Are you ever skeptical about happy endings? Do you ever watch movies where the lights dim on the heroine riding off into the sunset, her hair blowing in the wind, and you think, “give me a break”?
Today we’re in chapter two of Acts. This is the church in the afterglow of Pentecost, when God sends the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem. People are baptized. The church grows by three thousand. And then we get this beautiful description of their life together. They devote themselves to figuring out these teachings about Jesus. They pray together. They eat together. They go to the temple together.
Then something remarkable happens. They sell all their stuff. All of them. Wealthy patrons and working class fishermen. Beggars and Roman soldiers. They put everything they’ve got in this big pot. And they use it to make sure everybody has what they need.
It didn’t matter how much you put in, how little or how much you had to start off. Now you have the same as everyone else. They managed to do all of this with “glad and generous hearts,” it says, “praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
The church rides off into the sunset, hair blowing in the wind.
I wouldn’t have a lot of trust in this whole church experiment if the story ended here. Because I know that real life in church is different. It’s hard. It’s beautiful. It’s heartbreaking. It’s joyful. And it is a lot of work.
Fortunately for me, for all of us, that’s not where the story ends. We get to see more of the unfolding of this growing group of Jesus followers. We get to see that this story that starts off with radical economic sharing gets messier. And it gets messy fast.
All we have to do is turn the page. There we discover the disciples jockeying with the religious leaders of the temple and then get thrown in jail. A little while later a wealthy couple wants to get in on this economic sharing and then they lie about how much money they have.
It isn’t long before these Jesus people realize that figuring out their own community is tough. They need to decide what they’re going to do about people who have different genitalia, about which private parts are in and which aren’t. Circumcision or no circumcision? And they need to figure out what cultural practices Jesus people can engage in and what they can’t. What kind of meat are people allowed to eat? It gets complicated. It’s hard. People leave. It’s messy. It’s church!
That’s why we need this story here at the beginning, this story about people brought together by the Holy Spirit and joined into these groups—people who trusted each other so much that they knit together their material lives.
It’s the origin of this story that sustain the church over time, that set them up for a kind of life where they can figure out questions that face them, when it’s not so clear how to do life together.
And how it begins is sharing. How it begins is in the body. We were discussing this passage on the way back from the beach and either Brenda or Joy pointed out how embodied these practices were. It’s about how bodies act. The devote time to learning, they gather to pray, they share their money, they give away what they have, they knead and bake and break bread among themselves.
Belief happens in the body, in this bone-level trust in the people God has given to us. The first Jesus followers knew what we know: that giving up your money to others is a vulnerable act. Trusting others to take care of your life, to take care of your body, your future, your family – this is the place where it really matters. In Acts there is no creed. There are bodies and there is bread.
Of course, there’s more to come. Paul will write letters about atonement and Israel and repentance. We’ll get down into the nitty gritty of ordination and hypostatic union and free will. The church will try to figure out Communion and Civil Rights, female pastors and family planning. We’ll write statements of faith and Confessions, generation after generation. Those are important parts of the story, the figuring it all out. It all matters.
But it begins with bread.
When I think about the way life unfolds in the Mennonite church, perhaps the hardest working-out we commit ourselves to is consensus decision-making.
A couple months ago I was meeting with the clergy in my place-based ministries cohort. Some of you may remember that I’m a part of a program to work with ministers as we think about our communities and justice work.
On this weekend, we heard from alumni of the program. They talked about these amazing ministries. Renovating their entire basement to start a diaper bank. Founding a community development organization. Starting a garden program that provided fresh vegetables in the middle of a food desert.
These beautiful amazing stories! But then someone asked, “But how did you do it? How did you convince your congregation that these were good ideas, even when some of these programs required a risk?”
One of the pastors talked about how he focused on the people who were interested in his vision. “But you’ll never get everybody,” he told us. “Sometimes you have to move ahead with the people you’ve got, the people who get the vision. Other people – you leave them behind. There’s no way you’re going to reach consensus. It’s not realistic.”
Well, you can imagine that stopped me in my tracks. For those of you who are new to this church, or new to Mennonites, we make decisions by consensus. It’s not easy work. It’s not quick work. And it is work. But it’s a commitment we’ve made to each other.
It can be confusing because consensus has a particular meaning for us. Our Scripture today tells us “all who believed were together.” It doesn’t say “all who were together believed the same thing.” Consensus doesn’t mean that we have total agreement. Consensus means we have sensed the Holy Spirit moving among us. The Holy Spirit helps us “come to one mind on the matter.”
What’s remarkable about consensus is that we don’t have to agree. We don’t even have to like each other. What we have to do is trust. We trust that, even when I cannot yet believe it myself, that your belief will sustain me. We trust that, even though I cannot yet understand, that your understanding is enough for me. The question that guides as we discern Scripture together speaks to what is at the heart of this radical trust: “What will produce the greatest love?”
Sometimes we may wonder why we go through all this trouble. It’s simple: we are what we do, and what we do is an act of love. And the only reason we are able to do this is because of what we do with the rest of our time. We gather for worship and that makes it possible for us to trust one another with our lives. I can’t say exactly what happens here. But I do know that it means something to hear my voice blend together with your voices. It means something for us to pray for each other. It means something to give your children over to someone else, to trust others with their little lives. Worship makes us into something new.
And like the early church, we see our worship pouring us into the sharing of our life at other times. We fix doors in each other’s houses and pray lectio divina early on Thursday morning. We cheer on dissertations and weep when a sister gets terrible news about her cancer. We show up at hospitals and dance recitals and in each other’s homes for Thai food. We hug and pray before meetings and doctor’s appointments and when a beloved friend moves away. We share frozen biscuits in the church freezer and tell each other difficult truths.
We hear it in today’s Scripture: “all who believed were together.” All of them. It’s bound up together, this whole life of vulnerability in the body.
Something so counter to our white-knuckled protectionism and possession of our time, our money, our families, our personal opinions and beliefs is possible because the wind of the Holy Spirit moves in and among us. We know God is among us when we recognize that following Jesus means that just when we believe something is ours, just when we lay claim to ownership over our stuff or our tradition or our church, that divine love will call us to give it up, to give it away, to ask again what can we offer, what can expand the bonds of love.
As it is, we’re worshipping together, your voices weaving in and out. In a little bit we’ll talk about the service and we’ll pray. We’ll eat together. Hopefully you’ll have some ice cream. Don’t worry, there will be enough for everyone, even if you couldn’t bring something today. Then we’ll get together in a circle. And we’ll ask God to be present. We’ll listen for the Holy Spirit telling us “yes” or “no” or “you need more time.” Some of us will be asked to trust in another’s belief. Some of us will have to believe for others. We’ll sing.
It might be messy. Or it might be easy. And there are easier ways to push decisions through. But we are what we do, in the breaking of the bread, in the discernment of Scripture, in sharing our lives, in answering the question that was born at Easter, the question that we will answer every time we meet: what will produce the greatest love? May that question guide us in all we do.