For June 4.
The church season is now post-Easter and the scriptures, like Acts chapters 1 and 2 (from last week and this week), deal with the beginnings of the church as we know it.
But it didn't start out looking as we know it today.
It started with Jesus' disciples and followers having to deal with Jesus leaving them to carry on his work without him.They organize themselves. They receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and people of many different cultures and languages are included in the hearing of the story of Jesus. The story spreads and the church takes shape as the keeper and sharer of it. As more and more people hear the story, more and more want to join in. 2:42 says they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to breaking of bread, and prayers. They also shared their possessions with each other, praised God, and had the "goodwill" of their neighbours.
Some of this sounds like the church we know. Good food, good fellowship, times to learn, pray, and worship together, and opportunities to share generously with others who have needs. Some of it, however, is wildly unfamiliar to us. They did not have the New Testament yet, except as oral tradition. Their scripture was the Torah, the laws and the prophets. Very few people were literate. Many were still Jewish and had a long scriptural tradition. The mixing of Jewish and Gentile Christians caused a lot of issues-who brought the pork to potluck? Who didn't ritually wash their hands...politics, culture, and the new ways of the church were problematic. They were very much a strange minority at the time.
The early church was radical. It clashed with the established religions and cultures. It was strange to be a place where rich and poor, slave and free, male and female....all had a voice. Women were leaders, deacons, in the early church. That was unheard of. Slaves were considered "moral agents"and able to make their own faith decisions instead of just following whatever their masters adhered to. That was unheard of. This was a radical thing and it was appealing, but not easy. The clashes with culture definitely found their way into the early believing communities. We hear bits of it in Paul's letters when he urges unity and love and when he struggles with issues of slavery and women's voices.
It is amazing that it survived. That thousands of years of church organization followed and eventually resulted in a Christendom that, instead of being radical and counter cultural-became rather conservative, normative, and formed the culture. And this formation and reformation continues.
The church will not stay looking as we know it today.
The church (in North America at least) is past it's "heyday". We keep hearing that churches are graying and shrinking, that generations X and Y (those born after the baby boomers) and millenials (those born around the year 2000 and after) are no longer seeing the church as the hub of spiritual and community life. That doesn't mean that Jesus' message is irrelevant, or that the church is dead. It does mean that we might, once again, be a strange and somewhat radical minority. (still with issues too-that just goes along with being human.)
Jesus' message of radical love for all, and especially the poor and disadvantaged, is hugely relevant and needed today, but perhaps the shape of the church as an institution is changing again. Maybe we are living into a time of new relevance, of a renewed awareness of a radical message that speaks against consumerism and individualism. Maybe we are living into a new awareness of our need for community and diversity that has more to do with practicing love for neighbour than it does in arguing about right doctrine. Some of this still sounds like the church we know, but a re-reading of the beginnings of the church challenges us to think about new beginnings for new times.
After reading Acts, what do we imagine our faith community might look like as it reorganizes itself for living into today's world as keepers and sharers of Jesus' story? How are we shapers of the church today?
Note: This Sunday, our congregation will be taking part in the "Blanket Exercise" and learning some of the story of Canada's Indigenous people. As we think about the institution of church then and now, how are we challenged to begin anew? How are we going to be part of the faithful re-shaping of the church as we come to new understandings?