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All Things in Common

On May 23, 2004, I had the privilege to speak on the topic of fellowship and hospitality, expositing Acts 2:42–47, at Grace Covenant Evangelical Church in Chicago. Here's the complete text (very slightly edited).

I have two tasks this morning: On the one hand (and best of all), we'll look together at God's Word to us in Acts 2:42-47. Secondly, I'm also aiming to set out an overview of what's going on here at Grace on the fellowship-and-hospitality front. During Pastor Gustafson's sabbatical this summer, a string of Sundays will be devoted to learning more about the various facets of our life, work, and mission as a church. This Sunday is about fellowship and hospitality.

Sue Dorman and I serve on the Grace church council (a "steering committee," if you will, for this congregation) with particular oversight in the areas of fellowship and hospitality — and we want to make you aware of what's brewing at Grace along these lines. So I'll be talking about Grace Church itself this morning perhaps a bit more than usual.

It's a delightful thing to speak about fellowship, because fellowship is friendship and partnership and camaraderie. There's not a person in the world, not the most dedicated misanthrope, who doesn't like those things, value them, and long for them. Fellowship, true community, is one of the most attractive things about the church — the church in general and any parish or local congregation in particular. But I also want to speak this morning to those of you who may be dissatisfied with fellowship — or rather, the lack thereof. Where does fellowship go when it seems to disappear? Is it ever not an illusion or a fake? What can be done to cultivate it?

These are especially important questions, because fellowship is not something separate the church does, some special event that the church holds; fellowship is how the church does everything. I'm going to repeat that: fellowship is not something separate the church does, some special event that the church holds; fellowship is how the church does everything. It's almost fair to say, in fact, that fellowship is what the church is. Nearly every church I've ever attended have had a "Fellowship Hall" somewhere (even if that's just a euphemism for "down in the basement"). But it's not just the coffee hour that constitutes fellowship (though we sometimes use the word that way, as a spiritualized synonym for social time). There needs to be fellowship in every dimension of the church's work. Like right here in this sanctuary. Isn't this a fellowship hall, too?

Fellowship then, in a strict sense, is essential to our church life. Without fellowship, we are not a church. (It's a good thing we have it!) There are other essential elements of a church, too, of course. Notably, I would mention mission, meaning evangelism, both locally and globally, and the proclamation of the kingdom in word and deed. By no means do I intend to slight other facets of the church's identity. But fellowship is the topic of the day, so I'll try to stay on track. (Sigh.)

So what is fellowship? In the very broadest terms, it can mean simply a mutual participation in something or shared experience, or even just "society" (in a Jane Austen sort of way: having people around, the opposite of solitude). In the more particular way we use it about the church, though, it indicates a community of interest, sentiment, and nature; or as Paul wrote to the Ephesians (at 4:4-6): "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all." (Hospitality, by the way, is what we call the microcosm of guest and host together: welcoming people; taking care of their immediate needs for food, shelter, or rest; and sharing time together. More on hospitality later.)

To get at this question, "what is fellowship?" this morning, we'll consider Acts 2:42-47. In fact, I'll read it again; since it's so short, if you sneezed you may have missed it the first time it was read. Here it is in a translation that's relatively new, the English Standard Version:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their 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.

This paragraph comes at the end of Acts 2, but don't think of it as a conclusion to chapter 2 — it's actually an introduction to the whole next section of the book, which includes chapters 3, 4, 5, and the beginning of chapter 6 (all the way till the martyrdom of Stephen). Check out how this paragraph works as an introduction, with some key ideas mentioned here expanded upon in the following chapters (which I recommend reading at your leisure):

  • The apostles' teaching is featured prominently in chapter 3 after Peter and John heal a lame beggar.

  • That healing is one of the "wonders and signs" the apostles did, along with numerous others referred to in the middle of chapter 5.

  • A communal prayer of the believers is reported at length in chapter 4.

  • Their practice of distributing their property is the central issue both in the frightening story of Ananias and Sapphira and in the account of the choosing of seven leaders to oversee the distribution of food and goods to Greek and Jewish widows.

  • Throughout the section, the favorable opinion of the people toward the early Christians is noted (Peter and John get released from prison in part because of it).

  • Throughout the section the Lord adds to their numbers by continuing to save people.

  • And even particular phrases have echoes later in this section, like the parallelism here of temple and home which is repeated in 5:42.

