Scripture: Acts 4:31ff
In 1894 a famous French tightrope walker came to the border of the United States and Canada, to a place called Niagara Falls. A tightrope was set up over the falls between the United States side and the Canadian side of the falls. Blondin got up on his tightrope, and he walked from the Canadian side to the American side of the falls. The crowd began to shout, “Blondin! Blondin! Blondin!”
The tightrope walker shouted, “I am Blondin! Do you believe in me.”
The crowd began to shout from varied quarters of the large crowd, “We believe! We believe! We believe!”
Then Blondin asked, “Do you believe I can walk across this tightrope with someone on my shoulders?”
Again the crowd shouted, “We believe! We believe!”
After that Blondin said, “Who would like to be that individual?”
There was dead silence. Finally one man walked up and got on Blondin’s shoulders. They walked back across the tightrope to the Canadian side of the falls. To be fair, the man who stepped up was his business manager.
However, the point is really the same. A lot of people will shout that they believe from the middle of the crowd. Very people will take the step to exercise their belief if it appears like it might cost them anything.
When we left off with the early church last week they were praying. They had been warned by the powers that be that they should not preach about Jesus. Thus, the early church knew that if they were going to be faithful to what they believed they were going to encounter further persecution from religious authorities. They were praying for boldness to witness, and courage to carry out the tasks that God had set before them. As they prayed the room shook.
The Bible says that this experience of prayer led to the result of the church being bold in their witness. It also says that the believers were “filled with the Spirit”. It was this filling of the Spirit that allowed them to be bold in their witness. It was also this filling of the Spirit that allowed them to be the kind of church we read about in these later passages today.
The Bible says that the church was of one heart and one soul. This is something that Luke says more than once in the book of Acts about the church. It means something very significant. You see when we talk about heart what we usually are talking about is someone’s emotional health or investment. But in the Bible when someone talks about heart they are talking about their personal will. So when the Bible talks about the people being of “one heart and accord”, it is talking about people sharing a common goal, having a common desire, being committed to a common vision.
John Wesley put it this way, “Their hearts, their loves, their passions, were joined.”
The next thing that the Bible says is that the believers shared everything in common. Hmmm. Interesting. What does that mean?
The next verses how this “sharing things in common” worked out. The Bible says that nobody really lacked for anything. When there was a need for money, someone in the church that had land or something to sell would go and sell it. The Bible says that they would lay their gifts at the apostle’s feet. This is a way of saying that they would give the money to the leadership in the church, and those in leadership in the church would distribute the gifts as they saw fit.
Why would they do this? What was the point of sharing things in common, of selling one’s belongings and sharing it with the church? Is it the model of how we should live together today?
The answer to that question is….well….yes….but perhaps not in the way that you think. People shared everything in common because they believed in the mission that was before them. They were not like the spectators that rooted on Blondin, the ones that were more than willing to say what they believe, but were unwilling to act upon what they believe. These believers were passionate about the mission of sharing the good news with people, and loving people in Jesus name. And we know this because they didn’t just pray about the mission that God gave them, they didn’t just talk about caring for one another, they put that belief in action. And they did it by making sure everyone was taken care of, and nobody who was choosing to accept Christ was going broke because of it. The people of God loved God. They loved each other. They believed in their call to reach out to others. And they put their money where their mouth is. The Bible says as a result of their generous spirit the gospel message went out with “great power” and the “grace of God was upon all”.
Perhaps a way to explain what was happening in the church is is by looking at a smaller scale example from the business world. Federal Express is now a multi-national multi-billion dollar corporation. It was not always that way. At one time, Federal Express was a small, struggling company barely able to pay the bills. And people wondered if it was going to make it. But the people who worked for Fred Smith believed in what was happening. So, at times drivers filled up the delivery trucks with their own credit card on the way home, and sometimes people worked extra hours they didn’t get paid for. People gave to what they have a passion for. And the company grew and thrived, in part because these people who began Fed Ex agreed with the vision and the dream of what Fed Ex was about.
