5.11.14 Awe in community
4 Easter A May 11, 2014
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I hope you were able to attend Jazz Vespers last Sunday night. Now, these services just keep getting better and better, don’t they? I got so much pleasure out of hearing the great music and meditating on the readings. But I got even more pleasure out of watching the musicians and thinking about what was really going on up here in the chancel.
Here’s what I mean. Each of our 4 musicians: Martha, Ali, Paul, and Chris, had years and years of training and performance experience. It looked like each one was really happy to be there, playing together. We could watch the communication they had with each other as they played, giving each other visual cues, and sometimes sending messages out to the people in the pews quite clearly. And more than all this, they supported each other. I saw Chris and Paul, and Paul and Ali communicating support and complements to each other. I saw Ali glancing repeatedly at Martha with appreciation. I saw Martha thrilled and excited to be playing with the group, sending signals of support and encouragement to all the others.
It was quite clearly a microcosm of what it means to be in Christian community. Each one of these talented musicians had years of training and experience. Each one practices his or her craft all the time. Each one played his or her part beautifully. Each one worked as a team member, communicating and encouraging, so that the music could be at its best.
This is how we are called to be in the community of the church. We bring our selves, our unique gifts and our individual training and our accomplishments. They are all contributed for the good of the whole. We worship together and we support and encourage each other all the time. Communication is everything in the church, isn’t it? And it’s all for the glory of God—everything we do is for God’s glory.
Now, today we’re given a glimpse into how the first Christians communicated and supported each other, walking behind their Good Shepherd Jesus. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles reminds me a lot of what happened at Jazz Vespers last week.
Acts is a kind of history book of the early Christian movement. It begins with Jesus ascending into heaven and then he and the Father send the Holy Spirit—now, that’s Pentecost Sunday, which we say is the birthday of the church. Then what follows is a succession of stories that tell how the early Christians came together and understood their identity as a people living for the glory of God.
This reading is absolutely foundational for our understanding of how the church grew—and for understanding what the church is still called to be. Take a look at the first sentence. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Does anyone recognize this sentence from one of our prayer book liturgies? If you are thinking the baptism service, you are right. There’s a question in that service that asks the one to be baptized (or his parents and godparents) if he will devote himself to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship and to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. And the person answers, “I will, with God’s help.”
Just briefly, what do these things mean? The apostles’ teaching is of course the Holy Scriptures. The baptized person is saying that he or she will listen to and study the Scriptures. And as we all know, that can happen on a Sunday morning in the Liturgy of the Word—the first half of our Eucharist. It can also happen in a Bible study or some other adult ed program.
Now: The fellowship. That’s a churchy word for the coming together in friendship and support. Like a jazz band does. Like a church is meant to. Like what happens on Sunday morning, from the time we walk through to the door to the time we go home after coffee hour.
The breaking of bread. This refers, in churchy context, to the Holy Eucharist, when we break bread and consume the Body of Christ together.
The prayers. This one, of course, takes so many forms: prayer as a group in church or prayer as a family at home, or prayer as individuals anywhere. Prayer can take so many forms but as we know it’s just being with and talking with God. And listening to God as well.
Now, did you know that by the end of the month we’ll have had 12 of our members here either confirmed in their faith, received into the Anglican Communion from the Roman Catholic church, or who have made a public declaration that they are reaffirming the faith they have had all along? 12 people. 6 teens. 6 adults. It’s pretty amazing.
And as they take this next step they’ll be asked again by the bishop, “will you devote yourself to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers?” And they will answer, “I will, with God’s help.”
Now as we live into these promises we make, and as we see in the next verse of our reading, there’s every possibility that we’ll become open to experiencing awe—awe—because of the wonders we begin to perceive.
What is awe? It’s a kind of holy amazement, a state of being transported into the presence of God. Awe is the kind of feeling you might have on top of a mountain, or in the presence of a newborn baby, or in the act of gazing intently into a flower or even a rock. It’s a holy perception that God is all in all, even in the most pedestrian thing. Now, we feed our capacity to feel awe by developing our connection to God through the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. They are the practices that deepen faith and deepen connection to God.
And yes, like those in the early church we read about in verse 44, we may even find our connection to the Holy opening us up to be more generous givers, more thorough in our support of God’s work in the world. We read that “all who believed were together and had all things in common; [they were holy communists] they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Now, it’s been millennia since the church followed this kind of economy, but we still see it, of course, in monastic settings. A newcomer to the monastery gifts the community with his or her possessions, and they all benefit as they have need.
So I don’t think we’re called to live in this holy communist way, but I do think and I do KNOW that as we practice our faith, we do become more generous people, willing to stop hoarding our things and our money, willing to open our fists and support the work of God in the world more fully. We also become more generous with our time, giving and helping like all those folks who showed up yesterday to help us with our grounds. Generosity is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and the more we move in the Spirit the more generous we become.
Perhaps one of the most thrilling assertions in this first reading is that when the early community lived in these ways, practicing their connection to God and to each other, and feeling awe, they added numbers of people quite naturally to their company. That parallels the growth of Jazz Vespers, too. We add more people to our congregation each time we celebrate this service because it’s just so attractive. It builds upon its own success.
Our call is to be so attractive to others in the world. So continue to grow in your understanding of Scripture, keep praying, stay closely linked to your community here, and the word will continue to get out. And we’ll see more growth in our church and even more important, more commitment to holy living here in Redding.
May Jesus, our Good Shepherd, continue to guide us and lead us, and may we respond to his voice, elaborating and riffing on the themes of love and service that he first showed us.