The Overlooked Miracle
Fourth Sunday of Easter
from the book
CALLED TO JERUSALEM: SENT TO THE WORLD
Sermons For Lent And Easter
THEODORE F. SCHNEIDER
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
I. Pentecost's Greatest Miracle
What do you think? Which of the several miracles of Pentecost was the greatest?
Was it the sound of a mighty rushing wind? Was it the tongues of fire? Was it that the apostles "were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4)?" Or, was it - in an apparent reversal of God's act at the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:9) - that the bewildered multitude was wondering "how is it that we all hear, each of us in his own native language (Acts 2:8)?" Which of these was Pentecost's greatest miracle?
Perhaps it was none of these. Perhaps the greatest miracle was Peter's sermon. It was addressed not to the "amazed and wondering" proselyte pilgrims, but rather to the "Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem (Acts 2:14)." Some of these, no doubt, had been participants in the proceedings of Good Friday. Others must surely have been standing by, silently consenting. This makes the conversion of 3,000 souls that day something more than a minor miracle. It was turning enemies into believers! Isn't it so?
So, what shall we say? Which was this day's greatest miracle? I believe the day's greatest miracle is one largely overlooked - almost hidden - in Acts 2:42-47, a text that first appears to be more of a commentary on the other events and their effectiveness than an ongoing revelation.
II. The Overlooked Miracle
Towering over the mighty winds, the tongues of fire, the multi-lingual and inclusive preaching among the proselyte pilgrims, Peter's sermon to the Jews and the 3,000 souls converted from enemies to believers is this last miracle: The people did not go home when the fireworks were over.
In our day, when folks expect a 59-minute liturgy, one might have expected the story to have been over after the conversion of the 3,000 souls. To the casual reader this is the end of the story. So William H. Willimon has observed: "Contemporary religious life is plagued by momentary enthusiasm, periodic outbursts and superficiality. In fact, in contemporary parlance, enthusiastic (literally: filled with God) is a virtual synonym for a short-term high that does not take root in long-term commitment.... The claim that 'there were added that day about 3,000 souls' moves us little, even though Luke intends to impress. We have seen these revivals and outbursts of piety come and go."1
Luke, however, insists that we witness and understand the importance of the Spirit's immediate embodiment of the Pentecost enthusiasm in the committed community of believers. Pentecost wasn't over when it was over. The people did not scatter after church at noonday. It was not back to the same old thing.
They became a new people, a new family, a committed band of new disciples. They were first converted by the Spirit and then called by the Spirit into a functioning community called the "church," the "ecciesia," the people whom God has called out and set apart for the purposes of the gospel (1 Peter 2:9)." On Pentecost there begins a pattern of the Spirit's work which Martin Luther summed up in five powerful verbs: "The Holy Spirit ... calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus
Christ in the one true faith."2
This miracle of calling individuals first into faith and then into community is a miracle of special significance and importance. It is the crucial conclusion to that Pentecost day. Otherwise, the church would fall victim to the second of the devil's temptations of its Lord - working miracles only for the amazement, comfort and convenience of the people, but not for their conversion into discipleship and not for their partnership with God in the work of reconciliation.
How often we need to be reminded that the salvation of God's people has come at a costly price (John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 6:20, 7:23), and for a specific purpose (1 Peter 2:9b, Matthew 28:18-20)! God's miracles are seldom ends in themselves. They are intended to be powerful beginnings.
It is for us to look carefully into this powerful experience of Christian community that the Spirit called into being. This was a community in which the Pentecost event continued to bear fruit. The theme of the last miracle of Pentecost is not unlike the rhythm of a popular song: "The beat goes on." Almost, one can feel that ongoing pulsation.
Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:46-47).
Note this carefully. Folks were not just saved. They were added to their number. That is to say, they were being added to the community, the church, the "ecclesia," those whom God has called out and set apart. We learn from today's text that this community gave itself to four things: teaching (and preaching), fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer (Acts 2:42).
III. Called Into Community
Before we are able to appreciate fully the depth and breadth of these four acts with which the early Christians busied themselves, we must pause for a moment to look at this whole matter of Christian community.
Building and maintaining the health of such a community of disciples and priests have never been easy, as the New Testament soundly attests. Even in worship and the celebration of the Eucharist itself, there were those times when the sense of community was lost absolutely, to the harm of the whole church (1 Corinthians 11:20-34).
