THE BROKENNESS THAT LEADS TO COMMUNITY
37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
In the first five verses we learn that large numbers of people were ‘cut to the heart’ when they heard the gospel and that ‘about three thousand persons were added.’ We don’t know the particulars of what was said but I would imagine that there are a whole lot of preachers who wish they knew. In an increasingly secular world with declining church participation, it would be wonderful to find ways to ‘cut to heart’ and inspire people to turn towards God.
I am enormously curious about what these first century citizens heard that evoked such responses. And I wonder, in our century, what we need to hear—to feel similarly motivated. Altar calls and revivals seem to be analogous but are largely outside of my experience. Fairly or unfairly, I tend to view these rhetorical appeals as equivalent to modern day self help and motivational conferences. They repeatedly offer the ‘secret’ to a better life or promises of financial windfalls. ‘You can make thousands flipping houses without using your own money—come and learn how’. Or the life coaches who suggest that what is really needed is more boldness, risk taking and determination. The promises are very appealing but in general, after the initial high, they do more for the promoter than the participant. Snake oil sells.
When I asked the FIRL participants how or if they had had such experiences, several described walks to the altar but most also said that in retrospect, they were seeking approval and inclusion and honestly had little sense of what they were doing. In fact one woman wants to be baptized again because she wants to be more intentional about choosing her faith. (We did not discuss the theology of baptism but her desire to express her faith proactively certainly requires response.) It is relatively easy to manipulate emotions and to ‘talk the talk’ but much harder to inspire people to ‘devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ In ordinary life, most of us really enjoy being ‘in love’ but unfortunately most of us are unprepared for the work of loving.
That said, we have to start somewhere. It probably doesn’t matter how we turn to God, and it certainly doesn’t matter if we understand the turning, what will matter is how such a turn transforms our lives. Turning toward God requires every bit as much effort as making a marriage or a career work. My father tells a story about going to a job interview and being anxious and frightened. He circled the block multiple times looking for a parking place. It was getting late and he was about to give up. That’s when a car pulled out and allowed him to park. We can call such an experience a gift from God or random luck. But given the opportunity, what mattered was the year he spent doing math problems after work to prepare for a professional exam.
I am still curious about what the disciples said that ‘cut to the heart’. But once they had the people’s attention, the apostles directed the new converts to a new way of living. They were called to learn, to live in community, to remember Jesus and to be in regular conversation with God. The practices of our faith inform us and change us. Without them, the gift of grace becomes ‘cheap grace’, the questions of faith become a tangle of contradictions, the responsibilities of faith become a heavy set of oughts. The promises of abundant life become hardship and heaviness.
The second half of this scripture holds out a model for Christian community that is often viewed as the gold standard of fellowship. It is a standard that has been tried repeatedly in a variety of utopian communities—from the Shakers to hippie communes. So far in history, it has not been sustainable. Even in the New Testament, this kind of radical sharing broke down very early. Even with the example of the death dealing implications of deceit (Ananias and Sapphira in chapter 5), it is clear that self interest sabotaged the common good in the first century every bit as much as it does now. Paul’s letters to the early church frequently reflect rivalry, disregard and outright greed in the Christian community.
At the same time we are presented with a direction for community and new life together, our human limitations are exposed. In an ideal Christian community, we would all live respecting the value of every part of God’s creation. We would live out of gratitude, not entitlement. We would proactively work toward seeing and responding to the inequities of our secular world. We would not be anxious about our own security—we ‘would consider the lilies of the fields’ and would rely upon God. In real life however, these are aspirations not accomplishments. We routinely fall short.
But that is not a bad thing. One of the paradoxes of faith is that community emerges out of what we can’t do. We all share a desire to be more than we are. Most of us think we should do better. But knowing the good does not mean we can do it. Ultimately, faith is trusting God with what we cannot do. That is how sinners are saved.
In FIRL, our discussion moved rapidly into the difficulty our community is having responding to the homeless. No matter what response was suggested, every ‘solution’ reached a limit. The needs outstrip us. Faith requires we live humbly with what we cannot do at the same time it calls us to do what we can. Whether it is in our personal relationships or our confrontations with gross societal inequities, we choose to love in the full knowledge that we are never enough. That is living the gospel in real life.
It is a very uncomfortable limbo. But when we acknowledge our common sinfulness, none of us is deserving or entitled. When we realize none of us is better than the other, the easily spoken cliché—’there but for the grace of God, go I’—takes on deep and personal meaning. Sharing and community naturally follow. The unexpected good news is that community and new life emerge from what we cannot do.
We cannot do this alone. It is upside down thinking. By secular standards, we are chronically inadequate, if not outright failures. But our faith continues to point us toward love. As Emily Wilmesherr put it in a sermon “Do what you can with what you’ve got.” Commit yourself to the practices of faith—devote yourselves “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Move in the direction of mindfulness and caring. Trust God with your inabilities and failures. God’s love does not require our consent or our competence. That is the grace that allows us to live as limited creatures and as God’s children.
Trust in God’s love and do what you can. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.
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