The Golden Age of the Church (5/2/02)
University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas
The Bible passage for this morning is from the Book of Acts. Before we turn to that passage, I’ll give you a little historical background. As most of you know, the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke wrote the Book of Acts. In fact, Luke and Acts form one continuous story, and Bible scholars almost always refer to these writings as “Luke-Acts.”
This author, who does not identify himself but who has traditionally been called Luke, explains at the beginning of his gospel story the purpose of his writing. The first sentence of the Gospel of Luke says, Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
That’s quite a mouthful for one sentence! But it tells us a great deal. For one thing, we learn that Luke did not know Jesus, but has heard the stories that were handed down from people who did know him. Second, there were evidently conflicting stories going around about Jesus, or Luke would not say that he had investigated everything thoroughly so he could put together an accurate account. And we also discover that Luke is writing a letter to someone named Theophilus, so Theophilus will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, with regard to all the stories that are circulating about Jesus.
It is arguable whether or not there was actually a person named Theophilus to whom Luke directed this letter. It may have been written to a general audience of Christians who lived at that time, and to the Christians who would live in the future. The reason for the confusion is this: the name Theophilus means, literally, “Lover of God.” Because the letter is written to, quote, “Lover of God,” it has been easy for Christians through the ages to read Luke’s account as if it were directed to them personally. And who knows—that may have been exactly what Luke had in mind. Of course it is entirely possible that there actually was a person named Theophilus to whom this letter was specifically written.
The Book of Acts begins with Luke once again addressing Theophilus, explaining that while in the first book he told all about Jesus of Nazareth, in this second book he will tell all about what happened to the Apostles after the death of Jesus, and how the early church was formed. Before I continue, there are bound to be those of you who are wondering why these two books—Luke and Acts—aren’t side by side in the Bible. After all, it is clear that they form one continuous narrative, written by the same author. But in the Bible we find the Gospel of John sandwiched between Luke and Acts.
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Here is the reason: Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the synoptic gospels, and they all three tell similar stories about Jesus. John’s gospel is so different, the people assembling the Christian canon knew they had to place Mathew, Mark and Luke together, and have John stand alone. But since there are four stories about the life of Jesus, it only made sense to place those four stories together. So the New Testament was organized with the Gospel of John falling somewhat awkwardly between Luke’s account of Jesus, and his account what happened following the death of Jesus.
The Book of Acts is about the birth of the church. Try to imagine what it would have been like to be one of Jesus’ apostles. You’d followed this guy around; you knew there was something extraordinary about him, but weren’t sure exactly what it was that made him so special; you listened to his sayings—his parables and aphorisms—and for the most part came away at least as confused as inspired; you watched him get crossways with the religious leaders and the Roman government—a deadly combination of enemies; and the next thing you knew you were hiding in the bushes while they nailed your hero to a cross.
And then, then, something beyond your wildest imagining happened. You experienced Jesus after his death. Scholars will argue all day about the exact nature of the experiences Jesus’ followers had after his death, but they will unanimously agree that they experienced something. The disciples of Jesus came to the conclusion that Jesus was spiritually alive, and suddenly a lot of the things he’d said that didn’t make much sense when he was alive started falling into place.
So what do you do? That’s what the Book of Acts is all about. Evidently a lot of people started experiencing Jesus after his death. We should remember that the overwhelming majority of people who actually heard Jesus speak when he was alive rejected what he was saying. The Book of Acts tells us that the number of Jesus’ followers who gathered after his death to try to make sense of things totaled only 120 people—120.
But for some reason people started welcoming the message of the apostles. This wasn’t because the disciples of Jesus were brilliant theological giants, nor were they silver-tongued orators. But God found a way to use these people in spite of their limitations. The apostle Peter, who was never especially competent when he was following Jesus, and who had often frustrated Jesus with his inability to understand what Jesus was talking about, gained three thousand converts to this new faith in one day! Think about that. At the end of Jesus’ ministry his followers numbered 120 people, and with one sermon Peter converted 3000.
We can deduce two things from that. First, the spirit of the Risen Christ was at work in some way, because there is no indication that Peter was anywhere near as eloquent as Jesus. And second, I think we can all take comfort from the Book of Acts’ message that God’s purposes can be achieved, even through less-than-perfect servants.
That leads us to today’s Bible passage, from the second chapter of Acts. [The new converts] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. Awe came upon everyone, because many signs and wonders 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.
This story in the Book of Acts tells of one short moment that many consider the golden age of the church; but it was a very short moment indeed. We need only read a few chapters ahead to discover that the apostles will be jailed for their preaching; that some of the early converts will seek personal glory; that a feud will break out between the Hebrew Christians and the Greek Christians; and that Stephen will be stoned to death, the first of the churches many martyrs.
Not only that, if we read the rest of the New Testament, we discover in the letters of Paul that he was constantly having to ask the churches from other regions—from outside Israel—to send money to the church back in Jerusalem. In the words of one commentary, “[the pooling of resources] turned out to be a shortsighted measure that ultimately exhausted their wherewithal and left them destitute and in need of a handout from congregations in other regions.” Most ministers don’t want to be reminded of that, since this particular text is a favorite of preachers on Stewardship Sunday, as they try to guilt their parishioners into digging a little deeper for next year’s pledge.
