Homiletic Notes for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2011

Guía Diario de Escritura y Oración

 

First Christian Church of Jerusalem - A Model Church

As Luke tells it, life at First Christian Church of Jerusalem was most remarkable. The believers "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Here, in a nutshell, we find a description of an ideal Christian community, the model church. When we read on, it gets even better:

"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" (Acts 2:43-47).

Wonders and signs, harmony and generosity - this church did not need a week to pray for Christian unity; it was united. This church was also "successful" when it came to its mission. First Christian Church of Jerusalem was an urban church that grew from a gathering of 120 people to a congregation of more than three thousand members (Acts 1:15; 2:41). It had a staff of nineteen-twelve apostles plus seven deacons. "And the success of the church, as we soon discover, was that all of the believers (and not just these nineteen) were doing the work of the ministry (see Eph. 4:11-13)."[i] Everyone was filled with awe because of the many wonders and signs that were occurring in their midst. Within this church, everyone had enough because people shared generously with each other. Outside the church in the neighborhood, the congregation enjoyed "the goodwill of all the people" (Acts 2:47). Little wonder that we claim, "one in the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer" as the vision for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This is the church we want to be!

First Christian Church of Jerusalem - A Far Cry

Yet, First Christian Church of Jerusalem is a far cry from the church that so many Christians experience today. Rather than creating a sense of awe at the Spirit's activity, the "signs" that characterize many congregations and denominations - disharmony and discord, withholding material resources, often as a way of disagreeing, declining memberships and a diminishing presence in contexts where the church is needed most, including our cities - leave people both inside and outside the church wondering in disbelief. Denominational decisions and declarations deepen the divisions in Christ's Body and even fracture the fellowship within Christian traditions. Some congregations and denominations are so divided that praying for the unity of the whole church strikes them as a luxury, impossibility, wishful thinking, or a good idea whose time has passed. Our experience of church may leave us wondering whether First Christian Church of Jerusalem, at least as Luke describes it in Acts, is too perfect to be relevant or even believable.

Perhaps this is why Luke makes it clear that the Christian community born on Pentecost was both real and human. Luke's description of the idyllic communal life of the first believers is followed by the first report of conflict within the church (Acts 5:1-12). Two members, Ananias and Sapphira, deceitfully withheld a portion of their wealth, were accused by Peter of being filled with Satan rather than the Holy Spirit, and were struck dead, so that "great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things" (Acts 5:11). And internal conflict continued. Peter's ministry to Gentiles in Caesarea led the believers and apostles in Judea to criticize him for going to the uncircumcised and eating with them. The council at Jerusalem was convened after Paul and Barnabas "had no small dissension and debate" with believers from Judea who taught that people had to be circumcised in order to be saved. Away from Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas's disagreement over John Mark's participation in their ministry became so sharp that Paul and Barnabas parted company.[ii]

As does the church that we love and serve, the early Christian church had to face conflict and tension. Even as Acts celebrates the ideal of Christian unity, it does so taking most seriously the disagreements, conflict, and division that the early church-and, by implication, the church in every age-faces. In fact, biblical scholars and church historians see parallels between the divisions of the earliest Christian communities and those of our own time, including "struggles between churches over a diversity of traditions and struggles within an individual church over interpretations of the same tradition."[iii]

First Christian Church of Jerusalem - A Sign of the Spirit's Power

So did the apostolic church actually enjoy the unity and community described in Acts? Truth be told, the answer is unimportant. Luke's description is not a historical record, an example for us to follow, or a goal for us to achieve. Luke's description is a sign, assurance, and vision of the Holy Spirit's presence and power at work in the church. It is not an account of what the first Christians did as a community, but a testimony to what the Holy Spirit was doing within the Christian community. Luke's description is a confident declaration that the Holy Spirit is uniting the church. The Holy Spirit is creating Christian unity. The Holy Spirit is making us one. Trusting that the Holy Spirit is bringing the church together, forming the church into the one body of Christ, frees us not only to pray for Christian unity, but also to dare to live and serve as those whom the Spirit of Christ and his resurrection is making one. "Luke invites his readers not to cling foolishly to an ideal that may never be fully realized, but to be summoned by it…. Whoever stops dreaming (cf. 2:17) and striving to make dreams come true stops counting on the power of God's Spirit."[iv]

The first Christians could dare to dream and strive to make dreams come true because of their experience of the power of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and worked in and through them to speak so that those in Jerusalem heard the good news in his or her own language. The believers might have devoted themselves to their Pentecost experience, and focused on the past and how to experience something like that again. Instead, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). In the same way that Cleopas and his companion experienced the risen Christ when the Scriptures were opened and bread was broken (Luke 24:13-33), so the early church experienced the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking the bread and the prayers as ways the Spirit is working to unite the church and make Christians one. Confident that the Spirit continues to work in these ways to unite the church and make Christians one, we, like the first Christians, devote ourselves to these communal ways of being Christian.

The Apostles' Teaching

"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching." The first Christians devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching. In other words, their central concern was Jesus. They devoted themselves to the work, words and promises of Jesus. Jesus chose the apostles to remember, bear witness to, teach about, and keep alive the events and meaning of his ministry, particularly Jesus' death and resurrection. This responsibility is so central that, when the apostles chose a replacement for Judas, that person must "have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us--one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection" (Acts 1:21, 22). This was "a learning, studying church."[v] In the earliest days of its life, despite an experience as profound as the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost and the need to respond to a rapidly expanding faith community, the church was devoted to teaching and learning about Jesus. As the early church remembered and shared about Jesus, the believers experienced the presence of the risen Christ, and the power of the Spirit to unite the church not in one another, not in their ability to get along and agree, but in Christ.

Today, congregational concerns, social issues, global situations, life's questions, and decisions made by denominations sidetrack the church and threaten its unity as they demand our devotion and seek to reign as the cause or concern on which the church is centered and grounded. Following Jesus' own example, we learn that every issue needs to be addressed. To say otherwise is to conclude that there are areas of life where Jesus has no place. The early church reminds us that the Spirit works as we make Jesus and not any other issue our first priority and attempt to consider concerns from the perspective of Jesus' words, work, promises, life, death and resurrection. And since doctrines and positions were not set in stone when First Christian Church in Jerusalem began its life together, this congregation reminds us that the Spirit works as we converse, discern, and discover Jesus together more than when we lecture, declare, and define Jesus to each other. So confident are we of the Spirit's power to make the church one that we pit other issues and concerns into perspective and devote ourselves to the apostles' teaching about Jesus.

Fellowship

"They devoted themselves to fellowship." From a diverse assembly of people, "from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5), the Spirit formed a united body of believers. This "fellowship" was not a warm-hearted, humanly initiated, brotherly and sisterly kind of love. Fellowship was not based on emotions, or behaviors, or agreements on issues. In fact, anxious concern for holding a threatened group together led early Christianity to regard "what was most private in the individual, his or her most hidden feelings or motivations, those springs of action that remained impenetrable to the group, 'the thoughts of the heart,' . . . .as the source of tensions that threatened to cause fissures in the ideal solidarity of the religious community."[vi] Believing that the true heart was screened from human observation but totally public to the gaze of God and the angels, the church trusted the Holy Spirit to reveal the hidden things of the heart when that was important, and concerned itself with behavior rather than intention, with action rather than contemplation. So the first Christians devoted themselves to koinonia. They devoted themselves to what they held in common. What they had in common was resurrection faith, faith in Christ risen, whom, they were confident, could overcome all material, societal and religious barriers and differences. The fellowship created by the Spirit resulted in awesome "wonders and signs," including that the believers "had all things in common" (Acts 2:44). They sold their possessions and distributed them to all.
Confident in the Spirit's power to unite the church, we come together in fellowship based on what we hold in common - resurrection faith in Jesus Christ. As Paul says, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Philippians 4:8). We may keep some of the thoughts of our hearts to ourselves and trust the thoughts of others' hearts to God, so as not to hinder the Spirit's work of making the church one. Rather than a false unity, this is unity in Christ by the work of the Spirit, which understands the difference between what is central and what is not, between what changes and what does not, between the convictions of an individual and the proclamation of the church.

