November 10, 2002

Acts 2:41-47; 4:32-37

I went to Dorney Park at least once or twice a year when I was growing up. Those were the days before exorbitant admission fees. In fact, there was no admission fee at all. You simply bought books of tickets, much like at Knobels Amusement Park today, and paid only for the rides you actually rode on.
Among my favorite rides—and remember, there was only one rickety old wooden roller coaster back then—was the Bumper Cars. You took your seat in this little blue or red car, decorated not with chrome but with massive rubber bumpers, and drove around an ovular track slamming into people. You rarely knew who any of the people in the other cars were—were they rich or poor, honor students or struggling just to get passing grades, well-liked or frighteningly lonely, emotionally stable or on the verge of breaking down? You simply did not know, and who was about to take the time to find out? Dorney Park, after all, provided too many other thrills and attractions, so I simply “bumped” into people until the ride ended, and then hurried on with my small cluster of friends.
Life is often like that, isn’t it? We move around wherever we are, bumping into people. We bump and move on, bump and move on, and bump and move on again, rarely knowing much, if anything, about the people we are bumping into. That such impersonal and disconnected “bumping” occurs on a New York Subway is one thing. That it often takes place within the walls of a church is still another.
In these two rather short passages from the book of Acts, we see a radical alternative to “bumper car” living. Much has been said about these passages over the years, and it is admittedly important for us to notice that these are descriptive rather than normative texts. That is, these passages provide a glimpse into the dynamic interpersonal relationships so characteristic of many of the early Christians. They do not, however, offer a rigid model by which the ongoing church must be organized. Rather than mandating communal living—which might very well be a wonderful way of living out the Christian life in certain times and places—these passages entice us to move beyond “bumper car” living in the church and to take each other in this community very, very seriously.
Just look for a moment at how these early followers of Jesus related to each other. It is apparent, first of all, that they closely monitored everyone’s physical and financial well-being, not wanting anyone in the group to have unmet needs. The property owners among them, and there probably were not too many of them, at times sold their holdings and contributed the proceeds to a common purse. These funds were then appropriately redistributed to help the less fortunate. Apparently, these early believers found it unthinkable to claim to follow Jesus and at the same time disregard the very tangible needs that people in their community experienced. Because of these convictions, “There was not a needy person among them,… (4:34).”
Beyond addressing such physical needs, it seems clear that these early Christians paid careful attention to each other’s social and emotional needs. Our texts contain various expressions and pictures of interconnectedness and intimacy. The people not only gathered together for corporate worship, but they hung out together, so to speak. Their points of contact, in other words, were not limited to a large, weekly meeting. They ate together in each other’s homes. They enjoyed each other’s fellowship. One senses in these pictures a healthy degree of dependency among the believers, a dependency that counteracts those sometimes overwhelming feelings of loneliness and despair that all people experience from time to time. This is a dependency that provides a context for honest and probing conversations about life’s major issues. This is a dependency that offers support during life’s most difficult and trying moments. This is a dependency that allows for corporate celebration in response to life’s victories. I can easily imagine these early believers helping each other work through whatever life brings: vocational issues, marital problems, child-rearing questions, and on and on. Rather than demonstrating the fierce individualism that often characterizes American life, these early Christians depended upon each other in large measure for their social and emotional well-being.
Finally, note how these people cared for each other’s spiritual needs. They spent a lot of time together in the temple, so they clearly saw the importance of regular and consistent corporate worship. But again, they did not stop there. Instead, they met together in one context or another “day by day.” They met for biblical teaching. They gathered “house to house” (2:46) for prayer. They shared the Lord’s Supper regularly, and their hearts were full of praise. I might add, parenthetically, that their numbers increased dramatically as well. For these early Christians, the spiritual life was not a private life. The Christian life is very much intended to be lived out in the context of other believers who care for each other’s souls.
These texts in Acts 2 and 4, then, invite us to consider a dramatic alternative to “bumper car” living. It is an alternative that involves a radical commitment to each other’s physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. It is an alternative that we here at the Grantham Church have chosen to adopt: We seek to worship God joyfully, follow Jesus faithfully, and now, as a direct outcome of the first two, care for one another graciously.
