With Glad and Generous Hearts – Jennifer Hosler
Acts 2:42-47; Colossians 3:12-17
Our news media has the unfortunate tendency of focusing on things that go wrong. Violence, crime, oppression—these things sell papers or bring hits to websites. While these problems exist, focusing on them in the news media means that other stories do not often get told, particularly about certain places or groups. Stories about healthy communities and good governance in sub-Saharan Africa, stories about people resolving conflict well, stories about Christians and Muslims working together and understanding each other. These stories exist. When we find them, when we highlight them, they are like a breath of fresh air, giving us hope and courage to work for wholeness and well-being and justice and peace.
Today’s passage in Acts 2 tries to share one of the good stories about being the church: we don’t see fighting or division or pain.
We see people in community giving thanks, filled with joy, caring for one another, caring for each other’s needs. We see a picture of a church that is beautiful.
This beautiful depiction might make us respond in different ways. Some of us, when we read Acts 2, dream of what the church could be like. Some of us frown and dismiss it as impossible, improbable, and uncomfortable; others among us waffle between various skepticisms (“Did that really happen?” Or, “It might have happened then, but it could never happen now.”). Sometimes we don’t know how to take it: is it saying that we should copy this as an example?
This is where hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation, is important. What type of text is this? How do we interpret this? When we come to Acts 2, we need to how to interpret the specific type of biblical text.
Some NT book are prescriptive, they tell us forthrightly what specific teaching is—things that we should do, live out, or follow. They are prescribing. Narratives, or stories, are descriptive, telling what happened. We aren’t meant to just copy them word for word. When Jesus goes up a mountainside, does it mean that I too must go up a mountainside? No. But there are truths that we can glean from the text about what happened then can mean for us today.
Luke’s main goal, in the book of Acts (which is also called the Acts of the Apostles), is to illustrate the life and growth of the early church through the ministry of the apostles.
I think that today’s passage is like a positive news story about being the church, so that we can learn from it and find hope from it.
In Acts 2, everyone is in awe; God is moving. The Holy Spirit has filled and empowered the church. Its members gather to study the Gospel, to eat together, to pray, and to fellowship with each other. There is generosity overflowing and people are caring for each other’s needs, even going so far as to sell assets and give up material goods in order to do so. Daily worship, meals in homes, thankful attitudes, “glad and generous hearts”, good relationships with their neighbors, and new people welcomed into the Kingdom of God: we see the early church being Spirit-filled and full of life and joy.
What can we learn from the church in Acts? We learn that following Jesus is meant to be done together. Following Jesus—being the church—boils down to teaching, praying, friending, eating. Following Jesus together helps us to develop holy attitudes about the world around us.
Following Jesus is meant to be done together.
You probably know that I am very sociable and talkative person. There are some people who speak little: I am not one of them. On the introvert/extrovert spectrum, I tip toward the extrovert side and I get my energy from being with people. While I am mostly an extrovert, I really enjoy running alone.
When I am in a trail race and end up in a pack of runners, my default tendency is to alter my stride or utilize a moment to refuel, thus putting a short distance between me and the group.
So I was surprised in March when, during a 33 mile race, I ran the last 6 miles with someone. At mile 27, I had checked in with her as I saw her walking for a moment (trail runners try to take care of one another), seeing if she was okay or needed any extra food. She said she was good, so I continued on. She started running again and she kept with my pace.
We fell into a rhythm of running—faster than I had been earlier—and talking and talking. A couple miles in, I said to her, “Wow. I normally run alone, but I am really enjoying talking with you right now! I think it has helped me take my mind off of getting to the finish line.” She agreed and said, “Actually, I was really struggling but I decided to try to keep up with you. This has helped me a lot!”
We picked up the pace and continued a strong stride all the way to the end, finishing together. While I still think I generally like to run alone, I have realized how helpful it is to run with someone. It can make me stronger emotionally (get me over a wall) and stronger mentally (help refocus on something other than being exhausted). It can give me extra oomph to push through physically.
While trail running can go well alone or in a group, there added benefits to being with others. When it comes to the Christian life, it actually doesn’t go well out in the woods on your own. Following Jesus is meant to be done together.
In Acts 2, thousands of people have decided to follow Jesus after hearing Peter’s preaching through the Holy Spirit. We see in the text that responding to the gospel does not only have internal or individual implications. Rather, it prompts the believers to gather together. They don’t go their separate ways, they don’t to try to make it on their own—they gather together regularly. When we look through our Acts passage, being “together” is not just peripheral to the early Christian faith—it is an integral part.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologican and pastor imprisoned during WWII, argued that being together as the church is essential to being a Christian. “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ” (1954, p. 21, emphasis added). In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer describes Christian relationships as a prerequisite for discipleship, for following Jesus. He writes, “God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother [or sister], in the mouth of [a person]. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to [her]… [S]He needs [her] brother [or sister] as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation” (1954, p. 23).
Do we recognize that we need one another? How do we live out our faith as though we do need one another? Being part of the church is not an optional part of being a Christian—following Jesus is meant to be done together.
Teaching, Praying, Friending, Eating, and Serving
There is a joke in Church of the Brethren circles and it goes something like this: potlucks. Ice cream. And knowing laughter. Very often, Brethren like to laugh at themselves for how often their gatherings involve food, especially ice cream. Annual Conference last year, the Mission and Ministry Board of the denomination decided to encourage Brethren from across the US to mingle by, you guessed it, free ice cream. The church is built on butter pecan and cookie dough.
When I look at our passage in Acts 2, I marvel at its beauty—and that the beauty comes from the everyday just being the church. Verse 42 sums up what being church meant for them: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Following Jesus is meant to be done together. Following Jesus—being the church—boils down to teaching, praying, friending, eating.
If someone asks us, “What does a church need to be a church today?” We might say, “A building. A board. A Sunday morning service. Committees.” While these things can be helpful for a church to remain an institution, they aren’t necessarily what gives it life and makes it a group of Jesus followers.
In Acts 2, the basic practices of church involve teaching the message of Jesus and regular daily prayers. These seem obvious. Church involves the Bible and praying. But Acts 2 doesn’t seem to stop with these typical “churchy” things but also includes what I’m going to call “friending and eating”. Verse 42 says that they devoted themselves “to fellowship” and it says in v. 46 that they spent much time together and ate together.
When I say “friending”, I definitely don’t mean facebook. I was originally going to say “fellowship”, but sometimes we use that word too much in church settings. “Holy friending” might be a happy medium between the two—building genuine relationships with sisters and brothers in Christ. These are relationships that do involve worship and prayer and scripture, but that also involve other settings outside of what we normally think of “church”.
We see from Acts 2 that following Jesus involves knowing other Christians intimately. I think it is helpful to ask ourselves, do we have close relationships with anyone at church—outside of our family or spouse? We don’t need to be best friends with everyone, but how can we have a stronger relationship with a sister or brother in this church? Eating together more often seems like a logical and biblical and, apparently, Brethren answer.
If teaching, praying, friending, and eating are what makes up the core of a life-giving, Spirit-filled church, how do we add more of each to Washington City COB? How do we add more teaching? Should we have a Bible study available all life stages? How do we add more praying? How can we find more times to eat together informally (at church and in our homes) and also break bread together as a holy feast (Love Feast communion)?
Following Jesus together helps us to develop holy attitudes about the world around us.
Following Jesus is meant to be done together. Following Jesus—being the church—boils down to teaching, praying, friending, eating. Following Jesus together helps us to develop holy attitudes about the world around us.
While I was preparing this sermon, a certain song kept coming to my mind. This song is from a movie and the scene begins when a nanny, upon hearing that her uncle has had an incident with his health, brings her nannying kids with her for a visit. The incident is not your typical health problem—Uncle Albert has once again laughed himself up to the ceiling and he is unable to get down. Mary Poppins brings Jane, Michael, and the chimneysweep Burt to her Uncle Albert’s house. Uncle Albert begins to sing a song about loving laughter and the way people laugh, and soon everyone is laughing and having tea on the ceiling.
Why does our passage in Acts 2 bring this song to mind? The title of my sermon this morning is, “With glad and generous hearts”. That phrase stood out to me as I was reading and meditating on today’s passage. There is a sense of joy and gratitude about this early church. They were glad! They were generous! They praised God and had the goodwill of all the people.
Somehow I don’t see the early church as a bunch of grumps. This Mary Poppins song has an attitude of whimsy, joy, and delight—and I see a similar, cultivated attitude of joy in Acts 2. They are gathering together, breaking bread, and eating their food “with glad and generous hearts” (v. 46).
Following Jesus together helps us to develop holy attitudes about everyday life—attitudes of joy and gratitude, delight and thanksgiving. Being together can also shape our attitudes about our material possessions and our neighbors.
The church in Acts 2 clearly doesn’t see their material possessions and their wealth as solely for their own benefit. They seem to assess their own needs and wants. Not only that, these Christians see the needs of others linked to their personal wealth. They sell their belongings in order to meet the needs of others.
To be clear, this isn’t communism. No one is forcing each other to turn over property; the text seems to indicate that not all possessions or goods were sold, but that things were sold as needs arose (v. 45). According to William Willimon, this community of believers following the resurrected Jesus clearly has “confidence in the ability of the resurrection faith to overturn all material and social arrangements” (1988, p. 40)
The worldview in Acts 2 says, “The needs of others are my needs. I can’t just brush off someone else’s needs, plight or injustice as not applicable to me. The burdens of the world are the burdens of the church—loving my neighbor might involve loving them emotionally and also sacrificing to meet their physical and economic needs. There is no specific formula in Acts, but it is clear that a Spirit-filled community cultivates generosity, joy, and material sacrifice for the good of others.
As we live our lives as individuals and as a community of faith, we are called to continuously refine our attitudes about the world around us. The Kingdom of God is at hand! Do we give thanks daily for the little things? Do we check ourselves to see if we are hoarding? Do we ask ourselves if there are needs in the church, in the community, in the world, that God is calling us to address with our material sacrifice? Following Jesus together as a church helps us to develop holy attitudes about the world around us, about our daily life, our material possessions, and our neighbors. May we be like the early church—and seek to cultivate glad and generous hearts.
Sisters and brothers, we are all a part of Washington City COB in its 120th year. As we think about our 120th year, as we think about renewing this church in love and service and the Holy Spirit, and the resurrection brought by Jesus in our own lives, we should consider the example of our sisters and brothers in Acts 2. We should allow its example to shape and form us as the church today.
Following Jesus is meant to be done together. Following Jesus—being the church—boils down to teaching, praying, friending, eating. Following Jesus together helps us to develop holy attitudes about the world around us. May we pray, study, friend, and eat; may we transform our hearts and attitudes by the power of the Holy Spirit as we live and serve together. Amen.
Bonhoeffer, D. (1954). Life Together. (J.W. Doberstein, Trans.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Willimon, W.H. (1988). Acts. Interpretation: A Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Atlanta, GA: John Knox.