Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sermon: Purposeful Chaos

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 24, 2015, Pentecost B
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21; John 16:4b-15

Purposeful Chaos

It’s a scene out of a Hollywood special-effects dream.
A great rushing wind blowing through the room. “Tongues of fire.” A glut of languages – a sound of chaos. Really, the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark has nothing on this, does it?
The Pentecost story is a strange one, in that on one hand its regular return in our liturgy almost guarantees that it suffers from the extreme familiarity that comes with such repetition, the kind that can cause us to tune out unconsciously; on the other hand, it’s rather a strange story, and one that has gained some uncomfortable associations for us mainline types, and therefore we tend to shy away from it. In short, it is both extremely familiar and extremely unfamiliar at the same time.
Perhaps we can break through both of those roadblocks by breaking the story down a bit, and maybe clear away some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings that have accrued around Pentecost, starting perhaps with those two vivid images from the first four verses; wind and fire.
First of all, these are not literal statements. What came from heaven was “a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” and “divided tongues, as of fire.” In other words, these are examples of that favorite literary device, the simile.
But similes matter. When a biblical author like Luke invokes things like wind or fire, even in this comparison fashion, it is no accident. These images evoke a long history of God’s interaction with the people of Israel.
Think, for example, of the burning bush that set Moses on his path to the Exodus; engulfed in fire, yet not consumed, from which God’s command went out to Moses. Think of the pillar of fire proceeding by night before the people of Israel during that Exodus. Think of the fire that consumed Elijah’s soaked altar, as well as all the altars of the Ba’al prophets in that contest on Mount Carmel.
Think of the strong wind that drove back the Red Sea, so that the people of Israel might cross ahead of the Egyptian army. Think of the whirlwind out of which God spoke to Job. Think of the very breath breathed into man at creation.
And think of those dry bones.
The Hebrew word ru’ah has a complex of meanings; it can refer to breath, to the wind, or to spirit. When Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to the winds, to the breath, to breathe life into the lifeless, this whole complex is evoked. Similarly the Greek word pneuma carries both “breath” and “spirit” in its complex of meanings. We see this kind of association played up in hymns like the old gospel hymn “Holy Spirit, breathe on me.”
So is the Spirit a wind, or a fire? No, but something about wind or fire gives us a picture, an idea of how the Spirit is, or how it moves or acts. It’s a useful simile or metaphor, but we should do our best to avoid getting too caught up in the metaphor and confusing it with fact or literal description. In fact, we should probably just steer clear of anything that goads us into thinking we’ve got it down, that we have any kind of firm grasp on the nature and substance of anything about God, Holy Spirit included.
Ezekiel’s vision points us toward another misconception that can be cleared up; this story should not be construed as the first-ever appearance of the Holy Spirit in the history of God in humanity. It isn’t “new”; it has been, from the beginning, with God, as also is true of God the Son. What happens here is not a debut, but closer to an unleashing. The Holy Spirit is loose, not bound by any physical form or invocation. Nor, for that matter, is it bound by the rules and regulations of the Temple, or the Torah, or by any decree or proclamation of the nascent church itself.  The Spirit doesn’t follow your script; if anything it’s much more likely to rewrite it.
Something else we might want to think about is what happens in verse 13. The Spirit has driven the disciples out to proclaim, in these languages heretofore unknown to them, but that just happen to be the languages spoken by the crowds who are in Jerusalem for this particular festival (more on that in a moment). These crowds are portrayed by Luke as being from some of the most remote regions known to the people of Jerusalem and basically every direction one could go from Jerusalem – our curious metaphor about “the four corners of the earth” is the effect of the varied regions Luke describes. While they are puzzling over the fact that these people – who didn’t exactly look like linguistic scholars to anybody – were somehow speaking to them, each hearing exactly their own language (and not in the broken fashion of a non-native speaker either), the naysayers make their presence known. While people are wondering just what’s going on, the catcalls begin. “They are filled with new wine.” Go home, apostles, you’re drunk.
Now this just doesn’t make sense. Personally I’m not a wine-drinker, but I’ve never observed anyone for whom drinking wine was a means of speaking a language new to them. I’ve seen plenty of people who had trouble speaking their own language after a few glasses, but not the opposite. But I’m pretty sure that wasn’t really the point. In the face of something inexplicable, beyond any kind of miraculous that any of the crowd had seen before, there were those who resorted to belittling, meanness, and spite.
It is not the work of the Holy Spirit to make you more popular. It is not the work of the Holy Spirit to make you respectable, or socially esteemed. It is not the Holy Spirit’s task to make your life easier. To the degree that your life is shaped and moved and motivated by the working of the Holy Spirit within you, there’s a real strong chance your life will be characterized by others deriding you, ridiculing you, belittling you, and even calling you a “heathen” or something similar. And there’s even a real good chance those people belittling or deriding you will be the “good church people.” Go home, followers of Christ, you’re drunk. In the end, these disciples would find their lives being required of them, once they were moved by the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit wasn’t there to make their lives easier, not by a long shot.
So, what is the Holy Spirit about? What is it up to?
There are huge crowds in Jerusalem, from all the compass points of the earth. Many if not most of them are Jews, living abroad – expatriates, if you will, returned for the Festival of Weeks, an event on the Jewish calendar timed to occur fifty days after Passover – hence, Greek-speakers called the festival “Pentecost.” (Today the equivalent Jewish feast is called “Shauvot.”)
These crowds would have most likely known nothing of the events that had formed this local group of Christ-followers – the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, not to mention the ascended Christ. Their reason for being in Jerusalem was about Shauvot, marking the event of the reading of the Torah to the people of Israel. Jesus? Who was he, and why would they care?
The Holy Spirit moved among the Christ-followers, placing languages on their lips and on their tongues specifically to reach out to these souls, to proclaim to these people from all over the earth – children of God, all of them – the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And this means that all of these people are welcome, male or female, slave or free, young or old, to be drenched in the Spirit in ways unimaginable before.
The Spirit is no longer the property of prophets or kings, scribes or priests or elders. The unleashed Spirit will work through anyone to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God come near. Because this band of Christ-followers waited in prayer, they were ready to be messengers of Christ, even in languages they had never known before.
This was no random, chaotic event. The Holy Spirit at Pentecost was at work to proclaim gospel to the nations. Not only the miracle of the Christ-followers speaking languages they didn’t know, but the miracle of all those in the crowd hearing the message, each one in his or her own tongue, was all about spreading the Word. Here was a step on the way to fulfilling the promise that Jesus had made back in 1:8, about being witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In the days to come the disciples would be pulling their resources together, supporting one another and lifting one another up. Peter and John would be confronted by the sight of the paralyzed man in the Temple, and responding to the moving of the Spirit, would heal that man and thus be brought to take a stand before the Temple authorities. Before long the followers of Christ would begin to scatter throughout the region, and the Word would be truly proclaimed “in all Judea and Samaria,” and the Word would find the Spirit moving hearts to hear and receive it, hearts not only of Jews but also of Gentiles eventually. For the moment it may have sounded like chaos, but the Holy Spirit was working for a purpose, and will always be working towards that purpose.
For the purposeful chaos of the Holy Spirit, Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Hymns (PH '90): 
"Let Every Christian Pray" (130), "Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove" (126), "Spirit of the Living God" (322), "Every Time I Feel the Spirit" (315) 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sermon: The Minutes From the Church's First-Ever Business Meeting

