We see our best friends in Atlanta about twice a year. We take turns traveling to each other’s homes and sometimes meet in the middle at a little bungalow rental in Black Mountain. Every night around dinner time my friend Elaine insists that we only have appetizers while feeding our little ones, so that we can have a long dinner with good conversation after they go to bed. I’m sure we could have good conversation at another location in the house, but she knows that there’s something about talking over the dinner table that can’t be replicated. It’s often at the dinner table where we learn about the struggles of our friend’s lives, how their jobs are really going, what fears they have for their children, how they are relating to their parents, and what’s going on in their marriage. Sharing a meal at the dinner table can be a very intimate experience; it can be sacred; it can usher us onto holy ground.
After Jesus’ resurrection, those people who were committed to following in the way of Jesus often found themselves around the dinner table together as well, struggling together to figure out what this new way of life meant for their lives. The book of Acts chronicles the actions of the disciples of Jesus after that very first Easter and the way in which the spiritual and political movement of Jesus gave birth to the early church. As disciples of Jesus living in the light of the resurrection this Easter, we could read this account from the book of Acts like a history book, though it was not written as one, cataloging its ideas into the far recesses of our brain, telling ourselves, “Well, that was then.” That is what those crazy disciples of Jesus did back then. But the writer of Acts left us no static document, no history book. The writer of Acts gave us an invitation to enter into the way of Jesus like those very first disciples did. The writer of Acts calls us to see that “then is now.” The same resurrected Jesus who changed the way the early church lived calls out to us this season of Easter too, compelling us to let the resurrected Jesus change the way we live.
This particular passage has been one of the hallmark passages for Christian socialists and for those who chose to live in intentional communities, but it seems archaic to us. We think of it as something from a primitive time, possible in the first century but not our own. Perhaps, we want to distance ourselves from it because we are scared of what it might mean. The part of this passage that is the most challenging to us as wealthy people enamored with our capitalistic society is the declaration that these early disciples had all things in common, that they sold their possessions and goods and distributed the proceeds to all, as they had need. It seems radical, impossible, dismissible. To some of us it sounds simply like socialism. But theologian Willie Jennings makes clear that what the writer of Acts portrays here is far more demanding than socialism. He says, “What is far more dangerous than any plan of shared wealth or fair distribution of good and services is a God who dares impose on us divine love. Such love will not play fair. In the moment we think something is ours or our people’s, that same God will demand we sell it, give it away, or offer more of it in order to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or shelter the homeless, using it to create the bonds of shared life.”[i] Socialism attempts to create a system in which goods and services are shared fairly. But the life Jesus calls us into isn’t some ordered attempted at fairness. It’s not fair at all! It favors those who are in need. Jesus calls us to go beyond simple fairness and to give sacrificially to one another.
When it’s those people with whom you share the intimacy of the dinner table, then it seems more natural and obvious that you would do whatever you needed to do to meet their needs. Dinner table companions become your closest friends, your family, your brothers and sisters in Christ. This isn’t about a claim on possessions. It’s a claim on one’s life. It’s a binding together of people in community. Jennings says that this “new kind of giving is…one that binds bodies together as the first reciprocal donation where the followers will give themselves to one another. The possessions will follow. What was at stake here was not the giving up of all possessions but the giving up of each one, one by one as the Spirit gave direction, and as the ministry of Jesus made demand. Thus anything that they had that might be used to…draw people to life together and life itself and away from death and end the reign of poverty, hunger and despair – such things were subject to being given up to God.”[ii] This resurrected Jesus made demands upon their every day lives, upon their normal routines, upon their dinner tables, upon their bank accounts, and upon their property.
This deeply sacrificial sharing, of holding all in common, was an effect of their life together; it was not the cause of their life together; it was the result of the way these early Christians lived. We get a clue as to how they spent their days in the very first verse of this passage. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. They devoted themselves to these four habits, these four practices. We think of the word “devoted “as a nice, cute, Christian-y word. It connotes warm fuzzy feelings and sentimentality, a sappy kind of Jesus love. But the word in the Greek actually means “to persist obstinately” or “to adhere firmly.” So the level of “devotion” these early Christians had to these practices may have actually seemed obnoxious to us. They persisted in this way of life against all odds, even when it was completely inconvenient, even when it made no logical sense, even when they couldn’t see the benefit of it, even though God would have loved them if they only done it half-way or only when it was easy or only when they could work it into their otherwise hectic schedules. No, they were stubbornly committed to these practices; they were unyielding; we modern folk might call them inflexible, bull headed, uncooperative, and uncompromising. But it was because of their persistence in the practices of teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers that they were bound together in such a way that they truly reflected the life of God’s kingdom. It was a new way of living, not a new way of understanding. Our resurrected Lord claims more than a spot in the deep recesses of our brain; our resurrected Lord changes more than our way of thinking; our resurrected Lord changes the way we practice our faith. And Acts makes clear that the only way we can change the way we live is to persist in Christian habits.