Status within the community and competition for spiritual gifts were problems within the community, too. Paul returns to these concerns repeatedly in his letters to the congregations of this first century pastorate. Over and again he refers to the church as the body of Christ, drawing careful parallels with the role of each Christian as an important part of that body. The health of the body, as in life itself, depends upon the full function of all of its individual parts. In one way and still another, Paul repeatedly called the faithful to "build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:1-12)."
Living in community requires something more than belonging, more than maintaining our status as card-carrying members. Luke's words are precise: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."
The key words: "They devoted themselves." A community - then and now - is built upon shared values and goals, and upon a mutual acceptance among all who belong of the responsibility for those tending these community beliefs, values and goals. So thorough was their sense of community in the days after Pentecost that the believers did virtually everything together. They even sold their goods and shared them among those of the community who had need.
We should note that not every New Testament community held goods and wealth in common - though this first community did. Nonetheless, there seems always to have been a profound and moving hunger to share with others in need, even by those who themselves had very little, as Paul's story of the Macedonian Christians clearly affirms (2 Corinthians 8:1-7).
The church in our day has great trouble, too, in this matter of community. Few appear to understand that the Spirit calls us not alone to believe, but also to belong. While recent polls indicate that 96 percent of all American adults claim to believe in God (in one or another expression of tradition), just over half of all adults are church members (even though four of every five say that church membership is important).3
Even among those who claim church membership and participate with some reasonable regularity - some polls suggest that one-third of a congregation's members attend on any one Sunday - we would be hard pressed to say that there are many about whom it could be written: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."
We are believers, but clearly we are not belongers. Seven of the nation's nine largest denominations have experienced a decline in membership between 1980 and 1990, and some dramatically so.4 Surely it is not because there are too few churches. We have approximately 348,000 congregations, Protestant and Catholic - in the United States - or "one Protestant church for every 550 adults - a better ratio of adults per franchise (if you'll pardon the analogy) than McDonalds, Sears, Domino's Pizza or even the U.S. Post Office can boast."5
It should come as no surprise that in our day commitment and community building struggle against hostile trends.
Ours is a consumer-oriented culture that joins less and less. We are affluent enough - even in times of recession - to buy what we need when we need it. Convenience stores and home delivery of fast foods, both with premium prices, flourish because they save us time. We believe we have more money than time, or at least, that our money is less valuable than our time.
Time, not money, is quickly becoming the new coin of the realm.6 Self-sacrifice, commitment and loyalty are being replaced with personal interests, personal goals, self-advancement and self-preservation. Commitment threatens our control of our time. Commitment limits our ability to change our minds on the spur of the moment to focus upon self-gratification rather than helping others.
Many have become almost narcissistic, concentrating on their own needs, their own careers and their own desires to the virtual exclusion of family, friends, spouse, children and/or significant others. Increasingly "people willingly make commitments only when the expected outcome exceeds what they must sacrifice as a result of that commitment."7 The Christian ethic of "losing one's life to find it (Matthew 10:39)" and striving with all of our energy to save someone else (Colossians 1:29) sounds neither reasonable nor functional to people today. Worse still, all indications are that it will seem less so tomorrow.
All of this is to say that our contemporaries understand little and value even less the importance of the Spirit's call beyond belief and into responsive and responsible community as an expression of the church, the visible and serving body of Christ.
Nonetheless, Christian community is not an option for believers. It is a mandate, just as it was on Pentecost. It is the logical result of conversion. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has written:
Christians "must not think only of heaven; they have an earthly task as well. Now that they are bound exclusively to Jesus, they are told to look at the earth, whose salt they are."8 We are bought for a price ... and for a purpose.
IV. The Life In Community
Life together in the Christian community was described by four basic characteristics "that must be present in the church of every age."9 To these the believers devoted themselves. That is to say, they gave their whole attention to them.
1. Teaching - The Greek word is Didache. Young in faith, the believers in this first Jerusalem community devoted themselves - rooted themselves soundly - in the teaching of the apostles. This teaching not only included the sayings, parables and teachings of Jesus for which the apostles had been eye witnesses. This teaching must have included as well the "Christobogical interpretations of the Old Testament found in Acts."10 It included as well the fresh and new interpretations of the gospel that necessarily arose as the church confronted the challenge of the gospel in each new setting and opportunity. It was, finally, not a static gospel, but a vibrant and living one taught by the apostles and celebrated in the church.