The Breaking of Bread

"They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread." Deep in our souls, we know the significance of eating together. Eating together creates or identifies relationship, and so eating together always involves inclusion and exclusion-some people are welcome at table and others are not. In this regard, the table fellowship of the earliest Christians was "worshipful" because all were included. In keeping with Jewish practice, the blessing over the meal made the table a holy place and eating together something sacred. "Eating together is a mark of unity, solidarity, and deep friendship, a visible sign that social barriers which once plagued these people have broken down."[vii]

The question of whether "the breaking of bread" refers to the Eucharist or Lord's Supper is a matter of scholarly debate. Nevertheless, Acts tells us that the believers daily spent much time together in the temple, and they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts" (Acts 2:46). This sounds like one understanding of the Eucharist-as an anticipation of the messianic banquet and foretaste of Jesus' promise that his followers would "eat and drink at my table in my kingdom" (Luke 22:30).

I am always saddened at ecumenical worship services during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity because, while we can open the Word and pray together, divisions prevent us from breaking the bread together. So, while we cannot come together at the communion table, perhaps we can trust the Spirit to break down barriers as we come together around tables in fellowship halls following worship and eat our food "with glad and generous hearts" (Acts 2:46). Just as the Eucharist is a foretaste of the messianic banquet, so these meals are a foretaste of that day when the church, united in Christ, gathers around his table to share the Lord's Supper. Confident in the Spirit's power to make the church one, we are devoted to breaking the bread that we can.

The Prayers

"They devoted themselves to the prayers." Confident in the power of the Spirit to make the church one, so do we. We pray for Christian unity. I sense that the earliest Christians knew their need of God, their utter dependence upon God, in ways that we have perhaps forgotten. I frequently hear prayers and worship that ask God to permit us ("May we . . . ") or to assist us ("Help us to . . . "). For example, I recently heard prayer petitions in which the response was, "God, help us to renew the face of the earth." God is our helper? Who's helping whom? We more honestly pray asking God to bring the unity of the church and the reconciliation of the world to Godself, because we know that we cannot. We can ask God to include us, to include the church, in God's own mission for the life of the world and stand ready to be God's answer to our prayers. We also pray naming the ways that we slow and obstruct the Spirit's work of uniting the church and we ask God to forgive us.

"To talk about the need for repentance and turning from our deadly ways is just another way of saying that the forces in our world that wish to destroy God's plan are still with us. Although for us, Jesus' death on the cross is the central manifestation of the reality that God is making all things new, evil still manages to find ways of trying to grind up the strange freedom and joy of God-often by working through us and our vested interests."[viii]

The Spirit Uniting the Church

Devoting ourselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42) sounds like what we do when we ecumenically gather to worship during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Rather than a luxury, impossibility, wishful thinking, or a good idea whose time has passed, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is one way that we proclaim our confidence in the power of the Spirit to make the church one. And so we devote ourselves to the ways that the Spirit is at work bringing Christian unity. We dare to dream and strive to make dreams come true. We are confident in the power of the Spirit of Christ to bring resurrection - the new life in which the church is one.

__________________________________

i. James Montgomery Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), p. 56.
ii. Acts 11:3; 15:1-35, 39.
iii. Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (New York, Paulist Press, 1979), pp. 162-163.
iv. David Schnassa Jacobsen and Günter Wasserberg, Preaching Luke-Acts (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), p. 86.
v. James Montgomery Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), p. 56.
vi. Paul Veyne, A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), Vol. 1, p. 254.
vii. William H. Willimon, Acts, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), p. 41.
viii. David Schnassa Jacobsen and Günter Wasserberg, Preaching Luke-Acts (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), pp. 89-90.


Rev. Dr Craig A. Satterlee is an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Dr. Satterlee is professor of homiletics at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and dean of the ACTS Doctor of Ministry in Preaching Program.

 

                                                                   Copyright © 2010 Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute