I would like to tell you a tale of two churches.
First, as is customary in the Easter season, we hear this week in Scripture from the Book of Acts, the story of the early church. It is from the second chapter. And what we hear is truly astonishing: it is about the character of life for this brand new and tiny minority religious group, those earliest Christians who came to faith right after Pentecost in Jerusalem. These first Jesus followers are trying to work out what it means being caught up in the Holy Spirit with the living Lord.
There is no better record of Christian community, of spiritual and social solidarity in the Bible, no more beautiful vision of intentional belonging in church history. This text from Acts 2 offers a window view into the extraordinary things that were happening to these first Christian believers in the months after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
What do we see? Utter devotion in their worship of the Lord; the early Christians are filled with awe and gratitude, constantly praising God and devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching. It seems clear that worship, praise, and prayer are this community's first order of business.
We also see a picture of intense belonging. Luke, the author of Acts wants to stress that these first believers are together a lot, they meet with great frequency. I imagine they get to know each other quite well, warts and all! And they look after each other no matter what. There is radical sharing of anything that anyone may need.
And we see that this obscure new community very quickly develops the goodwill of many others outside its membership. Citizens of Jerusalem look at this new association of friends and families and they say, "Wow! What is going on with these people? I'm having whatever they are having!" And we are told, "day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."
A tale of one church. Now a tale of a second church. This one takes place much more recently, in the UK. I was listening several years ago to an interview with an Anglican priest in the Church of England, Jonathan Arnold. He is an accomplished singer, having sung and traveled with the well-known choral group, The Tallis Scholars; he's also been a staff singer at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
Arnold was talking about being at the York Minster Early Music Festival in the historic city of York, England. They host a large sacred music event there every year. During the festival, he observed a couple thousand people standing in line to buy tickets to hear the York Minster Choir sing at one of the festival concerts. What struck him was this: the concert included pretty much the very same music the choir sings every day at a worship service called Choral Evensong. Usually, this prayer service is attended by a small smattering of people. But it's free! In fact, that worship service of Choral Evensong was going on daily during the festival.
Why would these people pay for what you can get for free anytime? Well, because at the Music Festival, it was a concert, not worship. People paid an entrance fee, preferring to be spectators instead of participants, audience members instead of prayer partners, a gathered community of believers, brothers and sisters together in the presence of God.
These tales of two churches could not be more different. One from the Book of Acts, a fellowship of deep belonging and worship and goodwill. And the second church, the modern one, despite its grand beauty and glorious history, experienced as a mere concert venue. What do we make of this?
Lest we American Christians think that the issues of growing secularization and declining church engagement are modern European phenomena, there is a wealth of social survey data now suggesting our own situation may more closely resemble that sacred music festival in England than the Jerusalem church described in Acts, chapter two.
I reference here merely one such source, Timothy Carney's 2019 book Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. This timely but sobering read about the growing problem of loneliness and isolation experienced by so many Americans has this very telling bit of information. Those in our culture who self-describe as moderately-religious - that is to say those who believe but are not very engaged in the religious life of a believing community - these are the ones who are less happy and less fulfilled than those who profess no religious belief at all. In other words, the key is not believing, but believing and belonging, because to believe and not to belong is a sign of something terribly amiss. [Carney, page 133]
What if one of the greatest gifts the contemporary church could offer our broken and alienated society was a vision of intense social belonging such as we hear described in Acts today? What if our best testimony to the life of Jesus was our life together? How might that engender "the goodwill of all the people?" Or is it easier for many of our churches to point the finger outward in identifying sources of social fragmentation and cultural division rather than inwardly?
I am issuing an urgent call for churches - church leaders and members - to pray for another outpouring of the Holy Spirit so that we might get the help we so obviously need to get our own act together as the people of God. We will never fulfill our mission to shed the Light of Christ into our lost and hurting world if others do not perceive the Light shining in the midst of our life together. I cannot tell you how many times I hear someone say something like this, "The church is just as angry or divided or uncaring or selfish or scandalized as the rest of the world." And that is a scandal to hear.
