Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
In this season of rapid change and mounting challenges for the global Church, it seems fitting to return to our roots and consider how the very first Christians banded together. Heaven knows it wasn’t easy for them. Already under Roman occupation as Jesus and his inner circle of disciples made their way around Galilee during the final few years of his life, the earliest Christians endured tremendous persecution from Rome just as the first Christian communities were getting started.
In other words, Christianity didn’t come into being in ideal conditions. Quite the opposite. The Church of Jesus Christ was founded in adversity. What’s more, the Church has been known to thrive under adversity. We’ve seen this most recently over the last few decades with incredible growth of the global Church in the developing world while Christianity in the affluent West has been declining. Perhaps because when we are at our most comfortable, and things seem most under control, it’s tempting to forget our need for God?
Clearly our present circumstances are vastly different from those experienced by the ancient Church. In this country, in this era, we enjoy tremendous religious freedom compared to many parts of the world and many points in time. The danger that plagues us now is entirely different. In first century Palestine, the safest way for followers of Jesus to gather in worship was in each other’s homes, hidden away from those who sought to hurt them. Today gathering in each other’s homes would actually put us in more danger so we’ve been forced online. But as we’ve seen, this hasn’t stopped the spread of the gospel. In fact, at least in this part of our country, we’re seeing far more people tuning in to live-streamed and other online forms of worship than had been attending church services in person.
It’s not that crisis is a good thing in itself. What a crass suggestion that would be with the huge losses we’re seeing all around us right now: losses of life and livelihood. It’s just that God is able to actin times of crisis, and God challenges and empowers us to act in these kinds of situations too. All of which, again, makes me curious about the very first Christians. What might they teach us about following Jesus when times are hard?
We find their story in the New Testament book of Acts, the sequel to the gospel of Luke. And while we sometimes read Acts with our attention on the headliners, Peter and Paul, this time I’m most interested in the other characters in the story. Those in the ensemble, if you will, without whose participation the Church never would have survived, regardless of the preaching ability of its stars. I’m sure, like me, you’re finding yourself inspired this spring by stories of ordinary individuals acting with extraordinary courage and kindness. Ordinary people made a difference in the life of the early Church too, so we’re going to allow them the spotlight for a bit.
We’ll spend the next several weeks with an eye toward the understudies and the kitchen crew. We’ll learn from maids and businesspeople, outsiders, foreigners, soldiers. The biblical record through both testaments reminds us God does some of God’s best work through regular folks who’d have never imagined themselves as heroes. We’ll watch for this dynamic again as we make our way through the book of Acts, and from it, draw strength to do what is within our power to do as God’s people, here and now.
The texts Steve read for us this morning set the stage. Where do we find the earliest Christians as the story of Acts gets underway? We’ll return to the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 later on, with the wind of God’s Spirit whooshing around in a far more dramatic way following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, but I take courage from these quieter scenes too. The regular days. The church’s routine life.
“Day by day,” the text says, “as they spent much time together… they broke bread at home and at 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…” (Acts 2:46-47) “There was not a needy person among them, “ for “everything they owned was held in common.” “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” “With great power [they] gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:32-33)
I find so much there to hang onto right now as our own church community makes its way through this unusual time. As we continue to gather together and care for each other, in spite of our physical distance. As we try to determine the best ways to share our resources with those in need. As we lean back into our tremendous need for God, with so many reminders these days of what’s outside our own control.
We know God can work in dramatic ways on huge occasions as God did on the first Easter, raising Jesus from the dead. God works in smaller moments on the most ordinary days too. Even in seasons like this one where we feel like we’ve stepped into a surreal spinoff of the old Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day.” Where every day is the same and we feel trapped in that sameness. We can’t get ourselves out; all we can do is make our way through it one day at a time. God’s still at work. Remember, too, that Groundhog Day was only awful when Bill Murray’s character lived only for himself. When he started to care for others, even though each day was still much the same, he used it differently, finding better, more fulfilling ways to spend his time.
I pray we can take heart from our ancestors in faith, those earliest Christians whose stories we’re told in the book of Acts. For we’re in good company. “Day by day.” As we praise God. As we share what we have. As we spend time together, the whole group of us believing with “one heart and soul.” As we remember to speak and act from “glad and generous hearts.” As we “give testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” through God’s great power.
The Church of Jesus Christ was founded in adversity. The Church has been known to thrive under adversity because God can still work through whatever crises come our way.
How surprised and delighted our first century brothers and sisters in Christ would be to find us here together now! The good news they witnessed first-hand and shared with all who’d listen… the good news that God not only raised Jesus from the dead but brings life from death again and again ... the good news that God’s Spirit is alive, at work, and on the move… That same good news is being preached right now all over the globe through internet connections and cell phone plans. Who’d have thought it possible?
But “day by day,” even in times of crisis, even in times of tragedy, God’s people have gathered together, and the Lord has added to their number through God’s “great power” and “great grace.” Thanks be to God.