One Thing They Could Agree On
April 9, 2024

One Thing They Could Agree On


Scripture: Acts 1:1-14

For the next four weeks we’ll be hearing the stories of the first Christians. It’s so early in the church they don’t even call themselves Christian. They’re still Jewish, although that’s definitely going to change as we progress through the book of Acts. They’re the people of the Way. They’re in this wild space of transition from being centered around the living Jesus to being a community without their primary teacher and guide as their center. How does a charismatic movement continue without it’s charismatic leaders?

The book of Act is answering that question. I’m guessing many of you already know that it’s author is the same as the gospel of Luke; it’s a sequel. I took a Luke/Acts class in college and professor confessed that she sometimes forgot and would be surprised and annoyed that the book of John divided them in her Bible. And I love a sequel. I confessed last week that I love a happy ending. Well here’s another confession: I also love a series. Being able to spend book after book with the same characters as the story develops - the best! I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you have favorite series either.

That’s essentially what Luke is doing here. And because we’ll be spending some time with Acts, I want to offer a little context. It’s the only book of its kind in the Bible: a narrative account of the formation of the early church and some of the key players. It was written in the 80’s or 90’s - so a decade or more after Mark’s gospel, which we’ve just finished, and a few years after it’s predecessor Luke. So people have had Luke in hand for a few years. Paul has been out there planting churches for a few decades already and these churches have had Luke and some of the other Gospels in hand. But they don’t yet have the account of their own founding.  

I’ll probably be using the commentary by Willy James Jennings a lot in these next few weeks. He’s a Professor of Theology and Africana Studies at Yale and very much reading and interpreting Acts from his identity as a Black American. He says - and I think he’s right - that while we get introduced a lot of the most important characters, the main character is the Spirit.

But! Today we’ve only read what’s essentially the prologue. If you’ve really been paying attention it might feel a little jarring because we ended Mark with the women fleeing the tomb and here we are in the beginning of Acts with Luke telling Theophilus (which means God-lover; maybe an individual or maybe a generalized address to his reader - ie. Dear Reader) that they already know all that’s happened about Jesus being back around and appearing to the disciples yadda yadda yadda.

I don’t really mean to yadda yadda the resurrection, but we do need to jump forward a few days to this little band of folks who are listening to the last words of their bestie, still wondering if now’s the time he’s going to restore the kingdom. We did get this bit in Mark - the disciples' expectation and wondering: it is now? How about how? But okay, is it now? And in this final scene with Jesus, he sets the expectation for once and for all: You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.

Jennings’ contention - and again, I have to agree - is that the book of Acts is a book that dis-entangled the idea of nationalism and national identity from the mission of God. God’s Reign covers all peoples and nations and Jesus gives that instruction in order to proclaim  that: you’ll start right here but like ripples in water, you’ll spread the Good News of resurrection and of the Reign of God farther out and farther out and farther out. 

I’m sure that at the moment they heard this, it was baffling to the disciples. They’d always had Jesus to lead them to the next place and then the next. No wonder they stood there with their mouths open just staring at the place his feet disappeared into the clouds. No wonder they needed some heavenly intervention to tell them to get going.

But they didn’t immediately go out into the city, into Samaria and Judea and all the earth. They went back to the place where they were staying and were unified in prayer. They had no plan, no strategy, no identified leadership, hadn’t filled Judas’ place in the twelve, didn’t know next steps, and crucially hadn’t yet received the Spirit, which Jesus has promised. But they could agree on this one thing: discernment through prayer.

It was no small thing to find this unity, I wouldn’t think. I love how Jennings describes them: 

God gathers not according to our wishes but through holy desire for those who desire the holy. Thus we have here an interesting group. Mary and her children, the disciples who walked with Jesus and certain women: 120 people that could not be confused with a clan, a class or family, extended or nuclear…they prepare for an unknown future, aware of a troubled past.”

A gathering of people who could not be confused with a clan, a class or a family. I read that and I thought - even wrote in the margin - sounds like a church to me. No reason for unity. But they were unified in their desire for the holy - and they expressed that through prayers as they waited for the Spirit to call them.

There are so many pressures on us as individuals to unite around the things that are not holy. And some of them would even align themselves with the holy or act like religion. Sports affiliations are one of those things. I know many of you are sports fan and I do not believe that any of you are allowing your fandom to cloud your alignment with the Reign of God - I’m not worried. Though fandoms generally are indeed powerful forces whose gravitational pull is extremely strong - whether that’s a sport, a pop icon (the Swiftiverse is real), a movie or television franchise. 

Another is - still, as it was for the first Christians - nationalism. And anyone who has seen the Trump Bible knows that American nationalism is very much wrapped up in the clothing of Christianity. Quoting Jennings again:

Nationalism remains a powerful way of imagining life together because it is a theological vision that mimics the desire for God for our full communion with each other. It is communion without God of God simply used as slogan…It places god-bound-to-nation over the God of all nations…It wants our worship.

I’m not particularly concerned about us in our congregation succumbing to this kind of unifying force either. Although I do think it is a concern in the Mennonite Church nationally. I do worry about that a little. I hope that even though we are not all identical, that we aren’t uniform, or even unanimous, we can find unity in some of our central understandings of what Jesus is calling us to.

I don’t yet feel like I’ve been at Evergreen long enough that I’ve experienced either a significant challenge to church unity but at the same time I wonder what the uniting ideas or understandings or experiences are.  Different that unanimity or uniformity - where do we experience unity? I feel proud and grateful for the unity we express around welcome and affirmation of LGBTQ identities and was proud to be a part of expressing that in our welcome statement. 

In the next few minutes, I invite you to think over your time of community life with evergreen and when you feel this body of believers has been united. 

  • First, for about 2 minutes, while I play music, you can reflect silently - if you’d like to use the bulletin insert to write down a few ideas or notes, please do
  • Second, I’ll invite you to turn to someone near you, preferably not in your household; kids you decide if you’d like to talk to someone you live with or someone else. Compare your ideas. Can you find unity with each other?
  • Last, we’ll hear from a few people in the larger group: What did you hear from your conversation partner about an experience of unity?

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