I have never taken any formal courses in Marriage Counseling, though I have read several books and attended a few workshops on the subject. One thing I do recall from both text and lecture is that in the early stages of the couple’s work it is important to ask what it was that originally kindled their romance, what it was that brought them together, how did they fall in love. The question does not assume that this couple can return to those early days, nor that the couple should try to go back in time. The reality is we all change and we are who we are and trying to go back to some cherished time or event is only a frustrating and fruitless quest.
But reminding the couple of what brought them together can unearth some of the joy they once found in each other and with any luck that joy may still be there. The trick is to dig deep down and see if the original excitement and passion that once drew them together is still there.
Of course this process “unearthing” is not only true of personal feelings and relationships, it is also true when it comes to institutions. Some will recall that in South Africa a movement called the African National Congress fought to end apartheid so that persons of colour would once and for all live as equals in South Africa. The struggle was long and painful but ultimately we know that apartheid came to an end and Nelson Mandela of the ANC was elected the first post-apartheid President. Many years have passed since those early days and the ANC still governs South Africa. But almost everyone who follows the news of South Africa would agree that the ANC has in some fashion lost its way.
Critics of the ANC suggest a good first step for the ANC to find its footing would be to remind itself why it became a movement in the first place. Again, there is no expectation that the ANC could or should try to go back in time. The country has changed, the needs of the people have changed, and the process of politics and the economy in South Africa has changed. But perhaps by reminding itself of its founding and early days the African National Congress will find resolve to focus on certain goals and shake off the barnacles of corruption that have recently been its undoing.
The church today in the western hemisphere finds itself in decline. Some point to days when the church stood astride the world like a Colossus and are nostalgic for their return. But short of a court order the churches will not fill up again based on a nostalgic fantasy. People today need a reason to give the church a look, to come inside and see what is going on. And so many other people have pointed to the early Church, the church that emerged soon after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and wondered if there are clues there to rekindle our relationship with God, for the church to find its purpose again. Perhaps if today’s church knew how the early church first came together, how it first worshipped, we might renew our own experience of the Divine and become a witness to others who share our hunger for a spiritual life.
Let me say something at the beginning that you may think is obvious but I have learned over these 27 years of Ordained Ministry is a myth that remains strong in the church, and that is this; the church we read about in the Book of Acts did not sing The Old Rugged Cross, did not read the King James Version of the Bible, did not have pews, did not have a choir or even a Minister with a gown, did not worship for exactly one hour (and not a second more), and did not have stained glass windows. Again, you would be surprised how many people don’t know this.
Instead, when the early believers first started to gather together they came as Jew and gentile, former slave and rich elite, women and men, refugee and person who had never left their community. They came together because they loved Jesus, they took strength from his stories and wisdom, they believed he was God’s incarnation, and they believed that his resurrection proved that God’s intentions could never be stopped. And so they came together to form community, to reach out to the larger community and to worship.
And how did they worship together? To prepare for worship many Christians fasted on Wednesday and Friday. Repentance was an involved process in the early church. Sin was seen not as a personal matter but as something that destroyed the unity of the church. In the first century, the Lord’s Supper included not only the bread and the cup but an entire meal. As part of the meal, neighbours who had quarreled made peace again. When worship was ended, Christians took home the consecrated bread so that those who couldn’t attend worship could partake of the Lord’s Supper.
Biblical commentator and preacher Rev. Bryan Findlayson writes, “Community in the early church was expressed in a number of ways. First, they fellowshipped together; they were a community of friends. Second, they shared in the breaking of bread. This is most likely the Lord's Supper, but it could just be a fellowship meal shared by the congregation. Often, the disciples shared a meal with Jesus after he took bread, broke it and blessed it. If it is the Lord's Supper, then the breaking is referring to Jesus' body broken for us. Third, they devoted themselves to prayer. We know that the members of the early church attended public worship at the temple and joined in prayer during their house meetings.”
So what does that say to us at Bethany United Church in Halifax? Just because someone did something at a particular point in time doesn't mean we have to follow suit for the rest of eternity. None-the-less our scripture text this morning gives us an insight into the life of the early church following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and so it serves as a model for a Spirit-filled church today.
Here are some possible lessons we can take from the early church.
1) The people "received the gift of the Holy Spirit." How do we “receive” the gift of the Spirit here? Do we truly appreciate the gifts God gives us, the gifts we receive from one another? How often do we acknowledge in our conversations the gifts God gives us, the gifts we offer one another?
2) The church was built-up through the authoritative teaching of the apostles. How many of us are engaged in reading the wisdom of the Bible, the teachings of Jesus? Besides the discipline of reading a portion of the Bible every day https://biblesociety.ca/form/daily-bible-reading-2017-english there are countless books of theology we can read. I would be delighted to recommend a text that feeds the particular hunger you bring for the Spirit.
3) The church emphasized fellowship. The love feast was a fellowship meal which probably included the Lord's Supper. If you belong to a group at the church consider sharing a meal together. When Jesus said to remember him in the breaking of the bread he wasn’t only talking about a sacred and liturgical ritual, he was also referring to community. The more we at Bethany can share a meal together, in small or large groups, the more we will experience the power of the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ presence in particular.
4) The church was a caring community. We do a good job here at Bethany at staying in touch but we can always improve. In the old days of the United Church the Session’s Elders had districts whom they faithfully visited or called to stay in touch with all parts of the church family. In our current church governance the Session no longer has districts or visits/phones members so what changes might we consider to address this?
5) The church was a joyous community. There is nothing more attractive to an outsider than a friendly, happy, welcoming church. We have a few persons in this church who take it on themselves to actively greet new people. We could use more. We could also learn from our evangelical sisters and brothers to worship in a more joyous fashion. And finally, we can all do a better job at telling the community why we worship here and what the benefits of this community could be for them.
6) The church was a praying community. They devoted themselves to prayer. They sought the will of God and prayerfully relied on it. There is nothing more pastoral, more generous and more meaningful than telling someone you are holding them in prayer. It means so much for someone to know someone else is holding her/him in prayer. We need to say and do this more.
That is how the early church worshipped, they lived together in community, they ate together and they prayed together. And we can too. Thanks be to God. Amen.