May 7, 2017 4th Sunday of Easter
Act 2:42-47 1 Peter 2:19–25 John 10:1–10
I like this description of the disciples from Acts: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Doesn’t that sound nice? And I don’t mean that sarcastically. This seems like such a simple formula for being a disciple.
#1: Devote yourself to the teaching of the apostles.
Well, of course back then the teaching of the apostles came from those of Christ’s inner circle telling people what Jesus had told them. Today we read about Jesus, his life, works and philosophy, from the Gospels, and then discuss how we can effectively apply them in our time, to our lives. So step number one is to get familiar with the Gospels. And how many of us actually do that? I’m sure that some of you do. But how many of us actually read the Gospels with the intent of going beyond the story and figuring out who Jesus is? Hold that thought.
#2: Devote yourselves to fellowship.
Back then fellowship had a slightly different meaning. Today, in the 21st century, we think of fellowship as a compartmentalized event. We have fellowship at work, or fellowship with coffee hours, or fellowship when we go out to eat with people. But in the 1st century people lived a lot closer together and more communally, because that was the best way to get things done in a non-industrial society. Relationships are happening all the time, whether you want to have them or not; relationships can be positive and functional, or negative and dysfunctional. Fellowship is word that defines positive, functioning relationships that are the real building blocks of society. Back then if you didn’t have a lot of money, but had a good solid family like structure that was pulling for the good of the whole you would probably succeed in living a good life.
In fact I would like to emphasize that a lot of religions devote their philosophies, and their rules, to how we live with each other. A lot of people think that religion is all about defining who and what God is. That’s a part of it. But the big part of any religion is how we relate to God by how we relate to each other. A religion that lasts is a religion that nurtures and maximizes a person’s ability to relate to other people in a positive, nurturing manner. Do we always get there? No, but study any religion that has lasted for centuries and you will find that the core tenants deal with having people learn how to best relate to others in kindness and compassion.
#3: One of the important ways of relating to each other in the early church was the devotion to prayer, or the individual spending time relating to God. When we learn how to wrestle with our own problems with God’s help we move to point #4 and become better at relating to other people. Which leads to the sharing of the bread, or the community relating to each other.
Let me side track a bit here. Have you ever noticed that in business the most effective managers are the ones who have the best communication skills? Next time you are in a bookstore or in the library go and look at the business isle. There will be nuts-and-bolts books on how to do accounting, or set up payrolls, or organize floor lay-outs; but 80 percent of the books are about how to effectively communicate with people.
In fact I would like to give an except from one of those books: An effective salesperson first seeks to understand the needs, the concerns, and the situation of the customer. The amateur salesman sells products; the professional sells solutions to the needs and problems.
I would like to paraphrase that: An effective Christian first seeks to understand the needs, the concerns, and the situation of everyone they meet. The Pharisee gives us the rules that they say we must live by. The Christian shows, by their words and deeds of servant love, that Christ is the solution to our needs and problems.
In the Gospels, Jesus gives us a number of pointers on how to relate to people. One of the big ones is that he tells us is not to rush into judgment. Jesus is always willing to suspend the established judgment that people had about others.
Remember when Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus ? Zacchaeus, as a tax-collector for Rome, was a person who was considered to be socially and morally bankrupt as far as everyone around him was concerned. By working with the Roman government, and exploiting people to put food on his own table, he had cut himself off from his own people who considered him to be the scum of the earth. Yet Jesus, stopped, he looked up in the tree, suspended judgment, and saw the human, not the scum bag, that was Zacchaeus. And he said, “Zacchaeus, today I am going to have dinner at your house.”
You cannot see the needs, concerns, or the situations of people until you step back, suspend judgment, and listen with an open mind. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with that person once the needs, concerns, and situations are laid out. Jesus didn’t say to Zacchaeus, “Yeah, go ahead and keep on exploiting people.” But I am sure during the conversation at dinner Jesus listened to Matthew’s story, found out why he had become a tax collector in the first place, listened to his concerns, got a clear picture of what his situation was, and then showed him a path to change. And Matthew accepted the new path and changed so much that he returned all the money he had stolen with interest.
How many times do we approach a person with problems, or any problem, thinking that we already know what is going on? Jesus didn’t make that mistake with people. We do say that Jesus knows our needs before we know them – but that’s because he doesn’t walk into our lives with preconceived notions. He’s willing to listen to us in prayer, take the time to examine our hearts, and set things up for us so that we will learn about and receive what we really need, not what we think we want.
The other thing that Jesus models for us is the acceptance of the differences between us. Jesus did not collect a like-minded or like-personality group of people around him. Peter was impulsive and at times oblivious; Thomas questioned; Nathaniel was the smart-aleck; John and James, the brothers, were super competitive with each other and everyone else, and had really bad tempers; and you get the impression that John was just this super easy-going dude. Yet despite all these different personalities with all these different talents, who all grasped the teachings of Christ in different ways, they learned to accept each other and learned how to work together.
In their fellowship of listening to each other, and learning about each other, and respectfully wrestling the needs, concerns and situations that were before them they built the church. The scripture then says that: Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.
Well, of course many wonders were being done by them! In a dysfunctional society they were taking the time and making the effort to figure out the best, most humane way to get things done. They were all working on getting a better personal relationship with God going, and then taking that relationship and applying it to the people around them, and then using those people and their talents to get things done in the most effective way that they could.
What is that pithy business saying: There is no I in team? Well I would like to say that there is the Great I AM in Christianity. I AM going to devote myself to getting in better communication with God. I AM going to be a person of kindness and compassion. I AM going to love myself by treating myself with respect and working on my integrity. I AM going to love my neighbors by seeking to understand the needs, concerns, and situations of the people around me. I AM going treat people as Christ would have treated them. I AM going to suspend judgment and really figure out who this person is and how they can be helped.
When we embrace those I AMs we start to be disciples. We start to have the goodwill of all the people. And we start to add ourselves and others to the numbers of those who are being saved.