(Don't ever let anyone tell you the Bible isn't a fascinating, well written book that repays your dedicated study! Its intricacies are inexhaustible.) At any rate, those are some of the ways that this short paragraph works as an introduction to the next three-and-a-half chapters of Acts. But I am not going to preach those three-and-a-half chapters.

So let's zero in on these six verses. What do they say about the early Christian church? How does the author, Luke, portray this religious movement? Sometimes, these descriptions can become so familiar to us that we forget that it could have been otherwise. (That's one of the most valuable lessons to learn about history, by the way: "It could have been otherwise.") For instance, Luke might have emphasized the great men of Christianity, portraying this as a religion of a great martyred leader, carried onward by a small circle of charismatic leaders, and he could have spotlighted Jesus, Peter, John, and others by name; but he doesn't. He might have sketched the embryonic beginnings of the church as an institution, explaining how they governed themselves and giving us an organizational chart; but he doesn't. He could have focused on the spiritual psychology of conversion and the impact on individuals when they became believers; but he doesn't. Let's look at what he does say.

This is a group portrait, a description of an entire community in action together. Look at the pattern of describing them in the aggregate: "they, every soul, all who believed, any," etc. There are no names, no proper nouns at all; the most specific it ever gets is when "the apostles" are mentioned. The picture we get is that when they do something, or when something happens, it happens to them all. There are thirteen clauses in this passage — and fully twelve of them refer explicitly to them all in some way. (And the only one that doesn't is about the many signs and wonders the apostles did, which had an effect on "every soul"). Luke wants us to think of the early church not just as a group with great leaders, nor an institution destined to extend its reach across three continents by the end of the book of Acts — but as a tight community, one characterized by fellowship. And of course, their fellowship is explicitly mentioned, too, that they were devoted to it.

So what, exactly, were they doing together? (And, if I may be so bold as to ask, why should we care?) I want to zoom in on several of their activities, and in particular consider the impact of those activities on their fellowship. Right off the bat it says they busily engaged themselves with or "devoted themselves to" several things:

First of all, the apostles' teaching

We know quite a bit about what this looked like, because there's quite a bit about those apostles teaching right in these surrounding chapters: Luke quotes Peter's public teaching at length in chapter 2, immediately before our passage; again in chapter 3; and again in chapter 4. Two features in particular I want to point out about this teaching: Every message is about who Jesus is, every time it is Christ-centered. So is their — and our — fellowship. When we talk about the early church's fellowship, we do not mean that they had "hit it off." We do not mean that they liked the same radio stations and movies or dressed the same way or voted for the same presidential candidates. In fact we know that, just like the modern church, the early church was multi-ethnic, multi-generational, and multi-cultural. But, just like us, the early church preached Jesus, and knew Jesus, and had been called together by Jesus. If by nothing else at all, we will be bound together by our knowledge that Jesus is the greatest person in history, that he is indeed the One, our divine savior and our king.

Last week I read a wonderful and strange book by Charles Williams, called War in Heaven, written in 1930. In it, there's an extremely silly minister, Mr. Batesby, who is about as daffy as they get, so daffy he doesn't even know that Christ is the one thing at the center of his own Christianity. Williams humorously exposes the nub of Mr. Batesby's foolishness in this passage, where he is in conversation with a much smarter and more spiritually mature colleague. They're talking about a wealthy man who lives in their neighborhood and who has made a contribution to the Sunday School Fund. Batesby says:

"He was very keen...on getting things done. He thinks that the Church ought to be a means of progress. ...An idealist, that's what I should call him. England needs idealists today."

"I think we had better return the money," the Archdeacon said. "If he isn't a Christian——"

"Oh, but he is," Mr. Batesby protested. "In effect, that is. He thinks Christ was the second greatest man the earth has produced."

"Who was the first?" the Archdeacon asked.

Mr. Batesby paused again for a moment. "Do you know, I forgot to ask?" he said. "But it shows a sympathetic spirit, doesn't it? After all, the second greatest——! That goes a long way" (69-70).

No, actually, that doesn't go a long way. Jesus as "second greatest" was not at all how the apostles were teaching in Acts — the teaching the early church was devoting itself to — the teaching that provided a foundation for their fellowship.

Here's a first place where our fellowship is nurtured. I think it's safe to say that what brings us together is our common knowledge of and love for Jesus. There are additional factors, too, especially factors that bring us into this particular congregation: some of us were born into it, some live in the neighborhood, some love the preaching (the usual preacher, that is!), some love the children's programs, some love the music, some love the building. All of these things can bind us together somewhat — but at the center of each of these loves must be that we love Jesus, and that Jesus' love comes through in each of these communal settings.

When fellowship feels flat or fake, is it because Jesus isn't at the center of the common experience? The truth is that time-honored Christian fellowship activities — for instance, consuming large quantities of sugar and caffeine together — can fail to do the trick of fostering fellowship, on the one hand, for people who may feel uneasy in their relationship to Jesus (new or not-yet believers, seekers, or the disillusioned); or, on the other hand, when it isn't clear how Jesus is present or active at the moment.

So first, let's press on together in learning how to make our gatherings ones that Jesus himself might want to attend (remembering the kinds of parties he favored when he walked among us), gatherings where he's a truly important guest (not just an elephant in the corner). I don't mean to recommend here that we just lard our small talk with lots of "God talk," especially if it's forced or programmatic. Rather, that we seek spiritual ways, ways inspired by the Holy Spirit, to meet one another and meet Jesus together when we talk in church.

And on the other hand, let me urge you to go onward in your friendship with Jesus. As you get to know and love him better, you'll find fellowship more easily with others who do, too. It becomes a cycle, in fact, because we learn about Jesus from fellowship, which in turn deepens our fellowship, and so on.

A second aspect of the apostles' teaching that jumps out from these early chapters of Acts is how biblical it was. In every one of the quoted sermons in these chapters — every one — Peter quotes the Bible significantly. (Of course, that was just the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, at that time.) Glance at Peter's sermon in chapter 2: all that poetry is biblical. Through the apostles' teaching, the early church busily engaged in attending to the Bible, learning what it had to do with Jesus, and what it had to do with them. This becomes another ground of fellowship — because there's a circular relationship between the Christian community and the Scriptures: we attend to them, and they form us. Jews and Christians are sometimes called "People of the Book," and that's a suggestive phrase. It doesn't just mean that we're "bookish" people, but that the Book makes us a people, makes us a people, one people.

There's a mystical sense in which this operates, I think. That is, we people who read and digest the Bible come to put ourselves into the biblical world, to tell its stories are part of our own, and to become a tribe which names our children Matthew, Isaiah, Eli, Hannah, Charis, and Tirzah. But Bible study can make us one people in a much more immediate way: host a Bible study in your living room and find out! There are a number of Grace small groups meeting already, and we'd love to launch more. This is a great method for building genuine, lasting fellowship in the church: just like the believers in today's text, let's devote ourselves to the apostle's and prophets' teaching in the Bible and watch our fellowship grow.

A second thing they devoted themselves to: the breaking of bread

There are two references to breaking bread in this passage, and there's an ambiguity about exactly what Luke means: is he referring to the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, or simply to common meals shared by the community? In our opening sentence, he lists it with other formally religious activities, especially the apostles' teaching and prayers. So that suggests that he has the Eucharist in mind. Plus, this precise phrase ("the breaking of bread") appears elsewhere only at Luke 24:35, where Jesus is recognized by two disciples "in the breaking of bread," which can be viewed as an instance of the Lord's supper served by the Lord himself.

But the second mention of bread-breaking may keep some ambiguity alive. When it says they went to the temple every day and broke bread at home — are we to take this as a formal sacrament or an informal get-together? My guess is either that those categories are ones we're importing into this passage (and so we should stop) or that Luke is perfectly content to leave us wondering about the ambiguity. Put the question another way: were the early Christians obeying Jesus' command to keep the Eucharist in remembrance of him, or were they spending time eating meals together? Surely the answer is "both"!

And surely we should do both as well. The Eucharist or Lord's Supper is rightly called "holy communion" not just because in it we experience communion with him, but also because we do it together. Communion can be celebrated individually, but when Jesus instituted it — and of course in the normal course of church life — it is an act of fellowship and typically an act of the whole fellowship. Jesus said, "Drink from this cup, all of you." And when Paul teaches about communion in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, he says remarkable things: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." There is a miraculous way in which the Lord's supper, this very special breaking of bread, effects our fellowship.

