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Dear Gulf Coast Leaders,Mike Rinehart

I must apologize for last week. I thought I had written and queued up reflections for all three Sundays I was gone, but when I got home from Africa, nothing had been sent for last Sunday, and nothing was in the queue. So I screwed up. Sorry. I hope you had fun with Emmaus.

The trip to the Central African Republic was so emotionally overwhelming, I’m not really ready to talk about it yet. I’m still trying to get my mind around it all. But Assembly is in less than two weeks, and presumably by then I’ll be over my jet lag and foggy head. I’m excited about grappling to find the words that express what we experienced in this growing Lutheran church.

By the way, this week I will put out a homily for the Sunday we’re at assembly, along with a suggested order for Service of the Word. The homily can be read by a lay leader.

Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

When this Acts 2 vision for the church comes up in the lectionary once every three years (Easter 4A only), I can’t resist it. John 10:10 in the gospel reading is certainly enticing. And a six-week sermon series on the fiery ordeal of I Peter, which appears as our epistle texts Easter 2-7 is also profound. But Acts 2 gives us one of the earliest pictures of the post-Easter church community. It is a moment in time.

Luke’s description in Volume II of his “orderly account,” which we call Acts, is at times an idyllic look at the early church. Other times it is a scathing appraisal. Yet, even if we are getting a rosy picture, would we have it any other way? Does a lover not gaze upon the beloved and see stars? For Luke this new community in Christ, flawed but empowered by the Spirit, is the hope of the world, a sign of a kingdom breaking in, the very presence of Jesus in the world. And so we should sit up and take copious notes. The Evangelist speaks, for those who have ears to hear.

Here then is the beloved community. I will point out five things corresponding to the five sentences in this reading. Let the church leader feel a yearning for this kind of community, and a desire to allow the Spirit to shape us into something similar.

1. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

The dictionary defines devotion as great love or loyalty, and also as profound dedication, among other things. προσκαρτεροuντες (proskarterountes) occurs only five times in the New Testament, two of them in this week’s passage:

Acts 1:14

οuτοι πάντες nσαν προσκαρτεροuντες ὁμοθυμαδὸν τn προσευχn σὺν γυναιξὶν καὶ Μαριὰμ τn μητρὶ τοu Ἰησοu καὶ (συν) τοiς ἀδελφοiς αὐτοu.

All these with one accord continued steadfastly in prayer and supplication, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Verb: Present Active Participle Nominative Plural Masculine

Acts 2:42

nσαν δὲ προσκαρτεροuντες τn διδαχn τwν ἀποστόλων καὶ τn κοινωνίa τn κλάσει τοu ἄρτου καὶ ταiς προσευχαiς.

They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayer.

Verb: Present Active Participle Nominative Plural Masculine

Acts 2:46

καθ’ ἡμέραν τε προσκαρτεροuντες ὁμοθυμαδὸν ἐν τw ἱερw, κλwντές τε κατ’ οiκον ἄρτον, μετελάμβανον τροφnς ἐν ἀγαλλιάσει καὶ ἀφελότητι καρδίας

Day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart,

Verb: Present Active Participle Nominative Plural Masculine

Romans 12:12

τn ἐλπίδι χαίροντες τn θλίψει ὑπομένοντες τn προσευχn προσκαρτεροuντες,

rejoicing in hope; enduring in troubles; continuing steadfastly in prayer;

Verb: Present Active Participle Nominative Plural Masculine

Romans 13:6

διὰ τοuτο γὰρ καὶ φόρους τελεiτε· λειτουργοὶ γὰρ θεοu εἰσιν εἰς αὐτὸ τοuτο προσκαρτεροuντες.

For this reason you also pay taxes, for they are servants of God’s service, attending continually on this very thing.