Like the early Christians, we can live out this portion of our purpose statement at various levels. To begin with, we can care for each other’s physical needs. It is easy to look around a place like this and assume that people are all either well-to-do or have needs that will be met by appropriate governmental programs. But in reality, that is often far from the case. We have people who struggle somewhat consistently right now financially, perhaps trying hard to work their way through college against difficult odds, raise a family as a single parent, or even overcome obstacles of the past. We have others who experience sudden setbacks, changing their previously stable situations into loss and hardship. There are people like that all around us, and it is right for us to care for them during their times of stress. Many of you do that behind the scenes—a meal here, a fixed leaky toilet there.
But it is also important for us to address such needs collectively, and we try to do that here at the Grantham Church. Some of the resources that you bring to our common fund are distributed in meaningful ways to people who experience financial needs. We do cover housing expenses when the need arises. We do send roofing teams to homes within the community. We do provide food and clothing when people ask for help. We do these things, and I would like to see us do even more. For example, I would like to see us help our young families get into the housing market by developing some type of cooperative fund. I would like to see us offer financial training so that our members increasingly avoid burdensome debt. We believe that caring for one another begins by addressing the basic physical needs that people in our congregation have. And I want to tell you this. If you experience such difficulty and we know about it, we’ll be there for you, too. We will take your need seriously.
But caring for each other doesn’t stop with meals and fixed roofs. We can care for each other’s emotional and social needs. We can provide contexts in which people can meet each other. We’re working on redeveloping and redesigning our small group ministries here at the church even as we speak, to help people who are separated and marginalized feel connected in new and meaningful ways. There are so many things in our society that seem to push us apart. We need as a congregation to find bridges to pull each other together.
I’ve wrestled in my own office, for example, with what it means for the church to be the church when families are struggling. How do we help each other in situations like that? What’s the role of the church when a marriage is breaking down and the husband wife are at odds? What’s the role of the church when parents are struggling with difficult children or wrestling with how to parent within certain contexts? Here is just a glimpse of something we are working on, among the many things that we might do. Right now we have teams in this church who have sacrificed and given considerable periods of their time to come together and meet with couples who are in distress--to help them, nurture them, give them advice, and to discuss family questions. Some of you are contributing great amounts of energy to care for each other’s emotional and social needs. And that’s right. We need to take such needs seriously.
Finally, we can care for each other’s spiritual needs. We can pray with each other, encourage each other, confront each other, affirm each other, and correct each other. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and our souls are a communal concern.
Fred Craddock for years taught preaching courses at Emory University. He enjoyed recounting a story from early on in his ministry, a story that helped shape his understanding of the church. “Before I married and was serving a little mission in the Appalachians,” Craddock states,
I moved in my service down to a place on Watts Bar Lake between Chattanooga and Knoxville—a little village. It was the custom in that church at Easter to have
a baptismal service. My church immerses, and this baptismal service was held in
Watts Bar Lake on Easter evening at sundown. Out on a sandbar, I, with the candidates for baptism, moved into the water, and then they moved across to the shore, where the little congregation was gathered singing around the fire and cooking supper. They had constructed little booths for changing clothes, with blankets hanging, and as the candidates moved from the water, they went in and changed clothes and went to the fire in the center. And finally, last of all I went over and changed clothes and went to the fire.
Once we were all around the fire, this is the ritual of that tradition: Glenn Hickey, always Glenn, introduced the new people, gave their names, where they lived, and their work. Then the rest of us formed a circle around them while they stayed warm at the fire. The ritual was each person in the circle gave her or his name and said this:
‘My name is Martha, if you ever need somebody to do washing and ironing.’
‘My name is John, if you ever need anybody to chop wood.’
‘My name is Emma, if you ever need anybody to babysit.’
‘My name is Scott, if you ever need anybody to repair your house for you.’
‘My name is Beverly, if you ever need anybody to sit with the sick.’
‘My name is Bill, if you ever need a car to go to town.’
And around the circle.
Then we ate, and then we had a square dance. And at a time they knew—I didn’t know—Percy Miller, with thumbs in his bibbed overalls, would stand up and say, ‘It’s time to go.’ Everybody left, and he lingered behind and with his big shoe kicked sand over the dying fire.
At my first experience of that, he saw me standing there still. He looked at me and said, ‘Craddock, folks don’t ever get any closer than this.’
In that little community, they have a name for that. I’ve heard it in other communities, too. In that community, their name for that is ‘church.’ They call that ‘church.’
“Bumper car” living or “church.” The two don’t really go together. In fact, they are mutually exclusive, and a choice needs to be made. You and I here have decided to choose “church.” We believe that caring for one another graciously really matters. In fact, as Frederick Buechner suggests, “To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,…” might be “…the only work that matters in the end.”