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 17, 2015, Easter 7B
Acts 1:15-17, 20-26

The Minutes of the Church’s First-Ever Business Meeting

One of my favorite writers of any sort is the science-fiction and fantasy author Ray Bradbury. The author of such renowned works as Fahrenheit 451 (my personal favorite), The Martian Chronicles, and Dandelion Wine had, to me, a knack for finding just the right words to express the particular moment of the story, no matter how expansive or how pithy.  One of the prime examples of this knack is found in Chapter 31 of another of his most popular novels, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Because it is so precisely worded and so particular to its moment in the story, I feel that I must quote the chapter in full:
"Nothing much else happened, all the rest of that night."
Yes, that’s the whole chapter.
In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, the remaining disciples find themselves in Chapter 31. You may remember from last week that the disciples were instructed by Jesus, just before he ascended and was taken up to the presence of God the Father, that they would soon be “baptized with the Holy Spirit,” but that in the meantime they were to go back into Jerusalem and wait. It’s been a few days now since that ascension and that promise, and…the disciples are still waiting. And nothing much else is happening, all the rest of that day or night.
When we last left the disciples they were being chided by the two men in white for staring up into the sky, which seems unfair to us; a person being lifted up and disappearing into the clouds seems stare-worthy to me, at least. The intervening scriptures tell us that the disciples then returned to Jerusalem, to the upper room where they had been staying (possibly the same upper room where Jesus had had his last supper with them? Possibly). We learn that their days were occupied with prayer, along with “certain women” and also members of Jesus’s family, who haven’t been part of the story for a while now. We also get a roll call of the disciples, all eleven of them.
Ah, there’s the rub. Eleven. It was the elephant in the room; their number was reduced by one, and the one was about as painful a subject as possible. The traitor. The one who went beyond denying Jesus (like Peter) or running away at the first sign of danger (like the rest of the disciples). The one who collaborated with the ones who wanted Jesus out of the way. Judas Iscariot. One has to feel sorry for the “other Judas,” the disciple listed with the others in verse 13.
Luke had, in an act of blatant foreshadowing, identified Judas Iscariot as the one “who became a traitor” all the way back in the gospel of Luke; now the author slips in a rather gruesome account of Judas Iscariot’s demise, as if to reinforce that the betrayer’s absence was permanent. There would be no chance either for any kind of reconciliation or for holding Judas to account. He was gone, and his crimes would live on well after his death, even to this day. The name “Judas” still works as a shorthand for a betrayer or traitor.
Besides Judas’s act of betrayal, though, there is another factor nagging at the disciples, though. “The Twelve” aren’t twelve anymore. The original disciples, reminiscent of the ancient twelve tribes of Israel, are no longer whole. Eleven just doesn’t have the same impact or historical heft. Already feeling a bit cut off with Jesus departed, the disciples seem to be cognizant of their incompleteness and perhaps of their seeming loss of connection to their heritage.
At least this seems to be part of what motivates Peter when he begins to address the gathering of Jesus’s followers in verse 15.  It’s as if he can’t go any longer with this specter of the traitor hanging over the group. Not surprisingly, he turns to the scripture to back up his idea; verse 20 mostly consists of two different citations from the Psalms. As Peter quotes them, Psalm 69, verse 25 and Psalm 109, verse 8 respectively, they sound quite respectable and important and certainly appropriate to the situation; when read in their context, as parts of Psalm 69 and Psalm 109, however, their citation by Peter here seems to be a stretch at best. Psalm 109:8 seems to be particularly inappropriate, as the psalmist is decrying the actions of his enemies against him, accusing them of seeking to bring a false accusation against him and to have another take his position. Still, Peter is moving on, and armed with these conveniently picked verses he moves forward with his agenda item; choosing a new apostle to replace the traitor Judas.
Aside from his psalm verses Peter doesn’t really get into why he is so eager to get a replacement in place, aside from the idea that someone “must become a witness with us to his resurrection” as expressed in verse 22. It’s possible that he’s really hung up on the idea that the twelve apostles should somehow mirror or replicate those twelve tribes of Israel as recorded in the Torah. Maybe he’s just determined to get over Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and move on somehow. Maybe it’s just his well-established and often-demonstrated impulsive personality that can’t sit still.
For whatever reason Peter makes his proposal and the group, numbering around 120 in all, goes along. Two names are proposed, or at least two individuals – one of them, “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus” was a three-named monster – and one was chosen by casting lots. This no doubt sounds bizarre to us, and is not a recommended course of action for nominating committees, so don’t get any ideas. It did, though, have a fairly extensive place in Hebrew tradition as a way of removing the human element and leaving a choice entirely up to God. The lot fell on the man with a simpler name, Matthias, and he was from then on numbered with the apostles.
