January 24, 2016 / BALANCE: IN - COMPANIONS / Sara Wolbrecht / Acts 2:42-47 (The Message), Luke 6:12-19
Last week I attended a preaching conference in Cannon Beach, Oregon. Which was a great conference – but what was REALLY great was that I attended it with my best friend from seminary, Abby. Abby is a pastor now north of here, near Mt. Vernon and so we get to see each other fairly regularly. We went to seminary in Berkeley, CA and when we were in seminary we would often go to the beach when we really needed to get away under the guise that we would study while we sat in the sun, but mostly we would just talk and sleep and play in the waves. And so going to this conference together meant that we got to go to the beach. Together. It was, of course, wearing gloves and scarves and rain gear kind of beach weather – but still it was the beach. Throughout the three days there, in the midst of the conference, we played on the beach, we had time of rest and Sabbath, we talked with many others and ate good things and had great time away.
Abby is one of my closest friends. I love spending time with her, not only because we have fun but because I know I can be completely open and authentic with Abby. Not only that, but I have come to recognize that Abby makes me want to be a better person. I feel totally accepted as I am, yet she also inspires me to keep going. My friendship with her motivates me to want to be more fully who God has created me to be. Not because she demands it of me, not because I want to impress her, but because I love her, and I know she loves me, and love always wants the best for the other. Becoming more like Christ is exactly how her love is affecting me.
Last Sunday here at Salt House we talked about love. We talked about how as followers of Jesus we need times of abiding with God where we can hear and feel and taste and touch God’s unconditional, relentless love for us. We call that connecting UP with God.
That UP dimension of our lives, our relationship with God is one piece of the balanced life we’re unpacking together this month. Like Jesus, we have three great loves, three primary relationships that we hold in balance, needing to spend time in each of those dimensions.
Last week it was abiding UP with God. But we don’t stay there. That love we experience inspires us, it motivates us to share love, to share life with other people as we have received from God. That is how we understand our relationships IN—it is sharing in the life and love of Jesus with other people. At their best, when we are motivated with love, our IN relationships are those relationships where we can be totally real with someone else. Nothing to hide, no one to impress, accepted as we are. It also is where we get the energy and inspiration to become like Christ, to be better people—to be who God created us to be.
I wonder: do you have an Abby in your life? Do you have 1, 2 or 3 relationships where you can be real and be accepted as you are, and yet where you are also inspired to become a better person?
This is one piece of our IN relationships—what we share with the few folks we are closest to. And there is much more to IN than just that. We hopefully have that kind of distinct intimacy with a few friends or family, but then we have other friends, and also a wider community that fill out the full picture of our IN relationships. Imagine a set of concentric circles around us – we need many kinds of IN folks to be our spiritual family, our encouragers, the folks we love and do life with.
And tonight to describe in greater, practical detail what the picture of IN looks like, we’re going to look to the first community of believers, as described in the book of Acts, chapter 2 – some of us from this community looked at this text back in Lent last year before Salt House officially launched. And today we’ll look at it in a different way. We enter the story, it has just been Pentecost—Jesus gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was his presence with them in a new way. He had been resurrected, then just spent weeks with them teaching the apostles before then ascending into heaven. So now, this community is left on their own without Jesus’ physical presence for the first time. What does life look like without Jesus physically there? Notice the picture that is painted for us—what life together was for them, and how it describes our life together IN now…
Acts 2:42-47 (The Message)
They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.
Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.
They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.
We’ll spend time in that first verse, verse 42. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. Acts 2:42. It says they committed themselves or they devoted themselves to four things. This sentence sums up the central characteristics of their life together. We’re going to look at those and hear them as describing the activities of our IN relationships.
As we walk through, here is your task: listen for resonance with your own life. What do you and your family, your friends devote your life to? What are those activities that drive you? Ask yourself: does the life I live with family and friends resonate with what is happening here? Celebrate where it does. Where it doesn’t, be listening for what God might want to change in you and your IN relationships. None of us ever have it all figured out, and so we’re always listening for what God is saying to us about how we might grow and live into greater balance and life.
Your bulletin insert has a few questions that I’ll be asking as we go through the text – I strongly encourage you to have that handy and to make notes about those questions or other things that come up for you, ok? Let’s listen together.
First up: They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles…
It’s saying here that the community of believers, this group of friends, were committed to learning more about Jesus. And so they were attentive to the apostles, because these were the 11 guys who had been with Jesus (and Barnabas who had been added). I picture the community gathering around and hanging out, just sitting at the apostles’ feet hungry to receive instruction, walking along with them and learning from the things they did.
Which makes sense—what do we know about learning? We learn best from other people. That’s why I chose this picture. Growing up, what we learned we learned by people showing us how to do it: to walk, talk, tie our shoes, throw a baseball, how to do long division, play the guitar, mow the lawn, clean the toilet, how to drive a car, how to cry when we’re sad, how to see the good in others, how to learn to love someone and express gratitude—so much of who we have become has been shaped by others: our parents, family, friends, teachers, coaches. By how they have shown us how to live. We learn from others—not just when we’re kids but our whole lives long. If we want to grow in our relationships with Jesus, we need to have folks who are showing us how to take the next steps in our faith.
We learn best from others—this is a significant piece of our IN relationships—folks showing us how to live like Jesus. Mentors. Friends who are farther along in their faith, pastors, family members. Ask yourself (and the questions are on your insert, too): Who are people in my life showing me the way of Jesus? Who could? And also: Am I showing others? Our IN: includes people who show us what the life of God is like.
Second, they devoted themselves to …the life together… Or the translation here often says, the common life, or fellowship. Essentially, they were devoted to living life together. They liked to hang out together and it became a way of life. Their example reminds us that life is not meant to be lived alone. Life is so much better when we get to share it with others. The good stuff—like a job promotion, playing games, a satisfying meal, even sleeping in is better when you can share it with someone. And the tough stuff, too—sharing it with someone else means you don’t have to face it alone—grief, illness, job loss, a broken heart, a lost dream. And even the everyday stuff has more meaning when we can share it – do you ever roll your eyes at folks who post pictures of their food all the time? (Or are you one of them – I am). We do that because we are affirming that the details of our lives, what we do and eat and wonder about, all of it has value especially when we share it with others.
So the first question for us is: Who do I do life, share life with (outside of who I live with)?
The text also says how: they lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person's need was met. The picture that is painted is one of generosity, notice that there is both giving and receiving. This is a crucial piece of our IN relationships: giving and receiving. Mutuality. Our IN relationships are about giving away our love, yes, and our time, our compassion, our wisdom—all that we have received from God, and also receiving it back from others when we need it. And we go through seasons of doing both.
At least we should roll through seasons of both. But let’s just name that we all have ways in which we struggle to both give and receive. My observation is that an overwhelming number of us have trouble being honest and vulnerable about the real need in our lives. Whether it is tangible like financial need, or when we are in need of love, prayer, healing, friendship, forgiveness. How about you? What are you good at receiving? And in what ways are you good at giving? And where do you struggle, to both receive and to give? Are you able to ask for help? That mutuality of giving and receiving, that’s the kind of intimacy God wants for us in our life together.
So the questions for us about this are: In what ways, and with whom, am I giving love in my relationships? Receiving? Where do I struggle to give/receive?
Third, they devoted themselves to …the common meal… This is also often translated “the breaking of the bread.” The community shared food together. And although this is a piece of “life together”, it is of such significance that it is listed separately.
My friend Abby taught me something about the word companion. It is comprised of the Latin prefix “com” which means “with”, and then “panis” which means “bread or food.” Meaning: “with bread.” Our companions then, are literally those with whom we share bread or food. (This is so something that Abby would just know). Food with others is particularly significant.
This is something we celebrate and practice here at Salt House – good and sacred things happen when we eat together. I think that’s another reason people Insatgram their food! Because something sacred is happening.
For the Acts 2 community, the meal also included the remembrance of Jesus. Jesus said we should break bread, sip wine, and remember him. The meals we share in our homes, and the meal we share together here on Sundays are reminders of Jesus’ presence with us each day. Food is sacred, especially when we share it with our companions.
The questions here for us to consider are: Who are the ones I have food with (my companions!)? Who could be my companions?
Fourth and finally, they devoted themselves…and the prayers. These first believers were devoted to prayer, together. Together, they leaned into God’s power and reminded each other that we are never in it alone, that they never had to rely solely on their own resources, their own abilities, or their own achievements, but they could depend on the Holy Spirit and God’s power and resources. As we talked about last week, prayer in solitude with God is important because it builds our intimacy with God and our dependence on God – that time UP. Prayer with God with our friends is important, too, because it also builds our intimacy with each other, and our dependence on God as friends and as a community. When you pray regularly with a friend, you are together returning to God: your intimacy with God and each other grows.
As does your accountability to one another. Because once you start praying, you’re going to start hearing God speaking into your life, and if someone else is there with you, they’re going to be asking: “Ok, what is God saying to you—through prayer, through what you’re noticing in your life.” And you have to answer them. And then they’re going to ask you: “Well, what are you going to do about it?” A community that prays together also holds one another accountable to following through with what God desires for them.
So when it comes to prayer: maybe you have never prayed with another person before, or never prayed out loud. Maybe you pray sometimes, but not with the deliberate ear attune to what God is saying. Maybe you pray with someone, but you don’t have that same accountability to hearing and following through. Maybe you are in prayer with your IN and you are amazed at how God blesses you through that! Wherever you find yourself, there is a next step that is appropriate in your prayer life, and the encouragement I offer you is to lean into God’s grace and take that next step in prayer and accountability. We ask then: Am I in prayer with and accountable to others? Who? And if not, who could?
There you have it – four dynamics of life together, of the IN that the first followers of Jesus lived together. Isn’t it a beautiful, dynamic, vibrant, full life together with others? I look at that and say: wow! Awesome! And I also say, wow, that’s A LOT, right?
So: now what? What do we do with this? I know I just gave you a lot to digest. Hopefully you’ve begun to fill in some answers about the WHO and the HOW this IN dimension is lived out in your life – as well as ways in which you might live into them moving forward.
And if all this feels far off from where you are in your relationships, don’t worry – none of us are fully living all these things. The word for us to hold together today is the invitation to find ONE area from this list of questions, and to commit to moving forward with what God might do in that relationship.
Look back at these questions, think back over the people that have come to mind for you – who fills in those concentric circles for you? We’re going to take a minute to listen for God together, to ask what one commitment can we each make in one of these four areas. Maybe stepping forward to pray with friend, maybe recommitting to making time to eat with others during the week. Maybe nurturing your friendship with your own Abby. Maybe asking for a mentor or intentionally committing to being in a Thrive Group as we get those started again – or something else! We know that when we step forward in faith, that God is there as we live into the dynamic life of Jesus, together. Let’s pray…