When I was about five years old, my dad was attending seminary and pastoring a church in a tiny town north of Dayton, Ohio named Lockington. Now my hometown of Johnstown was primarily Catholic and I can only assume that influence was the reason behind my parents not allowing me to take communion as a child. Now, on Sunday mornings, my dad was in the pulpit and my mother was in the choir loft. And, if that sounds to you like a risky arrangement, let me affirm that it was on more than one occasion. As an adult I now realize my mom must have really enjoyed singing to take those kinds of chances every week. Now, at that time in my childhood, I spent most Sunday services sitting with the Mohler family – their pew was front and center – because they had a little girl named Lori who was my age. Lori’s parents permitted her to commune and so one Sunday, here’s what happened. They served communion in the pews from the trays. A tray of bread came by me and Lori plucked up one of those little square cubes of bread. Then, noticing that I had no bread, she eyed hers carefully, then broke that tiny cube into two pieces and handed one half to me. I didn’t know what else to do, so I ate it. A few moments later, the tray of juice came by with those tiny little cups. Lori picked up a cup; she took a tiny sip, eyed the cup and handed the rest to me. I didn’t know what else to do, so I drank it. Now that little incident with Holy Communion may have been one of my earliest experiences of something the first century Church defined with a special Greek word, koinonia. It’s a word that can be translated a number of ways, including: community, fellowship, sharing and joint participation. The word can also be used to describe a financial collection that is gathered as an embodiment or expression of fellowship. In other words, the impetus for the offering or collection is a desire to express and to strengthen fellowship; a monetary demonstration of a “one for all and all for one” mindset. To exhibit koinonia is to share one heart and one soul.
This week I’m continuing my sermon series called “Six Ways to Sunday” that explores the vows we take or the promises we make when we join a United Methodist congregation. A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the vow of prayer. Last Sunday, I preached on the vow of presence. I talked about the fact that the early Christians were united not so much through an initial attraction or fondness as they were through an affection that developed over time as a direct result of their unifying belief in Jesus and their common interest in both proclaiming and exhibiting the gospel, the good news of Jesus as Lord and Savior. Those early Christians shared koinonia; they were of one heart and soul.
Now, whoever put those United Methodist membership vows together must have known what they were doing because the third promise we make is a vow to support the church with our giving. And in relation to the Book of Acts (which tells the story of the development of the early Church), the vow of giving is a promise utterly, entirely dependent upon the manner of fellowship we share with one another. In other words, giving to the church is not, at its root, about money at all. Giving to the church is really about relationships and the value we place on those relationships. Supporting the church with our financial gifts ought to come from a deep connection to and love for Christ and one another. Our giving to the Church says far less about our income and financial status than it does about our commitment to Christ and to one another. [Repeat] Certainly many churches, including the United Methodist Church, continue to encourage our members to follow the Old Testament guidelines of tithing, of giving ten percent of our income. But over the years I have seen clearly that United Methodist giving is all over the map. And the percentage of money people give is dramatically influenced not by their paycheck but by their relationship with Jesus and their understanding of what the Church is called to do and to be with and for one another.
If you were in worship last Sunday, you may have noticed that the scripture readings from last week and this week sound awfully familiar. The two passages – one from Acts, chapter 2 and the other from Acts, chapter 4 – are summary statements about what life was like in the early Church and in each of those two summaries, our bible writer tells us that one clear and consistent characteristic of the early Church was their willingness to share with one another. As I’ve already mentioned, that sharing, just like the “togetherness” or fellowship I spoke of last Sunday, wasn’t about warm, chummy feelings. Their relationship with one another was the direct result of their relationship with Jesus. So, their relationship with Jesus defined the nature of their relationships with one another. As followers of Jesus, they lived out – they embodied – the teachings of Jesus; teachings about what it means to be a part of a community where mercy and generosity are the rule of life.
In fact, the writer of Acts reveals that they lived out, they fulfilled, the promises God gave to the Israelite people way back in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy, chapter 15, it says, “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community… within the land the Lord you God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted… Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord you God will bless you…” In fact, the Israelites are told, if they will follow this instruction from God, there will be no one in need among them. Now, it sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? God basically told the Israelites: when people in your community are in need, take care of them because, if you do, no one will ever be in need. It’s kind of counterintuitive, isn’t it?
Yet it is exactly that very scenario that we see revealed in the early Church. There is, just as God promised the Israelites, not a needy person among them because, when need arises, someone voluntarily sells their own property to be distributed to those in need. And thus, there is no need because every need, as it appears, is addressed directly through the generosity of another member of the community.
So the message here is that, if we want to never be in need, we need to always give. Whereas, saving (even hoarding) seems to be the logical behavior to prevent want or shortage; we are shown that it is exactly the opposite. If you don’t want to be in want, be a generous, one might even say reckless, giver not a careful saver.
Now friends, I should tell you that there are some people, even some bible scholars or theologians, who may try and tell you that this teaching in Acts is fantasy, an idyllic picture with no basis in reality. But one would be hard-pressed to try and escape the early Church’s clear teaching and clear expectation of risk-taking generosity. You have in your bulletin this morning some early Christian teaching outside the Book of Acts that makes clear this kind of communal living, this mindset of fellowship and sharing, this koinonia, was perhaps as rampant, as ubiquitous, in the early Church as was the confession of Jesus as Lord.
Justin Martyr, an early Christian teacher and defender of the faith wrote this of the early Church: “We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it.” In the Didache, an early Christian writing with such authority it came close to being included in the New Testament, we find this quote, “Do not turn away from those who are in need, but share all things in common with your brother. Do not claim anything as your own…” And in an early second century Christian writing, we find these words: “Love your neighbor more than your own soul. Share everything with your neighbor and call nothing your own…”
Friends, as I mentioned last Sunday, the promises we make when we join a Methodist congregation reflect the practices of Christians in the earliest days of our faith. They are nothing new or original. They are ancient and deeply woven into the DNA of what it means to be a church. The Church is not a place where we do our own thing and mind our own business and let people take care of themselves. Church is a place where we take care of one another. Church is a place where we share one heart and soul.
Some of you may remember the first sermon series I did here at Trinity on the book “Questions God Asks Us.” If you do, I wonder if you can remember the first question a human asks in our scripture. The first question any person asks in the bible is the question Cain sarcastically poses to God about his brother Abel. Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Brothers and sisters, our God is a God who desires fellowship with us. Our God is a God who desires to bless us and care for us. And we are made in God’s image. So, are we our brother’s keeper? Absolutely; you bet we are. We follow a Savior who gave up even his life for us. Our membership vow to support the church with our giving is not, ultimately, a promise about money. It is a promise to be in community with one another; Christian community; a community structured not according to the world’s standards but according to God’s standards. We have all heard the cliché that you can’t just talk the talk you have to walk the walk. And our giving to the church to support its missions and ministry is the walk behind our talk. Few things proclaim the gospel as dramatically or as powerfully as the simple acts of giving and sharing.
You know, I don’t have any idea what my little friend Lori Mohler was thinking that day decades ago when she shared her communion bread and juice with me. We were only five, so I can’t imagine she was inspired by any lofty, philosophical thought. I suspect it was this simple: She had something that I, her friend, did not have; something that symbolized the love of Jesus, and she wanted me, her friend, to have it too. And so she shared. And so we share – one heart, one soul, one bread, one body, one Savior, one Lord.
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