Today after our 10:00 service, you are invited to join the Outreach Committee in the Guild Hall for a presentation of its work over the last year and an opportunity for you to help shape the future outreach programs of Grace Church. In a way, this is another moment in a long conversation we’ve been having at Grace. We’ve been asking similar questions in different ways over the years as we seek to respond to our mission to be the church on Madison’s Capitol Square, to share the good news of Jesus Christ and to share his love in our community and the world. Today’s conversation, while focused on outreach, is part of the longer conversation that included the master-planning process. Ours is also one tiny conversation in a much larger conversation across the Episcopal Church and across Christianity throughout this nation as we discern our way forward in this uncertain age.
It’s a conversation that includes questions about resources, about where we should focus our attention, about our gifts and passions and the needs of the community and world. We won’t have definitive answers to those questions at the end of the day today, but hopefully our conversation today will bring some clarity and help us decide next steps.
Today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is both a fitting text to guide our conversation later as well as a continuation, even interpretation of the last week’s gospel reading from Luke, the story of the Risen Christ’s encounter with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It also connects well with our confirmation service last Sunday and next week’s baptism. On days, we will recite the baptismal covenant, reminding ourselves of the commitment we made at our baptisms and what it means to follow Christ.
To understand fully the significance of this text, for its author Luke and his first or early second century audience, as well as to understand its significance for twenty-first century Christians, we need to remember that Luke was not a historian in our sense of the word, even if we’re not quite sure what that is these days, given the assault on truth and rhetoric about “alternative facts.”
Luke was writing for a very specific purpose, not simply to tell the story of “what really happened.” He wants to explain to his reader, in orderly fashion, as he tells us, the story of Jesus as it develops from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and the story of early Christianity, as it moved from Jerusalem to the world. As he tells this story, we learn a great deal about early Christianity, but some of the story is obscured by Luke’s overarching concern to provide a coherent narrative.
There may be no more obvious episode that shows this tension than the verses we heard today. It’s both a summary of what happened, and an idealized portrait.
“Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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. 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, 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.”
I’ve already alluded to the first verse in the reading: “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to breaking of bread and prayers.” It forms one of the vows in our baptismal covenant and conveniently stands for all those things we do when we gather together for worship.
What comes next in the passage is both inspirational and problematic. We’re given a sense that this new community, filled with the power of the spirit, was creating something quite new—an intense common life in which not only were cares and concerns shared, but even one’s property. We don’t know whether Luke means for us to imagine the early Christians practiced full community of goods, though Christians have interpreted as such from to time throughout history. Perhaps he only meant that they shared what they had with those who were less fortunate and in need—that’s certainly evidenced throughout the Book of Acts.
As hard as that is for us to imagine, what comes next may frankly be more outlandish—they spent much time in the temple. Luke seems to imply that these early Christians were solely focused on their spiritual lives, nothing else was quite as important as their faith and fellowship with other Christians. It’s also worth noting that Luke emphasizes their presence in the temple. It’s something we’ve seen in earlier readings from Acts and it’s important to point out that at this moment at least, the early Christian community was still identifying itself as Jewish and maintaining Jewish practice.
But there’s something else worth noting, and this brings us back to the connection between this reading, Luke’s description of the practices of the early Christian community and last week’s gospel reading from Luke, the story of the Road to Emmaus. In that story, as we heard, “Jesus was made known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread.”
That phrase, “the breaking of the bread” is mentioned twice in today’s reading. It’s meant to evoke both ordinary table fellowship, and most certainly, the Eucharist. Luke wants us to comprehend that the Risen Christ is present when the followers of Jesus come together in fellowship and break bread together.
We might be inclined to think that this idealized portrait of the early followers of Jesus is entirely focused on its internal workings, but the passage concludes with the following: “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Can we connect with this exciting vision of what the church might be? A community full of awe and wonder as it remembers God’s mighty acts in history and experiences similar activity in its midst.
A community created by the experience of the presence of the Risen Christ in its midst, devoted to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.
A community pooling its resources and sharing those resources with the needs of the world.
Can we seek to bring this vision of community closer to reality?
Grace Church is rightly proud of its outreach programs that have been making a difference in the community for nearly forty years—the food pantry and the men’s drop-in shelter. We have recently begun a partnership with the Madison Jail Ministry and are deepening our relationship and outreach with the Dane County Jail. There are other opportunities, other needs here in Madison and around the world.
Where is God calling us to go on our journey over the next months and years? What new opportunities, what unmet needs might we as a congregation, as the community of the Risen Christ, respond to as we seek to be that people of God, full of awe and wonder, breaking bread and praying. These are the questions we’ve been asking, these are the questions the Outreach Committee will raise in our gathering later; these are the questions to which we seek your input. May our conversation be sacred, our fellowship blessed, and may our lives, our city and world be changed by the work we do.