May 29, 2016 “Primitive” – Acts 2:29-47
May 29, 2016 – Second Sunday after Pentecost
They don’t make them like they used to. I’m talking about burritos. Meat-filled burritos covered in dark red sauce and cheese, big enough to fill a plate. That’s how they were made at Jesse’s Pico Inn near where I grew up in Santa Monica, California.
The Pico Inn had humble beginnings. Jesse Rodriquez and his wife began it in a tiny glass-walled diner on Pico Boulevard in the 1950s. Jesse was a great cook. They quickly became known for delicious Mexican food at a good price. By the time I remember, their restaurant was in a larger, stucco building just up the street from the old diner. Our family ate there at least once a month. As a teenager, I ate the big burrito, three tacos, chips and salsa, and my part of the quesadilla we all shared. Jesse knew our family, especially my grandmother, and we always looked forward to the Pico Inn.
Jesse’s got more popular. By the late 60s they added a lounge in a cave motif with soft lighting. They opened another restaurant, Casa Rodriquez, down on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. Everything was going well for the family.
In the early 70s we noticed the food wasn’t quite what it used to be. Jesse had to hire more cooks to keep up. They weren’t all as good as he was. He, his wife, and his children were getting older. We saw less of the family and more of cooks and servers we didn’t know. It wasn’t the same as it used to be.
I went off to college and came home hoping for a good meal at Jesse’s. My mother broke the bad news. The Rodriquezes had sold the business. We gave the new owners a try, but were disappointed. They kept the name, but that was about all. The food was what you might find at any chain Mexican restaurant. The Pico Inn is now ancient history. I can’t even find it mentioned on the Internet. I’ll never eat a burrito like that again unless Jesse opens a restaurant in the kingdom of God.
The first church here in Acts 2 seems like ancient and lost history. This beautiful picture of several thousand believers continually devoted to the Lord and to each other, seems like an impossible dream, an ideal forever gone. We don’t expect Christian life to be like that again. Or do we?
I can’t tell you how many sermons, devotional talks and the like I’ve heard on the last few verses of Acts 2, all making an unfavorable comparison of the way church is now to the way it was back then. The implication is almost always that we need to somehow recapture that first church Golden Age and do it the way they did. If we do, then we too will see signs and wonders as in verse 43 and people getting saved every day like in verse 47.
It’s human nature to dream of some past golden age. On the grand scale, thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century suggested there is something noble about a way of life we might call savage or primitive. The simplicity of living without civilization is more authentic, more genuinely human than all the complications of the modern world.
Even with regard to lesser matters than the whole of human life, we tend toward nostalgia or a romantic view of past eras. Nerds of my age may watch the most recent X-Men film and long for the golden age of Marvel Comics in the 1960s. If you’re partial to the DC comic universe, then the golden age is even further back, the 1930s to the 1950s.
It’s easy to imagine that the past was better than the present, so it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that there was once a Christian golden age, and here it is in Acts chapter 2. All we need to do is be like they were and all will be well once again with the church and even with the world.
Back in the fourth century, the great preacher Chrysostom was one of the first to compare present-day Christians unfavorably to that first-century bunch we read about here. He says, “they drew near with much piety; honors were not so sought after as they are now; they transferred their thoughts to things future, and looked for nothing of things present… We, quite the reverse… we ourselves are to blame in every point, we who do not choose to let ourselves be stirred up ever so little.”
In almost every movement of Christian renewal, from St. Francis to the Protestant Reformation to our own Covenant pietism, there is some of this idea. We don’t measure up to those first Christians, so we just need to be as faithful and passionate and devoted as they were and we will become the people God means us to be. Like that way overused story about Vince Lombardi’s “this is a football speech,” we just have to get back to basics, to what got it all started.
Yes and no. Yes, the Holy Spirit gave us this text for our instruction and for our example. We aren’t meant just to read and despair, longing for the good old days. In some way, you and I, two millennia and hundreds of denominations later, are meant to be like this early church where “everyone was filled with awe,” as it says in verse 43.
Verse 42 is somewhat reassuring. The four basic dimensions of the Jerusalem church’s life together are still the essential parameters of our worship now: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, prayer. Those elements: Bible study, loving community, the Lord’s Table and prayer are what we expect to find here on Sunday morning and in any gathering of those who believe in Jesus. If we come expecting those four things to happen then we are not far off track, and not too far distant from those ancient Christians.
What we usually don’t expect is what follows in verse 43 and on: miracles, sharing of property in common, and the general sense of excitement we read between the lines. We usually don’t have the sense that our way of life as people of Jesus is particularly wonderful or awe-inspiring. Like the Pico Inn in its waning years, church today seems to be spread too thin and running out of steam.
We could try to up the excitement level. You can find several churches around town doing just that. There’s lots of video and energetic worship teams playing loudly and dozens of programs and classes you can join. There is absolutely nothing wrong with all that, but it doesn’t seem to bring us any closer to Acts 2.
Another approach is to be all about authenticity. Get rid of all the forms and structure and just hang out and love Jesus and each other. I read with amusement a Babylon Bee (if you haven’t found this Christian humor site, I recommend it) send-up of a a hip guy who is “definitely not preaching to you.” He’s just “sittin’ on a stool and chattin’ with ya.” I laughed out loud because my brother-in-law tried that in a little church in Simi Valley 35 years ago. He ended up a school teacher for a couple decades before he got back into ministry. He stands behind a pulpit now.
Worship style and music was not what made the Jerusalem church golden. Jewish worship in Jesus’ time was well-organized and probably quite beautiful. Our daughter’s studies of Roman religion show that pagans took their worship seriously. They wrote lovely hymns to their gods, held grand festivals, and were frequently quite devoted in the rituals they observed and offerings they made. Jewish and pagan worship was probably more exciting, more professional, maybe more personal and authentic than anything those first believers pulled together.
It’s not what those first Christians did that made those early days a golden age. It’s what they believed, what they centered their lives around. It’s what we find leading up to that sweet description of their life together, the message Peter preached on the day of Pentecost. All the apostles kept preaching and teaching the same thing. Jesus Christ who died was raised from the dead.
What made life in that first church full of awe and wonder was the reality of the event Peter talked about in the beginning of our text. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “The Resurrection [of Jesus] is the central theme of every Christian sermon reported in the Acts.” It was the constant sense that Jesus was alive and present which gave the fledgling church of Jerusalem its energy.
That’s why I read the end of Peter’s sermon before reading those golden age verses about the primitive church. We heard the beginning of it on Pentecost. The heart of it is there in there in verse 32, just as Lewis says. After talking about how Jesus had been crucified, Peter says, “This Jesus God raised up and of this we are all witnesses.” What we say on Easter is what we have to say every day of the year, “Christ is risen!” That’s the primitive truth of the Christian faith. That’s what makes us golden, not some plan to recapture a more primitive or simple way of preaching or worshipping or being a church.
Christians cannot simply jump over almost 2,000 years of church history and become just like that first gathering of apostles and believers. Too much water has passed under the bridge since then. Too many creeds and schisms, popes and cathedrals, crusades and reformations, sects and denominations. Even if a group of believers, as sometimes happens, tries to be “merely Christian,” to be a “New Testament church,” as described here, the result often ends up just one more denomination or even a cult separated from all the rest.
Neither we, nor any congregation, will recover the spirit of the Acts 2 church by appealing to whatever present generations feel they need to get excited, whether it’s hip-hop music or high liturgy. Nor will we get there by trying to trim away all those worship forms and all our church organization, just sitting in a circle being “real” with each other. If you read on in Acts and the New Testament, you find the first Christians forced to get organized, to work out their theology, and to figure out how to worship in ways that honored God and each other. We should not expect to be any different.
Great things happened in that first church. Let us pray that great things happen in our church and in every gathering of Christians on earth. Yet they happened not because of who they were or what they did, but because they came together in faith around that one great truth. Jesus rose from the dead and is alive and at work in our midst. As Chrysostom said, they had a hope that went beyond present circumstances.
That’s what made possible what seems so strange to us in verses 44 and 45. They had “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” It sounds like primitive communism, a kind of Christian socialism. Maybe that’s what we need to be more like Acts 2.
We could certainly do better at sharing our stuff with each other. I have a lot to learn in that area. We’re talking about sharing our church building. But look again at verse 44. What comes before the fact that they had all things in common? It’s “All who believed were together.” It wasn’t their economic or social arrangements that distinguished them. It was their faith, what they believed. It was as verse 41 says. They were people who “welcomed [Peter’s] message,” who believed that Jesus did die and rise again to become their hope and salvation.
They believed in and experienced Jesus giving His life for them. They saw and believed that God made it all good by raising Jesus from the dead. So they were willing to sacrifice what they had, trusting God to make it all good. The aim was not so much a social arrangement as it was good faith. Sharing was an expression of faith and hope in Jesus. They gave up what they had for each other because He gave up Himself for them. The belief was first. The caring and giving followed.
It’s a little bit of a chicken and the egg kind of thing. Faith leads to living in ways that express that faith. But when we live in faithful ways our confidence in God will increase. Sharing with each other in verse 45 leads to more worship together in the temple in verse 46 and that they “broke bread together” in each other’s homes, and in verse 47 to “praising God.” The more they believed the more they shared. The more they came together in Holy Communion the more they praised and worshiped God and trusted Him with their lives.
That, I think, is the most we can get from these verses. It’s not a detailed plan for how to be a more primitive, simpler, authentic church. But it is a picture of what is at the heart and center of any faithful church, a commitment to the message that Jesus Christ is risen and that faith in Him is what everyone needs.
This picture of the first church is an ideal. It’s fine to want to be like that. But let’s not beat ourselves up with guilt because we don’t see miracles happening all the time or new believers every Sunday or some fantastic social program unfolding. Let us simply be sure that we have the center at the center, that our hope and trust is in the fact that Christ is risen and that we will be raised with Him. Let everything else we do and are flow out of that one truth.
Then it will be good to devote ourselves to those four elements in verse 42: study of God’s word, fellowship with each other, the Lord’s Table, and prayer. Each of those parts of our life together is meant to draw us nearer to Jesus, to strengthen and renew our faith in Him. If He is at the center, then the rest will be there.
I began by talking about food, so let’s end there. These verses mention twice the “breaking of bread,” sharing in Holy Communion. The first Christians shared food to remember Jesus, breaking the bread of His body and pouring the cup of His precious blood. Doing that kept their faith in Him at the center of their lives.
May you and I together be a church that shares with each other and with those in need both materially and spiritually because we share a common faith in Christ Jesus our Lord. Let’s want to be around His Table in a way that welcomes those around us to that same Table where we always speak the truth at the center of the church, “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.”
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
 Homilies on Acts, 7.
 Miracles (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1972), p. 148.