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Back to the Basics
a sermon based on Acts 2:42-47
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall

I  recently changed brands: I became a Methodist.  So I figured if I’m going to pastor this brand of sheep, I really should find out a little bit about the flock.  So I rummaged through a Methodist hymnal.  That’s as good a place as any to find out what people believe – just find out what they sing.  I ran across this hymn; unfortunately, it didn’t make the final draft of their hymnal.  But it sure clued me in for what Methodists are like.  Goes to the tune of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”

Well the Methodist Church is kind o’ laid back.
There isn’t an opinion that the Methodists lack.
We’re sort of like champagne with a Big Mac,
Thank God I’m a Methodist.

Well you just might say our beliefs run the gamut.
We might say darn, but we don’t say________.
If you wonder what a Methodist is, I’m it,
Thank God I’m a Methodist.

Well if you want to eat, just come around here;
Thirty-seven potlucks already this year.
Just the thought of tuna casserole
Makes me shed a tear,
Thank God I’m a Methodist.

Well the Methodist church is the friendliest in town.
We have a lot of fun but our membership is down.
That’s why a sign-up sheet is being passed ‘round,
You too, can become a Methodist.

Well the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, UCC, and the Methodists are fine.
We have a few differences, but we don’t mind,
Like we use grape juice and they use wine . . .
—too bad I’m a Methodist.

    This could have been written of most of our churches these days.  Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Mennonites—whatever.  The lyrics caricature any of our churches.  I wish the problems facing our denominations could be reduced to preferences of grape juice or wine.  But our differences in theology, practice, and worship have deeply divided us from each other.  We love fellowship but many of our brands are facing down-sizing and decline.  Our clergy are not in much better shape.  I read last week that 1,400 pastors throw up their hands each month and exit the parish doors for greener—at least less stressful--pastures.  Doing church these days is not easy.  A lot has happened in the past two thousand years since Jesus began his church.
    I wonder what defines our congregations?  If you were to visit my church or I to visit yours, how would we describe our congregations?  What song would we write about our worshipping communities?

    Did you hear Luke humming his own tune this morning?  Luke looks back over a remarkable Christian journey and describes his own brand.  During his lifetime, Luke would have witnessed a phenomenal growth of Christians from a handful of diehard fans to a group so huge they could have filled every coliseum in the Roman Empire.  Numbers may not be an indicator of success—but Luke apparently is the primitive Church’s nickel and nose counter.  Three thousand people he notes were added following God’s first outreach on Pentecost. 

    Listen to Luke’s descriptive lyrics: 

They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles,
their 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.  
Astonishing how descriptions about the Christian community can change over time,
especially when given a couple of millennia to evolve.  

    I think we’ve become more adept, more professional at presenting the gospel than our earliest Christian friends were.  Consider that we now offer Masters programs in missiology and mission strategies, empowerment seminars for maximum impact in evangelism; through technology we can present the gospel to local congregations in byte-sized bits on Sunday morning; we’ve tampered with our worship and are discovering that yes we can mix our hymns with contemporary music and guitars and drums with organs.  We offer leadership training, provide spiritual gifts discernment, hold seminars on marketing the gospel, and hire crisis management consultants to help us fix what’s broken.  We need everything that will help us to get the word out in the many tongues of our own culture—now more than ever.  When it comes to the gospel, we’re pretty darn good at it.

    But still.  Even with all of this improvement and empowerment.  Aren’t we attracted to Luke’s description of these earliest Christians?  Luke’s description is so simple, so non-hype and clear.  Early Christians—at least the ones that Luke describes in our lesson—are nourished in four basic ways: teaching, fellowship, common meals (an early version of potluck dinners?), and prayers.  They may not have known all of the sophisticated variations of the dance, but they certainly knew the basic steps well. 

    How can we augment Luke’s lyrics to our own excellent gifts and tools for doing ministry?  In all of our own outreaches and programs and flurry of activities have we blocked out time for the four qualities of spiritual growth that he describes? 

    I recently discovered that with my mouse, I can drag any icon from my file directory right onto my desktop.  I wonder what would happen if we cleaned the screens of our church activities of unnecessary clutter and began to drag Luke’s dynamic qualities back into our congregational life. 

    Let’s consider just one of those dynamics—prayer.  We all know that prayer is important.  So how come we don’t always make it a priority?  One minister answers: “The biggest reason we don’t pray is because we have been secularized.  We’ve stopped believing that prayer has any practical significance.”  In my new brand, too often that means that if we want to get something done, we form a committee, identify the problem, or create a program.

    Yet when this quality filters through everything we do, something happens to our committees and teams and choir rehearsals—even pocketbooks.  That was only theory until we actually began to restore this part of Luke’s lyrics to our church programs.  The first night we prayer was introduced to the choir, some of us wondered what prayer had to do with crescendos and four-four time.  Several even rolled their eyes in disgust.  But over time music and prayer became friends—if fact, word even got out to the congregation about this strange admixture. 

    And one night right in the middle of the rehearsal, Phyllis interrupted our rehearsal.  “I’m having a bad chemo day,” she said.  “And I know I could come here and that you would pray for me tonight.”  So we did.  We just gathered around our hurting friend and enclosed her in prayer.  What a powerful moment of music and prayer.
Don’t get me wrong.  The tenors still sing sour notes on occasion.  But by augmenting just one of Luke’s ancient qualities—“the prayers”— to our committees and programs, we began to experience renewal and new life.   Currently, we’re dragging Luke’s fellowship icon onto our church desktop.  Our homes are becoming welcoming places for small groups each month.  And the key biblical mandate for this new adventure is Acts 2:42.   

    However we build Luke’s four qualities of the early church into our congregations, one thing is for sure.  Such authentic Christian practice does impact others.  Christians became more deeply committed, more generous in giving money and even property to help others to the extend that every person’s need was met.  But even more important is the greater impact outside the community, for “every day their number grew.”  That’s good news when the membership’s down.

    In his book, Leadership is an Art, Max Dupree speaks to the business environment, but also to the Church: “We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.”   Maybe its time to become what we need to be by restoring some of the very qualities that made our Christian faith survive and thrive.  Amen.