Paula Northwood January 12, 2020
Scripture Acts 2:43–47
Our text this morning is from the Acts of the Apostles, and it is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Both are written by the same author. Acts is the story of the early church. This morning’s text comes after the followers had celebrated Jewish Pentecost and had an incredible experience that included wind, fire and speaking in tongues. Here is the response of the community:
“The followers 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 God added to their number those who were being saved.”
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Did you practice before you came to church? I know Philip practiced the organ and the choir rehearsed. I practiced my sermon, but did you practice anything?
Today, we are starting a sermon series on the early church as it was told from the Acts of the Apostles. If you noticed the sermon title, it is “Praxis Makes Perfect.” In the Greek, the Acts of the Apostles is Práxeis Apostólōn, “the praxis of the Apostles.” Praxis is a great word because it is about a theory, learning or skill and the process by which that theory, learning or skill is practiced, enacted or embodied. As early readers approached this text, they knew they would read stories about how the followers of Jesus practiced and embodied their faith.
That is what we will be examining in the following weeks in hope that it will also inform how we, too, might put into practice and embody more deeply our faith into today’s world. Other than on Pentecost Sunday, we rarely preach from the book of Acts at Plymouth Church, so I am looking forward to exploring this book together.
There is a story about golfer Gary Player. He is in Texas, in a bunker hitting practice shots, when an old cowboy walks up and watches as the first shot Gary hits goes into the hole. The cowboy says to him, “I’ll give you 50 bucks if you knock the next one in.” And he does. In fact, Gary goes on to make three more in a row. As the old man is peeling back $100 bills, he says to Gary, “Boy, I’ve never seen anyone so lucky in my life.” Gary Player’s response says it all: “Well, the harder I practice, the luckier I get.” Although probably not original to Gary, his response gets at something everyone knows: Behind people who are good at what they do is a road paved with hours and hours of practice.
Journalist Malcolm Gladwell suggested that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything. Ten-thousand hours! Basically, five years of full-time work according to our workweek. In other words, practice, doing the same thing repeatedly is how you master a craft. But is it also true for our spiritual lives?
How does this translate to our spiritual life? Is it possible to get better at showing mercy? Is it possible to grow in generosity, to become more loving, to be a better neighbor, all by practicing? Is the Christian life like everything else in life—is it just a matter of putting in the hours or giving ourselves over and over and over again to the discipline of cultivating a virtuous life? Is it possible for us to say to someone who manifests an astonishing amount of generosity, “That’s the most generous thing I’ve ever seen,” only to hear from them, “You know, the more generous I am the more generous I become”? Or like someone has jokingly said, “If practice makes perfect and perfect needs practice, we are perfectly practiced and practically perfect.” Well, maybe not.
For our sermon series, it would serve us well to have a little bit of historical context. Acts is the only book of the Bible that chronicles the history of the church immediately after Jesus’s ascension. As such, it provides us with a valuable account of how the church was able to grow and spread out from Jerusalem into the rest of the Roman Empire. In only three decades, a small group of frightened believers in Jerusalem transformed into an empire-wide movement of people who had committed their lives to following Jesus. The book ends on a high note with the Apostle Paul on the verge of taking the gospel to the highest government official in the land, the Emperor of Rome.
But the historical reality of the beginning of Christianity is complex. The Christian movement began not from a single center but from many different centers where different groups of disciples of Jesus gathered and tried to make sense of what they had experienced with him and what had happened to him at the end of his public ministry. Each of those groups had a very different take on who Jesus was.
There were others we meet later in Acts, who followed John the Baptist and not Jesus. There were also what we might call Christian Pharisees who argued that converts needed to follow Jewish laws and traditions. There was even more diversity in the early stages of the Christian movement than what the Acts of the Apostles suggests. We know from the scrolls and Codices found in clay jars at Nag Hammadi in Egypt that a gnostic Christianity existed. They placed emphasis on the wisdom of Jesus. They also had a more mystical understanding of Jesus.
Maybe that isn’t so different from today. We do not all understand Jesus or Christ in the same way. Some of you have had a rather personal spiritual experience with Jesus. Others understand Jesus of Nazareth as a great spiritual teacher, a wise sage and healer whose teachings provide a moral compass for life. And others understand Christ to be an archetype. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, wrote about this archetype, saying, “What happens in the life of Christ happens always and everywhere.” We call this the Cosmic Christ, that connection to the divine that is available to all of us.
What is important to understand is that while the Gospel of Luke is about Jesus of Nazareth, the Book of Acts is about Christ or Jesus as Christ. The Apostle Paul, whose writings make up a third of the New Testament, never talks about that Jesus of Nazareth. He is talking about Jesus as Christ. Jesus is the microcosm; Christ is the macrocosm.
What we have in the book of Acts is the early church discerning how to understand Christ. They understood that Jesus of Nazareth embodied the Cosmic Christ and that we, too, are to be Christ and the Church is to be the body of Christ. And—and this is important—to be the body of Christ requires praxis. It requires embodying the wisdom of God. It requires action based on spiritual practices.
What does this look like? We get some clues from our text, set in the Roman Empire. It was a world in which there was inequality: There was great poverty on the one hand and immense wealth in the hands of a very few people. There was sickness and disease, and there were no public health services and doctors were expensive. There were immigrants. Tribes were being displaced, territories occupied, and all of them are trying to find their way into Roman society. And it was not easy. The Roman government had a very strict hierarchical system in which the emperor was at the pinnacle. The emperor was also the conduit to the divine world. And if you’re at the bottom of that social pyramid, not a whole lot of things are coming down to you.
On the stage enters this new community, one which begins with a baptismal formula, which says in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free. This is a sociological formula that defines a new community. Here is a community that invites you and makes you an equal with all other members of that community. It gives even the lowliest person dignity and status.
This community also offered everyone a place of belonging. To belong is one of our basic human needs. In the often violent, heavily taxed, often cruel Roman world, people were searching for belonging, for community. The success of Christianity in the Roman world could be as basic as this: It was a place where everyone belonged. When we think about the appeal of this movement to many people, it’s certainly clear that some were drawn by the way that this community would take care of people. Like other elements of the Jewish community, the followers of Jesus fed the destitute and took care of people, especially widows so that they wouldn’t have to resort to prostitution. That was the primary obligation of Jewish piety. The commandment and ethic of love is decisive. The care for each other becomes very important. People are invited out of their isolation. If they are hungry, they know where to go. If they are sick, there is an elder who will lay on hands to them to heal them. They share their resources so this can be realized.
As Jesus’ followers put into practice and embodied that love and compassion, their numbers grew. This is praxis, action that was other-seeking and dialogic. They listened to each other’s stories and shared the stories of Jesus. They created practices that nurtured spiritual growth. We even know that when people joined the Christian communities in Rome, they would be assured a burial. This is not something anyone could take for granted in the ancient world. This new community was one in which people took care of one another.
It is sometimes easy for us to read the text this morning and say, “Well, that sounds like communal living, and we know how that works out”—misguided people doing crazy things usually out in the woods. Or we think of the Amish. Early Christians were often misunderstood. They were called atheists because they did not believe in the gods of the empire. But we don’t need to get caught by the literal words of the text but rather receive the invitation to embody their intention. They prayed together, they shared resources so that everyone was cared for, they ate together, they worked as an interdependent community. They relied on each other. And this sense of community was so strong, so attractive, that it drew others to it. They lived as if something greater than themselves mattered.
The goal of praxis makes perfect is to embody Christ or to be the voice, hands and feet of God in the world. But in order to have the stamina to do that one must have a spiritual practice. We will be exploring spiritual practices as we work our way through the Book of Acts.
Last Sunday, we had Pilar Gerasimo at our Sunday Forum, and she encouraged us to be healthy deviants. Contrary to popular usage of the word deviant, it literally means to depart from the usual behavior, the behavior of the world’s expectations. Her point was that society promotes a great deal of unhealthy living, and we need to deviate from that to find health and wholeness. The book of Acts invites us to practice being spiritual deviants; to be community in a society that promotes individualism, to bring love where there is hate, generosity where there is greed and hope where there is despair. This is praxis, and praxis takes practice. This week, think about where you may need more practice and then find some time to do it! May it be so. Amen.