Thank God for Community (8:30am)
Topic: Community Scripture: Acts 2:42–2:47
A group of US Army veterans went to Puerto Rico to help the people of that devastated island. They wanted to get to the most isolated villages with food and water, though they were fully aware that they could accomplish was a mere drop in an ocean of need. Their mission served as a symbol of unity with fellow Americans in dire need, and a call to action to aid them. As they drove through the hills and mountains, they witnessed moving scenes of joyful gratitude by those who received these vital necessities. They themselves felt deep appreciation for the resilience and hospitality of the Puerto Rican people. The army vets were creating and strengthening community through practical assistance and neighborly carWhen Peter preached on Pentecost, something new was born. A community formed around the word, accompanied by baptisms and the forgiveness of sins and miracles of the Spirit. Gratitude was its main feature. The early Christian community drew people from all walks of life. Each person had a strong sense of having been delivered from darkness to light, from death to life. Christ’s deliverance of them was mediated by the love of fellow Christians. It was very different from the life they had so recently known. The note of sheer thankfulness at being part of such a community comes through.
At the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there is an awesome sight: the ship’s bell from the iron ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald. The bell now shines as if brand new, although it had been submerged in Lake Superior for 20 years. At great risk and expense, the bell was retrieved on July 4, 1995, cleaned, and then dramatically displayed in the museum. Back then there was a ceremony for the families who had lost loved ones, and this helped to provide a sense of closure and healing. Today an atmosphere of reverence still permeates the museum. No one survived the sinking of the Fitzgerald, but many acts of bravery and rescue, before and since, have shaped a grateful community. We too have been rescued from spiritual danger into the marvelous light of Christ, and into the faith community, Christ’s body. There is a great reason for thankfulness.
The Acts 2 community’s thanks—for God and for each other—took the form of sharing and generosity of spirit. The new believers held all things in common, sold some possessions, and distributed the money to those in need. They prayed together and shared food and fellowship. They welcomed new people regularly. No one forced them to do this—it was the spontaneous result of the Spirit's work among them.
Through the centuries, Christians have tried to follow this pattern of being together. Monasteries, Shakers, Anabaptists, and the Jesus movement of the 1960’s and ‘70’s have sought to exhibit radical community to the world. Sometimes it has worked, sometimes it hasn’t. Such closeness over time is a true test of commitment. Some exploit the trust and care of others. Some—as we learn of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5—some deceive the community for their own purposes. There are those who, under pressure or persecution, betray and desert. The normal give and take of life include misunderstandings, disappointments, and personality clashes. Community is a beautiful gift of God, and it also takes a lot of work and forgiveness.
A Christian community has built-in strength and resilience, and can also be an exceedingly fragile flower. Most of us can think of a church or two that has blown apart due to issues large and small. In our First Pres community there have been times when a disagreement between individuals might have done damage, but one or both had the wisdom and maturity to walk it back and resume good relations. Often it helps to stop and reflect before we respond, giving us time to see what the loving approach might be. When we act out of our higher self, our better self, we act for love.
Today the world needs the grateful community. People young and old hunger to be included and to feel accepted. If we trace the background of some who join extremist groups we might find a lonely or rejected youth who discovers purpose and affirmation among the worst elements. Their overlords then channel fear and anger into violence. This false “community” fills a void, but it leads to death and destruction. The lack of true community also breeds that iconic American figure, the lone gunman, who lashes out from a position of terrible isolation. More than ever, our community-building efforts among families, children and youth are vital and necessary. We are so grateful for the ministries of Matt, Ann, and Conner in these areas, as well as all our great volunteers.
A joyful fellowship of thanks provides a better way. In such a fellowship, there is room for a wide variety of people. It’s never perfect, but it strives to be a caring place and people. Over time, trust grows, and the group is empowered. The faith community, founded on Christ, becomes Christ-like in its ability to minister. We don’t always know the right thing to do or say, but we are committed to standing with each other. We stand with one another in those times when we might not feel very thankful. Then we are called to comfort and uphold.
We can express gratitude for our community by seeking to build and strengthen that community. We pray for, serve, and contribute to the life of the church. They are forms of saying “Thank you” for what we’ve been given.
We recognize, too, that we are all part of larger communities. As Christians, our concerns must be broad enough to embrace creation, just as the vision of Jesus included the whole world. At times, we might be tempted to despair—but that’s not an option. Paul wrote, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.” Go ahead, he seems to say, be perplexed. But never give up. Your voice is needed. Your truth should be heard.
We can give thanks for the witness of so many who have stood up in these times. We can be grateful for the underlying strength of our country, still a beacon of hope for so many. Give thanks for what remains. The Rohingya people of Burma/Myanmar are being persecuted without mercy in their homeland. Some miraculously have made it here to Illinois. In this free land, they have found hope and help, safety and refuge. Let us be grateful for freedom and community, and for Jesus Christ. May our gratitude be made visible by the commitments we keep, the love that we share, and the lives that we live.