With continuous and persistent tenacity

The book of Acts is Luke’s account of the new life that erupted when God raised Jesus from the dead. It’s about the disciples learning to follow again, and you can barely recognize them anymore. At first they were scattered and confused, with their emotions swinging from fear to joy and back, and from sorrow to wonder and doubt. But not anymore. Take Peter, for example. It’s the day of Pentecost, and the crowds gathered in Jerusalem just heard the disciples tell the whole world the great things God has done. They’re bewildered: “Aren’t they all Galileans? How is it that each of us can hear them in his or her own native language?” They’re amazed, they’re astonished. Now Peter stands up to address the crowd, and you know this isn’t something he’s done a few times before. So you’d expect him to stammer a bit, grope for words, take a while to find his groove, but no. He delivers a polished sermon, flawlessly composed, complete with lengthy quotes from scripture, without notes, and all at nine o’clock in the morning. And to top it all off, Luke tells us that those who accepted what he said were baptized, and some three thousand persons were added that day. One sermon – and three thousand lined up to be baptized! Does Luke think this is how you inspire believers to talk in public about what God has done? Is that his idea of a pep talk for preachers? In the next verse, Luke turns the spotlight, and now we get to take a good look at the congregation:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.

Beautiful, isn’t it? A few years ago, in a class at a seminary down in Atlanta, one of the students said,

“This text reminds me of the little mimeographed booklet that one of the old saints in my home church wrote. It was on the history of our congregation, and reading what she wrote you’d think that our church was the most loyal and faithful congregation in the world. Every minister was wonderful, and there was never a troubled moment.”[1]

Loyal. Faithful. Wonderful. Never a troubled moment. The professor who taught the class continued to spin that thread:

Sometime in the life of almost every congregation some member with a long memory, a grateful heart, a little time, and a typewriter [has] put together a hand-stapled booklet with some title like “Providence Church: A Century of Faith and Service.” If one reads such a local history one will characteristically encounter paragraphs like this:

In 1938 Providence Church called Emerson Langley to be the new pastor. His first week in his new charge, he preached a weeklong series of revival services at the church, and the whole town was present. Never had the people of Centerville heard such powerful preaching. Everyone was impressed, all were spiritually renewed, many joined the church, and the whole community was buzzing with admiration for Providence’s new minister and his wife Irene, a constant helpmate.[2]

The whole community? Really? And everyone was impressed? And all were renewed? Sounds to me like the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.

When Luke writes about the beginnings of the church in Jerusalem, he is not a mere chronicler reporting the cold, hard facts with journalistic precision. If he were, there would be little to share beyond the sad news that the church has gone downhill ever since its first, golden day. Luke sees more than meets the eye. And he’s not looking through rose-colored glasses, either, a nostalgic romantic who embroiders his narrative with colorful embellishments, giving real churches in the real world very little to sustain us in our mission. Luke sees the world bathed in Easter light, and he looks with faith, and he can’t help but notice in the church’s very beginnings the things that foreshadow what it will be, now that the Spirit of the risen Christ is on the loose in the world. Luke writes with hope that all of life, to the ends of the earth, will be redeemed and renewed by the love of God which has been revealed in Christ and poured out on men and women, young and old, rich and poor, slave and free, from every tribe and nation, and all of them devoted to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers, all of them together, and not a needy person among them—the gift of life shared by all, simply and miraculously.

Luke writes with hope because the church is not left to its own devices. We are not on our own; we are participating in a movement of the Holy Spirit, the powerful, unstoppable, life-giving Spirit of God who draws us and all creation into life made whole. The work is God’s and we have the privilege of participating in it, anticipating the complete transformation of ourselves and all things in the image of Christ.

Can you imagine what might happen if we devoted ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers? “Devoting ourselves” has quite a devotional ring to it, which isn’t bad, but the translation takes the edge off the word Luke uses here.[3] That word speaks of doing something with continuous and persistent tenacity: Actions and habits that occupy the center of our attention and much of our energy and time: There are the people you love. There’s the work you do. And there’s the dream you carry. That’s the neighborhood in our heart Luke is pointing to; that’s where the teachings of the apostles are seeking a home, and the fellowship of believers, and their meals and prayers. Right there, in the middle of town, where the few things you do with continuous and persistent tenacity live, not on the outskirts where you drop by occasionally.

Did you notice that Luke mentions eating together more than anything else? Most families today try hard to share at least one meal each day with each other, and it’s not easy with work and travel schedules and gymnastics practice and piano lessons and church meetings. Luke writes about eating together, because we are what we eat and who we eat with. In Luke’s day, in the first-century Roman world, people were very careful about dinner invitations, there were strict social boundaries; but in the churches, those boundaries began to crumble. Men and women, rich and poor, slave and free came together as friends in the company of Jesus to break bread, and it changed both them and the cities in which they lived. Christians began to look past things like social or legal status and recognize each person as a person. Children, for example, weren’t always welcome in those days in the cities of the Roman empire. Under Roman law, fathers could, and often did, kill newborn children. Female babies were particularly vulnerable. A study of gravestones at one ancient cemetery discovered that of 600 upper class families in that city, only six raised more than one daughter.[4] Fathers decided whether to keep a baby or banish it which meant simply setting it outside. Christians became known for picking up abandoned babies who were left in the gutters to die. A sociologist who reviewed the available data in the historical record noticed that Christians had significantly higher survival rates than the general population during the plagues that repeatedly hit the cities of the empire. It wasn’t unusual then for people to be thrown out into the street at the first symptom of disease, out of fear of contagion. Christians were more likely to stay with the sick and nurse them.[5] Christians became known for caring for those whom others considered expendable: the discarded, the poor, the aged and infirm. The church became a sanctuary for the unwanted; they ate their food with glad and generous hearts, and day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. With ordinary men, women, and children, the Holy Spirit formed extraordinary communities, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

The world still needs to know that there are no expendable people. Every person is made in the image of God and loved by God, and Christ came so each person and all persons together may have life, and have it abundantly. In the past, the church picked up abandoned babies and cared for the sick and the dying. It is no coincidence that many hospitals are named St. Thomas, St. Jude, Baptist, or Presbyterian, to name just a few, even though very different narratives tend to drive conversations about caring for the sick these days. When business lobbyists and political leaders get together to rewrite the rules how access to health care in this country is regulated, it is again up to the church to remind them that there are no expendable people. Because we are the ones who look around the table where Jesus is the host, and sometimes it looks like the kingdom is already here.

 

 

[1] Thomas G. Long, “A night at the burlesque: wanderings through the Pentecost narrative.” Journal For Preachers 14, no. 4 (1991), 30.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] And again in v. 46 “spent much time together.” See also Acts 1:14.

[4] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 97.

[5] Ibid., 73ff.

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