Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Acts 2: 42-47)
I’d just sat down on my flight from Seattle to Tokyo when the lady sitting next to me introduced herself. Her name was Millie. I can count on one hand the number of times someone has introduced themselves to me on a plane, much less when we’re still in the process of boarding. And granted, it is weird, the cultural anomaly that is flying coach: sitting in such close proximity to a total stranger – in their lap, practically – for an extended period of time, all the while barely acknowledging their presence other than a nod and a smile. Where else does one do that?
Well, one does not do that if their name is Mille. I’d barely buckled in my seat belt when Millie asked, So, Steve, what do you do for a living?
Now, this is the kind of question that pastors entertain with a fair bit of trepidation. Because if we reveal to a total stranger that we’re a pastor, the response tends to fall into one of two categories: either it ends the conversation right then and there, or that person feels in that moment as if they’ve been given free license to disclose their entire life story to you. Side note – this is why, when I was in seminary, some classmates and I tried to come up with creative ways to tell a potential date that we were a minister without actually telling them we were a minister. I’m in life insurance. I’m in sales. I do consulting.
Back to the plane. Millie repeats her question. We’re going down the runway now, picking up speed. And I decide as the plane begins its ascent to go the honest route and tell her that I’m a Presbyterian pastor. Want to take a guess which of those two categories Millie fell into? I’ll give you a hint: it was not a silent flight. All ten a half hours of it.
Truth be told, it wasn’t all that bad. She was a very sweet lady. And there were occasional breaks in the conversation.
I’m telling you this because I want you in the sermon today to imagine yourself in a somewhat similar situation. Not about you being a pastor, although if you’ve had those thoughts, let’s talk! What I want you to imagine is that you, too, are sitting on a flight – let’s say this one is just two hours – and your very close neighbor strikes up a conversation. And let’s say that at some point in that conversation – it doesn’t really matter how – it comes out that you go to church.
Huh, that’s interesting, they say. So let me ask you – what is it that you do in church anyway?
It’s not an uncommon question; certainly not unexpected. We’ve all heard the data that shows that more and more people these days are self-identifying as “spiritual but not religious,” meaning they embrace some form of spirituality but are not so certain about organized religion. No longer is it the case that people grow up in a church or are even familiar with what it is.
What do you do in church anyway?
How do you answer that question? Do you talk about programs and activities that are offered? Do you talk about worship, what it looks like, what it feels like? Do you talk about the building? Have you ever noticed how churches adorn the walls with pictures of their church – hanging pictures of the building inside the building – is that what it means to be church? Do you talk about “Church” with a big “C” the early church in the beginning days, all the way to right now. Is that what you talk about? Or is it something else? You’ve got two hours to talk about it.
Seriously, though, how does one describe what we do in the church?
Hold that thought, if you would, as we turn to our scripture today from the second chapter of Acts. Peter has just wrapped up his sermon and all heaven breaks loose. I mean, there’s no other way to put it, is there? A whole bunch of folks being baptized and three thousand people coming on board. Three thousand – in a single day!
Now I’m sure Peter’s sermon was powerful, but we know it’s not about the sermon, right? It’s about God and how God moves and works in the world, in the community of believers. More specifically, the Spirit – this terrifying, unruly, out of control and totally awesome Spirit who was doing something new. And that “something new” was shaping a community – a gathering of people who felt called to be together in common life, to share their life with others who felt that same calling. The kind of community that would later be known as “church.”
And we are told what they did in this Spirit-filled community: they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers. Four things defined who they were:
They were nurtured in faith together.
They ate together.
They prayed together.
They shared fellowship together
Let’s take them one-by-one, shall we?
First, they were nurtured in faith together. They recognized that there was a whole lot about God and Jesus and the Spirit that they did not understand. So they made a commitment to be nurtured together – by “devoting themselves to the apostles’ teachings.” Thoughts, dreams about God, Jesus, and this community of which they were part. They were nurtured in that, and here’s the important thing: it was not a self-directed study. They did it together.
They ate together – which, it should be noted, is more than simply consuming food in the presence of other people. You ever heard the story about the guy who went to a potluck dinner by himself? The host asked everyone before the meal to stand and say who they were and who they came with. When his turn came around, he stood and said, “Hey everyone, my name is Bob, and I came with the ice cream!”
Now ice cream may be important to a potluck, but it’s not the food that makes it what it is. Verse 46 spells it out: “They broke bread and ate their food with glad and generous hearts. Glad and generous hearts – I like the way the writer of Acts throws that in. There is something intimate and sacred and holy about sitting at table and sharing a meal with others. Your stomach is fed, but so is your soul. They ate together.
They also prayed together. Specifically it says, “the prayers;” which gives you the sense that these were particular words, almost liturgical, even. Prayers that reminded them how they belonged to a family of faith who celebrated with them in the good times and stood by them in the bad. Prayers that are equally impactful for the one praying as the one being prayed for. They prayed, and they did it together.
And lastly, they shared fellowship together. Lloyd John Ogilvie, former US Senate chaplain and a Presbyterian minister, recounts a foreign exchange student he once met who was in the process of learning English. When he came upon the word “fellowship,” he thought it meant “fellows in the same ship.”
It’s not all that far off, is it? The Greek word that we translate as fellowship here is koinonia. In my former church in Mount Airy, long before my time there, the church decided to take what had been their Fellowship Hall, which shared a wall with the sanctuary, and convert it to expanded worship space. Fun fact: the architect who helped them design this and other updates to the campus was none other than Trinity’s own Bonson Hobson!
Anyway, when the room was completed, they decided to give it its own name; a name that would reflect both what it had been and what it would become. So they decided to call it the “Koinonia Room.” A room of fellowship.
It’s a funny little word, but you plug it into Google and you’ll find all kinds of ways that Koinonia’s used – everything from a sustainable farm in Georgia to a student Bible study group at the University of Texas, to a retreat center in the Midwest, to a B-rate movie with actors you’ve probably never heard of. All of which captures in some way the technical definition of the word, which is: “relationship characterized by sharing in common fellowship, participation and giving so others can share the same generosity.” So it’s not just “hanging out” together, nor is it about a static group. Koinonia is intentional and perpetual. Koinonia fosters greater koinonia. It is, as noted German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once coined, “life together.”
That is actually the title of one of his most well-known books, a book about a community he helped to found in pre-Nazi Germany. It was the mid 1930’s, and the drumbeat of the Third Reich was growing. The German Church was in the process of being co-opted by Nazi influence, and Bonhoeffer had been asked by the renegade “Confessing Church” to create an underground seminary that would train a new generation of church leaders outside and against that perverted theology. They called it Finkenwalde (fink-in-val-duh), and it became a social experiment in intentional Christian community – koinonia fellowship – modeled on the Sermon on the Mount and the end of the second chapter of Acts. In many ways, Bonhoeffer’s book reads like a how-to manual.
Listen to what he says about this community he’d been tasked to shape – and remember that this community was called into being in dark times, as an antidote for the spreading sickness of heightened nationalism and xenophobia:
The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. It is the physical presence of other Christians that is our source of incomparable joy and strength. Christian community is not an idea we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.
Beloved, this is the kind of community that the Spirit is imploring us to shape in our day and time – a time when we are detached, a time when our calendars are overbooked, a time when forces in our political systems are more interested in drawing attention to what separates us than what brings us together, and a time when everyone just wants a place where they belong – where they are nurtured together, where they eat together, where they pray together, and where they share fellowship together.
Is this the kind of church we are at Trinity Presbyterian? Is this how we describe ourselves to someone who might ask, “so what is it that you do in church anyway?”
Because my hunch is that that’s what people want to hear when we answer their question. Not a litany list of programs and ministries, not all the details of our lovely worship service, not our buildings and not the history of where we have already been.
I think people want to hear our stories, instances of those times when we embody all the best of church – of nurture, of fellowship, of prayer, of belonging and of being together – alongside what is happening in the larger world and, sometimes, in opposition to and defiance of it.
I think people want to hear about how we value the youngest among us by providing a place for them in our worship every week.
How our session, our elected elders, chose to live squarely into their servant role by running Room In The Inn last week, preparing the meal and serving the guests; and then in the session meeting that followed engaging in a deep, rich conversation about the problem of homelessness in our city and how we as a church can address it in the Trinity of now and the Trinity we are working to become.
I think people want to hear about our commitment to the work of anti-racism and our calling to embrace the LGBTQIA+ community, despite the cultural push-back on a supposed “woke agenda” that we are increasingly seeing in state houses and school board meetings.
I think people want to know that we regularly gather around the table together, for no other reason than being together, as we’ve taken to doing with our First Sunday lunches like next week.
I think people want to know about how we house on our campus not one but two schools – one tending to the needs of 150 young families in our community, and the other for middle and high school age students with learning challenges whose families move from all over the country just so their kids can come here.
I think people want to know about the ways we care for each other, how we support each other, how we celebrate the highs with each other and stand alongside each other in the lows.
When you get right down to it, I think people are less interested in what we do in church and more interested in who we are as church. The kind of thing that interested one young woman who finally chose to join the church she’d been attending for years, the church whose choir she’d been singing with for years, the church whose weekly Bible study she’d been involved with for years.
To be honest, most people assumed that she’d already joined, perhaps on a Sunday they were out of town. But the pastor of that church knew the real truth: that this woman needed time, space to make the decision when she was ready, because there had been in her past another church who had not been koinonia for her, who had not nurtured, fed, prayed, or shared fellowship with her; and those kind of wounds take time to heal.
What was it, the pastor finally asked, when she told him she was ready to join? What was it that tipped the scales? To which the woman smiled the smile of someone already held in holy embrace and replied, “Because you all loved me into it.”
My friends, my fellows-in-the-same-ship, may we keep loving each other into life together as the church, shaping this holy community of which we are so blessed to be part, relishing in God’s Holy Spirit, as it makes us and all things new. In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.