A word must be mentioned about preaching, the "kerygma" of the early church. Peter's sermon, already mentioned, is a splendid example. Without overdrawing the differences, apostolic teaching was the work of the apostles within the community of the baptized believers. Preaching was the proclamation of the gospel outside the community of believers - the fulfillment of the community's mission in the world.
That first Christian community gave its attention wholly to the teaching and preaching of the apostles. In solid Hebrew tradition, there was a hunger to know God's word. One is reminded of Reb Tevyev in Fiddler on the Roof. Happily he sings of all the things he would do if he were a rich man, coming finally to this last full stanza of his song:
If I were rich I'd have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray,
And maybe have a seat by the eastern wall.
And I'd discuss the Holy Books with the learned men
Seven hours every day,
That would be the sweetest thing of all.
"The sweetest thing of all!" Would there were such a hunger in our contemporary Christian community. Today it is reported that 57 percent of adult Americans do not claim to read the Bible at all "during a typical week."2 Not surprisingly, 58 percent of those interviewed did not know who preached the Sermon on the Mount.13
2. Fellowship - The Greek word is Koinonia, a word not infrequently heard among some Christian groups and congregations. Still more frequently used - perhaps overused and certainly poorly understood - is the word "fellowship." In contemporary congregations it has more to do with social occasions, couples' groups and coffee cups. It has become the catchword for arranged conviviality. Events are conceived and intended to initiate brotherly and sisterly love among the members of a congregation. This is not to say these are not laudable efforts. Surely they are worthwhile antidotes to the loneliness so many experience in our day. Nonetheless, these do not approach the depth of the meaning of the word "Koinonia" in the New Testament, the fellowship with the apostles and one another of which Acts 2:42 speaks.
The "Koinonia" of that Pentecost community was a fellowship built upon and around "all who believed together." Their closeness grew as they experienced the bonding that came because of shared beliefs, shared goals and purposes and shared responsibility for the mission of the community. It was fellowship founded in the communion chalice rather than the coffee cup. "Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ."14
They shared their goods, they shared their food, they shared their trips to the temple, they shared their prayers and praise, and they "broke bread together," experiencing together the presence of the risen Lord of the church. They shared all things. This fellowship formed the experience of the unity of the church, a oneness that witnessed to the one Lord. There is simply no "Koinonia" without sharing of material goods.15
Responsible stewardship is an expression of the "Koinonia" of the Christian community. So too is spontaneous "fellowship," which is rooted in the joy, trust, excitement and challenge of the community's common goals, effort and ownership of the mission of the gospel. Such people quite naturally have the "fellowship" of mutual affirmation, affection and appreciation. They play and serve simultaneously. "The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer."16
Our contemporary failure to understand and appropriate the purposeful and "kingdom oriented" Koinonia of the New Testament community is rather shocking.
As one views modern congregations, many with their hectic round of activities - yoga, ceramics, basket weaving, day care - one suspects that socialization is being substituted for the gospel, warm-hearted busyness is being offered in lieu of spirit-empowered community.17
It was not all that long ago that a congregation offered wine tasting, bicycle repair and even hair braiding among the course offerings of their adult vacation Bible school! Such things seem a long way from the New Testament image of a faith community "devoted ... to the apostles' teaching and fellowship." Perhaps the church in our day needs again to be reminded of the "one thing that is needful" from Jesus' counsel to Martha in Luke 10:42!
3. Breaking of bread - One does not look for a fully developed eucharistic theology in these first days of the Pentecost community, but it becomes clear that "breaking bread together" was something more than a fast food lunch. It has the sound of an intentional ceremony, as does the phrase "they partook of food gladly." Always in Hebrew tradition a meal was a remembrance of God's providential grace and bounty. Every meal was opened by the father of the household with a table blessing. So, every meal was intentionally an occasion of religious significance.
To this the Christian community added the experience of the risen Lord. So often the apostles had "sat at table with their Lord." It was at such a table, in the breaking of bread, that the disciples at Emmaus recognized the risen Lord. For this community, "every meal was a joyful remembrance of the meals with Jesus before and after Easter."18 It was as lowly as their everyday lives, and as lofty as their fullest vision of eternity itself. In trust, in hope and in prayer they "broke bread."