If Matthias is of particular interest to you, you’re out of luck; he is never mentioned again in the Bible. But he is hardly alone; most of the other, “original” apostles don’t show up again either. Peter and John make appearances in the early chapters of Acts, some of which have been heard in sermons in recent weeks. Peter in fact manages to maintain some visibility throughout much of Acts.
On the other hand, the apostle James is only named one more time, in Acts 12, when he becomes the first of the apostles to be martyred. A man named Philip appears preaching in Samaria and then witnessing to the Ethiopian treasurer in Acts 8, but it is not Philip the apostle but Philip the deacon, one of the seven appointed in Acts 6. Otherwise, none of the apostles names in verse 12 appear again in the history of the church recorded in Acts.
This is not to say that they are somehow “failures” by any means. But it is to point out that the church – such as it was at this point – was not going to stay under the control or leadership of this particular group of twelve. It was going to grow, and expand, and branch out in ways that could not be managed or controlled by this structure that they had known for so many years.
Instead, the figures who become increasingly important as the book of Acts unfolds are people like Stephen, one of the seven deacons appointed in chapter six and a very early martyr for the faith; the aforementioned Philip, possibly also one of the seven; and of course Paul, the unlikely persecutor-turned-apostle. Then individuals like Paul’s missionary partners, first Barnabas and then Silas; James, the brother of Jesus, who eventually becomes the head of the church at Jerusalem; and “foreign-born” missionary partners like Timothy, the wife-and-husband preaching team Priscilla and Aquila, and individual figures like Lydia, the “God-worshiper” who housed the missionaries Paul and Silas in Thyatira.
The point is not to denigrate the “original twelve.” The point is, however, that no matter how much they had devoted themselves to prayer, they hadn’t necessarily caught on to the kind of transformation that was coming to them. While they were busy preserving or recreating the structure in which they had worked and lived for their years in Christ, the Holy Spirit was getting ready to blow through that structure and break down the barriers the little group of believers had unwittingly built up around themselves. They had yet to truly grasp the truth of Jesus’s words in verse eight, about being witnesses “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The book of Acts illustrates this progress remarkably well. The group of believers in Jerusalem remains the focus through the first seven chapters of the book, before the believers begin to be scattered in a wave of persecution after Stephen’s death. Even though the disciples (we’re starting to call them “apostles” now) remained in Jerusalem for the time, the Holy Spirit didn’t remain confined to Jerusalem. As Philip the deacon (not the apostle) found himself in Samaria he began to witness to the resurrected Christ, and they began to believe and be baptized. Peter and John were sent out from Jerusalem to check out the story, but returned to Jerusalem after. In the meantime Philip the deacon was sent out by the Lord to witness to that Ethiopian treasurer, sending the faith even further along to an even more distant people.
In the meantime the newly-converted Paul stirs up trouble with his preaching, and Peter learns a hard lesson about God’s wide-open arms in his encounter with the centurion Cornelius and his family, having to process the fact that even (shudder!) Gentiles are receiving salvation, something with which the church at Jerusalem never fully makes peace. While Paul and Barnabas are sent out by the Holy Spirit to “the ends of the earth,” the church at Jerusalem, to the very end of the book, still remains deeply uncomfortable the idea that Gentiles can go straight to faith in Christ without becoming “Judaized” by undergoing circumcision or some other similar rite. And it’s hard to imagine what the Jerusalem church, which after all had gone along with Peter’s decree that only a man could fill the role of Apostle #12, would have made of such preachers and leaders as Priscilla and Lydia.
In short, the little group of believers really didn’t know what was coming. They would be faithful, to be sure, as we may recall from the experiences of Peter and John in the Temple. But the Church just wasn’t going to continue to be what they had known. The Holy Spirit wasn’t going to be contained in the ways they had known. That Jesus had ascended and gone to the right hand of God the Father did not mean “the restoration of the kingdom to Israel,” as they asked in verse six, nor did it mean the life that they had known with Jesus in person was going to be restored or restarted.
Yes, this might well be a cautionary warning to us here in this place; if we are truly seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the future of this church we had better be prepared for the possibility that it might be something we currently can’t imagine. But it’s also a warning to each of us in much the same way. If you had told me eight years ago, when I was accepting a job offer at the University of Kansas, that I would end up back in Florida as pastor of a church in Hogto--, er Gainesville, I’d have laughed at you so hard.
And yet as a church this is all we can do. We cannot recreate what was before. We cannot grow this church, in numbers or in faithfulness or in spiritual maturity, only by replicating ourselves. We can keep doing what we do, and simple demographics state we will be gone in ten or twenty or fifty years – whether we speak of this church by itself, or our denomination, or the church more broadly.
But if we truly submit to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, there is the threat of change. It might not look familiar to us. It might involve people we don’t like or don’t trust. It’s scary. And yet, if we truly want to be the people of God, the body of Christ, we really have no choice.
Pentecost is coming. The Holy Spirit will come in like a rushing wind. Are we ready?

