SJF • Easter 3a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Those who welcomed the message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
Last week we heard part of Saint Peter’s first sermon, delivered on the day of Pentecost, and today we hear the conclusion, and more importantly, the results. What you have here might be described as the first “altar call” — the crowd is cut to the quick by Peter’s ardent testimony, and about three thousand of them are added to the flock in baptism.
But there is more: as the Book of Acts makes clear, this is not the end, but the beginning of the story. The text continues: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This is literally a “cast of thousands” for the performance that is about to begin, which is the ongoing life of the church as a new body of the faithful. And what is important to note here is that they are not just faithful to God, but to each other. They are no longer simply a crowd of individuals, but a congregation, an assembly, a church. What holds them together, what unifies them, is their one faith in the one Lord through the one baptism. And their unity is strengthened and reinforced by the disciplines they practice as the body of Christ.
These instruments of unity are familiar to us: we use the words that summarize them at every baptism, and when we recite the Baptismal Covenant as we did two weeks ago on Easter. The members of the church not only devote themselves to God, but to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.
You all know the Christmas carol, that goes, “I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day in the morning,” right? Well I’d like to point out that the earliest believers, and believers since, are united by means of three ships: leadership, fellowship, and worship.
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First of all, the believers acknowledge the apostles’ leadership. As Acts records, they turn “to Peter and to the other apostles” with an earnest question; after being told what a mess they are in, they naturally ask, “Brothers, what should we do?” And they heed their advice, their witness, their teaching, the testimony from these eyewitnesses, testimony that has been passed down through the ages. And as I said last week, that testimony is this: Christ is alive! In him we have forgiveness of sins — all our sins, whatever they may be — and we have a new life in the Spirit. That’s it, the short form of the Christian faith, as handed down from the beginning until now, and as it will be handed down until the coming of the Lord in glory, to judge both the living and the dead. Christ is alive.
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Out of this strong leadership and teaching of the apostles, there arises almost at once the second instrument of unity: fellowship. The first thing the people do — those three thousand — is to get baptized — all washed with the same baptismal water, united with Christ in a death like his, in order to live in the life which is his, the life of the church, which is his body. And this fellowship takes surprising forms: these people will go on to share their property with each other, the better-off helping those in need. They spend much more time together than they ever had before. As Peter says in the Epistle, looking back on this newly baptized community: “Now that you have purified your souls by obedience to the truth” — that is, now that you are reborn in Christ — “you have genuine mutual love.” They are a community bound in fellowship.
And then, of course, comes worship. The new community of faith is unified by the instruments of prayer and the breaking of the bread in which Christ is made known and makes himself known from Emmaus onward even to this day. These new believers discover that in giving thanks and praising God and sitting at the table together, they share in this great mystery of Christ’s presence with them, the Holy Communion of his Body and Blood, of his and their — and our — Savior.
This is how the church began, and this is how the church is called to continue, united through these three instruments, sailing the seas of this world in these three ships — the leadership and teaching of the apostles’ and their successors — which is the body of the faithful, lay and ordained; in the fellowship of that gathered community that transcends time and space; and in the worship that offers and shares the broken bread and the cup of wine, with the prayer of thanksgiving.
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These three aspects of leadership, fellowship and worship are summed up in our gospel this morning. When Jesus meets the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he takes the leadership that is his by right; he teaches them about himself, leading them into an understanding of the Scripture as they walk along, as he relates it to all that has happened. He then stays with them in fellowship, accepting their invitation as the day draws to a close and night comes on, to be with them, to stay with them a little longer; and in doing so he draws them even closer together in fellowship. And finally, as he breaks the bread — in what would ordinarily have been just an act of fellowship but which has been raised by Jesus into an act of worship — he makes himself known to them, even as he vanishes from their sight, perhaps leaving behind his knowing smile, the warmth of his presence, and the knowledge of his love.
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Would it were always so! For there are some who reject this way to unity in Christ; some who don’t book passage on these three ships but try to take another way — and insist on others taking it too! Instead of accepting the imperishable presence of God whom we meet in communion and fellowship with each other, some still want to have their own way, refusing to share in the leadership of the church because of disagreements over one thing or another, refusing the offered hand of fellowship because they don’t approve of the one who offers it, and worst of all refusing to worship together because of these divisions and dissensions.
No doubt you have heard or read of the disagreements that have gone on in the Anglican Communion over the last twenty years. Some go so far as to say that the Communion has fallen apart. Well, I say, Don’t believe everything you hear! While there are some — even a handful of folks here in our own country — angry enough to try to vote others off the island (as if they could!), there are many others, the vast majority of others, who are on record as saying they do not approve of such a movement. More importantly, in the long run, they trust — I hope we all trust — that Christ will prevail. The majority of the leaders of the Anglican Communion will heed Christ’s commandment to be one in him, not seeking unity in manmade political structures or elaborate compromises, but in the comprehensive instruments of unity that Christ himself gave us: shared leadership, committed fellowship, and communal worship.
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Some people, even at the level of a parish, refuse to share in prayer and fellowship with those with whom they disagree. What would Jesus do in a case like this? A number of things spring to mind. I can well imagine him saying, as he said long ago, “Who are you to judge your brother? Who are you to place heavy loads on others that you are not willing to bear? Who are you to bar the way to the kingdom of heaven even though you do not enter yourself?” But I can also imagine Jesus saying something that many an irrate parent has said to his or her unruly children: “Sit down and eat your supper!”
For in this case the supper is not mere earthly food. Nor is it our supper — it is his, the Lord’s Supper. This is the supper of Christ’s death, the meal which it took his death to feed us, his Body given for us, his Blood shed for us, by which we are not merely nourished, but saved. Through him we have come, as Peter wrote, to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that our faith and hope might be set on God, not on our poor efforts, but on his gift. His sacrificial leadership has led us to this table. His willing to be with us ensures his presence with us in fellowship. And his gift of himself has blessed us with the opportunity to worship. The three ships have come to this safe harbor, to this destination: here where we gather. Here at this table he makes himself known to us in the breaking of the bread. He has told us to cease our strife — to take and eat, to take and drink, together; to sit down and have our supper.
To reject each other here, my friends, is to reject him. To reject each other, to judge each other, is to dismantle the church for which he died, for which he was raised from the dead. To reject each other is to undo Easter, to rob the Last Supper of its power, to put Jesus back in the tomb, to seal it with the stone of judgment, and earn thereby our own justified condemnation.
How much better, to do as Christ commands: to take and eat, to take and drink, to love each other as he loved us, serving one another rather than judging one another.
How much better to remain united in him through the three ships whose sails, when filled with the wind of the Holy Spirit, can bear us to the safe harbor of his peace. Pray, my sisters and brothers, that we and all the faithful throughout the world, may set aside our disagreements, our judgments, our divisions, and remain united in him, who has committed to us this task of leadership, this community of fellowship, and this call to worship him, who is the savior and redeemer of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord.