Acts 2:42-47 | Psalm 23 | 1 Peter 2:19-25 | John 10:1-10
“And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
That sounds good, right? That’s what every church wants: growth. Growth means more people in the seats, which means more money coming in, which means the church can hire new pastors and music leaders. It means that the church will feel and look like a success, like they’re doing things right.
What do you think of when you think of church growth? If our church quadrupled in size, what would you imagine? A choir? A praise band? Both? More technology? More ministers? More services? More programs?
There are websites upon websites, books upon books, about church growth.
But I wonder how often churches and pastors stop and ask what church growth means, especially in churches like ours that are congregationally led. What if there were 4x more people, and they all had a say? What if the new people were different from us? What if our church started to change? What if it became something almost unrecognizable to us?
Getting new church members is kind of like getting a new roommate. How many people here have ever had a roommate? How many have ever had a roommate who you didn’t know until the day you moved in together? Most of my experiences with roommates are from being a college student. I remember showing up that first day of college at Concordia University, where I was about to meet my new roommate, Aaron. I got to the door and saw not two, but three names on the door: Aaron, Jeremy, and Josh. Josh, who I didn’t even know was going to be my roommate, was already in the room and had already claimed a bed.
I realized that I didn’t have to adapt to living with just one total stranger, but two!
The crazy thing about roommates, especially in a college dorm room where you all sleep in the same room together and study in the same room together, is that you know your lives are going to become completely intertwined with one another, whetheryou like it or not. And, as freshman, you usually have no say in who was chosen to be your roommate. It doesn’t matter who they are, where they’re from, or whether you share any common interests or not, and yet, you know you are going to become very, very close.
The picture of the early church in Acts 2, isn’t the ideal church growth model as presented on most websites and in most books. It’s not successful young professionals showing up, giving money, and maybe leading a bible study in their house for other successful young professionals.
The growth of the church in Acts 2 is much more demanding, much more holistic, and much more beautiful. It’s more like being freshman roommates in college. People with very different backgrounds and identities are thrown into life together – different classes, ethnicities, educations, and genders to name a few. And they share everything, just like when Josh got an Xbox 360 for Christmas. What was his became ours (at least for that year).
Like college roommates, the early church wasn’t confined to a single meeting place or time. Aaron, Josh, and Iended up eating dinners together, studying together, and, of course, playing Josh’s Xbox together. The Early Church wasn’t just together on Sunday mornings, either. The church in Acts 2 entered into a common life together, one that spilled over from the temple into homes and then back into the temple and then back again to the homes. V. 46 says, “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…” So they do go to the temple, and they do devote themselves to the apostles’ teachings, which are kind of church-y things, but they also fellowship with one another and hold all things in common and eat together in one another’s homes.
Their lives become intertwined.
And I want to suggest that that’s the most important part – that is the thing we cannot miss.
Their lives have become intertwined. One of my favorite seminary professors, Dr. Willie Jennings, who just wrote a commentary on Acts, loved the word “joining.” He would use that word to explain the two-fold heart of our faith – joining our lives with the life of God and joining our lives with the lives of one another.
When we read Acts 2 we often stress the “they would sell their possessions and goods” part without recognizing why: “and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
The priority is their life together, the selling of their possessions is a means to further that common life – to further the abundant life Jesus spoke of in our Gospel reading from John 10. In the words of Dr. Jennings,
“…anything they had that might be used to bring people into sight and sound of the incarnate life, anything 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.”
It’s the love of one another that prompts the selling of their possessions. Instead of accumulating resources for oneself, their understanding of their possessions was transformed just as their lives were transformed, now the possessions are resources that can be used to further life in the Spirit, life with one another.
The last few weeks, following Easter, we’ve begun to unpack what the resurrection means for us, but the last few weeks have primarily been about personal experience – stories of Jesus appearing to individuals or small groups. In this story from Acts we see that the implications of the resurrection always reach beyond the individual and into the communal. And what’s more, it’s a communal life that breaks through barriers of difference – it has to break the barriers of difference. Church is not a social club. Where the world has set up walls to divide us, Jesus has become the gate. Allowing us to come in and go out and find pasture in all kinds of places with all kinds of people.
But we often miss the “why” behind God’s commands, and we find ourselves lost in a sea of guilt and inadequacy, feeling that we haven’t done enough, haven’t given up enough, we aren’t like the church in Acts 2, and so God must be angry with us.
I’m especially bad about this. I have a habit of missing the point of some of the Bible’s teachings and then being racked by guilt for not doing enough. Here’s just one example, but there are many more:
When I was in my early 20’s I read Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, and became convinced that I should give up everything I owned. I didn’t, but I felt that I should. I was especially struck by one part of the book, where he talks about Jesus’ command in Luke 3:11 that anyone who has two coats should give to one who has none. Claiborne criticized the way that people today find all kinds of loop holes to explain away Jesus’ teachings, when really we should just do it. Don’t own more than two jackets.
