The Chicken, the Egg, and the Church
Acts 2:42-47 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ May 3, 2020
Two police officers were making their rounds when they came across a car. The car was an average, everyday sedan…nothing out of the ordinary. The bumper was displaying the ancient Christian symbol of the fish. Again…nothing out of the ordinary. But what did receive the officers’ attention was the behaviour of the driver. He was driving erratically, yelling at the car in front of him, and acting rather aggressively. So, they turned their lights on and pulled the car over. The officer carefully approached the vehicle, asked “license and registration, please”, and returned to her police cruiser. Once she verified that all was in order, she returned. “I’m sorry sir. You were driving so aggressively and acting in a threatening manner towards the other vehicle, we noticed the Jesus fish on your bumper, so we thought certainly this was a stolen car. Please drive a little more cautiously. And, see you Sunday at church”.
Now that ‘little joke’ is quite a broad generalization of how Christians should behave. And I suspect that, though we might try, none of us are the angelic drivers that Jesus desires us to be. We try to follow his ‘Way’, yet the path is difficult. Certainly, the challenges are immense in living Jesus’ Way, rather than following the way of the world. The gospel way is about living a countercultural way, different from the culture in which we live and breathe. And sometimes the markings on our bumpers don’t, necessarily, match the way we operate the controls. Sometimes the cross we wear around our neck does not match the expression of faith we offer during our day-in and day-out living. And sometimes, the cross that is erected above our churches can tarnish or even fall off, and we lose sight of the mission and ministry we are called to. And, as a result, we need guideposts to lead us; we need a compass to get us back on track; we need ways to ensure that we are walking the journey of life and light and faith which Christ calls us. I think this is exactly what this morning’s text offers. This text is a guidepost; it is a compass; it helps to ensure that we are pointed in the right direction.
This morning’s text follows one of the most influential sermons ever preached. Go back and read it. It would be a sermon that would make evangelists like Billy Graham and Joel Osteen green with envy. Peter, one of the apostles, offers an incredible address to the crowds. It is so incredible, in fact, that 3,000 people came forward and were added as followers of Jesus. The natural tendency for a church is to look at this text and wonder how we can adapt this into our context and grow by the thousands as well. Is this text offering a recipe for church growth? Or is something different being offered? Follow the prescription and grow and be successful? This is how the later part of Acts 2 has been viewed, at times. What, I think, we are uncovering is a ‘chicken and egg’ challenge to us in being the church. What, I think, we are finding is that there will never be a simple formula for church growth. Rather what we uncover is the natural expression of a deep, rich faith of the early Christians resulted in growth ~ growth both internally in the people and also in their numbers. What we find in the text is a recipe to living the Christian life ~ to living the heavenly party in the here and now ~ which naturally draws people to personally and to grow communally. So, let’s talk chickens, eggs and living the Christian life.
The text puts forth four dimensions towards living of the Christian life: a devotion to the Apostle’s teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. Notice that the word “devotion” is used in the description. Devotion contains an element of deep commitment and determination; however, devotion goes even beyond this level. Devotion contains that unique, emotive element of love. One is devoted to their beloved…one is devoted to their children, to their grandchildren, to their spouse, and so on. And so, as we examine the four dimensions of living the Christian life, we first note the loving commitment, the care and the energy that is called upon towards this pursuit. To be sure, there is no such thing as a ‘luke-warm’ Christian. In poker terms, it is an “all in” call, where we are called to devote our lives to the way of Christ. Now, certainly, we will stumble, we will go astray, as we do with all of our other relationships, but the commitment…the focus…is one of devoted love.
So, let’s put the Jesus fish on our bumper and shift things into first gear. The first element of the Christian life is the devotion to the apostles’ teaching. This devotion is call to ground our story in the story of the faith of our ancestors. Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian from the 20th Century spoke about the importance to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Grounding our lives in the Apostle’s teaching is a challenge to realize how the dusty old stories of the past are actually vibrant, living teachings there to inform us in present. This was one of the deep challenges that the Reformers of the 16th Century called upon the church. Are we able to use our faith story as a lens which guides our living, loving and serving? Now, Jesus never drove a car…they weren’t invented yet, so the opening joke doesn’t have any immediate application. However, when we consider the teachings of Jesus, we can bring them into modern day and they can be a lens and guide for our journey.
