Some of you know I help facilitate the faith sharing and worship time at Brunswick Street United every Sunday night, 6-8 pm. We gather in a circle, everyone participates and I offer up a brief overview of the theme for the night, a little background on the scripture, and a question designed to promote conversation and stimulate deeper thinking on what God is doing in our lives. At the very same time there is a 12 step meeting happening very close by. So it has become commonplace for a woman or man to walk into the church, sit down in the circle and follow the conversation. At a certain point there is an “Aha!” moment when the person realizes they are not at an AA or NA meeting but instead in a church.
The early church was a lot of things; full of energy, a passion for Christ, a determination to serve Jesus, and a bond of family with other disciples where each literally became each other’s sister and brother in Christ. Perhaps it was because it was so new, perhaps it was because Jesus’ death and resurrection seemed to be quite recent, perhaps it was because the movement the Apostles had begun had brought together such a diverse group; women and men, former slaves, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles, refugees and people who had lived in that region for generations. But whatever the reason this early church was a dynamic bunch. How dynamic? Well, the text we heard this morning tells the story, a police officer arrives at the door of the house church to tell the people inside to pipe down. I love Peter’s answer, “We are not drunk sir. It can’t be because it’s only 9 in the morning!” Wow.
Has that ever happened at Bethany? I somehow doubt it. But what I found interesting from the Commentaries I read on the early church revealed in the Book of Acts is that such ecstatic demonstrations were really responses to a vision. And while people here may not worship in a fashion as to be confused with an all-night drunken party we do have visions here, plenty of them. Not a week goes by when someone doesn’t take me aside and tell me they have a vision for Bethany or a vision of what God is doing. Some of these are invested with big dreams and expectations and some are modest and fairly straight forward. But all involve some kind of image of who we might be, who we could be, where God is leading us.
William Willimon, one of the great preachers of our time and an author of countless books on Christian faith, wrote a commentary on the Book of Acts and reveals a pattern of vision and action that Luke-Acts lifts up as early church practice. This four-fold pattern includes a declaration that the Kingdom of God is at hand, that the resurrection of Jesus makes all things possible, that the Holy Spirit presents itself as a sign of God’s desire for a new vision, and then the church members would go out into the community and make that vision real.
And make it real they did. Rodney Stark in his book The Rise of Christianity lays out in great detail how the early church did what no one expected this movement to accomplish, namely grow and grow in spite of being officially banned by the Roman authorities. This movement had no institutional support to draw from, it was new, they met in member’s houses, and they included such a variety of people that shared experience could not be taken for granted. Stark says that this movement stood out from the beginning, in a world of high levels of poverty the poor felt welcome to worship with the rich. In a world that responded to illness with either isolation (they were forced to beg on the outskirts of the community) or shaming (it must be a sin from the person or the sin of their relations) these house churches physically touched everyone, nursed the sick and in many cases cared for the dying until death and then gave them a dignified funeral. With a message like that the early church has a very attractive story to tell and thus they grew and grew and grew.
Willimon says there were several audiences for this message. There were the “unbelievers in the streets”. But there were also believers in God who were “struggling to retain the boldness, faith and confidence in the face of struggles”. And how did the church respond to such expressions of skepticism? Willimon says the early church developed a handy technique of “promise and fulfillment”. Note how those who were Jews in this movement repeated to themselves the story of Abraham and Sarah, the promise of nation, and the development of a people who became Israel. This is exactly what the early church set out to do, offer a vision of promise and then set themselves to live it out, to make it real. “For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls…” Acts 2:39.
I absolutely love the expression Willimon uses to describe what the church is being called to do in the name of Jesus the Christ. “What has happened is that in Jesus the Christ there is a power loose in the world which is power for them”. There is a power loose in the world, it is a power to know the Kingdom of God, to know that Jesus’ resurrection makes all things possible, that the Holy Spirit is presenting unexpected sign of God’s presence, and that we can, we will, make it possible.
I have seen this pattern here at Bethany. When our volunteer base was thinning and funeral receptions were happening with increased regularity there was an emerging thought that the church should consider referring all such requests to outside caterers. But then one or two at the church had another thought. This is the Kingdom of God, here and now, and in such a place people in grief receive hospitality and care, that no one from the church should have to go looking for this ministry. And so there came a vision of teams of people who would rotate from one funeral to another, to avoid burnout and undo financial burden. Our faith in new life told us all things were possible and with each new volunteer we witnessed signs of the Spirit. And then we acted and it happened in front our eyes.
When people began telling our staff they wanted more community, more opportunities to connect, that they lacked a level surface for walking, a warm place to walk, we knew the Kingdom of God existed right here. We knew that our faith could help us fashion a response. And we looked for signs of the Spirit. We saw people from the church walking together, some even walking around the building and then reposing around tables and having coffee. Ann had an idea. Why not formalize this practice, invite people to come on a Wednesday morning for a walk and talk and offer refreshment when the walk was over. The vision came to life.
The early church in the Book of Acts grew for two reasons, according to Rodney Stark, first because it offered persons healing and love regardless of class, wealth, gender or ethnicity. These believers in Jesus, Jews and Gentiles, opened their homes and welcomed strangers who soon became family. And second the early church developed deep bonds with each other, calling each other sister and brother, so that members of the community cared for each other in good times and bad. It seems to me that as we see the pattern of emerging vision in the Book of Acts we can see our mirror reflection here at Bethany in the second reason the early church grew at such an amazing rate. There is a feeling of belonging here and visions and actions that reflect that spirit. What we may be growing into is more the first reason for early church growth, namely going out into the community to offer unconditional love in community, engaging strangers as potential family.
I pray for vision. I pray that we will encourage one another to have visions, to share visions and test these visions. With the power of knowing the Kingdom of God is here and the faith in new life that comes from resurrection we will see signs of the Spirit to lead us forward. And then we will act, we will try things, modify things, adjust things and then try again. We will not just dream, we will act. “What has happened is that in Jesus the Christ there is a power loose in the world which is power for them”, is power for us. And all God’s people said, “Amen!”