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Do You Want to Be in That Number?

This Sunday, we gathered on Zoom to do an online communion service. We plan to hold our next online communion on June 7th. While we do not have a recording of the sermon, please enjoy the written text of Kristin's message below.

Will You Be a Part of that Number? – Acts 2:42-47

By Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson,

I can get behind almost every image and line in this portrait of the early church from our reading this morning.  It’s a picture of the church at its best: everyone filled with awe and wonder; no one jaded or despairing; people coming together to pool resources, to give to anyone who had need; the intimacy of members breaking bread together in their homes and eating together; people feeling they have enough; people feeling happy because their needs are met, “glad and sincere” hearts.  It’s an inspiring picture but the last line in the description – “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” – it’s that word, “saved.”  I wish Luke, who wrote Acts as part two of his gospel, had used a different word.  I mean, what is he saying?  That everyone not a part of the church is doomed? 

Almost everyone at our Bible Study session last Wednesday had a story of being an impressionable young person and invited by a friend to a religious gathering where the stakes were laid out starkly, no ambiguities, in clear contrast: claim Jesus as your savior and get an automatic ticket to heaven when you die.  That’s how the church can save you, some denominations would say.  Refuse to join them and make your confession and, well, one member of the group talked about coming home terrified and confronting her parents: did they know they were going to hell?  When misused by the church this notion of being saved has scared people, hurt people.  There are people in this community who have experienced the pain of excommunication from salvation by church members who told them they couldn’t be included because of who they loved, or because they’d been divorced, or had a baby with someone they weren’t married to, or had an abortion.  Kids in our community now learn in school about the generational pain in Indigenous communities caused by the church’s zeal to “save” Canada’s aboriginal peoples from what white Europeans perceived as a backwards and savage culture.  At the Bible study on Wednesday we decided we could get behind this picture of the ideal church – applaud everything – up to that last line. 

 What if Luke had swapped out “saved” for “welcomed,” or “included,” we thought?  And day by day the Lord added to this number those who had been welcomed, those who had been included – much better, right?  I wondered if maybe Luke had, in fact, used a word other than saved and that maybe a translator had taken some liberty in interpretation, but in fact the word in the original Greek is “sozemenous,” “being saved,” and every English translation from the New Revised Standard Version to the King James had translated the phrase much the same way: “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”  The Greek word Luke used means to rescue or to keep from harm.  What was Luke getting at? 

  When I was thinking about the word “saved” this week  a visceral and jarring memory came to my mind.  It was years ago, when Nicholas and Emma were really young, they were maybe 5 and 3, and I had taken them to the library along with two of their little friends – just me and these four kids, all aged 5 and under at the time.  I’d encouraged them to use their bikes and scooters to get to the library, thinking they’d get some energy out before sitting for the story time.  As we were waiting to cross the street, and before the light had changed, one of the little friends, 3 years old, took her feet off her bike brakes and absentmindedly started rolling forward down the sidewalk incline and into the street.  At that particular moment my head was turned in the other direction and when I turned back I had what felt like a second to pull her back onto the sidewalk before a truck whose driver wasn’t looking out for a preschooler on a bike barreled past.  It’s an incident I can’t think about without shuddering, but Luke is saying that the church is full of people like the little kid on the bike; he could have described the people who make up the church in all kinds of ways but he chose to use the word, “saved.”  He chose to describe us as a community of people who have been pulled back from something, rescued from something, kept from harm, saved – just by gathering as we do.

Is that how you see yourself?  What danger are we thwarting by being here together in this community?  What threat are we whisked away from, pulled back from, rescued from, by getting together like this?  Are we really avoiding danger by sharing what we have and breaking bread together, and boosting each other with glad and sincere hearts?  Is it really that dramatic what we’re doing here?  Luke thought so, but not because gathering like this is a ticket to heaven – Luke didn’t talk about that – rather, Luke saw the gathering we call church as something that saves people because, at its best, it opens people’s eyes to God’s realm, to God’s kingdom.  Luke is the only gospel writer to record Jesus reminding people that the kingdom of God is among us (Luke 17:21).  

In 1942, Clarence and Florence Jordan and their friends bought 440 acres of farmland in rural Georgia.  They had decided to build a church – only this church wouldn’t have pews or a pulpit.  Clarence Jordan had a background in farming, he’d earned a degree in agriculture before being ordained as a minister and completing his PhD in New Testament Greek.  The Jordans and their friends called the new church, “Koinonia,” but their church wasn’t housed in a building; it was a farm – a farm devoted to the teachings of Jesus.  All who believed were together and had all things in common (image #3).  Black and White workers worked alongside each other, and were paid them fairly and equally, and all this at a time when the practice of segregation between Black and White people was not just the culture and ethos in Georgia, it was the law.  The church was a site of rebellion and resistance.  They sold all their possessions and goods – the produce from the farm, pecans – and they’d distribute to all as any had need.  Day by day, the workers – all kinds of different people – spent time together in their temple of the great outdoors, they broke bread together at home in the evening, and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.  And day by day the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved – the kind of people Luke talked about, people who’d been pulled back from the brink, people rescued from the edge.  It wasn’t easy being the church; because of their commitment to equality and integration their products were boycotted.  Their roadside produce stands were bombed.  Convoys of KKK members would drive by to try and intimidate them.  But the farm exists this day as a demonstration of the Kingdom of God among us.

In Luke’s day and in our own our humanity is threatened by barreling forces, like trucks that won’t stop or slow down: greed that puts profit above everything else, the hoarding of wealth, that makes disparity a seemingly unalterable fact of life, fear, suspicion and jealousy that fuel racism and sexism.  Don’t you see what happens when we get together as the church?  When we look at the world with awe and wonder?  When we pool our resources and live simply?  When we give to all who have need, and break bread together in our homes?  The Spirit pulls us back from the edge of that dangerous roadway and sets us on an alternate path.  The Spirit pulls us back to the world as she intended it to be - that we’ve evoked, even online – a world where everyone is fed, a world where everyone is equal and equally celebrated, a world where no one is left precarious, a world where we take care of each other, a world where we protect the vulnerable and the earth.  

What word would you use to describe us, this gathering of the church, rebellious and resistant to those dehumanizing forces that barrel through our world?  Luke called us “saved.”  And now that I’ve sat with this word for a while I think it’s a striking word, a powerful word – “saved.”  And how about you?  What about you?  Would you like to be in that number?  Amen.