SCRIPTURE – Acts 2:42-47 – They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 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 to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous 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.
The Real Social Network sermon series
#1 – Cultivating Community
Jan. 10, 2016
Today we start a new sermon series in which we’ll seek to juxtapose the virtual communities in which many of us participate with the kind of community that the Bible calls us to nurture and maintain. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a Facebook user or have a Twitter account in order to understand what I’m talking about. I believe these sermons will have applicability for all the relationships we have in our lives.
The genesis for this sermon series came from the Parents of Youngsters Sunday school class I teach. I asked them last year what kind of topics they would like to see addressed in sermons. One of them spoke up and said, “I’d like to know how to deal with all the jerks I see on Facebook.” Then another spoke up, a little more timidly, and said, “I’d like to know how not to be a jerk on Facebook.” Both are legitimate questions in this day and age. How do we maintain our Christian identity and live out Christ’s example in all our relational spheres, including online?
Today we’re going to talk about the kind of communities in which we participate and to which we contribute. On Facebook, I’m a part of several sub-communities that are focused around specific interests. For example, I’m a part of a Disciples Clergy community. I’m also in a community that is made up solely of owners of Goldendoodles. And I’m also in a group of people that are Cincinnati Reds fans. I was hoping last night to start a new group for people who have won Powerball, but no such luck. Each group is defined by this common interest and our online life together centers around that interest.
Is it a stretch to call those groups “communities”? I don’t think so. The dictionary defines a community as “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” That certainly applies to each of those groups. But I have to also be careful not to assume that those communities have the same values and benefits of a real community. It’s one thing to know someone virtually; it’s quite a different thing to know them in real life.
In my Reds group, I got to know a guy named Jason. He is also a pastor, and he and I shared a similar outlook on our beloved team and, much to people’s dismay, a similar affinity for puns. So I invited Jason to lunch so we could get to know each other better. He picked a BBQ joint; this was going to be great!
I quickly learned that I had overestimated the commonalities Jason and I shared. Jason was a Southern Baptist minister, and throughout the lunch I was peppered with questions about my beliefs and our church’s doctrines, and the scent of judgmentalism when my answers didn’t agree with him was stronger than the smell of the smoked brisket. In an effort to get to know him, I asked a couple personal but innocuous questions about his family, to which he immediately got defensive. In my mind, I was secretly ready to trade Jason to the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s one thing to know someone virtually; it’s quite a different thing to know them in real life.
It’s also important for us to realize that our online communities, while having the appearance of being free-flowing and inclusive, allow us to cultivate a collection of cohorts who will only support our current worldview. If someone on Facebook posts something I disagree with, I have the option of blocking them or unfriending them altogether. I can easily choose with whom I do and don’t interact. Our online communities give us control over who we let in and who we keep out.
But that’s not always the case one you leave the chat room. Don’t you wish real life was like Facebook sometimes? Would it be great if everyone walked around with a “Block” button on their forehead, so that as soon as they started to say something you disagree with, you could just hit that button? But being in real community with each other means figuring out how to live together in the midst of our differences, instead of just blocking the people who aren’t like us.
That’s the picture the Acts 2 passage paints for us. This snapshot of the early church doesn’t tell about parking lot conversations and contentious congregational meetings. Instead, it’s a picture of harmony, as early Christians devoted themselves to being the people God called them to be. They learned together, fellowshipped together, shared stuff together, broke bread together, prayed together, praised God together and grew together. Those early believers really knew how to be church, didn’t they?
But don’t be fooled, folks. This was a church, so there’s no way everyone got along. What Acts 2 doesn’t tell you is that the first time the early church held a board meeting, there was a huge argument over what color carpeting to put in the sanctuary and what kind of bread to use at communion, and before you know it Apostle So-and-So moved half the congregation to the next village to start his own flock. The apostle Paul, writing about his disagreement with Peter, says, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face.” Can’t you just see Peter and Paul finger-pointing and chest-bumping? “I say the carpet color shall be fusia!” “Well I say God wants it to be aqua!” Can we admit that the church doesn’t always do community well?
