A fellowship of generosity and joy
Texts: Acts 2:42-47 and John 10:1-10
In the last few months we have witnessed many of our world’s leaders attempting to shepherd their people. Like any good shepherd they see a threat and try to keep the sheep away from it. Unlike a hungry wolf or a lion, this pandemic is an invisible threat making it an extremely difficult task for shepherds.
Some shepherds have been empathetic, some have been strong, some have been both, and some have been neither. Beyond national leaders there have been local shepherds, trying to be shepherds for small towns, for the employees of companies, for schools and churches, and even shepherding children at home. At all these levels the shepherds who impact our lives have many good intentions, but also have human failings; there is no perfect human shepherd.
Sheep are not easy to lead either. There are always some that go astray. Yet, sheep are smarter than we think. While sheep in our culture are often considered simple animals who blindly follow, it is actually the domesticated turkeys who show the least intelligence. In her article for the BBC, Harriet Constable explains, “Sheep are actually surprisingly intelligent, with impressive memory and recognition skills. They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter.”
Our scripture from Acts prompts me to think about how the people of the early church, the disciples and the followers of Jesus, are now sheep without a shepherd. They have to figure out how to live out Jesus’s teachings, and to form a new community of faith based on this new knowledge that Jesus died and rose again. What does it mean to live with this hope in their lives, this wonderful new reality that God has redeemed them all and conquered even death? How will they live now, knowing what they know about who Jesus is and what he accomplished?
This new shepherd-less group of Christ followers have focused on four things: the apostle’s teachings, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer.
In Acts we learn the community would share all things and they would sell what they had and distribute the money to those in need. They spent time in the temple with one another and they ate together with generous hearts, praising God and having goodwill. And their numbers grew as they lived into this community. It appears they learned a lot from the Good Shepherd, as they seem to have the basics figured out at least.
We know this idyllic scene did not last forever. Even by chapter five it is quite evident that human greed and sin remain present even in this group of believers. Sheep are still going astray. That doesn’t mean they got it wrong; it does mean that it remains for us to strive toward the generous, loving community that is highlighted in Acts 2. Knowing that human sin will get in the way of this work need not stop our attempts.
So what are these things that they are doing? First, they are learning from the apostles. They know that they do not know everything yet, so they continue to learn. They are eager to hear about what Jesus taught and did on earth.
Second, as they learn together, they create the kind of community that Jesus modeled. They are discovering what it means to live together in fellowship–and by fellowship, I don’t just mean a church coffee hour with delicious baked goods, as great as that is and as much as we have missed it in our time of quarantine!
Koinonia is the Greek word for fellowship, and is marked by sharing in generosity, in suffering, and in grace. Koinonia is what connects us to God and to others in Christ. It is sharing with one another our possessions, our sufferings, our rejoicing, and life together. Fellowship is a central part of belonging in the Acts community.
Third, as part of their fellowship, they share meals and the Lord’s Supper. Eating together is a sharing of resources, it is a demonstration of hospitality, it is welcoming people, and listening to one another. They open their homes, they bring people to the table, they accept one another. Our text presents this kind of fellowship as a way of living in the world with generosity and joy.
What I find very interesting is that this section of Acts makes no mention of evangelism. There are plenty of other places in the New Testament that reference evangelization, but here it is noteworthy that, without any mention of trying to evangelize, their numbers are being added to daily: “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Was this growth due to all the miracles of the apostles? Was it the clean living of this group? Was it their generous spirits and communal life? I think all these things played a part, but what I believe was really behind this rapidly growing group of believers was the Holy Spirit at work. The Holy Spirit was bringing people to them, and they were able to show people what it really meant to be a believer and to follow Christ with one’s whole life as part of the community.
The fourth thing mentioned is the one that we can do the most right now, even with “social distancing,” namely they spent time praying. Prayer is not just talking or reciting, reading a list of praises or concerns. It is a place of discovery and intrigue. It is a time of being present with God in a way that allows God to change us.
Dr. Leslie Hollon, a Baptist pastor, says this about prayer: “Praying beyond where we are today positions us to where God can take us tomorrow.” This sentiment really resonates with me. We hope one day there will be a vaccine. We know that one day we will meet again together physically in church, one day we will not need masks or need to worry about walking too close to people on the sidewalk. Students and teachers will be back at schools. We will return to normal again someday.
But how will this experience we are currently going through have changed us? And I mean more than having shaggy hair and beards. How will this experience change us personally and as a community?
We will not be the same. This year, 2020, will be a collective memory of our generations. We will remember the difficulties and tell stories of what it was like for our families, for our loved ones, for the people we lost, and the people who nursed the sick, for those who lost incomes and had to abandon dreams. We will share and tell these stories to one another and to our children’s children.
How will you let God change you through this? The way to find out is through prayer. Spending time with the Good Shepherd, whether you pray out loud or silently or journal or pray while reading scripture or pray while out on a walk. Allow God to open up new parts of your heart and discover the gift of the Holy Spirit in your midst.
Go for a walk and pray for your neighbors as you pass their homes. Pray for the kid on the bike, pray for the houses you can see through your window. Pray for the ambulance you see pulling up across the street. Pray for the people who are struggling each day, the people who are fearful, the people who feel like they have no control. The more you pray the more your heart grows in compassion, you are set free to love others even in their failings and hurts.
We are praying for today, but we are being changed for tomorrow. We will one day meet again in person, but we will not be the same people. We will not take prayer meetings and small groups and coffee hours for granted. They will feel like gifts for our hungry souls. We will not care if the kids are too loud in the sanctuary, because we will be so happy to see them all together again. We will marvel at the sound of live music and voices singing together, the choir belting out in song. This will all seem so familiar and so different because we will have changed. Our change will be God’s gift to us, God’s gift of newfound compassion, gratitude, community, and grace for one another. We will hopefully emerge more Christ-like and more like the early church. “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.”
Until that time, when we can be together again, we will do our best to bless one another, to share what we have, and to have generous hearts.