I was really struck this week as I held on to the true meaning of the word “devotion” in this passage. Can we really say that we persist obstinately in our faith? I know I persist obstinately in keeping a schedule, particularly for my toddler. I have great respect for nap time and bedtime. My whole world revolves around cultivating habits that make nap time and bedtime a great success. How persistent are we in our teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers? Every May we kick off the nominating and budget cycles, and I wonder if we are more committed to committee meetings than to the basic practices of our faith. Of course the work of nominating and budgeting is important, but if we haven’t persisted obstinately in our faith then we can’t do the work of either. How can we nominate folks and discern where God might be calling people to serve if we haven’t had intimate conversations around the dinner table? How can we make deeply moral decisions about our budget if we haven’t simmered in God’s word long enough to know what the scripture calls us to spend our money on? Are we steeped in the practices of our faith or our lives more ordered by the values of our culture? Have we been more attentive to prayer and fellowship or to managing our own individual goals, lives, and bank accounts? Are we being so persistently obstinate in our faith that we can see the signs and wonders of the in-breaking kingdom? Or are we blind to how God is working because we are only in it half way?
This vision of a holy community in Acts is not new. It’s rooted in Jesus’ ministry among the poor, among Jesus’ purpose to proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free. It’s rooted in the Old Testament call for Jubilee, the year of God’s favor, when every 50 years all debts were forgiven and all captives where set free. The community of God’s people who live in the light of the resurrection are to be a constant witness of God’s favor. But I’m afraid that the church has lost its “confidence in the ability of the resurrection faith to overturn all material and social arrangements.”[iii] We have lost confidence in our faith to make a real tangible difference in the world. Our imagination is stagnant, and at this juncture in our nation’s life, it seems our vision is limited by our devotion to our political parties. Our vision of the kingdom of God should not be clouded by partisanship. The language of our faith should take precedence over the language of our preferred party. We should be willing to do what God calls us to do in spite of which politician we like or don’t like. As people of resurrection faith, we should be looking towards the signs and wonders of the inbreaking kingdom. We should be seeking to make possible a world where all have what they need. If we call one another brother and sister, shouldn’t we behave as such? “A fellowship of believers shares more than common beliefs and core values: they display a profound regard for one another’s spiritual and physical well-being as a community of friends.”[iv] In order to be more than a group of people who generally share the same core values, we have to persist obstinately in the practices of our faith. We are to be more than a friendly, welcoming group of people who share some common ground in our thinking and beliefs. We cannot stop at being friendly and welcoming and never move towards being a community of holy friends who draw visitors into our life together and do not allow people to suffer silently, feeling unknown and unloved. When we belong to each other, the subject of the conversation is not about the limits of our goods and resources; the subject of the conversation is one another.
In order for us to persist obstinately with one another long enough to become more than acquaintances but true community, we must have extensions of our communion table. We must have time to be together in every day moments of life so that we can practice the way of God’s kingdom together. There are two couples who have a weekly ritual of Wednesday night wine. After putting their kids to bed, they meet at one of their houses to try their new bottle of wine for the week and enjoy cheese, crackers, and chocolate along with it. They keep a journal together, writing their wine tasting notes right alongside a record of their conversation for that week. They share the joys of their lives and their children and also the burden of parenting and work. They mourn together, work through frustrations with each other, and confide in one another. They struggle together about how to be faithful. They persist in life together even when it feels inconvenient and hard, even when it feels scary to be so vulnerable.
While dinner tables can be sacred intimate places, they can also be places of division. If we only invite people to the table who are just like us, we create intimacy between friends but not holy friendships. Jesus pulls up chairs for people to whom we didn’t send a dinner party invitation. On the first Sunday of every month, we gather together as the community of faith here at Greenwood Forest and eat a meal at God’s table. Every time we hear the words of institution, the story of the death of our Lord. There’s lots of different variations on these words in different traditions, but when we pour out the wine, we say these words: “This is the cup of the new covenant poured out for you and for all people, for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus’ body and blood was broken and poured out for all people, and the new covenant, the new way of life, is an invitation extended to all people. God’s table is not a table where some are served and others are servers. It’s a table where all receive. It’s a table with no reserved seats. It’s a table with three courses for all, not just those who can pay for it. This morning as we receive the invitation to the Lord’s table, let us remember the responsibility we have as disciples of the risen Jesus to persist obstinately. Are we in awe of what God is doing in the life of our church? Have we persisted obstinately? May we steep our lives in the apostles’ teaching, in fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer, so that we can have glad and generous hearts, so that others will see the signs and wonders of the kingdom among us, so that all of us can be saved. Amen.