A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 17, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Acts 2:41-17 and 1 Corinthians 14:26-31
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
I got to hear Michael Kinnamon preach a little over a week ago, at the Annual Gathering of the Christian Church of Northern California Nevada. Michael is probably best known in Disciples of Christ circles as the nominee who didn’t get elected and as a leader in the ecumenical movement. It’s a little surprising for me to realize that it was 25 years ago, but it was 25 years ago when Michael was nominated to serve as General Minister and President of the Disciples of Christ.
The biennial General Assembly was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that year, an area of the country where the density of DOC congregations is much higher than it is here in Northern California. Because each congregation can send delegates to General Assemblies, it was possible for the opposition to Michael’s nomination to bus in delegates from area churches to vote against him, and his election fell short by 87 votes. The opposition to him serving as General Minister and President was a reaction to his belief that the Bible doesn’t forbid the ordination of gay and lesbian people.
Michael went on to teach at several seminaries across the United States. He served as the General Secretary of the Consultation on Church Union, the leading ecumenical organization of mainline Protestants looking at potential reunification of Protestantism in the USA in the 80s and 90s. He had leadership positions in the World Council of Churches. And he was elected the General Secretary (the leader) of the National Council of Churches in the USA in 2007.
Michael’s sermon from a week ago focused on the Annual Gathering’s theme: discerning what is next in the life of the Region. One of Michael’s points was that our memories define us, that is, that our sense of who we are is grounded in our memories.
He pointed out that our memories are not always factually accurate, but it is the memory as we remember it that defines us, not what actually happened. He offered a wonderful example of this. His daughter, who is an African-American, understands herself to be a worker for justice and that this identity comes from the early childhood experience of meeting Desmond Tutu at a General Assembly. Michael knows that she was in the children’s program at the General Assembly when Tutu spoke, and they she couldn’t have met him. Nonetheless, her memory of meeting him is an important part of defining who she is. There is no point, Michael said, in correcting her memory to make it factually accurate (and hopefully she won’t read this sermon online). Her memory as she remembers it defines who she is.
The same is true for the church. Our memories define us. It might be memories of the recent past. For instance, I remember the many people who pitched in a few years ago to help a family in our congregation and that memory helps define this congregation as “compassionate” for me. It might be memories of a half-century ago of an adult who made a special effort to welcome children, giving us an identity as a safe and welcoming place for kids. Or it could be an ancient memory, passed down to us in stories – even in the stories we call scripture. And I want to turn to those memories now.
During this time of Easter, we’ve been looking at the uprising that began with the resurrection. I’ve talked about some of the hallmarks of that uprising. A couple weeks ago, I talked about how the uprising is marked by it being a fellowship of scared, scarred, doubting people. Last week, I talked about how the uprising is marked by it being a collection of learning teachers who make mistakes and keep on striving to faithfully follow Jesus. Today, we turn to how this uprising is marked by worship.
One of the things that is peculiar about this uprising that started with the resurrection is how we gather. Our reading from Acts is the end of the Pentecost story. I won’t go into much background on that because we will return to that story in a month. For now, you need to know that this is Luke’s telling of how the church started – the Holy Spirit blowing through a gathering of disciples, empowering them to share the story. Peter takes the lead in speaking to a crowd that gathers and people respond. 3,000 people, Luke claims, responded by being baptized. It doesn’t matter whether or not that’s factually accurate; it’s the memory that defines us. Once they became part of the community, one change in their lives was that they became devoted to learning, the breaking of bread, and prayer. In other words, they became devoted to worship, for these are three of the four elements of worship in the early church, four elements of worship that continue today.
Historians have pieced together some of what worship in the early life of the church was like. Much of this description I’ll give you today is based on a summary written by Brian McLaren.
The community of Jesus-followers gathered frequently. They called their little communities ecclesia, borrowing the term from the Roman Empire. For the Romans, an ecclesia was an exclusive gathering of local citizens where they discussed the affairs of the Empire of Rome. For the early Jesus-followers, an ecclesia was for common people, and they discussed the affairs of the Empire of God. The ecclesia of Jesus-followers were held in all kinds of places – in homes, in public buildings, in outdoor settings, even in catacombs. They were held whenever possible, but at first mostly at night because nearly everyone who come then, even slaves. It appears that the initial gatherings happened any day of the week, though remembering that the resurrection happened on a Sunday drew some groups to gather on that day.
There were four main functions or parts to the worship service. Worship began with teaching, usually teaching from the original disciples. This might be the disciples themselves or a letter from one of them. Through these teachings, people could learn about what Jesus taught, what he said, stories about his life and death and resurrection, the parables he told, the character he embodied. In this way, people who never met Jesus could think of themselves as followers of Jesus, walking the road he walked.
