Sunday, August 3, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Ekklesia"

Acts 4:32 to 37

The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common. 33 The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, 35 and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need. 36 Joseph, whom the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (that is, “one who encourages”), was a Levite from Cyprus. 37 He owned a field, sold it, brought the money, and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles. (Common English Bible)

“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week Seven

The Gap which overlooks the harbor of Sydney, Australia is not a clothing store…it is a series of cliffs that, if you look for it on Google images, is absolutely gorgeous; from a distance, you can see the layers of rock that have formed over millions of years of geologic creation, and the tops of the cliffs are covered in green and trees, and, of course, it is right on the Pacific Ocean.

With all of that beauty, naturally, folks will strive to build homes there.  But with the sheer height that the cliffs afford, folks also come there to, sadly, try to end their lives as well.  And that is where one resident of the Gap, a fellow by the name of Don Ritchie, comes in.  As the journalist Paul Loebe writes:

A local, Don Ritchie, has lived in a house adjacent to “the Gap” for over 40 years and has been deemed a hero.  He is responsible for saving hundreds of people over the years since he first moved there.  Both he and his wife were aware of the reputation of the Gap prior to moving into their house, (and) the main window to Ritchie’s house faces directly to the jumping point for where people jump.  Whenever Ritchie sees someone who lingers too long at the spot, he rushes over to them and invites them over to his house for tea.

His coaxing does not always work, and he has even witnessed people jump being the last person they speak to, but for all his effort over the years, he has been awarded a place in the Order of Australia and a bravery medal.

But what makes this not as much a feel good story for me but a story that really and truly convicts me is the detail that follows:

The government has been looking into installing cameras and high railings but it has stalled due to the enormous cost ($2.1 million American).

If you divide that $2.1 million cost by the 160 lives this one man has saved over the years (that is, over the operational lifetime of a high railing fence), you get a sum of a little over $13,000.  And if you divide the $2.1 million price tag by the 50 people every year he is unable to save, you get a sum of $42,000.

$42,000 is my annual salary and housing stipend here at First Christian.  To the dollar.  And that’s what it would cost, per suicide victim in one year, to ensure there were no more victims of the Gap.
A total giving of my resources, one hundred percent of them, would at least account for one person’s life saved this year, and total giving is the model that is in fact proscribed by the New Testament church ere in Acts 4, because that way, resources can be given in accordance to need: and the preservation of life, I think both now and then, would have been seen as one of the greatest needs of all.

This is a sermon series that has been ongoing now for a while!  We began it several weeks ago for two reasons.  One is that the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles) fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off, and we began with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people, and today, we actually sort of rewind to the beginning of the series when Luke more or less restates an accounting that he also includes in Acts 2, after Peter’s sermon, about how the early church lived out the faith.

And on its face, this is a passage that should challenge us greatly, because it is just about as much of a polar opposite of what Western, American Christianity does today.  Because of the influence of our nation’s Founding Fathers, the Enlightenment, and a variety of other philosophical influences, we are a nation built upon the altar of individual property.  And so what the early church practices here: the pooling of all resources and then the distribution of them to each according to need, would be anathema to all of us here, in 21st century America.

And I do not use that word ‘anathema’ lightly, even though I am fully aware that I am calling the Bible anathema to our present context.  Because honestly, sometimes Scripture has to be, needs to be, must be, outright heretical to our way of life for it to be doing its job.  (Uh oh, the pastor just referred to the Bible as heretical…better slip out now before the brimstone starts raining down…)

Scripture must always be challenging us, and at the point it stops challenging us, either we have stopped following it or Jesus has come back as promised and filled in all the gaps for us.  And seeing as how the latter has yet to happen, I’m fairly confident in doubling down on the possibility that the former is what ends up happening.

What does that say about us as a church, as a people, as a community?  Well…the short answer is that we like to follow the stuff in Scripture that is easy for us to follow.  For instance, honestly, it’s pretty straightforward for a heterosexual person to conform to the Levitical laws against same sex intimacy.  And if you’re a man, well, you needn’t worry about Paul’s commands for women to remain silent in church, because there is absolutely zero chance of you breaking that prohibition.

But giving everything you own to the church and allowing it to distribute what you own not as you see fit but as they all see fit?  Well, hold on there for just a cotton picking minute, because that sounds an awful lot like communism!

Well, if the (red) shirt fits (also, insert a joke here if you'd like from Clue about communism as a red herring)…yes, what is being described here with the very early church is, well, a commune.  Only instead of sitting around in a drum circle smoking the peace pipe and growing hemp, they proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

So, does that make it okay?  Does it make it okay for a church...well, not just any church, but the Biblical church, to engage in a model that we clearly have moved past, if not outright rejected?

The entire problem with that question, of course, is the premise that the Biblical church needs our permission to live out its faith.  If anything, it needs to be the other way around: are we comfortable in asking the Biblical church if it is okay that we have strayed so far from their model that an expected tithe isn’t 100 percent, but only 10 percent?  Or where resources are allocated not on the basis of need but on the basis of the annual budget?

Let me put it a different way: the Biblical church was profoundly countercultural and remains profoundly countercultural to this day, because I don’t think we can scare to countenance actually running our church the way the ekklesia in Acts of the Apostles is run.

That’s a funny Greek word, by the way: ekklesia.  It literally means “the assembly,” after the governing assembly of Athens during the Classical era of ancient Greece.  But between Classical Greece and New Testament Israel, the term took on an even more profound meaning as the name for a congregation, an “assembly” of believers.  And an assembly, by definition, is, well, assembled.  It is put together.  And the ekklesia, the assembly, of the Biblical church was assembled by people and all that they both spiritually and materially had to offer.

And if you assemble an assembly with less, do not be surprised when that assembly is not all that you wanted or expected it to be.

On its face, that sounds more like something that would come out of a stewardship sermon, and y’all probably know by now that that’s not really my forte. But I am talking about a wider sense of stewardship here: a stewardship to humanity itself.  Humanity is our assembly.  Humanity is our ekklesia.  And we are called by God to give all, to give our all, on its behalf.

That also entails us giving all to God by accepting His calling for us.  And we are just as bad at that as we are at giving all to one another…and we’ll get to that a bit more with next week’s sermon, but we talk a lot about the need to surrender everything to God, and then selfishly hold something, or an awful lot of somethings, back for ourselves.  We say in one breath, “everything belongs to God,” and in the very next breath to someone else, “Hey, that’s mine!”

I realize you may be thinking, “Well, why can’t something belong to both me and God?”  It can.  But guess who gets dibs on how that thing, whatever it may be, ultimately gets used?  It ain’t you.  And that’s where our selfishness comes into play.  That’s where our greed and self centeredness comes into play.  We want to put our interests ahead of God’s interests, and honestly, I think those two interests are aligned a whole heck of a lot less frequently than we let ourselves believe.

But every so often, they do align.  A retired man in Australia finds a home he wants to live in, and God uses him as a vessel of love to save the lives of literally dozens of dozens of people by sacrificing his home, his privacy, and his day to day life in the name of saving theirs, but his government cannot or will not sacrifice funds to save even more lives that he alone was unable to.

And that’s the difference that we’re talking about here, that Luke is talking about in Acts 4.  It isn’t enough to simply give, you give until the need has been met.  Giving a starving person a lone potato chip doesn’t do one bit of good.  God calls us to more.  God demands of us more.  And He has every right to, because that is what His church has done literally for millennia.  Let us not lose sight of that tradition now.  Especially now.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 3, 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment