Glad & Generous Hearts – June 17, 2012 – Acts 2: 37 – 47

Do you know what Oneida silverware, Amana refridgerators, and simple quality furniture have in common?  You might say they are made for the kitchen.  That could be true, but I have another mutual factor in mind.  They are all products of Shaker communities.

The Shakers settled utopian communities from Maine to Kentucky in the 18th century.[1]  These communities are deemed the most successful utopian communities in American history.  The movement was founded in England.  The communities first looked to women for leadership.  They are known for the equality of the sexes in their beliefs.  They were an enthusiastic bunch of Christians.  Shaker worship is described with singing, dancing, shouting, and speaking in tongues.  The charismatic preachers of the New England Shakers drew large crowds of converts for the pure doctrine and simplistic lifestyle.  In many respects, the Shakers were much like a first century Apostolic church.

The first century church described in Acts 2 the one upon which the Holy Spirit came is the Apostolic church.  This community is made of the Apostles who received the Holy Spirit and the 3,000 believers baptized on the day of Pentecost.  It is tempting to discredit the number of 3,000 converts.  We think it a miracle that we wouldn’t see today.  Or, if we did see it, it would be an enthusiastic moment that would not be followed with long-term commitment to the Gospel.  The truth is these new believers connected intimately with the Gospel and made a life-changing commitment to their newfound faith.

The Apostolic church grew out of the commitment of the Disciples and the 3,000 new believers.  The church was the foundation of all other churches and modeled what the church should be.  This church was: devoted to the teaching and preaching of the Apostles, participated in the fellowship of believers, broke bread together in shared worship, joined in prayer, united in their common faith, and shared with glad and generous hearts.

There are today churches that are called Apostolic.  They are much like the community described in Acts 2.  The Apostolic churches of today are devoted to the teaching and preaching of the Apostles, participate in the fellowship of believers, break bread together in shared worship, join in prayer, are united in their common faith, and give with glad and generous hearts.

Rev. Dr. Bill Edwards, the regional minister of the Christian Church in Ohio, says that “In examining the first century church, we can discover a faithful, growing church of deep Christian spirituality. Acts 2:42 says they were “devoted”, they were moved and motivated by the Spirit-guided message of the apostles…There was a thirst to hear and learn more about their newfound life of spiritual freedom in Jesus Christ. That is the kind of excitement we need to recapture in our spirituality. So how might we recapture this kind of “deep Christian spirituality?”

In his book 2020 Vision, Rev. Dr. Dick Hamm, the former general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), offers this definition of “Christian spirituality”- he says it is a way of life that relates who and what we are to who and what God is as revealed in Jesus Christ and as experienced through the Holy Spirit.” In other words, deep Christian spirituality is a lifestyle. Spirituality is deepened by responding to the grace and love of God with a loving and obedient life. It is loving God [with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength]. A church that demonstrates deep Christian spirituality is in the process of “making disciples” to live for Christ not [just] in the church, but in the home, in the workplace, in the marketplace, in the city, on the street, in the world.”[2]

The Apostolic church is faithful to the mission of making Disciples because they know who Jesus is and what God is doing through the Holy Spirit.  They have heard and responded to the Good News and are renewed each week in worship as they gather as the body of Christ.  The Good News is heard again each week as worship draws them together to be encouraged in the fellowship of believers, to remember the story of Christ’s death and resurrection in the breaking of bread and sharing of wine, to pray together.  The diversity of their lives find union in their shared belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

The Apostolic church is united by this common faith in Jesus Christ.  This is the guiding principle of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  Our denomination was founded as a movement to bring together the many different beliefs of Christianity and unite all Christians by the shared confession that Jesus is the Christ.  Beyond our confession of belief in Christ, Disciples recognize that there are many true and valid practices for a Christian life…and there is room at the Lord’s Table for all of us.

That’s what makes a congregation who embraces the Disciples’ value of unity perfect for this time in history.  The world is seeking churches that don’t exclude anyone, that welcome the width and depth of Christian conviction, that don’t require the memorization and recitation of creeds, that don’t require conformity, that don’t give a bunch of rules and answers but rather give gracious space to wrestle with difficult questions and face tough issues.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) began as a movement that sought to restore the values and practices of the Apostolic church on the American frontier.  The Disciples of Christ continues to be a movement to restore unity and wholeness in a world fragmented by the isms and injustices that divide humanity.  Like the Apostolic church that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved, there are Disciples’ churches who embody these values and practices and so too are growing by those who are being saved.

Finally, the people of an Apostolic church have glad and generous hearts.  The level of generosity of the “first century church may be hard for contemporary U.S. Christians to understand.  The value is countercultural to the pull yourself up by your boot-straps, rugged individualism that is rooted in American capitalism.”[3]  That generosity was not familiar to the first century culture either  – the Apostolic church was countercultural because they were responding to the Holy Spirit.

The Center for Faith and Giving writes that “the early church community is able to move from living in fear [of scarcity] to living into the bold new way of generosity. They sell what they have so no one is in need.  They hold all things in common – and in experience of their unity and purposefulness of their mission – they attract others to the message and life of Jesus.”[4]  Theologian Walter Brueggemann asks: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if … church people … came to a common realization that the real issue confronting us is … the news of God’s abundance in the face of … scarcity?”

Did you know that the average American Christian only gives 1.8% of their income to the church?  We’re afraid of giving more because we are fearful of scarcity.  An unstable market and slow economy lead us to believe that it is more likely that we won’t have enough than too much.  We don’t trust in God’s abundance that is enough for everyone to have their fill.  Many Americans believe God helps those who help themselves.  But, the first century Apostolic church shared everything with glad and generous hearts because they trusted in God’s abundance.

“They knew that money wouldn’t make them happy.  The Apostolic Christians didn’t suffer from spiritual myopia unable to look beyond today and their individual selves.  Unlike the culture in which they existed, they took seriously their ethical responsibility toward others and their accountability to God.  They didn’t need to give thought to tomorrow because they trusted God to care for their present and future.

God is out to save our souls, not pick our pockets or squabble about petty religion.  Christ calls us to give to God what God rightly deserves.  God is not concerned with the legalism of our religious practice or whether we gave 10 percent of our paycheck down to the last decimal point.  God desires our complete commitment: body, mind, and soul.  The Gospels remind us that discipleship is not a halfway proposition. 

Jesus Christ is Lord over all of life.  The cross and empty tomb are real and are worthy of a faith response that is equally genuine.  We give, live, serve, and pray because an incredibly gracious gift has been given to us.  Anything we do is but a response to what God has done.

Stewardship is part of our worship experience.  We do not bring gifts to buy grace, prove our faith or boast about the level of our stewardship.  We offer our prayers, presence, gifts, and service as an act of devotion.  Giving is just as important as all other elements of our worship.”[5]

There’s a Shaker song attributed to Elder Joseph Brackett called “Simple Gifts”.  He wrote this one verse song while living in a community in Alfred, Maine.  The lyrics go:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Maybe that’s why the Shaker communities thrived as long as they did.  The simple life of fellowship with believers and sharing everything that all had enough was truly a gift.  There were converts to this way of life and belief.  The Shakers were much like the Apostolic church devoted to Jesus, living with fellow believers, breaking bread together in lively worship, joining in prayer, united in their common beliefs, and sharing with generous hearts.

May we recognize how we are a church of devotion, fellowship, remembrance, prayer, unity, and generosity.  May we strive to be an Apostolic church.

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