Hymns (PH ’90): “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (260), “The One Is Blest” (158), “Arise, Your Light Is Come” (411)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Sermon: Ascension

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 10, 2015, Ascension B
Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24: 44-53


It’s right there, in the Apostles’ Creed, the one we use most Sundays for the Affirmation of Faith. The same line is also found in the Nicene Creed, the one the church typically uses when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. It’s a pretty basic statement, made without much elaboration or development. It goes like this:
He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father…
That event is the subject for today. Actually, if you want to be precise about it, it is the subject for Thursday, which (ten days before Pentecost, or forty days after Easter) is marked as the day for observance of the Ascension of the Lord. As most Protestant churches have no service planned for Thursday proper, some of them will observe the Ascension next Sunday, while many will let it pass unobserved. As New Testament scholar Brian Peterson observes, “we really don’t like goodbyes, and we don’t quite know how to celebrate this one.” Forgive me for jumping the gun and observing the event a week early.
For an event that shows up in creedal statements and gets its own separate day on the liturgical calendar, it’s curious that only one biblical author actually describes the event itself. As we discovered on Easter Sunday, the gospel of Mark offers no accounts of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances at all, and while the gospels of Matthew and John both cover at least some of Jesus’s time on earth after the resurrection, somehow neither of those authors saw fit to describe the event in which Jesus departed from earth to be with God the Father.
On the other hand, the one author who did cover the event apparently felt that it was so important that he actually recorded it twice. Both at the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, this author includes an account of the ascension. It’s not completely unlike an author writing a sequel to a novel in which he or she finds a way to recapitulate events from the first book, or a television show picking up where its last episode left off with a few scenes from that episode with the foreboding introduction, “Last time, on…”. Of course we’ve just heard both accounts.
It seems that in Luke’s second account of the ascension, found in Acts 1, the author felt the need to fill in a few more details than had found their way into the first. For example, in Luke 24, the author makes no mention of the forty days Jesus spent appearing with and among the disciples that are mentioned in Acts 1:3. There is a bit more dialogue between Jesus and the disciples as well, and Jesus leaves the disciples with a much more direct and clear commission in verse 8, not unlike the “Great Commission” found in the last two verses of the gospel of Matthew. Perhaps most notable is the appearance, after Jesus has ascended and been caught up in a cloud, is the appearance of two men, dressed in white robes, chastising the disciples for staring up into the sky and leaving them with a promise that Jesus would return in they way they had just seen them leave.
As our reading from Acts describes the event, there are important things happening here that we could wish our co-religionists would heed. While the disciples were promised that they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit,” they were also told that they had to wait for it. Their commission wasn’t to charge off into action immediately; they were to stay in Jerusalem and “wait there for the promise of the Father.” 
Waiting, to put it precisely, stinks.
It isn’t in our nature to be patient. We are conditioned, by our culture or our own personalities or by need, to charge off into action. No time to wait; we have to take action now, before it’s “too late.” Churches, maybe even churches like ours, face this temptation routinely in a time in which there is no branch of the church that is not seeing its numbers in decline. We’ve got to do something. We think we can’t wait. And the church rushes off and does something rash or even destructive.
Our time, as we are reminded in this story, is not God’s time. Even Jesus himself says, for example, that “it is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Aside from being a rebuke to those wannabe preachers who appear at regular intervals claiming to have deciphered the exact time and date when the “rapture” will happen or when Jesus will return, this is a rebuke to us as well, when we as the church charge off without the time for discernment or listening for the moving of the Spirit.
I get it; that’s hard to do, not just because waiting is hard, but because we probably feel like we don’t even understand what we’re listening for. If you had asked the disciples what it would be like to be “baptized by the Holy Spirit” as they stood there watching Jesus lifted away from them, I doubt any of them would have come up with the kind of event that happened a few days later, the day we call Pentecost. We don’t know what it means to listen for the Holy Spirit, and we don’t know where that will lead us. When what is safe and familiar has been pulled away from us, and we don’t know what’s next, waiting, discerning, and being patient is the hardest thing. We are, you might say, in the “in between time,” and no human being can usually exist there comfortably. Still, the church, or a church, or even our church is still called to listen, to discern, and even to wait.
There are other key points to glean from this story. It is this story of ascension, the story of God the Son going to God the Father, which ultimately changes the way we understand God. Another scholar, Mark Travnik, describes the change this way:
The ascension of Jesus into heaven alters our picture of God. We can no longer define God in a way that leaves God completely detached from human experience. The ascended Jesus, who sits at God’s right hand, reveals a God who is vulnerable and even approachable. When we turn to God in times of distress or temptation we are not addressing a deity aloof and unfamiliar with our struggles. God knows our trials intimately well and not only comforts us by identifying with our pain but also assures us that affliction will not have the final word because it is the risen and ascended Christ who intercedes for us and nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:34).

The presence of Jesus at the right hand of God means that God is not a distant, unfeeling God; because Jesus, who has lived among us and with us and knows our weaknesses and our sorrows, God the Father knows our weaknesses and our sorrows.
We are also reminded that even as we wait in the “in between” time, we do have a charge. Verse 8 puts it in terms that are unambiguous; we will be witness to Christ, in every reach of the earth – “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” While the urge to do something is strong with us, it’s also true that such an expansive and formidable commission as this can stop us in our tracks a bit. We have enough trouble conceiving of being a witness to Alachua County. How can we possibly be a witness to “the ends of the earth”? Look at us. We are, by any official metric you can find, a small church. We’re not particularly rich. And for many of us, getting around ain’t what it used to be.
Obviously we don’t go it alone. We are one church, part of the church, the body of Christ. The church, the whole church, answers the commission. We are all in it together. We work as one. Even so, it’s a daunting commission. Where do we start? Where do we fit into this commission? What is our place? See, this is why patience and discernment is important. We have a role to play, as a church within the church, and our task, in this “in between” time, is to discern where God is leading us to be witnesses, to find whatever “end of the earth” is in need of the ministry we are prepared to offer.
We also need to remember from this story that the absence of Jesus from the earth physically does not equate to the absence of Jesus from human life. Because God the Son goes to God the Father, Jesus is able to send God the Holy Spirit to be with us and among us, to be our comforter, our Paraclete. All of this gets heavily Trinitarian, which is a subject we will get to explore in a few weeks, but for now let us take note that Jesus’s physical departure may be discomfiting to the disciples, but it is our preservation; it is the reason we can claim the presence of God among us. Pentecost is coming, and our God will be among us.
And this continues to be our comfort even today. Because Jesus is ascended to the right hand of God the Father, the Holy Spirit continues to be among us and minister to us even now. We continue to encounter the risen Christ in worship, in preaching, in sacraments; through ministering to the world around us; and in the fellowship and support of one another. Because Jesus has ascended to God the Father, the ministry of Jesus continues. “All that Jesus began to do and preach” – a frankly more accurate translation of verse 1 – continues because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit among us.
On this day, however, we are “in between.” We are waiting. We are listening. We are seeking to hear, to understand, to know, and to be prepared for whatever unpredictable and unknowable thing the Holy Spirit is going to do among us.