We don’t want to idealize the past and in doing so repeat its mistakes; but we can learn a great deal about the possibilities for our church life together by looking at the things those in the early church did right. The general disposition of those Christians who lived through that brief golden age of the church was one of gratitude and generosity. If we read that little story from the Book of Acts and say it is all about the way they shared all their possessions, that robs the story of its real value—its practical value. Because while the unconditional surrender of all material wealth proved to have some negative effects over the long run for the Jerusalem church, it is the other elements of the story that show us why that era can rightly be called the golden age of the church.
What do we see when we look to that first century church—that church of the golden age? Just from that short passage from the Book of Acts we read this morning, we see people devoted to the life of faith. We see people who joyfully gather together to worship. We see people in awe at the wonder of God. We see spiritual seekers growing together, both in spirit and in number. And we see people whose faith leads them to be generous with their material possessions.
All of those elements are present in today’s Bible passage. And I am very happy to say that all of those elements are present in this church. In that sense, we see a church in first century Jerusalem that is not all that different from our own. Perhaps we have learned from both their good example, and by their mistakes.
Let’s consider some of the characteristics we share in common with that short-lived church of the golden age. First, we share a devotion to the life of faith. For that first century church, their devotion arose in the face of persecution and violence. A quick overview of the Book of Acts reveals that it was dangerous to be a Christian in those days, and it got more and more dangerous over the next few centuries.
For us, at least in this land of religious freedom, we need not fear for our safety as Christians. But we still have our share of obstacles to overcome if we are to remain devoted to our faith. We live in a secular world, a world that has pushed God to its outer margins. Marx said religion is an opiate of the people, a tool of the oppressive powers that keep the masses both weak and meek. Nietzsche said that God was an idea humanity needed for a time, but that we have outgrown that need, and the time has come to reject God as a superstition from our more primitive days. Modern scientism, which is an aberration of science, holds that only that which can be empirically measured can be said to be true. Scientism says that such concepts as soul, spirit, and love can be reduced to explainable and meaningless chemical reactions in the human brain.
So it still takes some courage to be devoted to a life of faith. There are those who look at people who take their faith seriously and sort of pat them on the head and say, “There there, if you’re not strong enough to face life without all that superstitious nonsense, you just go right ahead with your silly religion.” It takes courage to face a world that claims the very power that created us all, and which holds us in being moment to moment, does not even exist. Instead, the claim goes, our lives are empty bubbles floating in a sea of meaninglessness. And it’s hard to argue with those people, when the only rules of the game are the ones they have devised. After all, what size test tube does it take to measure our faith? Where are the scales that can weigh out a couple of ounces of our love?
The reason I know we share the characteristic of faithful lives with those early Christians is because of the second thing we have in common with them: we gather together to worship. Like those first century Christians, when we look at the world, we do not see a monstrous meaningless accident. We see a universe with purpose. And like them, we respond to this life with gratitude. Life is not some prison in which we find ourselves trapped. Life is a gift with which we have been blessed. And we gather with grateful hearts to offer thanks to the One who is the giver of all good things.
This is largely a result of the third common thread between us and that church in the Book of Acts, namely, we are in awe at the wonder of God. There are two types of people in the world: those who can’t see God anywhere they look; and those who can’t help but see God everywhere they look. At least on our better days, we fall into that second category. We see God everywhere: in the subatomic forces that bind protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the atom; in the countless stars hurtling through space over unfathomable distances; in the fresh clean air of a spring morning as the sun peeks over a pink and blue horizon; in the green of a new leaf, in the pastel canvas of an evening sky, in the laughter of children, in the eyes of those we love…everywhere. We are in awe at the wonder of God.
A fourth thing we share with that golden age church is that we are spiritual seekers, growing in both spirit and number. It is hard to imagine what it would have been like to be among those three thousand people who suddenly felt compelled to surrender their lives to God through Jesus Christ as they listened to Peter. But they surrendered to the mystery. And they gave birth to the church, which is not a collection of saints, or an assembly of those who have been given all the answers, but is rather a group of men, women and children committed to making their faith journeys together, embracing both God and one another with love. We stand in the tradition they began. We are touched by the same spirit. And we grow in the same love.
Finally, like that early church, we are generous with our material possessions. Our congregation is blessed in many ways, but there is no greater blessing than the generous and loving way you respond to God’s love. I will not spend a lot of time giving the people of University Congregational Church a collective pat on the back; I will simply say that watching you turn the love in your hearts into concrete acts of love and charity in this world is one of the greatest joys of my life.
Now that I think about it, maybe that church in the Book of Acts wasn’t the golden age of the church after all. Maybe throughout history, whenever people devoted to the life of faith gather to worship, in awe at the wonder of God, and seek to grow together as they work to make the world a better place—maybe that’s the golden age of the church. As long as we keep that same spirit—that same love—alive, it will always be the golden age of the church. And through that loving spirit those first three-thousand converts are very much still with us. They’re right here, seeing the world through our eyes and healing the world with our love. Pass it on. Amen.