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Everything in Common

Date: 30/04/2015/Speaker: Dr Gwee Li Sui

This is the transcript of my sermon read to the congregation of Free Community Church on 26 April 2015. The Scripture passage is Acts 2:41-47, supplemented with Colossians 3:12-17.

Brothers and sisters –

Thank you for inviting me to share with you from the Word of God again. This is the third time I am before your pulpit, and I hope that I will be able to keep counting like this for the rest of my life.

Unfortunately, if you are expecting me to preach in Singlish today, I won’t.

I also understand that, even as I stand here, Rev. Miak Siew is having a great time with his parents in China. I am a keen follower of his photo updates.

Before Rev. Miak left, he gave me specific instructions about your current sermon programme. I am told that you’re using for study Brian D. McLaren’s excellent guide We Make the Road by Walking. This really is a very attentive and invigorating book: I am learning from it too now.

The topic today is worship, and I like to start by showing you a curio from yet another member in my series of early personal Bibles. You may recall me whipping out my first Bible on this pulpit a year ago. That one was a red fake-leather-cover KJV – which soon came to look more like Kiam Chye Version. It had cost me slightly over $10, a lot of money for a low middle-income kid in my day.

After that Bible fell apart in a rather Biblical way – it became almost literally 66 books – I headed down to Tecman to find myself a new Bible. Being young and impressionable, I desired a modern translation with quality binding this time and a classier, less solemn look. But, after browsing for hours, I realised that I just didn’t have enough money for that kind. All I could afford was this one: a white version of the same Bible I had!

Needless to say, in less than a year, it turned into a Kiam Chye Version too.

What is specifically meaningful when I re-found this Bible in my parents’ home yesterday is an insert. It is a card among a few I had made for myself back in 1985. I have totally forgotten about them until now!

This particular card shows a tumultuous sea with large, violent waves. The sea rages under very dark clouds, through which only a few rays of light – albeit strong ones – can break. There is a bird caught in the turmoil and the gloom and darkened by its surroundings, having nowhere to land, rest, or feed.

Then there are these words from a poem:

In heavenly love abiding,
No change my heart shall fear;
And such is safe confiding,
For nothing changes here:
The storm may roar without me,
My heart may low be laid;
But God is round about me,
And can I be dismayed?

These words came from a 19th-century Welsh poet named Anna Letitia Waring. They are also part of the text of a rather well-loved hymn. Examining the card, I soon found myself wondering: what was the young Christian I was then doing, drawing such a picture and finding a strong wish to interpret and own such lines? What was I thinking as an adolescent, one-year-old believer?

The lines clearly served less as words arising from confidence or knowledge than as a means to encourage myself, as a form of will to faith. After all, I couldn’t have known well at the time what might be ahead, whether I would indeed fear no change and feel safe in God always. I couldn’t have known enough about whether my faith was able to overcome deep dismay. I couldn’t have known how capable I was in doubting God to begin with.

Such knowledge assumed experience, which a fervent, young believer would lack. Indeed, the ensuing anxiety for a young Christian often takes different forms of a “What if?” question. Since there hasn’t been a precedent for me, what if I waver, cannot keep the faith later on? What if I later experience depression, anger, or fear of such power that I cannot muster enough within to cry out to God?

You see, what my card did is rather interesting. It simply spoke back to me from a stronger position of faith I had hoped to get to. It spoke back to me in the words of Waring’s more experienced I, which I could assume to be my future I. The speaking itself thus lifted me – if only I would surrender my weakness to my becoming, commit myself to the words’ certainty.

This point leads me to think about the principal character of today’s homily: the young Church. At this time of our Bible passage, Acts 2:41-47, the early believers – like a young Christian – were still amidst a throng of experiential highs.

They had gone almost overnight from confusion and grief to profound clarity and joy. They had encountered the resurrected Christ or experienced some kind of closeness to Him. They had beheld His ascension and were given a wealth of promises and challenges. Most recently, they had received the gift of the Holy Ghost on that triumphant day of Pentecost.

But, invariably, the truth stands that every day is still a new day and the future is always a new terrain. The question always restarts: where does one go from here? After Pentecost, this question might arise in new believers in practical shapes: “What if all this power and exhilaration we are experiencing doesn’t last?” “What if something goes wrong tomorrow despite our faith?”

“What if it ends?”

The Apostles who had followed Jesus from the start might wield some pretty awesome power now, but the same question still applied to them and would even be more personal. “What if, after all I have gone through, even if God wouldn’t fail me and I know that He wouldn’t fail me, I could still fail Him – yet again?”

Against this setting of the anxiety of youth, McLaren’s chapter “The Uprising of Worship” names four primary modes of church worship. They are namely teaching, fellowship, Communion at the Lord’s Table, and prayer. This categorisation into four parts actually draws from Acts 2:42 itself, a line I know only too well since I had to memorise it as a Boys’ Brigade boy for a national Bible quiz competition.

The four modes are given in a list within the verse. We read that the Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”.

But what didn’t strike me as a boy is this rather commonsensical point McLaren is highlighting here: the context was one of the first church services. More than the gathering in the Upper Room, this was how the Church began as an organisation. Serendipitously, through their daily meetings, the believers had arrived at a formula with which to help themselves preserve, keep alive, the memory of the Risen Christ.

The four modes have since also become the four limbs of church worship.

The word “worship” we are familiar with came from the old English word weorthscipe, or “worth-ship”, which is to embrace the worthiness of something or someone. In the Old Testament, the primary Hebrew word shachah means something else rather: to prostrate or stoop in homage to a king or to God.

In the Greek of the New Testament, there are actually three words, the most common being proskuneo. This word carries the idea of revering an authority by kissing the ground before him or kissing his feet. Remember that, when the prostitute who anointed Jesus kissed his feet, she was according him a form of worship – which surely had contributed to the horror Jesus’s followers had towards the woman.

Then there is sebomai, which means to hold something in awe, and latreuo, which simply means to conduct a religious rite of veneration.

The earliest church worship instituted these four dimensions we read of, and, through them, we are supposed to understand church life. Worship had teaching, what I am doing now. It had Holy Communion and fellowship, what we shall do later. It had communal prayer, what we did and will do soon again.

But it didn’t seem to have, or need, songs, which are nonetheless synonymous with the notion of worship today. It probably had church announcements even though this appeared too meaningless for the Acts’s author Luke to list. I can, however, imagine Peter saying “OK, same time tomorrow at the temple courtyard ya?” – surely he must have – or “We need to raise money for the poor families in the area. God loves a cheerful giver!”

Returning to songs, while we cannot know for sure whether they were part of the first years, we do know that they existed by the time of Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. In Colossians 3:16, Paul exhorts the faithful in Colossae in this manner: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

But isn’t that interesting firstly that Paul subsumes songs within the whole mode of teaching? As interestingly, secondly, Paul talks about using songs not just to teach but also to admonish – which I frankly haven’t seen done much or at all! Who today admonishes with songs?

Perhaps the point should encourage us to think more deeply about how much Christian music today is truly Christian. Shouldn’t Christian music at least contain some principles rather than be all about feeling good, with some key Biblical words thrown in, at the expense of understanding right or understanding more?

Worship is also about fellowship. The meaning of this aspect doesn’t really involve the business of networking, which has nonetheless become its definition in many churches today. Fellowship is a form of commitment to look after one another in the group. It is commitment to support one another in the strengthening of good conduct that everyone can agree with.

Thus, Acts 2:44-46 tells us about how “all the believers were together and had everything in common”. They “sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” and met regularly in the temple courts and in their own homes to worship.

These lines ought not to be misread as advocating communal living or political communism. The early Christians were not actually a commune. They didn’t so much sell everything they owned to live together as sell what they had periodically in order to be accountable to those who were in need.

This is evidenced later in Acts 4:34 where we find out in clearer terms how this redistribution was done. We read that, “from time to time, those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales, and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need”.

You may recognise such a mindset for fellowship as a direct extension from Jesus’s own words to His disciples before His death. In John 13:34-35, Jesus had given His followers a so-called “new commandment” that they must always love one another. Only by this would everyone know that they belonged to Him, were His disciples.

The young Church was only too eager to remember and follow its Master’s words, and this eagerness is seen in the absolute extreme it was willing to carry out the commandment. Indeed, the believers’ singularity of spirit and good-heartedness was palpable to all of society, and Acts 2 tells us that, through what they did, they came to enjoy “the favour of all the people”.

Someone may remark cynically that, for all we know, that phrase is a hyperbole, an exaggeration. Those folks couldn’t have been in everyone’s favour, considering what would happen soon enough, with the Apostles being called to account before the Jewish Sanhedrin.

The point nonetheless still holds that such secular favour is important to worship as understood by Acts’s author Luke that he names it or invents it. Such favour helps to complete the expectation Jesus had of His disciples in their relation to the rest of society. Jesus wanted His followers to be constructive members of society.

By coming together regularly, the early Christians did not just take seriously Jesus’s wish that His followers be seen as a collective rather than as individuals, as sleeper agents. Worship is not just about fellowship but also about communing, to sit together and re-assemble symbolically the body of Christ in a way instituted at the Last Supper. When we come to the Table, what happens is that we are answering to that mysterious cry: Body of Christ, assemble!

Now, during the original Last Supper, Jesus didn’t just talk about oneness. He demonstrated – by transforming the sense of a commonplace event like a social meal – that He and His believers would always be one. This unity continues despite the rifts created by different beliefs or influences by agenda or by clear absence.

So, at the Last Supper, despite the personal, unresolved differences among them, Jesus and His disciples were one. At the Communion Table, despite the physical absence of the Host Himself, Jesus and His disciples are one.

Christianity always has a curious mathematics, a mystical mathematics: the thirteen are one. The twelve are also thirteen, who are one. The millions today are twelve and thirteen and one.

The breaking of bread and the drinking of wine are, in this light, central to Christian identity because it doesn’t just call up the presence and meaning of the One who once walked and dined with humans. The elements also remind us of Christian unity and specifically this unity in the identity of acceptance.

The Lord’s Table is the perfect symbol of the words of Romans 8:1: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Lastly, the ritual of prayer is central to church worship because, since very ancient times, the Church has always held to one principle about communal prayer: lex orandi, lex credendi. This Latin phrase translates as “the law of praying is the law of believing”.

Here is a profound principle. It inverts the commonsensical thought we may have that a Church prays as it believes, that is, that what a body of believers believes in helps shape how the same body prays. But the opposite is the spiritual fact: how a group of believers prays shapes what it believes, that a Church truly believes as it prays. In the prayers of a Church is this means through which the spirituality and beliefs of that Church are actually formed.

Such counter-intuition may well challenge us to see all of Christian worship itself – as understood by four modes we have looked at – as crucially involving us thinking about worship differently. We cannot confuse Christian worship with any other forms of religious or secular worship: it is what makes us distinct.

This point is clear from the early instances when Jesus Himself talked about the way His own people would come to worship. For example, he told the Samaritan woman by the well that a time would come when God the Father’s true worshippers would worship not on a sacred mountain or in the temple in Jerusalem but “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24).

We may indeed now see those moments of early church worship in Acts as a direct fulfilment of Jesus’s words in John. After all, the early Christians were worshipping in the temple courts and in homes – and to do so in these two spaces is interesting too!

Firstly, the believers were technically able and happy to worship within the confines of another faith. They never felt the least threatened. In this is the understanding I cannot repeat enough, that, when we worship as Christians, we don’t just go to a church. Rather, we go somewhere and become the Church.

The true worshippers of God worship not in special sites or special buildings but “in the Spirit and in truth”. Christian worship only takes place there. By extension, there is nowhere where true worshippers cannot worship!

Secondly, the early Christians didn’t just break down this conventional sense we have today of a divide between religion and religion. What they also challenged was the idea of one’s family and closed ones and the idea of the relationship worshippers have with worshippers.

By running worship at home, what they enabled was the sense that fellow believers were part of one’s natural family too. It is not just common beliefs but primarily worship – worship in spite of differences and a want of familiarity – that allows for that transformation of any traditional, private meaning of family.

Indeed, I dare say that the proper Christian idea of family is anything but traditional because it keeps the idea of home open and it forms itself around a table, where everyone meets as equals.

There is one more point for me to elaborate, and here we will have come full circle today. This is the importance within the story of Acts itself for the rubrics of church worship to be set down early. You see, the history of the early Church is, in some aspects, not all too different from the history of Christ. After an initial burst of idealistic declaration, excitement, and radical acts of faith came, in both stories, the realistic challenges of opposition, setbacks, and failures.

Despite its power, despite underlying anxieties not being said, we know that the storms of realism, the ills of human nature, must have been stirring. This is said in view of what happened next.

The institution of worship came before all the major trials the Church would have to face. There was the betrayal by fellow believers who would lie or cheat such as Ananias and his wife Sapphira. There was the betrayal by Christians drawn less to teachings than to signs and wonders such as Simon the Sorcerer. There were the disagreements among the Apostles themselves, then the persecution of them, other Church leaders, and eventually the common Christian. There was the fracturing and scattering of the young Church by the time of Acts 8.

But, by having worship in this basic four-mode form established early in the life of the Church, God had allowed a marvellous thing to happen. He had helped the historical Church, the Church of living bricks, to find for itself the means to stop itself from sinking under, from losing focus, from giving up.

Worship had kept the early Christians pressing on, thinking up to a better position while running on the ever-sinking stepping stones of life, kept them going. In this sense, worship is fundamentally about the future.

Perhaps, to look at the history of worship through the viewpoint of it as a narrative is good for us. We may see more in worship that concerns ourselves, our humanity, if we don’t assume it to arise as a creative choice on the part of early Christians, let alone a lifestyle choice for us today.

Worship came as a necessity to keep the being of early Christians occupied in an understanding that their hearts and their minds belonged to somewhere higher, through which they could become, in this world, a force of hope and of good. And the same truth about worship applies to each of us today too.

Let us bow to pray now:

In heavenly love abiding,
No change my heart shall fear;
And such is safe confiding,
For nothing changes here:
The storm may roar without me,
My heart may low be laid;
But God is round about me,
And can I be dismayed?

Father, when we lose sight of the way of Your love, bring us Your teaching again to encourage us, to admonish us. When we find ourselves poor in our plenty, dumb in our cowardice, deaf in our compassion, blind in our daily busyness – when we are weak in our humanity – bring us again to Christian fellowship.

When we forget who we are to one another, why we must forgive always, be compassionate and kind always, what it means to be Your Christian, let us partake again in Your body and in Your blood – and refocus us. And, when we are tired and sunk and cannot find the means to have faith in You, lead us into prayer, into holy silence.

Lord, give us this life of worship that we live more fully for You.

In Jesus’s name we ask of You,