For patience and trust in the “in between,” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH '90): "Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies" (462), "You, Living Christ, Our Eyes Behold" (156), "We All Are One In Mission" (435)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Sermon: A Table That Rejects Rejection

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 3, 2015, Easter 5B
Luke 15:1-2; 24:13-35

A Table That Rejects Rejection

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
These words, spoken in an address by Rev. Martin Luther King in March 1968 (only a few weeks before his own assassination), have gained fresh currency and citation in the wake of numerous events in the past year, from the disturbances in Ferguson, Missouri to this past week’s events in Baltimore.
The statement gets at some truth; rioters in most cases don’t riot in expectation that anything will change; quite the opposite – riots happen precisely because those rioting are convinced that nothing will ever change. And they are convinced that nothing will ever change because they are convinced that no matter what they say, no matter how desperate their situation or how many promises are made, no one in fact is hearing their concerns, no on is interested in their troubles; no one listens.
In truth, though, I’m not quite sure that this applies to all such situations. What were the unheard cries of those who rioted in San Francisco last October, after the Giants won the World Series? Or in Lexington, Kentucky, just a few weeks ago, after the Kentucky Wildcats were eliminated in the NCAA Final Four in basketball? Oh, I forgot. We don’t call those “riots.” We call those “unruly behavior.”
For now city officials in Baltimore are looking at weeks of not only pursuing charges related to the riots or the police-custody death that served as the immediate trigger (though by no means the underlying cause) of those riots. At the same time, those same officials can no longer look away from the crushing economic inequities that generate despair and anger, hopelessness and resignation, and (when some triggering event occurs) violence. Promises made and forgotten can no longer be deferred.
We have to acknowledge, though, that “the unheard” do not always come to our attention because of events like those in Baltimore. Unless someone in congregation has harboring plans to climb Mount Everest, it’s unlikely that this congregation has spent much time, collectively or individually, thinking about the nation of Nepal before this week. At last report the death toll from last week’s earthquake in that country had reached a horrifying threshold of more than six thousand lives lost. Beyond that staggering toll, the loss to that nation is incalculable; countless homes and other structures have been destroyed, and numerous artifacts of Nepali culture – temples and artworks, for example – have been lost.
It’s probably not unfair to speak of the people of Nepal as “unheard” – though there may not necessarily be any hostility involved, Nepal is simply a long way from the everyday average concerns of most Americans, including most American Christians. And let’s be honest; if it doesn’t involve us, our immediate family, our local church, or our immediate community, we Americans are prone not to think about it, whatever it is. And so the people of Nepal go unheard until an earthquake devastates their country and their lives.
There is one other example of “going unheard,” one that indicts us perhaps most strongly. Sometimes the cries of others go unheard because we’re too busy yelling at each other.
For the past several years the Presbyterian Church (USA) has faced a number of disagreements and controversies, hard choices and decisions that have caused some churches to pack up their toys and go elsewhere. Now that the dust has settled, to some degree, the churches of this denomination are awakening to a harsh and startling reality; mission giving in the denomination has fallen so precipitously that unless more funds come in, PC(USA)’s Presbyterian Mission Agency, Office of World Mission, will be forced to call home as many as forty mission workers from the field over the next two years.[i] In this case, the cries of our own have gone unheard.
We need to face this. We as a church universal and a church particular need to own up to our own failure to listen, to open our ears to the world around us. I get it; it’s far more comfortable to settle in among our own and enjoy the fellowship of those we know. It’s comfortable, but it’s not Christlike, and that’s the challenge that is put before us today as we come to this table.
The brief reading from the fifteenth chapter of Luke speaks volumes about the Jesus we claim to follow. It comes not in Jesus’s own words, but in the words of Pharisees and scribes, religious leaders, observing Jesus’s teaching and the number of “undesirables” who flocked to hear it. You know the type…sinners. Tax collectors. Those people.  And at the sight of all those people, these righteous types (you can practically imagine them holding their noses or something like that) couldn’t restrain their shock and offense. “This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them.
This isn’t a new charge against Jesus; as early as chapter seven Jesus is mimicking these same religious leaders making this charge against him. In short, this is Jesus’s reputation. Among other things, Jesus is known for eating with sinners, with those people.
Backing up to the previous chapter we see that this very exchange is taking place in the context of a meal; apparently Jesus had been invited by one of the Pharisees to a meal, on a Sabbath day. On the way he had stopped to heal a man, a violation of Sabbath rules in the eyes of some. Upon arriving and observing the jockeying for position at the table, he had offered some trenchant observations on honor at the table, suggesting it was wiser to choose a seat of less honor and let your host bump you up to a more honored position. He then suggested that it was better to invite the poor and paralyzed and generally outcast to your feasts, and told a parable of a man whose invited guests bailed out on him, leading him to do exactly that. A couple of random parables later, we come to the incident in our reading. Right there in the context of the meal, Jesus is welcoming those whom the good righteous folk don’t want to be next to or associated with.