4. Prayer - the prayers of this Pentecost community were their conversations with God, grounded in the Spirit's promptings (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6) which brought new insights of joy and new expressions of praise. These prayers were personal, corporate in the worshiping community and public in their regular trips to the temple. Looking ahead to the new revelations of the Spirit, they nonetheless continued in their traditions and in their Hebrew heritage. They did not cease to be devoutly Jewish. The risen Lord was best comprehended in the promises of the Old Testament. He was the promised Messiah. Again, this was a community, empowered by the Spirit, that readily devoted itself to prayer, privately, corporately and publicly.
In the midst of this community that gave itself wholly over to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer, there was great awe. God did mighty wonders and signs in their midst, and the "Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."
V. The Needed Miracle
How urgently and desperately we need to renew our understanding of the nature and necessity of the Spirit's calling, gathering, enlightening, sanctifying and preserving us in the body of Christ, the Christian community of believers who give themselves to the scriptures, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Less and less do our contemporaries appreciate the need for community. The forces turning us inward grow more powerful every day. As time becomes the coin of barter, people will sooner give a token gift than give to the church their time. Only among the converted and committed will there be time given and pledges of support offered. This means that we can expect the inactive to become still more so. There will be still more who send a regular gift but attend no duty, openly share no goals or excitement, and accept no accountability for the business of the faith community. Televangelists have long demonstrated their ability to raise millions of dollars from "armchair" Christians who buy off guilt without personal involvement and feel righteous and justified without giving up a Sunday morning, or an evening for a committee meeting or choir rehearsal. Even when finally "carried away by the Spirit!" in a heartfelt shout of "Hallelujah! Praise Jesus!" and "Amen!" no one ever hears them. They are alone in their living rooms! They share no good news. They march in no parades. They wave no banners. They teach no classes. They witness to no non-believer. They encourage no fellow pilgrims in faith. They remain alone in their living rooms, isolated from all expression of Christian community.
Even within the membership of our congregations, there are few for whom it can be said they devote themselves to the things of the faith community and the gospel. There is a need again for this last - and grandest - of the Pentecost miracles.
The priesthood of all believers is not a doctrine of private access. It is a dynamic definition of the Christian community. Congregational Every Member Response stewardship programs are not simply the means to raise dollars and match budgets. When done for these purposes they are little more than ecclesiastical gimmicks that manipulate people for institutional purposes.
Acts 2:42-47 should drive us to be profoundly aware of the need to develop goals that provide for stewardship programs that enable each person to fulfill his or her baptismal covenant. Every baptized Christian is called to bear fruit for the kingdom. We are not called to "get," but to "give." We must pray that the Spirit will help us to generate functional efforts to encourage successfully every member's response to the call of their baptism. Congregational EMR's are not
"money raisers." They can be urgent and substantial "CPR protocols" to resuscitate Christians who have lost consciousness of their calling and responsibility.
The church must, after all, be alive if it is to win converts and, if it is to be said of its members, as it was of that first-century community, that they have the "favor of all the people." Would that it could be said of our congregations and our people that "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."
It would then also most likely be written of us: "And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."
The greatest miracle of Pentecost was the one at the close of the day. The people did not scatter. When it was over, it was not over. The beat went on in a devoted community of faith that the Spirit called, gathered, enlightened, sanctified and preserved. Do it again, Lord! Do it here!
1. William H. Willimon, "Acts," Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1988), p. 39.
2. Martin Luther, "The Small Catechism," The Book of Concord, Theodore G. Tappert, Translator and Editor, (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1959), p. 345.
3. The Church Today: Insightful Statistics and Commentary, (Glendale, California, The Barna Research Group, 1990), pp. 11, 13.
4. George Barna, The Frog in the Kettle, (Ventura, California, Regal Books, 1990), pp. 133-135.
5. Ibid., p. 130.
6. Ibid., p. 39.
7. Ibid., p. 35.
8. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York, The Macmillan Company, 1957), p. 99. The quotation here is from Bonhoeffer's outstanding commentary on Saint Matthew 5:13-15.
9. Gerhard A. Krodel, "Acts," Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament, (Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p. 92.
11. Joseph Stein, with Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, Fiddler on the Roof, (New York, Crown Publishers, 1964), p. 23.
12. Barna, op. cit., p. 118.
14. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, John W. Doberstein, Translator, (New York, Harper and Row, Publishers, 1954), p. 23.
15. Krodel, op. cit., p. 93.
16. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, op. cit., p. 19.
17. Willimon, op. cit., p. 42.
18. Krodel, op. cit., p. 93.