Shifting the car into second gear, the second element of the Christian life centres upon fellowship. Fellowship may include friendship, but it isn’t necessarily limited by that term. Fellowship contains the foundational essence of hospitality. Coming from the first dimension of the Christian life, as we live out the Apostle’s teaching, it necessarily contains the hospitality that we see throughout the entire Biblical witness. Actions of hospitality shown to the stranger, shown to the new acquaintance, shown to a long-time friend is the essence of fellowship that we are being called into here. A stranger will never want to join; a visitor will never want to affiliate; but when we adopt an attitude of fellowship, we create a party that is akin to God’s Kingdom breaking into the world! When we live lives of fellowship, we create a party where Jesus’ Spirit is truly present. I think it’s important to bring in the ‘chicken and egg’ metaphor here because people will spot authenticity a mile away. We are not called to foster an attitude of fellowship, in order for growth to occur. One theologian starkly referred to this approach as “vampire theology” ~ visitors can sense when churches are desperate and out ‘for new blood’. Fellowship, that has gospel integrity, is about deep welcome….the kind of welcome that Jesus offered to others. It is the longing to welcome the stranger, the lost sheep, the lost son. This is being shown in new and amazing ways amidst our Covid 19 pandemic. People are helping neighbours in need in ways never before. People are noticing what it is like to be in isolation and how we need community, how we need fellowship, more than we ever realized it before. God made Adam, but didn’t stop there…God made a partner for Adam. We need community, opportunities to come together, and as we do so, when two or three are gathered, we find that Christ is there among us.
This leads us to third gear as we transition into the call to “the breaking of bread”. We are gaining momentum as this element flows from our discussion on fellowship. Yet the breaking of bread also contains some unique distinctions of its own. The breaking of bread is reminiscent of gathering for Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper, which we do this morning. For the early church, and for churches that emerged thereafter, this was a symbolic gathering that contained both elements of celebration as well as lament. There is a deep sadness that is re-enacted in the last supper, recalling the last night, recalling the essence of sacrifice and suffering that was in the air. Yet…there was also a strong dimension of celebration in the air as well. The communion was an indication of the breaking in of God’s Kingdom through Christ. It was a symbol of this massive table where Jesus welcomed all ~ the lost and the found, the hungry and the filled…all gathered ~ together. The call to the breaking of the bread was this challenge to hold in tension the polar faith opposites of suffering and joy, of sacrifice and fulfillment, of brokenness and unity…all culminating in this simple, yet profound moment when bread is broken and wine is shared and Jesus is present. You will recall that, when we gather in person, we take communion Sundays as an opportunity to encourage people to bring a few items from their pantry to stock-up our Food Pantry Ministry which serves many folks in need who come in through the week. That was the nature of the love feast that was shared by the early Christians who gathered. All would gather…all would be welcomed at the table…all would feast. Some would be in need at home, and take some supplies home to get them through; others would not. All would celebrate…All would come to the party for “the breaking of bread!”
Finally, we shift into the fourth dimension of Christian living: “devotion to the prayers”. Scholars posit that there was most likely a certain set of prayers that the early Christians recited, hence the reference to “the prayers”. Perhaps it was the Lord’s Prayer, or praying the Psalms or some other form of prayer that is lost in the sands of time? We will never know. Now, certainly, there is no ‘right’ way to pray, yet there is a reminder here of the importance in having a devotion to one’s practice prayer. How do you pray? How do you listen to God? How do you speak to God? Is your practice fresh and life-giving or has it grown stale? Liturgy professor, James White, notes how prayer can be separated into five different forms: praise, thanksgiving, confession, petitions containing our personal prayers, and lastly intercessory prayers for others. He suggests that the most difficult prayer to offer is praise. It is easy to give thanks for blessings, to confess those areas we have gone astray, to offer our personal petitions and our intercessory prayers for others. But to acknowledge the tremendous outpouring of God’s grace unto us, to be touched by God’s love directed towards us, to begin to take in God’s life poured out in Jesus for us…well that risks changing us forever. To do so causes us to pour out and share that life with everyone. A devotion to “the prayers” is something that changes us…it changes us into the church…it shapes us into God’s people…it corrects our course towards Jesus’ Way.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”…and so the church grew in them, and through them, (and sometimes even) in spite of them. May we be the Easter people called ‘the church’.