It’s a small token of a theme that gets bigger and bigger as our Bible goes on. As far back as the prophet Isaiah, we’ve been told that the Lord’s temple would be “a house of prayer for all nations.” Jesus would echo these words in the incident known as “the cleansing of the Temple,” the one where he flipped the tables and let the sacrificial animals loose. The book of Acts will continue to expand on the theme of expanding the reach of God’s table, so to speak, as first the crowds at Pentecost, the Ethiopian treasurer in Acts 8, the centurion Cornelius and his family, the Philippian jailer, and numerous other Gentiles – those people – are added to the church, sometimes to the great consternation of the original, Jewish followers of Jesus.  The limits that Jesus’s followers set up, almost reflexively, keep getting broken down, right after Jesus spent so much of his ministry “welcoming sinners, and eating with them.”
This pattern, this repeated and ongoing practice of Jesus, eventually became not only his reputation, but also the way his own disciples would recognize him at what seemed to be the darkest time they had ever known.
We are of course familiar from this story at or immediately after Easter.  Two disciples, identified as “disciples” even though not among the numbered twelve, are walking from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus on Easter evening, their world shattered.  There was that strange report from the women in their group about the tomb being empty and angels being there, but no one else saw that (the angels at least).  The stranger appears and enters into conversation between the two; they tell their story, and the stranger responds with a staggering knowledge of the scripture, arguing that the events of crucifixion they described were exactly what had to happen, which they’d have known if they weren’t so foolish and slow of heart.  With day fading, the two stop and entreat the stranger to stay and be their guest, which he does.  The stranger then, surprisingly, takes the role of host: he takes the bread for the meal, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them.  Then – and only then – did they recognize that the stranger was none other than Jesus himself.  When he disappears, the two disciples rush back to Jerusalem to report to the others, and to describe how, as verse 35 puts it, “he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” 
We could evoke the feeding of the five thousand, or to many other shared meals recorded in Luke’s gospel. We can also recall, and do so at each observance of the Lord’s Supper, that awful night, just a few nights before, the last night Jesus spent with the disciples. The gesture of breaking bread to share was characteristic of Jesus. What we need to remember when we come to this table is that this wasn’t some esoteric, unusual event that Jesus chose to imprint upon his followers as a memorial to him; it was something they had seen him do over and over again, time after time sharing bread with them and with all manner of other undesirable characters.  If he asked his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me,” it’s at least partly because he had done exactly this with them so many times in their years together.
But what is fascinating about this Emmaus Road story, as well as a bit depressing for preachers, is that it is this gesture, this breaking of bread, that opens the eyes of the two disciples to see Jesus for who he is.  All of that amazing expository preaching that Jesus did?  Nope.  If you felt like reading the story tongue-in-cheek, you could even say that all it did was give the disciples heartburn.  But the act of breaking bread was one so characteristic, so typical of Jesus that their fogged and shrouded eyes could no longer conceal from them their Lord. 
The message came to these two disciples, not in a barrage of words and scriptural exegesis, but in the rather simple medium of bread.  Stuff of the earth, harvested, ground into flour, mixed and kneaded and baked into the most basic staple of the disciples’ diet.  But in that medium indeed was a message that had been witnessed and lived so many times by Jesus that it was one the disciples knew by heart; a message of welcome, of hospitality, not just to the good folks but to the worst sinners society could dredge up, even sinners like us.  And this medium of bread, being broken, still shapes and forms that message even today, whenever we come to the table. 
On that Maundy Thursday Jesus paired the breaking of bread, a token of humanity’s most basic needs, with a cup of wine poured.  If bread represented the basics of life, wine no doubt served as a token of celebration.  The reading from the Gospel of John reminds us that the very first sign Jesus performed in the presence of his disciples was one of turning ordinary water into wine, a sign that became the rescue and continuation of a wedding feast, one of the most joyous celebrations that culture knew. 
Bread broken, a cup filled.  These are still signs of welcome and celebration to us today.  They still point us to a Life of welcoming and making welcome, a Life that celebrated and rejoiced even as it grieved and mourned and got angry a time or two.  They point us to a Life that was so dedicated, so insistent on bringing everyone in and ministering to all, that it poured itself out in death rather than suffer any one of us not to be guests at his table for eternity. 
Perhaps the bread and cup seem a curious choice of medium, but the message that bread and cup shape for us in this sacrament is still one we need to hear, as many times as possible.  Christ calls us to come; he welcomes us to the table; he bids us be his guest.  Let us not be blinded to the message in this humble, yet exalted medium. 
The table is made ready; Jesus our host bids us – all of us, even those people – come and eat.
For the bread and the cup, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “God Is Here!” (461), “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ” (514), “Now To Your Table Spread” (515), “Draw Us In the Spirit’s Tether” (50


