Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A - May 15, 2011 (Acts 2:42-47, John 10:1-10)

A few years ago when I first moved to Pittsburgh, before I was a husband and a father and knew how to do things like change a diaper in a grocery store bathroom, I was a member of a choir that met for supper and practice every other Friday night. Though they were informal occasions, they were fairly well-organized. Like many group endeavors, they operated on the principle that everyone should contribute in some way, either by bringing a dish or by cleaning up afterwards. I liked to volunteer for the clean-up part, but occasionally I volunteered to bring something low-maintenance, like the bread or the drinks.

One day I opened my email to discover—to my horror—that the responsibility for bringing the main dish had finally fallen to me. I thought to myself, “Don’t they realize I’m a bachelor? Are they really going to want to eat anything I make?” I know there are plenty of single people who are great cooks, but at the time I was more accustomed to eating my meals on the run in one-person servings—things like sandwiches and cans of Campbell’s Soup. Something that would pass as an entrĂ©e for a whole group of people was far beyond my ability to create.

But before my panic could get the best of me, I decided to contact the one person to whom I was closest who is adept at cooking for large groups of people—my grandmother in Walkertown, NC. She had a chicken casserole I figured I could replicate. It called for a cup of soup. I remember eating it many times on Sundays when my whole family would gather at her place after church. I probably drove her crazy asking about it, calling her three times in two days to make sure I had the ingredients and cooking instructions down pat. I finally gave it a whirl and took it to choir practice. It turned out OK, I suppose. They liked it, but it didn’t seem to taste as good as I remembered hers tasting. In any case, as she was reciting to me for the third time the order of ingredients over the phone, intermingled with words of encouragement she made mention of a principle of cooking that so many chefs and cooks and grandmothers already know, but that I was just learning: “The more you cook for,” she said, “the better it is.”

And it’s absolutely true. When you take a recipe and cut the portions down to serve on person the dish never ends up tasting as good as if you were to take that recipe and multiply it to feed a larger number.

In the infancy stages of the Christian faith, recorded in the second chapter of Acts of the Apostles, we find the recipe for the church—and we discover the same principle of my grandmother’s chicken casserole applies: the more it’s made for, the better it is. The faith of those who follow Jesus is not meant to be—is never meant to be—served up as an individual dish. No matter how you slice and dice it, it is a group activity, more “casserole” than it is “personal pan pizza.”

Day of Pentecost, icon
That is unmistakable as we read the accounts as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. What the grand story of Acts shows us, more than anything else, is that the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit bring into existence a community that is steadily pulled closer and closer together and at the same time spread outward, into the world. More and more people are added comprising an ever-growing diversity of languages and cultures, but the essence of the faith is always about togetherness. Those who hear the Shepherd’s voice and follow do it together and together they are offered for the life of the world.

The recipe, if I may call it that, is included, bare-bones, in our first reading this morning. Luke writes, “the baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 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. Five basic ingredients, and that’s it:

(1) receiving and hearing the apostles’ teachings; that is, gathering to listen to the stories that the apostles’ told about Jesus and his words;

(2) taking part in fellowship, which entails spending time together and getting to know one another.

(3) the breaking of bread,
church potluck

(4) prayers, which means celebrating Holy Communion and praying for each other. And, lastly,

(5) sharing things in common, including possessions and food, so that people may not go without.

Surely, you may say, the church is so much more than that nowadays, and is up to so much more! There are things like CARITAS and Vacation Bible School, the visiting of the sick and incarcerated. There are the car wash fundraisers and the youth retreats. Sunday School and choir practices. Christmas musicals and the stewardship campaigns…and what about keeping up the building, making sure the property is maintained? Can our common life really be boiled down to those basic five?

Is all the other stuff then superfluous? Or might these things be variations elaborations on these essentials—that is, the apostles’ teachings, fellowship, sacramental life, prayer, and communal redistribution of goods and property? My guess is for the latter, but it might be a good practice for the life of the church to continually set our ministries against this original recipe. For it is these five ingredients, given shape by our Lord’s resurrection and given power by the Holy Spirit, that form the basis of all the activity and vitality of Christ’s body on earth.

