Sunday, April 30, 2023
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Four Markers of a Healthy Christian Community
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
This Sunday is often referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. However, this morning rather than looking at the shepherd I would like to turn my attention to the sheep that he left behind, the sheep in the form of the early church as described in our passage from Acts.
Speaking of problematic passages this description of the early church is a real challenge for us today. They sold everything they had and distributed it to the group as all had need. You thought the stewardship committee was asking a lot when we talk in terms of giving a tithe of 10%. These folks were all in.
This was a time of great growth for the church in a very hostile environment. It is mentioned that 3000 joined in a day, now there is an example of some pretty good church growth. Now we live in a challenging environment, but at least we are not under the threat of death by those in power. So I think there is something important for us in this passage from Acts if we are going to be shepherds of a new generation of disciples.
For me the more important verse in this reading is the very beginning. There are words from our baptismal promises that come directly from the passage in Acts. “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, and to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.” Here we have four markers of a healthy Christian Community.
Apostle’s Teaching: This is one of the three legs of our stool that Anglicanism is built upon. We call it Tradition. This is one of the lenses we use to enter into dialogue with scripture the second of the two legs of our three legged stool. This is not to say that any one teaching is superior, but this is about the active engagement and effort to understand what God is saying to his people through Holy Scripture. The third leg is reason which is how we make that determination.
Fellowship: Christianity is not a solo activity. Even the desert hermits learned this and came to together in small communities that eventually grew into the monastic movement. I cannot celebrate communion by myself. There must always be another person present. Remember when two or three are gathered the Spirit is there. Fellowship is also about more than potlucks although we do pretty good at those. Fellowship is all about how we interact with each other. If there is one thing we learned during the pandemic it was how important fellowship, being with each other is to a healthy church.
The Rev. Winnie Varghese was the rector of St. Mark’s church in the Bowery, the oldest site of continuous practice of religion in New York City. This church was about 30 people on a Sunday when she took over. She has tripled the church in her 5 years. They had nothing to risk because they had nothing to lose and they quickly opened their doors to an incredible mix of people and the church looks like her neighborhood, which is quite diverse. They welcome all into their community and in the ultimate act of radical hospitality they allowed their parish to become something new. There is a parish in Houston that 7 or so years ago had been moved back to mission status and had about 30 people total. Again a priest came in, looked at the neighborhood and rebuilt the church back to parish status. The common factor is welcoming all, included those that often are rejected by the church because of a variety of reasons including sexual orientation. Every new member brings their own life experience their own experience and heritage to our parish. and to be truly welcoming we need to let that enrich our common life.
Breaking of the Bread: You heard it last week, they recognized him in the breaking of the bread. The centrality of communion for us as Episcopalians is one of the things that make us different from many other churches especially most of the Protestant churches. Regular participation in worship and communion is how we remain grounded in our communal faith. Communion reminds us that we are part of the body of Christ.
Prayers: You cannot establish a relationship with someone if you only talk to them when you are in trouble or need. We cannot build and maintain a relationship with God unless we take the time to talk and to listen to God on a regular and I’ll say this flat out, on a daily basis. What marriage would flourish if you allowed days to go by without talking to each other? Prayer is conversation with God. It is the foundation of all spiritual practices. What changes is how we pray and there are many ways. That may be a topic next fall for the adult Sunday school.
Today there are communities like this Acts community in our church. The Society of St. John the Evangelist is one monastic community that lives this life, both in terms of the opening verse as well as the giving up all they have. Bishop Tom Shaw during his time as a priest and a bishop was a member of the Society. He lived in his cell at the monastery. His entire salary went to the common pot as does everything the individual brothers earn for their work. A key identifier however for a community like this is that they have a Rule of Life. SSJE is a Benedictine community and that has some very specific characteristics and the rule is one written primarily by Benedict adapted to modern times.
A good Rule of Life for someone in a religious context is a way of being Christian. The focus is on the word being. If we truly believe that being a Christian is an integral part of our person, then the focus is on being not doing. If we live our lives according to these four areas from Acts we are in fact living into the promises made at baptism. The five promises made and reaffirmed at every baptism start with this passage. It is the first promise that we make.
A Rule of Life is not restricted to monastic movements. Daughters of the King have a communal Rule of Life. The Episcopal Church through its CREDO program expects their clergy to have a Rule of Life and I updated mine just a couple years ago. One of the things I examine every month when I go for spiritual direction is how am I doing with my Rule of Life. I often find that if I am out of sorts my director will help me find how I am not following my rule. This is probably the most important checkup for my spiritual wellbeing.
Cursillo is another group that comes to mind when we think about a Rule of Life. For everyone that comes out of that program is charged with following a Rule of Life as well. After a Cursillo weekend the person is expected to live this rule, which is pretty close to what is in our Acts passage. They are expected to be part of fourth day meetings. They are expected to study scripture and pray as well as be part of their church and especially their Cursillo group. The power in a group like Cursillo is not just the weekend experience, but how the participants carry on after that weekend.
Why is this important? Everything that flowed out of that early church was because they lived this life. It is essential to the health and vitality of every parish. As I said earlier Christianity is not a solo effort, but a community effort. Even more important Christianity is not a spectator sport. Jesus expects us to be involved to be active members and having a good rule of life helps. The truly healthy churches today get that and not only do they get this, they live it.
That is the difference between a consumer church and missional church. A consumer church is a dispenser of religious goods and services. People come to church to be fed, to have their needs met through quality programs and have the professionals do the work.
A missional church is a body of people sent on a mission who gather in community to worship, for community encouragement and teaching from the Word in addition to what they are self feeding themselves through-out the week . I go to church is different from I am the church.
The church described in Acts is a missional church. I challenge you at St. Paul’s to do the same. “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, and to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.” That’s the Christian life in a nutshell. It is a life’s work in reality.