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sermon: A Time For Sheep and a Time For Goats

Grace Presbyterian Church
April 26, 2015, Easter 4B
Psalm 23; John 10:11-18; Acts 4:5-12

A Time For Sheep and a Time For Goats

It’s beautiful stuff, to be sure.
If John 3:16 is the most memorized and most immediately familiar individual verse in the whole Bible, I’d guess that Psalm 23 is the most immediately familiar longer passage. It’s almost impossible not to know if you’ve spent even a small part of your life in the church. You can go in your average “Christian” bookstore and be bombarded with books about this one psalm. If you were to thumb through your hymnal you’d notice that the hymn we sang a few minutes ago is far from the only version of this psalm in the hymnal; in fact there are six different versions, total, and they are hardly exhaustive of the number of settings of this psalm that have been made. I’ll bet that a lot of you had trouble with the responsive reading earlier in the service, not because the psalm wasn’t familiar enough, but because it was too familiar – it was hard not to slip into the old King James Version of the psalm, with all the “thy”s and “thou”s, wasn’t it?
Just as the lectionary for the second Sunday of Easter always points us towards the story of Thomas, this fourth Sunday of Easter always features Psalm 23, and always pairs it with some portion of the tenth chapter of John’s gospel; this year, as you have heard, the passage that begins with Jesus’s “I am the good shepherd” declaration is featured. So sometimes this Sunday gets called “Shepherd Sunday,” and sermons and songs about the shepherd-ness of Jesus are preached. This is of course highly appropriate; the care Jesus shows to his “flock” – comfort in time of fear, laying down his life for his sheep – are the stuff of faith, and should be preached and taught.
But, as is almost always true with these extremely familiar verses or passages of scripture, the scripture – or more accurately, our treatment of that scripture – can become a problem.
In this case, we get caught reading these passages about Jesus, full of attributes of Jesus, as if they are somehow about us. John’s passage really doesn’t address us at all. There is some contrast with the “hired hand,” one who is not the true shepherd and does not know the sheep, who cuts and runs when the wolves show up. Aside from a brief “I know my own and my own know me,” there really isn’t much in this passage about us, the presumed sheep under the care of the shepherd.
Psalm 23 is not quite as focused, but even there the way we respond to the shepherd is framed in response to the shepherd’s care for us. We fear no evil because the shepherd is with us. We will dwell in the house of the Lord forever because the Lord is our shepherd. What the psalmist sings is the goodness of the shepherd.
Where we get confused is in the unspoken, yet no less powerful, assumption that if our Lord is the shepherd, then we’re supposed to be sheep. Other psalms are complicit here; Psalm 100:3 goes there explicitly, saying “we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture,” and other verses from other psalms make similar claims.  Christians have naturally taken such a leap of logic and run with it.
How many of you know, for example, the children’s song called “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep”? That’s the title, for real. Anybody? [sing] “I just wanna be a sheep….I just wanna be a sheep…” And if you really want to do it right, you “baa” like a sheep between those phrases: “I just wanna be a sheep (baa baa-baaaaaa baa!) I just wanna be a sheep (baa baa-baaaaa baa!)…
Our two scriptures for today, though, don’t particularly direct us to go there. Even that passage from Psalm 100 is pretty clearly an isolated reference, not even part of an extended metaphor like Psalm 23 or John 10.  Our first warning, you might say, is not to read into scripture what isn’t actually there.
This is probably a good idea in this case, because sheep are not really very good role models.  I don’t know how many of you, if any, have much background with livestock. I certainly don’t, but you don’t have to be an expert to know that sheep aren’t something you want to emulate.  Perhaps the best way to say it is that sheep are very problematic animals. They aren’t necessarily stupid – for one thing, they’re actually incredibly good at recognizing and distinguishing faces – but they are possessed of so strong a herd instinct that whatever capacity for judgment they have is overwhelmed.
They go astray. Remember the parable about the man with a hundred sheep, and one of them gets lost, and the man leaves the ninety-nine to find the one? Well, the man would be lucky if only one got lost. All it takes is a good-looking clump of grass ready for munching, and if you aren’t keeping the herd together well it’s gone.
On the other hand, if not distracted by all that grass, a sheep will follow whatever’s in front of it, no matter what, even if it leads it right off a cliff.
Sheep literally have to be made to lie down for their own good. As long as the grass is available they’ll keep munching away even when the weight of all that grass threatens to hurt them.
They are largely helpless against any kind of predator. No real defenses.
They are largely helpless if they get into water, particularly running water. That wool picks up a lot of water, and sheep can’t swim. If that sheep isn’t rescued it will drown.
When you get right down to it, it seems like the reason that the shepherd metaphor works so well is that we humans are a little too much like sheep for our own good. We go astray—boy, do we go astray. We’re not above excessive physical indulgence. And we are prone to follow bad leaders, right off a metaphorical cliff sometimes. Being sheep is not an aspiration; it’s the problem with us, one it takes a Good Shepherd to solve.
Now all of that is one potential problem with being careless with such popular passages as these. Here’s another; if you spend much time at all in the Bible, you end up running into a lot of examples in which Christ’s followers, when at their best, are anything but sheep-like.
Our passage from Acts today is a pretty good example of this. You might remember from last week’s scripture that Peter and John had drawn a crowd after healing a man who had been paralyzed from birth, and that Peter had launched into a restatement of his Pentecost sermon. This was happening in one of the porticoes of the Temple, and it did not escape the notice of the Temple authorities.  The authorities showed up and actually had the two arrested and held overnight! The next day the two were brought before the council, with all the big names present – not just the current high priest, but the whole high priestly family – and interrogated as to how this healing had happened: “By what power or by what name did you do this?
Peter and John stick to their story – this man was healed in the name of Jesus, whom these same Temple authorities had induced the Romans to crucify. No backing down.
Not very sheeplike, is it?
Not only is Peter preaching the very same sermon that had gotten him and John arrested, he’s doubling down; not only was the man healed in the name of Jesus (verse 9), there is no other name besides the name of Jesus by which such healing can happen (verse 12). Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” is being bold and headstrong in the face of the very authorities of his religion. The religious authorities tried to intimidate Peter into backing down, but Peter and John were having none of it.
Not very sheeplike at all. If anything, Peter and John are acting a lot more like goats than sheep here. Where sheep are regarded as docile and easily led about, goats are anything but. Headstrong, rebellious, difficult…that’s a goat for you.
Are they following Christ in obedience to the Holy Spirit? You bet. But doing so in this case is anything but sheeplike behavior.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink makes this point;
Christians have been instilled with a sheepish docility that has played into the hands of the Powers for centuries. Obedience has been made the highest Christian virtue, obedience that was to be paid to Christ's representatives on earth, the rulers and the clergy. As a result, Christians have colluded in their own injury. They have accepted without resistance totalitarian rulers. They have been submissive in the face of tyrannous hierarchies in church and state, corporations and schools. Women have submitted to battering, economic exploitation and wage inequality. Men have been led off to war like sheep, flocking to their doom without resistance, as if to do so were the height of glory.
Sheep. Bah![i]

Wink goes on to observe that not only were Peter and John being anything but sheeplike in their behavior, but that this behavior was actually pretty characteristic of both Jesus and those who had been his followers. Verse 13 adds the observation that the Temple authorities saw the two as “uneducated and ordinary” men – in fact, the Greek word here translated “ordinary” is the word from which we get our modern insult “idiot” – and yet were being extremely bold before people of whom they were supposed to be afraid. And that, they had already seen, was characteristic of these followers of this crucified Jesus. 
They weren’t living fearfully – these disciples were a long way from the people who had been hiding back on the day of the Resurrection. They weren’t being intimidated. They were speaking boldly, proclaiming the name of this crucified Jesus. They weren’t sheep. They knew their scripture, and didn’t let the authorities intimidate them into accepting their “authoritative” interpretation.
And remember: they were showing this boldness, this “goat-like” stubbornness, to their own co-religionists. We Presbyterians can be a little bit intimidated sometimes in the face of a larger church that has some of its authorities who are really highly willing to tell the word that they are the only ones who Really Know Their Scripture. We have it, and we’re going to tell you how you have to read it. We’re going to tell you what you have to believe about it. Listen, folks: I am really, truly NOT INTERESTED in you “believing in the Bible.” I’m really not. I’d much rather you grab your Bible and read it. Read it whole, and when those authorities start to sell you some soap about what this verse says, you be ready to throw a whole bunch of other scripture at them.
Boldness, not sheeplike docility. Following the prodding of the Spirit, not the orders of the authorities. Being faithful to the life and teaching of Jesus, no matter how much others might distort his witness.  When it’s time to call out whoever – be it the world at large or our fellow Christians, when it’s time to be led by the Spirit, let us never be anything less than bold. But let us know that we are being led by the Spirit.
For the ability to be a goat instead of a sheep when the Spirit calls, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH 90): “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art” (457); “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” (192); “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (276)

[i] Walter Wink, “Those obstreperous idiots: Acts 4:5-12,” Christian Century (April 13, 1994), 381


Monday, April 13, 2015

Sermon: Of One Heart

Grace Presbyterian Church
April 12, 2015, Easter 2B
Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31