Loneliness. The disappearance of community. The loss of social networks. The feeling of having to go it alone, even in church, like buying tickets to a concert rather than experiencing community. All this describes our mission field, and it begins within the church itself. This is our reality.
But in this season of Easter, we Christians return to the greatest reality of them all: our God lives; Jesus is alive; and he is still doing what he did when he first started his ministry: calling disciples into fellowship with his living body located, grounded, unconquerable as the community of faith, the church. I find it so very interesting that in John's gospel, the first question Jesus asks of his first disciples is this, "What are you looking for?" And they respond with their own question, "Where are you staying?" They did not ask for spiritual insight or answers to life's most difficult questions. They asked to be with Jesus. And they went together to stay with him. Christianity by its very nature is a social as well as spiritual reality. There are no individual Christians. There are only Christians who belong to one another in belonging to Christ.
And I note too that places in the gospels where Jesus is alone: first, I think of the dessert temptation story. Aloneness as an arena where Satan has easy access to us. Jesus is the Son of God, of course, and is able to fend off the allure of the Devil. But what of the rest of us who experience isolation and loneliness? And I think also, Jesus experiences aloneness in the desertion of his disciples at the time of his crucifixion, on the cross itself: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
The Good News is that Jesus has been to those places of deep loneliness, isolation, feeling utterly abandoned, even by his own people. And so, he identifies with all those who experience such realities in our own day, beginning with his own church. Do we?
It is possible to idealize the early church in ways that history, and even the New Testament itself, do not support. Lord knows, the early church had its struggles and failures. But in this case, just because we have an ideal does not mean it is a fiction. I take this passage as an historically accurate account, one that both inspires and challenges me - and I suspect you too, my listener. We do not often experience church together like it is described in Acts, chapter 2.
Do not lose heart. For I want to say that there is already a movement of the Spirit afoot when we even want the experience of deeper community. Pay attention to that and respond to it in your own local congregation. What would that look like for you in practical ways? Christian community is not a church program. It is at the heart of discipleship, a lifelong commitment to learning our Lord's grace and forgiveness in the real-world laboratory of a local congregation where grace and forgiveness are always, always necessary with one another.
We were made not for believing certain things but for belonging to a certain One. And he left us not a set of sacred doctrines as much as a sacred setting for social belonging. That belonging is not offered primarily for its personal benefits, as important as they may be. That belonging is offered as the place where Jesus shows up! And where Jesus shows up, others take note. Indeed, others are saved.
The other day, I was listening to a youth minister on our staff talk about a young high school student coming to our Wednesday evening programming but who is not a member of our congregation. He does go to a high school where some of our youth are enrolled. "I saw this boy's mother the other day," he said, "and she thanked me, thanked us. She said this community on Wednesday night is changing him. He fights to keep his time available to come, regardless of other commitments. He belongs and he knows it here. Thank you." I suspect the belief is coming.
If you are the type of person who is listening to this, then you are probably the type of person who has a lot of other commitments and interests. It is hard to shoe-horn our commitment to Christ's people into all our other activities. But we are those who inhabit several worlds at once. Our Lord works through relationships because that is the nature of who God is and how he saves through Jesus Christ. It is also how God is seen in a world mostly blind to his glory. Our relationships with each other are the criteria the world uses to judge whether our message is truthful. And I cannot think of a more exciting calling than that.
Let us pray.
O God, help us who belong to you through Jesus Christ our Lord, to call upon you for a greater outpouring of your Holy Spirit that we might draw closer to you through your drawing closer to us - to one another. Give us wisdom to discern how our local congregations of faith may embody the love of Jesus, prove to be the grounding of the Gospel in our particular contexts and thereby shine your light, extend your grace to those who do not know you. Amen.