Verb: Present Active Participle Nominative Plural Masculine

Paul exhorts the Romans to continue steadfastly in prayer and paying taxes. Luke says the early church in Jerusalem continued steadfastly in four things:

A. the apostles’ teaching

B. fellowship

C. in the breaking of bread

D. and in prayer

A. Perhaps the letters of the apostles were already circulating. Or this was devotion to an oral teaching that was spreading. It’s hard to say which apostles. In some circles, apostles were those who sat at the feet of Jesus. In other cases it could include Paul and others who traveled, preaching the gospel, “apostolos” meaning “one who is sent” (note the word “post” buried there).

Today we have it easy. At a very early age most of us have the approved teachings of the apostles placed in our hands. For many it becomes a lifelong devotion, a common language for Christians of every time and place. I was astounded in Africa how often I could make an allusion to a Scripture text for emphasis and everybody got it. We share a common story, across national and cultural boundaries.

B. Koinonia is the word translated fellowship here. Sadly, when people hear fellowship today they think social gathering. Or worse, coffee in styrofoam cups between services. But koinonia is a word that means intimate participation in one another’s lives. Koinonia is people who show up at your house when a loved one has died. Koinonia is when you’re willing to share your deepest pain with another. Koinonia is a group of people praying for you when sick. I saw koinonia happen in my last parish when people met for Bible study in homes. There’s something about getting out of the church-box and into one another’s lives, seeing each other’s photos and hobbies, that deepens the intimacy of relationships. The church of Jesus Chris is not a shallow social club, but an intimate engagement in each other’s dramas of life.

C. There’s not consensus among Christians that this reference of breaking bread is Holy Communion, but I believe it is, if not in the microsacramental way we do it today. Breaking bread can mean simply eating, or it can mean a reference to the reenactment of the Last Supper that the early church celebrated to hold Jesus’ memory in the life of the community. In other words, it could simply mean they ate together a lot. This would make sense for a community in koinonia, intimate engagement in each other’s lives.

I have no doubt they were eating together, full meals. In Acts 20, they clearly were together all day, until midnight. But I suspect these meals took on a sacred import. These were more than potlucks. They broke bread in the name of Jesus, to call to memory his death and resurrection, and for us that means a bit more than a picnic. Their shared lives were “in Christ.”

Once Holy Communion got separated from the meal, we ended up with a curious “taste” of communion. The early church celebrated the Eucharist not just as a reenactment of the last Supper, but also of the chief sign of Jesus’ earthly ministry, commensality: his eating with tax collectors and sinners. Eating together was a sign of a truly open community.

I don’t know how to reclaim this kind of Eucharistic celebration, or even if we could or should, but I do believe the shared meal, open to all, is an important aspect of Christian community. Many churches are reclaiming the Agape Feast. They’ll have free monthly meals provided by the congregation at which all are welcome, the poor who have no food, those of differing faiths, and those of no faith at all. This is a sign of the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. I’d love to see every congregation do this. It is a grounded sign of grace, most consistent with Jesus’ earthly ministry.

These are strong marks I would love to see in any congregation I joined: Study and meditation on the Scriptures, fellowship, communion and prayer. One wonders if it is possible to be the church without these things.

D. Of course, the early church devoted itself to, was continually steadfast in, prayer. What if prayer was the hallmark of all we did? Not just the obligatory prayer before a meeting (if it happens at all), but the primary strategy for coming to decisions as a community?

One practice that bore much fruit: When it was time to nominate candidates for church council, or find people to lead certain ministries, we would pass out job descriptions, church photo directories and blank sheets of paper, then take 10-20 minutes of silent prayer, reading over the job descriptions and thumbing through the directory. We’d pray about who was uniquely gifted and called to this ministry. Who HAD to do this because they lived and breathed it? Because it was in their DNA? People would read, pray and write. When everyone was ready we’d put the names on the board and discuss. Then we’d prioritize and decide who would go talk to each person. We had a high response rate this way, because we approached it prayerfully, not just trying to desperately plug holes. I wish we as a church committed to prayer on every decision.

2. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.

There are two parts to this, not unrelated:

A. Awe

B. Signs and wonders

A. Another mark of this early church was awe. Awe is what I feel when I stare at the ocean, or at the mountains. Awe is what I feel when I watch a child prodigy play the piano. Awe is what I feel when my daughter and I lay in the back yard staring up at the stars.

How often do you feel awe in church? It used to be our worship spaces were built to inspire awe. Not so much these days. Does our music inspire awe? Do our sermons cause people to drop their jaws contemplating the wonder and mystery of life? Music and preaching have the power to do this if we let them – if we don’t tame them or emasculate them through some sieve of political or theological correctness. Handel’s “Worthy Is the Lamb” still brings me to tears, but so does Mercy Me’s “God of Wonders.” Worship ought to be (yes, “ought to be”) an encounter with the Holy. An experience of the Magnum Mysterium. Ask your people a question and brace yourself for the answer: Do they encounter God in church?

B. The second part of this sentence has to do with signs and wonders. Do you see signs and wonders being done in your community? I’m not talking about magic. I’m just asking: Is God doing ANYTHING, in your community? The answer of course is, “Yes.” Do you have an eye out for it? Are you asking yourself, “What is God up to here?”

What are the stories? Are people finding healing and hope in the church? Are marriages being strengthened? Families? Are lost people finding joy? Are people hearing God’s call in their lives, and responding with unprecedented generosity? Is the community bearing fruit?

If not, then start looking. And when you find it, lift it up and celebrate it! Someone said to me recently, you’re likely to get the congregation you preach to. If you tell them they are generous, they will be generous. If you tell them they are stingy, they will be stingy. Preach up. Trust that God’s Word will not return empty, but will accomplish God’s purposes in people’s lives. Wait for it…

3. 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.

This is the hardest part for Americans to hear. One man said to me one time, “That’s communism!” “Well, no,” I replied, “Actually it’s socialism.” I smiled. He didn’t.

I heard someone describe it recently as “enoughism.” Socialism is everybody getting the same thing. That probably wouldn’t be fair. We don’t want everyone to have the same. We just want everyone to have enough. Food, clothing, shelter, medical care. We think Jesus wanted that too. “When I was hungry you have me food, when I was thirsty… Stranger… Naked… Sick… In prison…”

Jesus told the rich young ruler if he wanted to be perfect he should give away all his possessions to the poor. In the sermon on the Mount Jesus says if someone begs for your coat, you should give up your shirt as well. The shirt off your back. This is why its hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom. If your life is about getting, collecting, taking, hoarding, you’re going to have a really hard time letting go.

Perhaps nothing is more Christian than giving. Sharing. Generosity may well be one of the clearest vital signs of the healthy Christian community. People get bent out of shape when the church looks at giving, but what if generosity is a fruit of the Spirit? Oh wait, it is. “All they care about is counting nickels and noses.” I would respond, “And why not?” Or perhaps, “Why does that make you uncomfortable?”

One of the sure fire signs that God is at work in a community: the hungry are fed, naked clothed, strangers welcomed, sick healed, poor have good news preached to them.

4. 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, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

They went to the Temple, but they also met in homes. There’s something important about being in one another’s homes. In the Natural Church Development tool, the question they ask to assess koinonia: “Have you been in another church member’s home in the last two weeks?”

They ate together/had communion daily. They had glad and generous hearts. They had the goodwill of the people.

5. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Hmm. They grew. So let me tip my hand. I think communities like this are contagious. Communities that are about studying Scripture, prayer, fellowship of intimate relationships, worship, sacramental living, eating together, life-changing signs, radical generosity, sharing, and kindness are magnetic. They are attractive to young and old; white, black, Latino and Asian. I believe when churches stop bickering amongst themselves and get down to the business of devotion – continuing steadfastly – in these basics of the early church, renewal and thriving community will be waiting for us.

Be at peace with God and with one another,

Michael Rinehart, Bishop
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Samuel Ndanga-Toue

Samuel Ndanga-Toue (center), President of the Baboua Theological Seminary, in the Central African Republic, with Pastor Emmanuel Jackson (Living Word, Katy) and me. Million dollar smile. As usual, it is the children who capture your heart.

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