Of One Heart

One of the curiosities of the modern design of the Revised Common Lectionary, that guide or starting point for planning worship or sermons that most pastors in the Presbyterian Church (USA) work with these days, is that out of all of the twelve disciples, the only one who could really be said to have his own “day” in the lectionary is Thomas. Peter certainly shows up more in scripture, in Acts as well as the gospels, and James and John are certainly more prominently featured, but Thomas’s rather spectacular moment in the days after Jesus’s resurrection somehow proved so compelling that in all three years of the lectionary cycle, the Sunday after Easter is given over to the story that, combined with some of his other appearances in scripture (mostly in John’s gospel), give him for decades the somewhat dubious nickname “Doubting Thomas.”
For modern preachers, the constant return of this story seems to have provoked a particular reaction; rather than piling on Thomas, look at the story from a different angle. Is that label really fair? Does Thomas deserve to be labeled a doubter any more than the rest of the disciples, for example? What exactly was Thomas guilty of, anyway?
To be sure, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is perfectly appropriate to point out that for all the grief we give Thomas for his declaration that “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” he wasn’t really asking for anything more than the other disciples had already received. It’s not as if Peter and John had come back from the tomb shouting at the tops of their voices about the resurrection; they saw the empty tomb and…went home.
It remained for Mary Magdalene to be the first to see the risen Lord in John’s telling of the story. She was the one who remained, weeping, while the other disciples had gone home. Only that evening did they see Jesus, behind locked doors. We don’t get any indication that they had been terribly responsive or enthusiastic about Mary Magdalene’s report.
So, when the disciples told the absent Thomas what had happened, his reaction wasn’t necessarily all that different than the reaction of the disciples themselves had been to Mary Magdalene’s report.
Something we often overlook in this story is that Thomas had a whole week to chew on what he had been told; verse 26 tells us it was a week later when the disciples were gathered together again in that same house, Thomas present this time. Once Jesus appears to them again, he goes right to Thomas (or brings Thomas right to him) and puts him on the spot: you wanted to see, did you? wanted to touch the nail scars in my hands and side? well, here they are.
And to be fair, Thomas goes from skeptical to worshipful, instantaneously; he is the first of the disciples to make the theological leap from Jesus as Messiah, as Son of God, to the point that “Son of God” equals, well, God. It is a dramatic moment of confession and worship – “My Lord and my God!” is hard to beat as confession. 
For all of the Thomas redemption one can see in much modern preaching and commentary, I don’t think we can completely let the fellow off the hook.  Yes, it’s a little unfair to dump on him for wanting to see what the other disciples had been given the opportunity to see, but there is still one question that can be laid at Thomas’s feet:
Why wasn’t he there in the first place?
When the disciples were gathered in that house on the evening of the first day of the week, where was he? We don’t know why he wasn’t there, and in a way that’s a problem. Somehow the other disciples managed to come together – whether in response to what Mary Magdalene and Peter had seen or for some other reason – and were thus available for the miraculous appearance of Jesus. Thomas wasn’t there, and wasn’t available.
The point is not to turn Thomas into a pariah again. You and I cannot possibly imagine the heartbreak, the fear, the confusion and paranoia and terror that the disciples and other followers of Jesus must have been experiencing. But at the same time, Jesus’s followers had been told this was coming. Had Thomas forgotten all that Jesus had said? Or had he simply decided it had all been a fantasy, a nice dream that had collapsed when confronted with the reality of The Way Things Are?
Whatever was the case, Thomas missed out. There’s a warning for us in this. I am not going to promise you that miracles are going to happen in every Sunday morning service. (On the other hand I’m not going to promise that they won’t either—who knows what the Spirit might decide to do?) Nor am I going to condemn people who go on vacation – I’m going to take vacation myself sometimes, so knocking you for doing so would be pretty hypocritical. And if you’re contagiously sick, you really shouldn’t be here.
But withdrawing from the fellowship, pulling away from the body of Christ, weakens both that fellowship and especially the person who pulls away. We aren’t there to support one another; we aren’t there to grieve with one another; we aren’t there to rejoice with one another, and we all suffer for it – both those present and those absent.
It seems as if the nascent church learned this lesson pretty quickly. The description of the fellowship found in today’s reading from Acts frankly sounds wildly idealistic to our modern, jaded ears. Actually there are some who find such a description threatening, especially that stuff about having their goods in common and nobody claiming ownership of their possessions – that kind of thing goes rather badly against the modern grain, you know.
But see how the fellowship is described; “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…”. What a beautiful description. What a beautiful way to appear to the world. What a beautiful way to respond to the resurrection, which, after all, isn’t very far in the past at this point.
What this little dropped-in description of the fellowship – not even a church yet, really – also tells us is that this closeness, this unity was noticed. When the apostles gave their witness to the resurrection, it wasn’t just their message that was making waves in the world around them; it was also this unity, this being “of one heart,” that made an impression on those who saw this community, this “group of people who believed.” As the author speaks of “great grace” that was upon them all, it reflects the fact that this group was being noticed for its own grace, its own cohesiveness, its unity and compassion and care for one another. People saw that, and what they saw from these people (who weren’t even being called “Christians” yet) gave credence to the message that the apostles preached. It wasn’t just the apostles bearing their witness to the resurrection, it was that this group of people who were gathered around this witness to that resurrection were living in community in such a way that this whole resurrection story suddenly seemed to matter. It seemed like something that people wanted to know more about. If this group has been so dramatically changed by what they witnessed, by what they experienced, can I be part of that? I want to be part of that.
I don’t think I have to tell you that churches don’t always have that impact on the world around them today. If anything, churches are getting pretty good at giving off the opposite message – we don’t want you here. You’re not good enough. You’re not our type. Churches are more concerned with keeping out those who don’t look like us, don’t think like us, don’t act like us than they are with being ‘of one heart.’
Notice that it doesn’t say “of one mind,” or “of one belief.” We have no idea what disagreements might have existed at this point. A few chapters later we’ll see disagreement over how certain widows in the fellowship were getting left out of the provisions, according to some; in response, the apostles appointed a group to oversee those provisions and the community continued on. 
But for a time, this little group was a striking example of what could be. In time some of the leaders would be killed or arrested, and many of them would be scattered away from Jerusalem. But for this time, however long it might have been, this group lived so completely with and for one another that their whole culture had to take notice. They stayed together. They stayed in the fellowship.
I like to imagine that Thomas was there, fulfilling his apostle role, encouraging the members of this “group of those who believed” to stick together, to be there for one another, to be there. “After all,” he might have said, “you never know what you might miss when you’re not here.”
For “one heart,” thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from PH '90):
#121 That Easter Day With Joy Was Bright
#114 Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain
#507 I Come With Joy To Meet My Lord 
#123 Jesus Christ Is Risen Today