It seems that it was in this first element of worship that the ecclesia in Corinth was having problems. We don’t have the letter from the Corinthians to Paul, but we can interpret what it might have said based on his response. There seems to have been some quarreling about how worship should go. Some people must have thought that too many people were speaking in tongues. Maybe there weren’t any interpreters of the tongues, so speaking in tongues added nothing to the worship experience of the rest of the community. “Let all things be done for building up,” Paul writes to them.
If there are people who have a prophecy to share, some word that they believe is coming from God, they should share it – and it is the responsibility of the rest of the community to weigh what they share. I think he’s saying that we need to give prophecy a sniff test to see if it smells funky. And take your turns, Paul says. It sounds like it may have been a bit of a contest of holiness at times.
The next element of worship was prayer.  In at least some communities, prayers were offered while the community was standing. The content of the prayers is largely lost, but I can’t help but wonder if those early Christians found what I have found: that “it is far better to share our worries with God than to be filled with anxiety about things that are out of our control.” I wonder if they prayed for boldness and wisdom to share God’s love beyond their community. I suspect they brought needs and sorrows of others before God, joining their compassion with God’s greater compassion. And I suspect they offered their thanksgivings and praise.
If they prayed the prayer we call “the Lord’s Prayer,” then we know they were praying for justice and peace. We also know that they would be praying prayers of confession, opening themselves to reconciliation with God and each other. Perhaps they were bold and faithful enough to pray for their enemies, as Matthew and Luke tell us Jesus taught.
The third element of worship was the meal around the table. In the early church, it appears to have been a full meal. According to Paul Bradshaw, the pattern of this meal mirrored “the common custom followed at all Jewish formal meals.” This seven-fold shape began with the head of household taking bread in his (and it would have been a “he” at that time) hands, offering a blessing, breaking the bread, sharing it with all present; and at the end of the meal, taking a cup of wine in his hands, offering a blessing, and sharing it with all around the table. Bradshaw points out that this is the description of the Last Supper in several New Testament texts, which means that Jesus wasn’t instituting a new ritual, but reinterpreting an old one, giving it new meaning.
The meals around which the Last Supper was remembered were also a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all are fed and none are hungry. The thing that was different about this feast was that all divisions fell away. All were welcome: rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek, city-born and country-born. Everyone was treated as an equal, a shockingly anti-social act. Imagine someone from the merchant class treating a slave as an equal.
By the middle of the second century, it appears that the main meal disappeared from at least some of the Christian worshiping communities and the meal was simplified to the bread and cup.
Though the agape feast (as it was called by some) ended, the radical nature of the Eucharist remained. All were still welcome: rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek. And this radical equality and inclusion was just as shocking to the social order as it had always been.
The fourth element of worship in the early church was an offering. This is how Justin Martyr describes this portion of the service: “And the wealthy who so desire give what they wish, as each chooses; and what is collected is deposited with the president [of that ecclesia]. He helps orphans and widows, and those who through sickness or any other cause are in need, and those in prison, and strangers sojourning among us; in a word, he takes care of all whose who are in need.”
The wealth gap in the United States today is troubling, but it is nothing compared to the wealth gap that existed in the Roman Empire. Then, most people (who weren’t slaves) had subsistence lives, growing barely or not quite enough to feed their families, or working for only enough to feed themselves and their families on those days when they were lucky enough to find work. Anyone with any expendable money would have been considered wealthy, and they supported, through the church, those who were in need.
Our memories define us.
I started this sermon by saying that our memories define us. The disciples’ memories of their experiences of Jesus – before the crucifixion and after the resurrection – defined who they were. The memories of coming together to worship defined who the early church was. We are inheritors of those memories. We still gather for teaching, prayer, communion, and offering. This peculiar action is part of who we are and it is a mark of the uprising that began with Jesus. We are a people of the table where all are welcome – and all means ALL.
During the communion hymn today, we will be moving to the fellowship hall and we will gather around the tables there. It won’t quite be like the earliest celebrations of communion, which bookended the meal. We will celebrate communion and then move into our potluck lunch. When we get to that part of the worship service, we may discover that there are not enough chairs for everyone, so if you can stand around a table, I encourage you to stand and allow those who need to sit to sit. I know that not everyone will be able to stay for the lunch and the Day of Discovery program that follows, but I hope most of you will. And now, I’ll stop getting to far ahead of myself. I’ll return to the sermon.
As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to think about anything in today’s sermon that struck you, or to simply reflect on a time in your life when your heart was full of worship.
Consider how do you respond to (and how are you fed by) the four ancient functions of gathered worship – teaching, prayer, the meal, and offering.
Choose one word that points to an attribute of God (glory, wisdom, justice, kindness, power, grace, etc.). Hold that word in your heart and mind, and in silence worship God. Then choose another word and hold it together with the first word in silent worship. Then add a third, and so on.