Church, the Universe and Everything
(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Acts 2:42-47
It was the sensation of the age! People were flocking to be part of that new phenomenon. It was as if the Beatles, Bay City Rollers, Take That, Boyzone, Westlife, and the latest K-Pop band had all formed a cross-generational super-group, such was the impact on that small corner of the world. Thousands flocked to their concerts, wanting to know everything about them, following them to their homes, even willing to part with their hard-earned money to get hold of the latest merchandise.
Of course, because this was the fledgling church in those heady days following Pentecost, the “merchandise” was whatever was needed by any member of the community, the apostles’ homes were wherever someone was willing to host them, and their anthem was how Jesus had impacted their lives, turning them from lowly fishermen, hated tax collectors and rabble-rousing troublemakers into the heralds of a radical message of love, grace and hope.
And as for their “concerts”, they were many and varied; from the vast arena of the Temple forecourts to the daily intimate gigs around the dinner table, where bread and wine was shared with all-comers in sacramental simplicity. Instead of roadies, they developed a ministry of deacons, but that came some time later. In those first few chaotic days, however, there was a beauty in its simple code, as described in verse 42: the apostles taught, the fellowship were devoted to each other, ate together and prayed together.
Here’s an interesting parallel (maybe more interesting to me, but a strange coincidence anyway): in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” the famous book, radio and TV series by Douglas Adams, the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything is discovered to be “42”. This inevitably leads the characters in the book to spend a lot of time looking for the ultimate question. But maybe we could say that, for the Christian community, the ultimate answer to church (the universe and everything) is Acts 2:42. See what I did there?
If we think about the current crisis that has been gripping the world for the past few months, we would probably say that one of the main things that we’ve missed is being together either as family, church, friends, even possibly work colleagues.
One of the fears of increasing the numbers of children attending schools in the last week was that they wouldn’t be able to adhere to social distancing measures when they see friends that they have been separated from since mid-March. I admire those 5-year olds who have been able to stop themselves hugging their classmates.
Certainly, it will be difficult to keep my distance the first time I get to see my parents as all I want to do is give them a big hug and say that I’ve missed them. Fortunately, as they live more than 4 hours drive away, I’m spared the strangeness of waving a hello until we’re a little more relaxed about travelling and overnight stays. In the meantime, the availability of the phone and use of video calls have provided some compromised “togetherness”.
In the meantime, we may be reassured that we can still emulate those early Christians in their way of doing church, even if we can’t be together in the same way that they were. We also aren’t quite as well versed in the miraculous, nor as willing to sell all our possessions so that no-one goes without, but let’s not focus too much on those.
They listened, they cared, they ate, and they prayed. Though we can’t share neighbouring spaces or seats, we can still follow this practice.
We can listen to each other, even those who don’t think that they have something worth listening to. We can hear the words of God in many ways: through sermons we find online, through the “Thought for the Week” (like this one), through sharing with others the experience of God’s amazing grace and love that reaches beyond death, which is one source of comfort that we can offer to those who are facing the reality of death in ways that no-one can have anticipated.
We can show that we care; you’ve probably already done this today by asking after someone’s health and being prepared to listen to their answer. During this crisis, many have joined their local neighbourhood schemes, or simply picked up the phone to let someone know that they matter enough for you to take the time to call. Others have made sure that the foodbanks are stocked and staffed, that food is bought and distributed among the vulnerable, prescriptions are collected, and medication delivered. Care has been shown in clapping, in thanking and in recognising the efforts made in support of so many. This is caring in action and churches across the world have, as often happens, provided much of the initiative and workforce to make these initiatives possible.
When it comes to food, as today is the first Sunday of the month, we’ll be sharing communion during the Zoom gathering. For those who can get online or via the phone, we will be eating together. For those who can’t, you’re not excluded from the Lord’s Table as you can join in as well. Alongside this “Thought” is a basic form of words that you can use to hold your own Communion Service; the same words will be used with those gathered via technology as the Spirit of God joins us all as one body, united by Christ’s blood.
And then there’s praying for one another, for our communities and for our world. There’s so much that we need to pray for. We pray for those who are suffering, whether directly affected by COVID-19 or because of the circumstances that this crisis has dictated; for those who are bereaved, abused, lonely, isolated, hurting, silenced, diminished, lost. We pray for those who have not yet discovered God’s love for them and those who misuse his words. We pray for those in command and those who have no authority. We pray for those we know by name and those we won’t meet in this life. We pray for ourselves and we pray for everyone else.
The good news for the church is that the template that the apostles established in Acts 2:42 can continue, whatever our circumstances. One of the lessons that we can learn from the persecuted church across the world (who, by the way, are praying for us here in Britain while we are experiencing what they perceive as our own version of “underground church”), is that even the threat of death doesn’t stop people having the desire to listen, to care, to eat and to pray.
My hope is that we don’t ever lose sight of these as the foundation of what defines us as church, as Christians committed to each other and to God. When we are able to open the doors of the church again to welcome in friend and stranger, let’s keep this simple pattern as the heart of our worship: we listen to God, we care for each other, we eat together and we pray for everyone.