But surely Luke wants us to think also of their regular meals together, especially since he speaks immediately of how they "received their food" generally with gladness. It's a worldwide impulse, the sharing of meals together both as a sign of friendship and as a way to deepen friendship. The simple gestures of hospitality — inviting people into your home, welcoming them when they arrive, giving thought and paying attention to what they might need (whether food, drink, comforts, or conversation) in preference to your own needs — all these elements of hospitality can become a spiritual discipline that not only enriches your own soul but that thickens the bonds of fellowship. It's not just that it's fun to have people over (though it is that); over time there can be even richer rewards. Consider launching a campaign of meal-hospitality. If you can invite people to your home, do it; if your digs aren't so suitable for guests, band together with someone else to host a get-together. If you like to cook, find out what dishes people like to eat and prepare them. But if you can't cook, I have found that nearly everyone is willing to eat carry-out deep-dish pizza when you provide it. Or simply invite people to meet you out somewhere. However you do it, make sure you follow Luke's recipe here for fellowship: receive your food together with exultant joy and sincerity of heart.

The practice of genuine, Christian hospitality depends both on good theology and good anthropology. That is, it's easier to be a good host or a good guest with sound views of who God is and of who a person is. Let me illustrate the latter point: Last October my friend Brad and I had occasion to visit Miami for a day or two. This trip arose on extremely short notice, because who knew the Cubs were going to beat Atlanta in the National League Divisional Series? (We went down to see a Marlins-Cubs playoff game.) But we needed a place to stay at such short notice, so I contacted two InterVarsity colleagues of mine whom I had met. But they were not people I knew well. As it turned out, Marlene and Gary Cameron have devoted themselves to practicing hospitality, and we benefited tremendously. At one point, as we were being served an abundant breakfast of waffles, fruit, and fresh coffee, I remarked, "You're treating us like kings!" Marlene paused and said very quietly, with full conviction: "But you are!" Their high view of who we are, our identity as sons and daughters of Christ the King, has provided a solid foundation for their joyful hospitality.

An interesting additional note here: see how the early church deployed its fellowship both in public and in private — "attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes." It's good that we do as much as we can to foster fellowship here in the public setting of the church. Every week, volunteers who are drawn from the Community Quadrants are mobilized to greet you at the door and to set up cookies and coffee downstairs and to perform other hospitable tasks. That is a great way to participate in nurturing the fellowship of Grace. Setting out a plate of cookies make not seem very flashy, but if you say a prayer, while you do it, for the people who will enjoy them — and for their fellowship with one another — you'll have blessed us all. By the same token it's also good that we do much outside of these walls, too, just as the early Christians went both to the temple and back home together to eat. Although we hope always to have lots of public occasions for fellowship (our upcoming block party in a few months is a good case in point), we also hope that such occasions are the tip of the iceberg: that there's 90% more of your fellowship below the waterline.

Here's a third thing they did in fellowship: they prayed together

In some ways, there's not much to be said on this point. In this passage, Luke only mentions "the prayers" in passing and says how they were "praising God" — but there's not much more information here than that. We have one instance of their prayers recorded in detail (in chapter 4), but otherwise Luke seems to assume that prayer is so normal an element of the life of the church that it doesn't need much explanation. And of course that's true. Here at Grace we pray with one another all the time, during our worship services for instance. (Perhaps you'll take note of it now, whenever we pray communally, and think about how it functions in our life together.) We also pray for one another, just as a matter of course but also in times of particular need via our "prayer chain" that uses phone and email to get the word out of special requests. And after each worship service, we have the opportunity to pray with others here in the sanctuary. In all these ways, we pray together. And we pray for many reasons — but whenever we do so, whether we're conscious of it at the moment or not, prayer builds up our fellowship, too, no less than participating in a Bible study together or sharing a meal would. If you're wondering how — and for whom — to pray, take note of each week's bulletin: there are names listed for each day of the week. Who are all those people? We're growing fast enough that odds are none of you know everyone. But imagine how mixing in some intentional prayer for those people can give impetus to your getting to know people here on Sundays. When we pray, we can thank God for one another, intercede for the needs we know of, and ask God's blessing on each — and upon us all in deeper fellowship.

Finally, one more thing the early church did in fellowship: they practiced generosity

These people didn't just listen to the Word of God together, celebrate communion and enjoy meals together, and pray with and for one another: they gave each other money. It could hardly be clearer: in verse 45 it says "they were selling their possessions and belongings [a way of putting it, by the way, that indicates this was a repeated or even habitual practice among them] and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need." By giving all this detail, Luke spells out what he had meant by saying, "they had all things in common" (in verse 44). When we talk about "having things in common," we usually mean that we have similar tastes or interests, or at most similar backgrounds. But this phrase in Luke's day sent a clear message that they included even their economic life as a dimension of their fellowship.

We see much more of how this worked in practice in chapters 4 and 5. For instance, it doesn't seem that the very concept of property was abandoned, since Luke writes this (at 4:32): "No one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common." That is, things still belonged to individuals, it seems — but they regarded them as given for the common good, and truly available to all in some meaningful way. It's also important to note that when money was given for distribution, it wasn't given indiscriminately or without mediation: Luke writes several times how proceeds were "laid at the feet of the apostles," not distributed directly from one individual to another (far less demanded by any individual). The church even ended up instituting a special oversight committee to take care of the distribution of food equitably. (That's in chapter 6.) But this dimension of their fellowship certainly did mean sacrificial giving, sacrifice that bore such extraordinarily good fruit that Luke says "there was not a needy person among them," they shared so much.

This is a very difficult standard to meet. You'll recall, that Jesus himself called one rich young man to do this very thing: sell his possessions and give to the poor. That man couldn't do it, and was downcast, perhaps partly because he knew that this realm of fellowship was cut off for him by his own possessiveness. It's also important to note that this radical kind of fellowship did not succeed in banishing all sins of greed and deception from the early church. (The story of Ananias and Sapphira in chapter 5 gives ample and tragic evidence to the contrary.) It is, sadly, possible to dwell within a fully functioning community and still be beset with our old sins of selfishness, greed, and pride. May God deliver us.

So what does such a standard of economic fellowship mean for us? How should we put into practice these teachings about possessions? In recent months, we've been hearing about the importance of financial partnership in the church (the giving of tithes and offerings to support the ministry of Grace), and that's part of it. Later this summer, Shannon Marion will be bringing us a complete sermon on financial stewardship; so partly I can pass the buck to him. (Pun intended.) We can't wrestle with these passages without wrestling with such big issues as prudence, justice, and generosity. But my point here is that we must also consider them in light of the big questions of fellowship. The example given to us here in Acts isn't merely about divvying up a pool of resources, but about entering together into a common life. If one of our number is in need, doesn't that affect us? Of course it does. And if we don't help one another when we're able to, where else will any help come from?

How we solve such problems of financial need in our midst will be a matter of creativity — must be a matter of creativity. For inspiration, consider the example of ancient Israel's practice of allowing the needy to glean grain behind the harvesters, as we heard about in the book of Ruth, chapter 2, this morning. There's quite a picture of fellowship there in Boaz's extended household: with shared meals, praise for God, and economic provision for those in need. Plus of course (not to spoil the story for you, but) Ruth and Boaz get married into the bargain. That's always nice to see.

Fortunately, I think Grace is quite active in this way — economic provision, that is, if not necessarily the matchmaking — active in small ways like our participation in neighborhood food drives to bigger ways like the help which, by God's grace, we've been able to offer to the Lost Boys of Sudan who are among us for resettlement, housing, and education (a ministry where the hospitality of our fellowship has been particularly evident). Let us continue to encourage our leaders — Pastor Gustafson, the church council, and those active in leading our compassion ministries — as they exercise discernment about the best ways to meet the economic needs within our fellowship, as well as the spiritual. And it's also as simple as this: let's all keep exercising sound financial stewardship and keep donating money for the ministries of this congregation, so that such good works of compassion and justice are financially possible and are able to expand. This will be a particularly visible sign of how earnestly we regard our fellowship.

Obviously, I've been urging you to think of this passage of Scripture as applicable to our own situation. But why should that be? What does this strange, two-millennia-old subculture have to do with us? On the one hand, it's simple: Luke, writing authoritatively for us in the Bible, is clearly setting up this community as a model for us, beyond merely giving us an historical description. We often study biblical narrative in this way — say, the life of Esther or Daniel or the missionary journeys of Paul — to learn something for our own journeys. But I think there's an added dimension here, some icing on the cake — because this earliest Christian community was initiating a fellowship not just for themselves alone, but one that has lasted two thousand years. It's a fellowship that we ourselves have joined, in which we want to be good members. Has it ever occurred to you that, when it says here that "the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved" — that includes you, you've been added to their numbers? Your salvation ushers you into this fellowship, and our little congregation here in a remote corner of the world, far from Jerusalem, becomes connected to that church that had Simon Peter himself as senior pastor. We have fellowship with them all the more as we have fellowship, devote ourselves to fellowship, with one another. This is true for the same reason it's ever been true: that Jesus called you out, called you by name, and gave you a place in his church. Welcome! Let's continue to welcome one another in fellowship, in his name.


first published May 24, 2004

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