other] 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.

Have you ever wondered what it must have been like to be part of that first 3,000 people, who converted to the Christian faith?  How would it have been different than being in our church today? 

            To be sure, there are many important similarities between the first Church described in Acts and the contemporary American Church.  Here are three of the most important similarities:
1.      Studying the teachings of the scriptures.  In several passages in Acts, the early Christians are described as devoting “themselves to the apostles’ teaching…” (v. 42).  Of course, the apostles have long since died, but most contemporary churches still offer many opportunities to study the scriptures, including what the apostles wrote, in Sunday-School, as well as in Bible studies at other times during the week.

2.      Devoting themselves to prayer and worship.  Acts reports that the first Christians spent much time in prayer and worship.  At that point in time, the first Christians were more of a spiritual reform movement within Judaism, rather than being a separate religious faith.  Since they lived in Jerusalem, “they spent much time in the temple” (v.46).  Similarly, contemporary Christians spend time in prayer and worship in their churches.

3.      Sharing in food and fellowship with one another. One of the common denominators of most contemporary churches is that we really like to eat together and spend time with one another.  If you want to gather a large group of church people, then it helps to have a potluck dinner as part of the program.  Food and fellowship.  Similarly, we learn from Acts that the first Christians really enjoyed eating and spending time together.  In our scripture reading above, Luke, the writer of Acts, notes that the first Christians “broke bread … and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (v. 46).

These are clearly very significant similarities which we share today with those early Christian converts in the first Christian church.  At the same time, there was one huge difference between the first church and our contemporary churches.  This major difference concerns financial support for the church.

In his description of finances within the first church, Luke, the writer of Acts, essentially describes a religious commune.  He says that the early Christian converts would sell all of their possessions and goods.  Then, they would bring the proceeds from their sale and give this money to the first church, so that they could use the funds to care for everyone who had financial needs.  As the first church grew, it soon became necessary to designate a finance committee to oversee the fair distribution of these offerings (see Acts 6:1-7).

In the twenty-first century, most of us do not live as a religious commune.  Of course, many of us do contribute financially to our church.  However, most of us do not contribute very much money in proportion to our wealth.  Some of us do not contribute any money at all to our church, even though we expect our church to support us when there is a crisis in our lives.  I think that’s the major difference between then and now.

The first Christians gave sacrificially and extravagantly to support their church.  They literally sold all that they had and gave it to their church.  Then, they trusted that their church would support and take care of them.  By contrast, American Christians give a minuscule amount of money in comparison.  Even someone who tithes—that is, gives 10% of their income—is making a small contribution in comparison to the early Christians who gave everything which they owned to the church.

Why did they do that?  Why did the first Christians give so much more generously to the church?  After studying this scripture, I think that there were two reasons why the first Christians were so much more generous, than we are in the twenty-first century:

                                  a.   Sacrificial Giving.  They deeply loved their friends in the first church and they knew that their contributions would be used to take care of the physical needs of their dear friends.  In this regard, biblical scholar Robert Wall makes an interesting observation about attitudes within the first church.  He notes that they saw themselves as a fellowship of believers:  “a fellowship of believers shares more than common beliefs and core values; they display a profound regard for one another’s spiritual and physical well-being as a community of friends.”[1]  They were willing to give sacrificially because they wanted to serve God and help their friends.  They knew that their contributions would be used to help their friends and do good in the world, so they gave sacrificially—they gave everything they had.

                                 b.   They had stopped trusting in themselves and their own financial resources.  Instead, they had learned to trust completely in God. It is part of human nature to rely upon oneself for the resources which we need in order to survive and even flourish.  We tend to trust ourselves above all else.  That’s what makes financial giving to our church so difficult.  When we give to the church, then we retain correspondingly less money to take care of our own needs—and wants.  Within each of our minds, there is this persistent question:  “What happens if I give this money and then, sometime down-the-road, I have an emergency and need extra money to avert financial disaster?”  The first Christians did not worry about this question.  They already knew the answer, “God will provide.”  Whenever a Christian—from any era—learns to trust God completely, then they are freed to give more generously.  The first Christians had a deep faith and they were growing even more in their faith.  Therefore, they were willing to give generously. 

There is much that we can learn from this difference with those first Christians when it comes to how we financially support our church.  Perhaps we need to study the first Christians more, in terms of how they used their financial resources and what their attitudes were about money.

      If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, May 20th, as we remember and celebrate the birth of the first church in Jerusalem.  Consider wearing red to our service this week because red is the liturgical color of Pentecost.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Robert W. Wall, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 10, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

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