Text: Acts 2:42-47
First the good news. In their ground-breaking National Study of Youth and Religion, the results of which are published in their new book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill document that teenagers overwhelmingly admire their parents as the single greatest influence in their lives, and gladly imitate their religious beliefs. Further, their study showed that teenagers actually like church. The conventional wisdom of teenage alienation from parents and hostility toward religion is an entrenched but erroneous stereotype, they argue.
Now for the bad news. When Smith and Denton asked these teenagers to describe the particulars of their religious faith, they were “incredibly inarticulate” about even the most basic tenets of their beliefs and practices. (Obviously, they didn’t interview any Pullen youth.) From their scientific survey of 3,290 teenagers (ages 13-17) and parents, and 267 personal interviews conducted across four years, Smith and Denton conclude that most “Christian” teenagers operate with a vague sort of Moral Therapeutic Deism: be nice, don’t do bad, for a remote deity wants you to be happy and feel good about yourself. In other words, says Smith, “we can say here that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of ‘Christianity’ in the U.S. is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.”
Now for the good news again. I’m not so sure that what Smith and Denton have discovered in their study is such a bad thing. We have so focused on “right” belief that it literally has us fighting and killing one another in this country and around the globe. Maybe being articulate about the basic tenets of one’s faith is not what is most important to us living peacefully as a humanity. Being able to talk about one’s faith is not a bad thing, but could it be that we have placed too much emphasis on being able to articulate words and dogma and not enough emphasis on living into the unspeakable mystery of God and faith and moral living. I would posit that even we, as adults of faith, often have the words to say but lack the wisdom to understand what they really mean for how we are to live our lives as people of faith. It seems as though having the right words without a deep sense of meaning is as dangerous as not having the words. Rather than words, maybe what we need more of are images or metaphors for what the church is called to be and do in this age.
Before we explore our images and metaphors, let’s revisit what our text tells us about how the early followers understood what it meant to be the community of believers. “After their initial pattern of desertion, doubt, despair, confusion and enough raw fear to hide behind locked doors, and then their eyewitness encounters with the risen Christ, the first Jesus followers began to develop a growing awareness of the enormity of what had happened. They began to unpack and query just what it meant to live and think in a specifically, intentionally ‘Christian’ manner.” (Dan Clendenin)
In the reading for this week, Luke gives us a glimpse into life among those first believers a few days and weeks after Easter. Listen again to our text as interpreted by Clarence Jordan in the Cotton Patch Gospel:
They were all bound together by the officer’s instruction and by the sense of community, by the common meal and the prayers. A great reverence came over everybody, while many amazing and instructive things were done by the officers. The whole company of believers stuck together and held all things common. They were selling their goods and belongings, and dividing them among the group on the basis of one’s need. Knit together with singleness of purpose they gathered at the church every day, and as they ate the common meal from house to house they had a joyful and humble spirit, praising God and showing over-flowing kindness toward everybody. And day by day, as people were being rescued, the Lord would add them to the fellowship.
The study that I quoted at the beginning of this sermon, along with this passage in Acts sparked in my mind a question: “How do we understand in 2014 what the company of believers (the church), the followers of Jesus, is to be about as we gather as children, as youth, as young adults, as adults and as the chronologically advantaged?” What are we being called to devote ourselves to? And what images might help us be the church that we and the world needs today?
I offer three images – a shelter, a filling station and a launching pad. First and foremost, the community of believers is to be a shelter. In a world that is often unsafe and violent, the church needs primarily to be a place of safety, a place to come in from the toils and snares of a larger society that over-values conformity, competition and survival of the fittest. The church needs to be a haven for those who have been wounded by doctrine and belief, who know the dangers of being themselves, who know the dangers of being the person God created them to be, who are cast aside by greed and power and self-interest and tradition. For these, the church is called to be a shelter of safety, of welcome, of acceptance, of compassion. We are to be that place. We are to live the words of Emma Lazarus, written in 1883: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed, to me. I will lift my lamp beside the golden door.” What better scripture might we include in our sacred writings of what the church is to be than these words? Church as shelter—a safe haven for the broken, the battered, the wounded.
When I was a child, for a brief period of time, my father owned a filling station across the street from the elementary school I attended. After school, I would walk across the street and work at my dad’s store. We were not just a gas station, we were a full-service filling station. Are there any left? When you drove into my dad’s station, someone met you at your car and worked to meet a whole slate of needs – we didn’t just pump the gas, we washed the windshields, checked the oil, checked the air in the tires, and did whatever else the customer might need. Our job was to service the car—the whole car—and in doing that, we were in relationship with our customers, we interacted with them, we cared about them. As the church, we need to be about more than just pumping the gas – not just giving out our message and expecting folks to run on that all week. We need to be servicing/ministering to the whole person – we come to church as whole people, people who have problems, needs, interests, differences, gifts. We are people who live in physical bodies, with emotional as well as spiritual needs. We are called to be the kind of church that interacts with all of who we are. It would be naïve to think that any church can meet all of our needs, but this idea of a filling station, of a place where we come to interact with one another and minister to one another as whole people, is an image we might do well to consider as we think of our mission.
The last image I have for the church today is the image of a launching pad. What might our church look life if we were truly a place where new and innovative ideas of faith were launched into the world? A place where individually and collectively we encourage each other to try what others say cannot be done. To make peace. To live from abundance. To love in the face of hate. To forgive those who hurt us. To join hands with those on the edges of our community to make a difference in the lives of our neighbors and the world. What might we do differently if we thought of the church as a launching pad? What might we launch if we invited our youth or young adults to shape our life together for a year—to plan worship, our Wednesday night programs, our annual budget? What if we created “Pullen Talks” like the “Ted Talks” and sent them out into the virtual world as a way to tell our faith story? A launching pad—that place from which we send out into the world who we are and what is important to us and how we see God in the world.
The lectionary group can tell you that one of the recurring questions I ask them is “If we were writing this scripture today, what would it say?” And so, in the spirit of that question, here’s how I would write Acts 2:42-47 today:
They devoted themselves to serving others and to the common good for all humanity—to being a shelter for the broken, the battered and the wounded. To being a place of safety in a world that is often unsafe and violent. They devoted themselves to being community to one another—to caring for the whole person spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically. They built relationships in which they were ministers to one another and they became a filling station along life’s highway where those who stopped for nourishment were greeted, seen and served. They welcomed the stranger, fed the hungry, and befriended the friendless. And finally, they devoted themselves to the free expression of their faith and belief. They became a kind of launching pad for people to go out into the world and be fully who God created them to be.
As they did these things awe came upon them, because many wonders and signs were being done in their midst. In the name of love and equality they did things that others said could not be done. And the thing they had in common was loving God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength and their neighbor as their selves. Their acts of radical inclusiveness, kindness and compassion made a difference in the world and God blessed them.
Being able to articulate what we believe and why we believe as we do is important for all of us— children, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged adults and older adults. But if someone came up to one of our youth and ask them what they believed about God and faith, I would much rather they answer with describing their faith community and their sense of belonging within that community and what their church is doing in the world to make a difference rather than quoting some well-defined theological statement about who God is or what they believe about the virgin birth or the resurrection.
My images and metaphors of a shelter, filling station and launching pad for who and what we are to be as a community of believers are not perfect. They are my musings for this week as I seek to respond to our text in 2014 and to the question of theological competence among our youth, even our adults. And so, I’ll leave you with a slightly different question from the one I often ask the lectionary group. If you were writing Acts 2:42-47 knowing that in a thousand years people would be reading it as their guide for how to be the community of believers what would you say? What images or metaphors might you use?