Dr. Martha Roy was woman in my internship congregation in Cairo, Egypt. When I was there she was about 89 years old and still played the pipe organ at worship every Sunday. She was an American, born in Egypt in the early 1900’s to a missionary family from the old United Presbyterian Church. Dr. Roy, as I called her, was an “old-school” Presbyterian who has spent the entirety of her life in service to the church in Egypt. The only time she lived stateside was when she was getting her college and graduate degrees. She served as a teacher and musician on several faculties in Egypt, and was a recipient of the highest honor ever awarded by the President of Egypt to a foreigner. Her unique life provided her the opportunity to worship in the churches of the Middle East and in the missionary congregations that were formed along the Nile. One of her brothers, in fact, became a missionary in Sudan, and as refugees from the Horn of Africa began pouring into Cairo in the last decade or two, Dr. Roy found herself in the position to participate in their religious communities, too. Her life’s masterpiece, perhaps, was the first-ever codified liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church. This two-thousand-year-old branch of Christianity never had a written-down form of its worship—neither words nor music—until Dr. Roy and her colleague Dr. Toth set themselves to it.

Dr. Martha Roy, center
When I’d sit with her to visit, it was like speaking with a living history book. She could talk for hours explaining how marvelously diverse she’d found the expressions of Christianity to be. But at some point she’d inevitably open her Bible to this very Acts passage and say, very ceremoniously, “Here is what it’s all based on, Phillip. No matter the diversity, these practices are everywhere, and Christians of every kind and color and history cherish them.”

I had maybe touched briefly on this during a lecture in a seminary class. She, on the other hand, had experienced it first-hand, over and over again. I was sad to learn that Dr. Roy died about two months ago 2 weeks shy of her 98th birthday.

Each of these ingredients, you see, is intended to bring us together and form us as a flock, to keep our hearts and hands and voices focused on what we share as a community. That was what Dr. Roy had glimpsed in so many different expressions of the church. In prayer, we share our wounds, our insecurities, our fears, as well as our dreams about the future. In worship we share our voices and our Lord’s peace. In service we share our talents and our skills, as well as our words of reconciliation and forgiveness with each other. In our offerings, we share our treasures with those around us. It’s a risky move, allowing ourselves to be formed by the breaking of bread and prayers and pooling of resources and hopes on such a regular basis. It can be risky…but it’s sacred.

The greatest danger is we can forget how counter-cultural these practices actually are, how unnatural it usually is to put ourselves in close relationship with so many others. We can lose sight of how transforming the Holy Spirit intends these practices to be, especially in a culture like ours that constantly exalts the value of individualism, relishing in voting people off the island and whittling panels of art contestants down to one.

We always run the danger—and, I, more than anyone else—of turning Christian faith into a head-trip, a grand chance for internal reflection. We transform the news of Jesus’ resurrection into something entirely personal, as if Jesus rose from the dead so that everyone may explore their own paths of spirituality and new life! Or we can fall into the trap of thinking that participation in a faith community is to get values that help us “get by in life.”

In Acts of the Apostles, nothing could be farther from the truth, and Jesus did not rise from the dead in order to help everyone achieve some form of individual enlightenment. Christian faith is ultimately about sharing over and against a world and a self-tendency that is about taking and gaining. And, thankfully, Luke does not fashion a completely rosy view of the early Church as they gather together in harmony with their glad and generous hearts. They don’t really “get by.” They struggle. Even as they celebrate amazing achievements, they get it wrong from time to time, and we know from our own experiences that the church can be a hurtful place where greed and selfishness play part.

I think that might be why this segment of Acts in one of my commentaries is entitled “the Community of the Uncommon Life.” It is really uncommon to live this way, to hold everything in common and to think of ourselves as bound together, irresolvably, because of a common bond in baptism. It really is uncommon to think that these five ingredients are all we need subsist on. And not just subsist…but live the abundant life.

No, the church is not about helping individuals get by in the world. It is not even about giving us values to succeed in life. The Christian faith is about transforming the world with the power of Christ’s resurrection. If it is about values at all, then it is about values that turn the world on its head, that bring the world in and love it up good, slop it with a generous helping of God’s grace, and send us all back out, hopeful and transfigured.

The church is chicken casserole, brothers and sisters, and the more we “cook” for, the more we break bread with, the more God gathers us out of our individual menus to graze with the flock—you guessed it—the better the news of the resurrection will be.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.