They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.Acts 2:42-47 (NRSV)
Life among the Believers
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 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, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
For the past six weeks, since the stay-at-home orders started and we began worshiping online, we have had lots of new friends join us in worship, and we are glad that you are here. I thought I’d take a few minutes this week to explain a little bit about our church sanctuary and our denomination, for those who are new and also as a reminder to regulars in Oldtown.
The official name of our church is the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in North Attleboro, but we are also known as the “Oldtown Church” because our church building is in the Oldtown section of North Attleboro. We are a protestant church, that is a part of the United Church of Christ or the UCC denomination.
For those of you that don’t know how the structure of UCC works, there are different ministry settings in the UCC, including the local church, the association which is made up of UCC Churches in our area, the conference which for us includes UCC churches in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, and the national setting. It’s very important to understand that these are not levels that oversee each other, but merely different settings where ministry takes place.
Now in Oldtown, we are often referred to as the “backwards” church — for many reasons, as I often say! — but mostly because when you enter through our front doors, the entire congregation is facing you. Our church is more than three hundred years old, and early on, the pews were built facing the front door out of a sense of safety, so the congregation could see everyone that came in.
Well, our denomination is in many ways a “backwards” denomination too, because rather than having a top-down structure, where the denominational leaders tell the churches what to do and how to do it, the UCC’s structure is more bottom-up. You see, in the United Church of Christ, the local church is autonomous, meaning that it has the power to make its own decisions. But in so doing, it also is responsible to manage itself and take care of itself financially.
Though the local church is autonomous, it, along with the association, the conference, and the national setting all stay in covenant with one another. What that means is that, though we may not all totally agree with one another or do things the same way, we are still committed to love, encourage, and support one another. So that’s just a very brief version of “UCC and Oldtown 101.”
Folks, for the past few years, there has been a lot of conversation concerning the future of the church. Much of that is being heightened now, as in-person worship is suspended in many places around the world. And when I say “the church,” I do not just mean the Oldtown Church, or the United Church of Christ, or even the protestant church. What I am talking about is the wider Christian church as a whole.
Around the world, we hear about the numbers of worshippers declining and churches closing. They say that people just do not look to the church the way they used to. And to be honest, many churches do not offer the support that people need in today’s ever-changing world. That is why it’s our job as a community of faith to figure out just what God is calling us to do as individuals and as a community — to figure out how we can not only go to church in person or online but how we can be the church in the world.
The individual part — our own understandings and beliefs — may seem a lot easier because we don’t need to get everyone else on board. But the community part, because of our different gifts and understandings, can actually prove to be quite life-changing! The problem is we all get caught up by different things — some of us by generational norms or societal expectations, some of us because of our history in Oldtown or our time spent in whatever faith community we grew up in.
Friends, the truth is we all carry baggage with us of what church should be and what the right way to live out our faith looks like. That is why I think that it is important for us to look back to the book of Acts occasionally, to remember what the early Christian church was really like. Because the idea of Christianity and church was not about attending a special building once a week for worship, but rather, it was a way of life.
Christianity did not start out as a unified movement. We must remember that in the beginning, the disciples were sent out in different directions to do the three things Jesus taught them to do. As the great commission states: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to do all that I have commanded you.” So basically, the disciples were sent out to love all, to baptize, and to share the stories of Jesus. That is it! At that time, there were no other lists or expectations of what Christian beliefs should be, what Christian rituals and traditions should be, what church membership should look like, what church buildings should look like, or even what stories they should tell about Jesus.
But here is the key: Jesus knew that the disciples had been around him. He knew that they had walked with him and talked with him and that they had seen and experienced life in a new and exciting way. Jesus gave the disciples the freedom to make good choices and to share the good news in their own way, knowing that they would not always get it right, but that, by reaching out in honest and real ways, people would trust them and follow them. And in so doing, they would follow Jesus too. It was not about going to church. It was about being the church.
Friends, that is why we have different Christian churches and denominations and traditions and rituals today. It is not that one is right and the other is wrong. It is just that we have all found our own way to follow Jesus and to live out our faith. As Christians, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic or Orthodox, conservative or liberal or somewhere in-between, we are all connected to one another, though we often forget that. Sometimes, we just like to complain and point fingers at one another.
Friends, today’s scripture reminds us of how it all began before we all made our own rules and set our own traditions. It reminds us of how simple the church started out and the things that were, and are, truly important. And what exactly did they do?
Scripture says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship. They allowed themselves to be in awe of the many wonders and signs of God’s presence around them. They recognized and celebrated the things that they had in common; they shared what they had so that everyone would have enough. They spent time together. They broke bread together, they prayed together, they were generous, and they praised God, sharing goodwill with others.”
Friends, though the past six weeks have been difficult worshiping from home and being away from our beloved church sanctuary, I actually think that this time might be just what the church needed. Because in many ways, we have had the opportunity to put aside the two-thousand-plus years of opinions and rules and rituals, and we have gotten a firsthand reminder of how simple the church can be and how simple the church started out being. People worshiped in their homes just like we are right now! They focused on loving God and others and sharing the Good News of Jesus.
It was not about judgment; it was about hope and peace and grace. It was about sharing a simple meal with friends and telling stories about Jesus. Can’t you imagine that when the disciples sat around table sharing a meal with their friends and telling stories about Jesus, they told the story of that special night when Jesus gathered in the Upper Room with his disciples?
I’m sure that they told them how, “As they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had blessed it, he broke it, and he gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'” I’m sure in each home that they visited they went on to explain how, “Likewise, after supper, Jesus took the cup. And when he had given thanks, He poured it out and gave it to them saying ‘This is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins do this as often as you drink of it, in remembrance of me.'”
Friends, it all started out so simply, with bread and with wine, with stories and with prayers, with songs and with fellowship — all to celebrate the good news of Jesus and the unconditional love of God. Because that, my friends, is what the church is all about.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, I urge you to remember the simplicity that Jesus taught. Allow yourselves to be in awe of the many wonders and signs of God’s presence around you. Safely, spend time together with family and friends, break bread in your homes, pray together, be generous, and praise God, always sharing what you have with others. Friends, if you humbly live out your faith like that, then you don’t need to tell others what to do or how to do it. Because in watching what you say and do, they long to follow you. And in so doing, they also follow Jesus. My friends, that is what happens when we make the amazing transformation from simply going to church — online or in-person — to truly being the church!
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen!