March 10, 2013 - Fourth Sunday in Lent
I had two pieces of
pie after our spaghetti meal last Sunday. That’s my public confession for
today. I will note that I saw a few of us not even wait for the spaghetti, but
start right in with pie as a first course. It was great meal and I’m already
looking forward to our Easter brunch in three weeks.
What if someone asked
us to do church without food? Where would we be? No spaghetti feeds, no
potlucks, no snacks after worship. How would that be? You might suppose we
would be more spiritual. We would be a little more reverent, a little more
focused on what really matters, like Scripture and prayer. We would be less
distracted and more in touch with God if we weren’t so worried about whether
someone made the coffee or brought some cookies, crackers and cheese and fruit
for after worship.
Before we start down
that no-food-is-more-spiritual path, let’s look at what our text says about how
the first believers did church. Around the Word in 90 Days lands us today on
the second chapter of Acts. But, like the text I didn’t preach last week, we
have a specific day for this chapter. Fifty days after Easter we celebrate
Pentecost Sunday and remember how the Holy Spirit came and the Church was born.
On Pentecost we don’t
read or think so much about what came afterward. We are tempted to stop with
verse 41, celebrating the three thousand people who joined the believers that
day. The Holy Spirit came and by a miracle everyone heard the apostles’ in his
or her own language. Peter preached a powerful sermon and called for repentance and belief in Jesus and baptism. Then bunches of people came to Jesus. That’s the story of Acts 2.
Today, let’s remember
what happened after Pentecost, at the end of Acts 2. On my first pass through, planning these messages, I zeroed in on the beginning of verse 42, “They
devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…” Here we are in the middle of our
90-day Bible survey. O.K., I thought, this will be a message about how the
first church studied, devoting themselves to what the apostles taught.
I don’t want to
downplay that devotion to learning. Our Lord knows we need a more of it. Ask my
wife and Trudy about the classes they are teaching this term at the Bible
college up the hill. They will tell you about some Christian young people who
just don’t have much interest in learning. “Devoted” is not exactly the word
Trudy and Beth would use for a few of their students.
More serious devotion
to learning what God has to teach us, what His prophets and apostles have
written for us, is a very, very good thing. Yet this week when I read again the
end of Acts 2, I realized that this early hunger for God’s Word and Christian
teaching was coupled with other sorts of hunger, part of it quite literal. I
was surprised to notice, as I read these verses another time, how much eating
figures into it all.
Just as a quick
overview, food and eating appear at least three times in our text. In verse 42,
“the breaking of bread,” comes right after that devotion to the apostles’ teaching
and to fellowship. Verse 46 says that they “broke bread at home.” We’ll come
back to that because “at home” may not be the best translation. But that’s
twice “breaking bread” is mentioned.
Now look in between at
verses 44 and 45. We’ll ask later what sharing and having “all things in
common” might have looked like in the first church, but I think it’s fair to
say it almost certainly had to do with food. I doubt those folks were lending
their lawnmowers to each other. When it says they sold possessions and
distributed the proceeds, “as any had need,” it’s pretty clear they meant to
keep anyone from going hungry.
Eating was a central
concern of the early church. They didn’t see it as a kind of neutral or
non-spiritual extra to Christian life. Think about what follows here in Acts.
In chapters 4 and 5 we hear more about selling things and distribution to the
poor. In chapter 6 we see leaders, deacons, appointed to make sure distributing
food happened fairly. In chapters 10 and 11, we find Peter, then the whole
church, having to learn that sharing the Gospel meant eating with folks they
weren’t comfortable with.
Turn over to the
letters of Paul. Food keeps showing up. Do we eat meat offered to idols? Do we
abstain from certain sorts of food and drink? How does the celebration of the
Lord’s Supper fit together with making sure everyone has enough to eat? Food
and the way Christians eat were constant issues for the first churches. Maybe
it’s not just accidental or peripheral that modern church life has so much to
do with eating.
God created us with
bodies that need food in order to function, in order to thrive. But He made us
different from most animals or plants which simply take in nourishment to keep
living and growing. God created us with a capacity to eat in a way that
combines our physical needs with our spiritual needs. That’s why in verse 42,
the breaking of bread follows devotion “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship.”
Eating accomplishes something for the body, but when we eat together, eat as God
meant us to eat, it accomplishes something greater for our souls.
Bible scholars debate
what “breaking of bread” here, both in verse 42 and in verse 46, means. Is it
ordinary meals or is it Holy Communion, celebration of the Lord’s Supper? But
it’s not at all clear those early Christians would have made that distinction.
Turn over to I Corinthians 11 and we see another early church, years later,
obviously combining their observance of Communion with a big communal meal,
what some folks have called the early Christian “love feast.”
So those first
Christians might be pretty confused by our once a month or weekly consumption
of a miniscule piece of bread and a shot glass or tiny dip of grape juice. They
might wonder how it is we are truly having Communion if we’re not actually
eating a real meal together. There’s some food for thought.
Fellowship and food
came together, were meant to be together. God made us to enjoy not only the
taste of bread and meat and drink, but the taste of one another’s company as we
sit down together in fellowship, in community. It’s good and right for the
Lord’s Church to eat together. That’s what God’s people do.
You can see it in our
Old Testament lesson from Joshua 5 this morning. It’s a little overlooked text
forshadowing the table fellowship of the Church. When the Israelites crossed
the Jordan and came into the promised land, they rededicated themselves to God.
The males were circumcised and then we read that, “The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today
I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’”
By the grace and
salvation of God, Israel came out of slavery in Egypt and received their own
country, their own land. Their sin and disgrace were “rolled away” in that new
place. They were a new people. The very next thing that happens, right after
celebrating Passover, is that “they ate the produce of the land.” And the
manna, which they ate (and sometimes complained about) for forty years,
stopped. They were a new people, with new food, brought together there by God.
That’s what the
Christian church, the people of God saved by the grace of Jesus Christ is
supposed to be, a new people, with a new way of eating, because we have a new
way of living. Luke is summing up that way of life here at the end of Acts 2, explaining how the new believers lived their new faith together. Eating together
was a large part of it.
There’s more, of
course. In verse 42, there’s the teaching and fellowship. The breaking of bread
is paired with devotion to prayer. It’s a whole new way of life that
includes study of the faith, vibrant community, shared food and meals, and a
strong practice of regular prayer.
Our other verses, 43
to 47, are a kind of summary of what’s to come in the following chapters of
Acts. Something like it is repeated again at the end of chapter 4. It’s a way
of showing how their new life in Christ worked out in very visible and exciting
The first exciting
development shows up in verse 43. Everyone was in awe of the Christians,
“because many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.” When the
community of believers was attentive to the Word, shared together in community,
and ate and prayed with one another, then miracles happened. In chapter 3 of
Acts we hear an example of one of these miracles as Peter and John heal a man
lame from birth.
In verses 44 and 45 we
hear how the new church was at one and held things in common. Members sold
their possessions to provide for each others’ needs. At the end of chapter 4 we
see a specific example of Barnabas selling a field so that the apostles could
use the money to care for those in need.
Some folks see
primitive communism here in the early church, but it’s pretty clear that having
“all things in common,” was more of an attitude than a political or fiscal
matter. Many of them still had property. I once heard John Stott point out in
his eloquent British accent, that verse 46 shows us they didn’t all sell their
houses. When we’re told again that they broke bread, where did they do it? “In
their ’omes”, said Stott, “in their ’omes.”
The sharing here is
not some sort of rule created by the apostles. No one was forced to donate. They
gave out of the generous, sincere hearts mentioned in verse 46. It was an
attitude that when we are Christians what we have is not just for our own good
and pleasure. God means us to use what He’s given us for the common good, for
the benefit and blessing of others. The attitude was an open, generous “what’s
mine is yours,” not a grasping, selfish, “what’s yours is mine.”
All of that generosity
and sharing begins right at our own tables, when we sit down and eat as
families together in our homes. For those Jewish believers the “breaking of
bread” at even an ordinary meal was a time to be glad and give thanks to God.
For those first Jewish Christians it was also a time to remember those who had
no bread to break.
In verse 46, it says
in the translation I read that “they broke bread at home.” But there’s a
preposition there before “home” that probably makes the phrase mean something
more like “they broke bread from house to house.” They were eating and sharing
food in each other’s homes. They were carrying food where it was needed
and breaking bread together in many different places.
My mother and
grandmother were Baptist and I grew up with the idea that table graces were to
be simple and informal. The best were thought to be spontaneous prayers created
for the occasion. Most of the time, though, we pretty much said the same thing.
That’s how it’s generally been in our own home.
However, my mother’s
father’s, my grandfather’s, side was Episcopal. When I would visit at Auntie
Pop’s house (that’s what we called my great aunt, my grandfather’s sister), I
would hear her offer up a different blessing over our food, something like,
“Bless, O Lord, these gifts to our use, and make us ever mindful of the needs
others, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
I never put it
together before now, but that “ever mindful of the needs of others” prayer may
account for what I saw happening all the time whenever I was at her house.
There was always activity in the kitchen. Jars of peaches bubbled away in big
pots. Flour and shortening were rolled out into pie crusts. Scales were scraped
off fish we had caught. Cakes rose in the oven. It was a wonderful place to be
What I’m just
realizing, though, is that a lot of that food went out the door. I don’t know
how many times we kids got bundled into the car and told to carefully hold a
pie or a warm loaf of bread on our laps. Then we’d drive across that little town
and pull up to a house and Auntie Pop would get out and lead us up a walk to
hand over our gifts to a old fellow who lived by himself or to a young mother
in a run-down house.
Auntie Pop was a
character. I could tell you stories about her all day. She had plenty of faults.
She was stubborn and sometimes a bit off-color. But I think she would have
gotten along fine in that early church. She understood that the food she had
was not all hers. At every meal she prayed that little prayer asking to be
“ever mindful of the needs of others.” God heard her and made it so.
My prayer is that it
will be so for you and me. If you don’t do so already, I invite you to invite
the Lord to your own meals by praying before you eat. And in your home, make a
point as often as you possibly can to eat together. “Breaking of bread,” is a
sacred time, whether it’s here in Holy Communion or around your family table.
Say a grace of gratitude and praise to God and remember those in need.
My prayer is also that
we will have this Acts 2 spirit in our meals and sharing of food together as a
church. Verse 47 gives us a little glimpse of the outcome of how those first
Christians lived. As they praised God, they had “the goodwill of all the
people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those were being saved.”
Over the years, I’ve
seen and occasionally tried to be part of several evangelism programs. I just
got an e-mail from our denomination’s director of evangelism telling us about a
new one the Covenant is launching. But what I read here in these verses
suggests that the evangelism program of the early church was not a whole lot
more than just eating together and sharing their food.
Of course they
preached and God did miracles and they spent a whole lot of time in prayer. We
want those things to happen among us as well. But at the center of it all was a
basic, simple practice of thankfully receiving and sharing God’s good gift of
food to eat.
Our church is very
capable of that sort of evangelism. Let us remember that little prayer my aunt
said whenever we gladly come together to eat. “Make us ever mindful of the
needs of others.” In a week we will open our building to shelter homeless
families for a few nights. It’s the last time until the fall we will do that
sort of thing. In the meantime, let’s be mindful to share our food. As we
gather on Easter and celebrate the rising of our Lord with a delicious brunch,
let’s fill to overflowing our Lane County food barrel for those in need.
And in our eating and
sharing, may God give us glad and sincere hearts, in which the love of Jesus
Christ is clearly visible. And may the Lord regularly add to our number those
He is saving and bringing to the Table with us, through Jesus Christ our
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj