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This past Wednesday was what the Church calls Ash Wednesday, and it marks the beginning of the season of Lent. We call it Ash Wednesday because it reminds us of the frailty of the human condition: We are dust and to dust we will return (Gen 3:19). Lent is the 40-day period before Easter and it is an opportune time for us to pay deeper attention to the places God is inviting us to examine, change and grow in.
Season of Lent: Season of Intention
Lent is the season of intention.
Lent is a good time for us to pause and to ask the bigger questions of life, such as: What kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of world do you want for your children, grandchildren, and those who will come after you? What are your best wishes and hopes for the future of the world, our country, this city, for yourself and your loved ones? What do you pray for when you look at everything that is happening today? And on a personal level, what are you praying for yourself?
Question 1 (Word Cloud)
As we step into the season of Lent this year, what are your hopes?
There are many things going on around us in the world and in our lives. Perhaps one of the hopes we all have in common is PEACE as we watch what is going on in Ukraine, and we pray for the people of Ukraine and Russia in this terrible time of war. Perhaps for some of us, we hope for a world that is more just, inclusive and loving. Maybe
On a personal level, what are you praying for yourself? What are your hopes for yourself this season? Are you hoping to grow deeper spiritually? Are you content to just drift with the current? Perhaps you are just trying to survive each day, and that is understandable too, given the uncertain times that we live in.
I’m going to begin today by sharing a verse in the Bible that is quite startling, and it is found in Gal 6:7-8
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.
This is quite a hard-hitting verse. But it’s not saying anything we don’t know. Basically, we reap what we sow, even in our spiritual lives. Lent is the season of intention. We reap whatever we sow, and if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit –meaning the fullness of life, the abundant life that Jesus promised.
Today we are starting a new sermon series, Here We Grow. We just finished a series on Home and what it means to be a community of God’s people. And when I think about a community in the Bible that truly sowed intention in their spiritual lives, I think about the early church in Acts 2.
Acts 2:37-47 (NRSV)
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers,[i] what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They 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.
44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds[j] to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home[k] and ate their food with glad and generous[l] hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
One of the first things Peter told them to do was to repent.
Question 2 (Word Cloud)
What does repent mean to you?
Unfortunately, the word repent tends to have a moralistic tone to it and it has the image of confessing our sins. But that is not what the original word means.
The original Greek word is Metanoia, which literally means change or even more precisely “change of mind and heart”! And the Hebrew word for repentance means turning to God. So putting them together, metanoia or repentance means “turning to God, and changing our minds and hearts”. This is encapsulated in this call from the prophet Joel.
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with your whole heart..
Father James Martin says:
“Yet even now” means: even after all you have done, even after this life you have led, even after failing. Even after many Lents. We continually fail in our resolve to be more loving, more gracious, more compassionate–or more humble and less needy of public praise, and all this can seem overwhelming. We fail so often. But that doesn’t matter to God.
Even now, says God, I want you to return to me. I’m ready to give you yet another chance.
“What would it mean for us to “return” to God? Where have we grown distant? Where have we lost sight of God? What practices, habits and unhealthy patterns need to fall away? Which practices do you need to take up?”
And once we have decided on these paths back to God, can we do them with our whole hearts, as Joel says? God doesn’t demand or expect us to return and be perfect. What God desires from us is our whole heart. “Rather than relying on our familiar responses and old coping mechanisms for dealing with the challenges in our lives, can we at this time return to a posture of active waiting and listening and depending upon God? Can we return to a place of fervent prayer for all that is wrong in our world, and to a place of active trust that our help does indeed come from the Lord who made heaven and earth and everyone in it?”
When we think about the first community of Christians in the book of Acts, there is much we can learn from that story about the intention to return to God and the aftereffects of doing so.
Peter had preached an amazing sermon, and 3000 people were baptized! What happens next? Well, we know they don’t build a megachurch so they can all get together at once. In fact, they don’t build anything.
They just began meeting in small groups – in the homes of believers.
And we see in verse 42 that when those small groups meet, they devoted themselves to these four activities:
Some call these 4 things the ‘marks’ of the early church — devotion to teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. If you were to examine your spiritual life, are there areas the Spirit of God is urging you to pay more attention to? In what ways is God calling you to return with your whole heart?
Question 3 (Open)
What area is the Spirit of God urging you to pay more attention to?
“We do not think ourselves into a new way of living, but we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.” -Richard Rohr
Sowing Intention. Will you sow the intention to return to God with your whole heart, and live like it?
One way to live ourselves into a new way of thinking is to sow intimacy with God. That’s what this season invites us to do. It is a time of deepening our connection with God, nurturing this gift of relationship with God. This gift of relationship with God is something we often take for granted. Many of us only run to God in times of crisis or pain. Instead of waiting until something dramatic or critical happens, what if we exercise the intention to grow in our intimacy with God just because it’s about time we do so? God has been waiting for you to return with your whole hearts.
This year, as a faith community, we will be focusing on the spiritual practice of prayer during this season of Lent. We usually have our prayer meetings on Wednesday evenings and this season, we will be holding 3 special sessions to learn and experience different forms of prayer together. I will be kicking off with the first session on Centering Prayer, and if you want to sow intimacy with God, this is one form of prayer that you might find helpful to add to your basket of spiritual practices.
Centering Prayer is a receptive method of silent prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself….In response to our intention to become more deeply united with the divine presence, God acts within us to transform us, making us more like Christ. One’s intimacy with God deepens and one’s awareness of that intimacy expands.
If you’re curious to experience this for yourself or find out more, please join us. I hope it will offer another way for you to deepen intimacy in your relationship with God.
But it doesn’t stop there for the early church or for us. As a result of their being together and doing all these things together, awe came upon everyone.
They were inspired by miraculous wonders and signs, and “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.” (Acts 2:42)
Our spiritual lives cannot stop at just intention to return and intimacy with God.
We also need to sow interdependence.
In Acts 4, we see how the community grew together by depending on one another.
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). 37 He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
“Of one heart and soul”
Acts notes that this is a community of “one heart and soul.” Doesn’t that sound like what we yearn for most – to be part of a community that is of “one heart and soul”? But it’s not that easy, right? In order to be of one heart and soul, one of the things we need to learn is to be interdependent. This is honestly quite challenging, because interdependence means recognizing that I need you and the community, and that you and the community needs me too.
The truth is we need each other to thrive in life. But we grow up in a society that values independence, and we have been taught that we should not depend on anyone as far as possible, and being successful in life means we did it on our own, with minimal help from others. In the same way, we expect others to be independent too, and we judge those who depend on other people for help.
I think as Christians, we are sometimes especially guilty of this, and that is partly because this underlying belief in independence comes a lot from the Protestant work ethic. That is why we judge others who depend on others for help (yes, we help them but we judge them at the same time), and we judge ourselves too in times when we need help, perhaps more harshly than anyone else. That is why we sometimes find it so hard to ask for help. It doesn’t come naturally to many of us, and it’s almost like a spiritual practice to learn to ask for help.
One thing I have learnt over the years is that we need each other, and we truly are better together. And I’m sure many of you have experienced this too. If you are increasingly feeling like FCC is Home for you, I want to invite you to prayerfully consider becoming a member. We often joke and say, “Membership has its privileges” and this is referring to a tagline in an American Express commercial many years ago (for those of you who are too young to remember). Well, membership does have its privileges and obligations, and if you’re curious to know more about what these privileges and obligations are, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org but essentially, becoming a member means saying, “This is where I want to grow and help others grow too. This is where I belong and I want to help other feel a sense of belonging too.” I am sharing this with you because we will be having a baptism and membership service during Easter on 17 April, and if you desire to be baptized and/or become a member of FCC, or if you have any questions, please feel free to approach Miak or me. Or you can email us at email@example.com
When I say we truly are better together, I don’t mean just within our FCC community. I mean interdependence and needing each other in the wider community too. As a progressive and inclusive church that is lgbtq+ affirming, we are part of a wider community of many different groups who are working towards justice and inclusion. As we work alongside each other on various projects, I can see how we are truly better together. We share insights and knowledge with one another, and we support and encourage each other along the journey. And that has been invaluable and precious to me.
Interdependence is the idea that everything in nature is connected to and depends on every other thing. Our dependence on God, our dependence on one another, and how others depend on us too. Not only do we need God and one another, there are others out there in the world who need us as well. In Acts 4:34, we read that the clearest reason why they found it necessary to hold all in common was because they were primarily concerned that there be no one needy among them. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:34-35)
Question (Multiple Choice)
What do you think about this way of communal life?
For those of us who live in modern capitalistic societies, the extent of this kind of communal sharing is unthinkable! Sell everything I own and lay it at the feet of the apostles? Hold everything in common so we can provide for everyone in need? Sounds almost like a cult. And isn’t Luke naïve? Doesn’t he know such a community is impossible to sustain?
Actually, he does.
Because we end our reading at chapter 4 but the story continues in chapter 5: “But a man named Ananias….” And then we also hear about Sapphira, and their greed and deception, and their untimely demise.
As soon as this community starts to come together, as soon as people’s needs are being met, it all starts to fall apart. And perhaps this was inevitable. We know what we human beings are really like. And this is why Acts is not meant to be a blueprint for the perfect church. The church community in Acts is as flawed as any community. I don’t think we need to necessarily follow the model of the Acts church community. I think the challenge this passage poses for us today is: are we doing all we can to truly take care of each other and others who are in need?
As Luke Timothy Johnson observes, throughout history the church has far too often been a “sign of wealth rather than of poverty and has aligned itself with the rich and powerful on earth more than the weak and lowly.” The radical sharing of Acts 4:32-35 speaks to our own church cultures and challenges us with the same Spirit that empowered the early group of believers.
I felt very led to preach from this passage as we consider what we need to do as a community who dares to grow and change. It all began with God’s challenge to me personally. Two weeks ago, I was studying Acts in my New Testament class and one of my classmates from another class happened to email me. He is originally from Pakistan and he wrote to ask me if I can pray for and help one of his good friends who is now in Malaysia. His friend, Kamran, and his wife, Kiran, and their daughter are Pakistani Christians, and they are currently refugees in Malaysia. I told him I would try my best to see how I can help but no promises of the outcome. I prayed and sat on the issue for some time, and one day, God reminded me of them and I felt very led to help them. I asked God how I could help them, and God reminded me of Acts 2 and how the early church came together to take care of all in need. I heard from my classmate that they needed help with groceries, rent and medication, and so I arranged to send them some money to help with groceries and medication first because Kamran is sick. I know for this to be sustainable, I can’t help them fully on my own and if any of you feel led to help them too, please let me know. I am also working on reaching out to friends and see if they can help offer spiritual and social support.
This is one way to practise interdependence but there are many other ways too. I know some of us would have donated in some way or form to the aid work in Ukraine. I heard from one of my friends how she booked and paid for an Airbnb accommodation in Ukraine so that the money can reach the owner of the place as a form of support and help, and I thought that was an ingenious way to help the people of Ukraine. Perhaps you have other ingenious ways of helping and as we begin this season of Lent, I pray that we will be more intentional about asking for help and offering help to those in need, without judgment.
The call today is an invitation for you to sow:
Intention. Intimacy. Interdependence.
Will you sow the intention to return to God with your whole heart?
Will you sow intimacy with God through nurturing your prayer life?
Will you sow interdependence by learning to ask for help, and putting into action the help we can offer others who are most in need?
May we experience the moving of the Spirit in new ways in this season of Lent, as we live out the spirit of the Acts church in this age and time.