Sunday, April 30, 2023
Rev. Brent Gundlah

If only church could be the way it used to be.

Has that thought crossed your mind lately? Sure, we’ve come a long way since the throes of the pandemic, when pastors were preaching into cell phones in empty sanctuaries, when our interactions were at arm’s length via text and email, when we had no choice but to gather on Zoom. We’ve managed to return to some semblance of normalcy for a while now, but it’s not quite the same as it was. We all know that.

If only church could be the way it used to be.

Perhaps those of you who have been here for a while look around this sanctuary wishing that, longing for what it was like on Sunday mornings back in the good old days before the world shut down and everything changed.

If only church could be the way it used to be.

Let’s be honest, though: there’s a pretty good chance that many of us would have said the same thing long before March of 2020.

Look, our church is doing just fine — way better than most, in fact. But many of you remember a time when this sanctuary was packed for worship, when there was an early service and a late service, when the classrooms overflowed with Sunday School children, when the church was the center of community life.

And I know that many of you hope for a return to what church was like back then, before the world turned upside down and the church became what it is now. I know this because I hear it all the time. 

So, the passage from the Acts of the Apostles that Debbie just read — with it’s glowing description of the early church — might not be one we’d want to deal with when we’re feeling envious of the way we were.

Right before our story begins, Peter gives a phenomenal sermon. His call to the crowd to repent, to save themselves from the corrupt generation in which they find themselves, has cut them to the heart and added about three thousand people to the church’s membership rolls. In purely evangelistic terms, this was a really good day. I mean we’d have to stay here for quite a while this morning in order to give Bill time to count that many folks in the pews and write the number on a page of the little blue book in which we memorialize such things.

More importantly, though, all of this religious fervor seems to have produced some real and meaningful change in terms of the way that people were living their lives. Luke tells us that these new followers of Christ devoted themselves to what are still the big four activities at any church “teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

What I’m trying to say is that things seemed to be going well at the First Church of Jesus Christ. Everyone was in awe of the various wonders and signs being performed by the apostles, the church had the goodwill of all the people, and  God was adding to their number day by day. It’d be enough to make any other congregation feel inadequate and jealous.

Things were apparently going so well in the early church that converts were inspired to perform great acts of community — as Luke makes a point of telling us, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” While the members of churches throughout the ages (including our own) have been incredibly generous with their time, talent and treasure, the extreme version that Luke describes here sounds a bit farfetched to our modern ears.

Maybe this skepticism is a function of the times in which we currently find ourselves; after all, we do live in an era in which individual achievements and personal possessions have a lot more value than they would have back in the first century. I mean it’s pretty rare bird that would give up all they have for the church (or for anything else) these days.

But perhaps this ideal community that Luke describes would have seemed too good to be true for the early readers of Acts as well. Reading on a bit further, we’ll soon learn that the uncomplicated goodwill and generosity in the early church didn’t last very long.

Just three chapters later, we’ll hear about Ananias and Sapphira — a husband and wife who sell some of their property but hold back a portion of the proceeds from the church. Luke makes a point of telling us that they were both quickly and mysteriously struck dead — apparently, for their unwillingness to share (keep that in mind when the offering plate makes its way around in a few minutes, folks). And while that story might seem a little farfetched, it does imply that the limits of fellowship in the early church were already being tested.

As the New Testament unfolds, these limits will continue to be tested, and we’ll see that that life in a community (yes, even in church community) is never perfect. The numerous conflicts and problems and growing pains of churches described in Paul’s letters attest to this fact. But is perfection really the point of being in community?

It’s important for us to remember that Luke wrote the book of Acts nearly a half century after Jesus’s death and resurrection, and decades after the ideal church he describes had already become a distant memory (or, perhaps, an even more distant fantasy).

Luke is addressing groups of believers that had lost some of their original fire and direction and purpose. So, is there a certain element of: “If only church could be the way it used to be” in Luke’s story about the way church used to be? Sure — but there’s more to it than that.

You see, Acts is addressed to followers of Jesus who never had the chance to meet him face-to-face. By describing the triumphs and tribulations of the very first Christians (though they wouldn’t have even called themselves “Christians” at that point), Luke invites us to examine our own commitment to Jesus and the gospel;

he encourages us to consider what the good news means for us — and demands of us;

he makes us ask ourselves just how far are we’re willing to go in order to follow Christ. 

and the answers to these questions inevitably vary across place and time.

The essential things that we followers of Christ have devoted ourselves to throughout the ages — teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers — form the core of our life together, but the way we actually go about doing these things is always changing — and change can be difficult.

For example, in the days prior to the formation of the church, the Temple had been the center of community life; it was the place where worship and fellowship happened. But then all of this was upended; in speaking of the customs of the first Christ followers, Luke tells us that, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with generous hearts, praising God.”

In the new church, the temple and the home became the places where faith was practiced, and the sharing of an ordinary meal with friends and family — and even total strangers — became a sacrament. But there were plenty of people back then who lamented the fact that things were suddenly different, and who longed for a return to the way things used to be.

So even though Luke seems to wax nostalgic for the church of old, he’s also acknowledging that the church of old was the church of new.

Because this is pretty much what the church has always been: a strange (and sometimes uncomfortable) mixture of old and new, of tradition and innovation, of human and divine, of trial and triumph, of inspiration and frustration. But, when people are involved, it’s hard to imagine it being any other way.

In our challenging times, when circumstances have abruptly changed how we gather and how we worship, many of us are looking wistfully to the days of yore and wishing they’d return, though we know deep down inside that they won’t.

But, so what? If the church’s own history is any guide (any it definitely is), the good old days were never as good as people remember them being, and the present situation is often not as bad as it seems right now.

So let’s liberate ourselves from the unwieldy and and unreasonable burdens of the past and instead pay attention to what we should be paying attention to: being the best church that we can be for our place and time.

To that end, we need to be asking ourselves some essential questions — ones that believers in every age have asked:

What have we “always done” that we’re willing to leave behind?

What are we doing now that we might want to keep doing?

And what are the new things that God is calling us towards?

As we seek the answers to these questions,

let’s continue to devote ourselves to loving God and our neighbor, to teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers — as followers of Christ have always done;

let’s stop fretting so much about what the church used to be;

let’s focus instead on what the church is and what it can be.