When you look at all of the disagreements down through church history, many of them center on one fundamental question, and it’s the same question that is used to define our online communities: who’s in and who’s out? That was at the core of the disagreement between Paul and Peter over circumcision, it was at the core of many of Luther’s charges against the Catholic Church. Who’s in and who’s out?
The problem is the Bible’s not real clear on this. Are divorced people in or out? Are uncircumcised Gentiles in or out? Are gays and lesbians in or out? Are sinners and tax collectors in or out? You could make valid arguments on both sides of the issue based on scripture, and that’s not helpful. We want clarity so we know where to draw the lines. In our communities, we want to know who’s in and who’s out.
When I lived in Indiana, I used to golf at a course that was right next to a farm. I don’t think the farmer was a golf fan, because posted along the fence line separating the course from the farm was a series of signs that simply said, “Private Property” and then showed a picture of a shotgun. Now that’s a clear message. I can’t tell you how many golf balls I hit across that fence line, but I can tell you how many of them I retrieved. Zero! The farmer made it very clear who was allowed in and who wasn’t.
That’s the kind of definitive clarity we seek in the Bible. These people are in and these people are out. Wouldn’t it be easier if Jesus gave us some guidance on this? Instead, Jesus says things like, “Love your enemies” and “Blessed are the peacemakers” and then leaves us to work out the details in community with each other. And we’re not always so good at that. Spend only a few minutes on Facebook and you’ll find plenty of people who hate and exclude. And you’ll probably find some people you want to hate and exclude.
Maybe we’re going about this all wrong. Maybe we’re using the wrong criteria to define who’s in and who’s out of our community. I read a story this week about how ranchers in Australia control their flocks. Because the size of land they own is so huge, building fences is too impractical and costly. So instead of building a fence, they dig down into the earth and build a well, providing precious water in the dusty Outback. Animals won’t stray too far from their water source, so instead of fencing in the borders, the ranchers draw their flocks to the center.
Rather than building fences, maybe we should be digging wells. Instead of trying to decide who’s in and who’s out of our communities, maybe we should dig a well, set a table, extend an invitation, and see who shows up. The early church didn’t draw lines; they shared what they had with each other, and everyone was invited to the fellowship picnics, and everyone was invited to Sunday School, and everyone was invited to the table. The table is our well, drawing people to the center of our faith, which is Jesus Christ. Our community is not centered around a sports team or a breed of dog. Jesus Christ is our center, and everything we say and do should reflect that.
That may be the one thing we’ve continued to get right. Everyone is welcome at the table. No criteria. No entrance exams. No determination of spiritual fitness. It’s a “y’all come” invitation, a lavish extension of radical hospitality where everyone is in and no one is out, like Edwin Markham’s poem, “He drew a circle that shut me out —Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in.” Christ has drawn a circle and we are all within it.
That doesn’t mean we have to agree with everyone who comes into our circle. In fact, I think our community is made stronger by the diversity of beliefs contained within it. The beauty of who we are – or at least who we are striving to be – is that there is room for every voice here. We don’t have to all believe the same things or vote the same way to be part of this family. We are included by virtue of the one who drew the circle, the one who’s love, like a circle, has no beginning and no end, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Online, you can choose who’s in and who’s out of your communities. But what about in real life? What about in the communities to which God calls us? Who’s in? Everybody is in. That person who thinks differently than you? In. That person who forwards you every single email with pictures of cute kittens? In. That person whose political perspective is both wrong and obnoxious? In. That jerk on Facebook? In. That person who roots for a team other than your team? Sigh. In.
We may have strong opinions about who we believe should be in and who should be out. And that’s OK. We’re human, so we’re not going to like everybody. In fact, there’s probably one person – maybe more than one – who thinks YOU shouldn’t be in. How about that? It’s a good thing God’s drawing the circle and not them, isn’t it? Because when God draws the circle, there’s room. Room for me. Room for you. Room for everyone. Everyone. How big are the circles we draw? Is there room for everyone? This world has enough people who want to build fences; may God give us the grace to be people who dig wells.