The fact that the early church cared for those that were poor among them was essential to who they were. The Bible says that people will know that we are Christians by the way that we love one another. In the Old Testament law, the Bible says that God’s will for his people was that there would be nobody that would be in need among them. Jesus said in his mission statement that he has come to bring good news to the poor and to set the captives free.
But when we look at this passage we see that the church’s generosity was a result of the church being of one heart and one mind. In other words, the church’s unity was built on their shared vision and their shared passion for loving the Lord with all their heart, loving their neighbor as themselves, and preaching the gospel to the whole world.
As a pastor, it is easy to tell when a church is in decline. As a person being who has been interviewed by several churches, one of the questions I often ask a search committee is what their passion is as a church. A church that is decline will often talk about the church’s ability to care for one another. Church fellowship and caring for one another is a noble thing, but is designed to be a byproduct of a healthy church, not a goal of it.
This is because unity in a church, and fellowship in a church is a byproduct of being a church that shares common goals and a common vision to make a difference in the world as a congregation.
Fellowship isn’t about everyone all getting along. It is about everyone being on the same side of the battle. In the struggle together. Standing together. Supporting each other as we move forward together. It is when we have that bond that we are eager to give, eager to share, eager to make sacrifices, because we are working toward a vision, a goal, a dream if you will that is bigger than any one of us.
Community life is never an end in itself. A vibrant community is a community in mission.
Look at the word fellowship. The word fellowship, at its root, is not about having yummy potlucks and cozy teas with one another. Fellowship is about being “fellows” if you will. It is about being partners in a world changing vision that we will give about anything to make happen.
When I was a youth pastor in Montana years ago, the church had a building project. In order to save money, many of the men in the church did a lot of finish work on the buildings in the evenings and on the weekends. They would crawl down into the basement and frame in rooms, hang sheet rock, install toilets and doors, and more. As they worked together for weeks, they began to bond with one another. They began to look after one another, and to care for each other in a way they had not before. They confronted each other about drinking too much. They helped one another through marital issues. All because they were building a bunch of classrooms that were going to reach children for Jesus. They shared a mission. They worked together. And as a result they began to sacrifice for one another, care for one another, support one another. Fellowship is a byproduct of shared vision and shared mission. Not a goal in and of itself.
The same is true at times during our Backyard Mission Project. What touched my heart this year was not as much the projects we did as how the work we did together seemed to bring people together in unique ways. It was hard to get people out of the church Saturday night, and not everyone visiting were people who usually talked with one another. The same thing happened on Sunday morning. As people served, there was a joy in working together. It was neat.
Another thing that was neat was that some resources that we received this year came from places that we did not expect. Some people, excited about the fact that people were caring for one another, and working hard to love their neighbors, made contributions to the Backyard Mission Project that were unsolicited.
When self-care or “in-reach” becomes the primary goal of a congregation, that is when that congregation begins to struggle. When our goal becomes all about making everybody happy and everybody feel good, when community becomes an end itself, community implodes. Everybody haggles for what they want to make them happy. The church becomes more about traditions than the true gospel. And it is not long before we are arguing about petty things, because we begin to think the church is about us, what we want, instead of what our mission is.
When a church finds meaningful vital ways of fulfilling its mission, the opposite happens. Everyone may not get what they want, but more and more you find the congregation being of one mind and one soul because they are living the vision that God has set before them. As we work together, we see and recognize needs and concerns among the brothers and sisters in Christ that we work with. Instead of focusing on what we can get from church, we focus on what we can give of ourselves to the cause.
In the coming months, we are going to have discussions about things that we are going to do in an attempt to better define and fulfill the vision God has given us. Some of them are going to be uncomfortable. It is vital that you speak your mind and share your concerns. It is also vital that we get outside of ourselves and what we want, or what we feel comfortable with. Instead ask if this will contribute to the mission that God has for this church to reach others in the name of Jesus. And if we agree that it will, then we need to give ourselves to that vision, and beg God for his blessing.
Like Blondin, Jesus is crying out, do you believe, do you believe I can do this? And many of us cry out, “We believe!” “We believe” “We believe”. The question is, will you have the courage to jump on his shoulders when he invites into his mission in the world. I hope you will. Amen.