To this day, I feel a pang of guilt when I see all the jackets I own hanging in my closet, because I have a lot of jackets.
Shane Claiborne would be so disappointed in me.
But Jesus’ point in Luke is not that owning two coats is the bad part. The bad part is that some people don’t have a coat (or health insurance, or other basic human needs, for that matter), and how wonderful would it be if we had the resources to give jackets (or, once again, health insurance) to those who have none. There’s a difference between me going and throwing my jackets in the dumpster because it’s bad to have more than one jacket, and being in community with someone, finding out they need a jacket, taking them to my closet and saying, “Look, I have more than I need. Take one.”
Of course, I’m not saying that life together doesn’t require sacrifices. The Early Church in Acts 2 shows us that those who have more should be willing to give up what they have for those who are in need – without reservation.
Right now our government is deciding on this new health care bill. We must remember that our model for what it means to be the Church is here in Acts 2: “they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” The way of Jesus is to see those who are in need and ask what we can do to help, not to hold on to what we have, but to give with open hands; to believe in an economy of abundance, not an economy of scarcity; to give of ourselves as Jesus gave.
But giving things up just to give them up isn’t the point. Only people who have never been in poverty can romanticize poverty. But giving things up for the good of another is something altogether different.
The early church understood that there are no “issues,” only people. And every decision, whether it’s about poverty or health insurance or immigration or tax reform, is about people. They chose to see the people first and make their decisions about money and possessions based on people, and not the other way around. They held onto relationships not money.
But Acts 2 can be a very dangerous chapter in the hands of a cynic. The cynic looks at Acts 2 and laments all the ways that the modern church falls short. How many people here live in constant community? How many have recently sold possessions and given the proceeds to the poor, and not just the poor, but the poor who you’re frequently having over to your house for dinner? Acts 2 becomes a way to judge the current church for all its failures. I’m reminded of a rather cynical classmate in seminary who said they’d given up on the Church because the Church was dead. That’s what they said “the Church is dead.” It has failed in so many ways. It’s time to call in the doctor and pronounce the official time of death.
But maybe Acts 2 isn’t meant to shame us for all that we aren’t, but to give us hope for all that we can be. It isn’t meant to tell us we’re dead, but to open our imaginations up to the possibilities made available through the abundant life in Jesus Christ.
I recently started bouldering, and I’m really not good, but I like it a lot (I have some very tough pinky blisters to show for it). There are different routes on climbing walls with corresponding numbers, from 0 on up. When I started I could only do 0’s and 1’s. Now I’m getting pretty good at 2’s. But I have friends who do 7’s and 8’s. I’m really glad there are harder routes, ones that I can look forward to mastering one day, and I’m glad that there’ll always be harder routes, no matter how good I get.
It would be boring if everything in the gym was a 1. I’d lose interest super fast. Right now I’m just doing 2’s and I love it. I’m not ashamed that I’m not doing 7’s, but I also look forward to one day climbing 7’s.
Acts 2 is like a 20, or maybe a 100. It’s way out there, way beyond us, but not in a way that shames us, but in a way that gives us hope for what we can be through the Holy Spirit.
In a way Acts 2 is unattainable, but that makes me think of Jesus statement about coming that we might have life abundantly. When I think of the word “abundant” I think of something that can’t be contained or boxed up, something that can’t be fully experienced but always overflows, carrying us with it. In a way, the abundant life is unattainable because it’s too big, too beautiful for us to fully experience in one moment. It’s always expanding, and moving out, like the universe God created. Just as the universe is constantly expanding, so is life in God constantly expanding.
The fact that it’s unattainable is what makes it exciting. We’ll never “arrive” as the church, but we’ll always be called into more exciting challenges and adventures. We’ll always have room to grow in our love for one another and our love for God.
It can be hard, though, to know how to grow, and where to go. That’s why we need to be “sheep” like the ones in Jesus’ parable – sheep that listen for the voice of Jesus, who learn to discern his voice from the thieves and bandits. The church in Acts 2 devoted themselves to prayer and the apostles teachings (which we have in the form of Scripture). That was indispensable to them becoming the gold standard of churches. God led them into a life none of them would have thought possible, where rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, ate food together, prayed together, praised God together, and did all this with glad and generous hearts. No wonder awe came over them all. Only God could do something like that. Only God could break down all those walls that they were told separated them.
It’s easy to look at our lives as individuals and as a church and say we haven’t done enough. We haven’t really stacked up to Acts 2, but that’s good news.
We’ll never attain all that the church can be, thank God. We’ll always be reaching for the next step, the next hand hold. Sometimes we’ll fall, and God will catch us like those big cushy mats underneath the rock wall. Then we’ll get up and try again.
The Spirit of God is always calling us higher, into more risks, into deeper relationships with those who are not like us, into greater leaps of faith.
 Willie James Jennings, “2:42-47: A New Reality of Giving” in Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 39-40.