We Christians do some strange things. For example, while everyone else is out playing golf or sleeping in on Sunday mornings, we go to worship. While everyone else is spending money redecorating their living rooms, we give our hard-earned money to the church so that there will be someone to preach to us when we go to worship and so that there we will have an elevator to get us from one level of the building to the other. Then, when we’re in worship, we take a little bit of bread and little bit of juice and say that’s a sacred ceremony. We do some strange things.
And it gets even stranger, especially when it comes to communion. Also known as the Lord’s Supper. Also known as the Eucharist. We Disciples of Christ, and most Protestants, say that the bread and juice, or wine, stand for or represent Christ’s body and blood. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches say that the bread and wine mysteriously become the body and blood of Christ. I know. That sounds very strange to us, but the fact is the Orthodox and Catholic folks have the vast majority of Christian history and tradition on their side. We Protestants have only been around for about five hundred years. The Orthodox and Catholics have been at it for almost two thousand.
And it gets even stranger, because the Orthodox and Catholics don’t agree on how or when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. The Catholics believe in transubstantiation and the Orthodox do not. Please don’t ask me to explain that – because I can’t. The upshot is that, unless things have changed recently and I missed the news, if you’re Orthodox you don’t take communion in a Catholic church and vice versa. Likewise, we Protestants are not generally invited to the table in either Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches.
And it gets even stranger. The first time I went to the monastery in South Carolina, Mepkin Abbey, which is Roman Catholic, I didn’t take communion the first day. (They have it every day.) But after the service one of the people who volunteer there told me it’s ok with the monks if I partake. So I did, for the rest of the week. When I checked out I asked the monk on duty about it, and he said they presume that anyone who partakes is a Christian and that it is meaningful for them, so they don’t test folks ahead of time.
Strangely enough, that’s our practice in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), isn’t it? We even allow children to partake, because we want them to be included, and we believe communion is not just about what we believe or what we know. We believe it’s also about what God does when we come to the table. And interestingly, or perhaps strangely, the Orthodox also allow children, even babies, to partake, but in the Catholic church you wait until you’re confirmed, around age ten or so. We Christians do some strange things.
We could easily expand the list of strange things we do. We call the twelve days after Christmas the Christmas season, and the weeks leading up to Christmas we call Advent. We recently observed forty days we call Lent, leading up to Easter. During Lent we do things like take up some sort of spiritual discipline. The day after Mardi Gras is over the start of Lent, Ash Wednesday, when we have ashes put on our foreheads. Just before Easter we have very somber services called Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Stop someone on the street sometime and ask them if they know about Advent or Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday.
The few verses we will hear from the book of Acts today tell us about a couple of strange things the first Christians were doing. The book of Acts in fact contains a bunch of strange stories. That, plus the fact that I like Acts and think it is too often overlooked, mean that we will be having a steady diet of stories from Acts between now and Pentecost. Keep in mind that Acts is the sequel to the gospel of Luke, being Luke’s account of how the church began after Jesus’ ascension. Other than Paul’s writings, it’s the only account we have of the beginnings of Christianity, so it gives us interesting and important information. For example, Luke tells us about a particular attitude and a particular practice of the very early church. Both are a little strange.
The attitude, as reported by Luke, is that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” What does that mean? Does that mean they agreed on everything? Including what color or colors to paint the fellowship hall in the church they were building? Did they agree on exactly what happens at communion?
I’d be surprised. Even at that very early stage, still in the first century, there were no doubt disagreements and arguments about various items of faith. In fact, later on in Acts Luke will tell us about some of those issues. Paul, in his letters, also reports on some very significant disputes and problems in the Christian community. So is Luke exaggerating about Jesus’ followers being of “one heart and soul”?
Not necessarily. Alan Padgett says the unity of the early Christians is in “purpose, mission, and values.” Jesus never says, “In order to be one of my followers, here’s the list of things you have to believe.” He never gives an elaborate explanation of the Lord’s Supper. The bread is his body, he says. The wine is his blood. Eat and drink in remembrance of him. That’s about it.
But at the beginning of Acts, just before Jesus’ ascension, he says to the disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s very much the same as what is reported at the end of Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Again, in both cases there is no “here’s what you have to believe list. “Everything that I have commanded you” can be summed up in love God and love your neighbor.
One of the wonderful things about Timberlake Christian Church is that we don’t all agree on everything. Not so long ago we had two couples in the church who were great friends. They loved spending time together. And they only had one rule – no talking politics, because they did not agree. I suspect that if we conducted a survey of “what I believe about the Christian faith” – or politics – this morning, we would get a pretty wide variety of answers.
I think that’s wonderful because it means we are holding to the slogan that was popular in the early days of our denomination, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” We Disciples of Christ say we need to agree that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and we accept him as our Lord and Savior. After that, the faith is open for discussion. We here at TCC say we agree on our mission, to grow and share our relationship with God through Christ,” our vision, “reflecting the love of God in Christ through welcome, worship, and witness,” and a set of core values and bedrock beliefs, which it is time for us to review, by the way. It’ll give the Elders something to work on.
That’s the way the church should be. It’s ok to have different opinions on exactly what happens at the Lord’s table. But I do think we Disciples and the monks at Mepkin Abbey are on the right track in practicing an open table. What matters is that we are of “one heart and soul” when it comes to the crux of our faith, our belief in Jesus as the Christ and our willingness to carry on the work he started of spreading the good news.
The particular practice of the early Christians that is strange is that Luke reports that they took care of all who were in need in their midst. He says people would go so far as to sell houses and lands and bring the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to the needy. He even gives an example of someone named Joseph, who receives the new name Barnabas, meaning “son of encouragement”, who sells a field and brings the money to the apostles.
Luke wants us to know that the mission of the first Christians has two parts. On the one hand, they use the power of the Holy Spirit to spread the good news of God’s love found in Jesus. When Jesus says they are to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” he is giving geographical direction to the work of his followers. Judea and Samaria were the areas nearest to Jerusalem. Then it was on to the rest of the Roman Empire, and beyond.
On the other hand, this is not the only time Luke mentions the topic of caring for the needy. Over in chapter six he reports on a problem which has arisen, namely that one group of Christians feels like the widows of their group are not being treated fairly. And throughout Acts Luke tells us about times the apostles are able to heal people. In other words, they carry on Jesus’ mission of caring for people in need. At one point they do so in what seems to us to be a strange way, selling houses and property.
With good reason – because it is our mission – we carry on a particular attitude of being “of one heart and soul” when it comes to what we hold to be most important in our faith. And we carry on the practice of looking after the physical, material needs of people. We do some strange things. But sometimes that’s ok. Amen.