April 28, 2013
We’re going to try to make our family a community.
I. Common Devotion (Acts 2:42-43)
II. Common Stuff (Acts 2:44-45)
III. Common Meals (Acts 2:46-47)
For nearly twenty years I’ve been reading, and mentioning, a series of books called The Hawk and the Dove by Penelope Wilcock. They’re set in a monastery, a Benedictine Abbey in 1300 A.D. I’ve thought a lot about why I like them, and I think it’s mainly because, despite the distant setting, the author does a great job of creating real characters with real problems and real complexities. On top of that, these complex characters are placed together in a wonderful and complex community. The medieval monastery is fascinating: The monks not only preserved culture and learning, but strove as a community to glorify God and bless each other. No monastery was perfect; some were awful, but there is something attractive about the way they ordered life in devotion to God, in relationship with each other and in practical care for the community.
I’ll give examples later, but let me cut to the chase: these books awaken in me a longing for such community, even jealousy that our community in the church, wonderful though it is at times, doesn’t embrace enough of life to really offer the ‘fullness of life’ experience a monastery, at its best, was able to provide. In one of the books a man with a disgraceful past comes to the monastery for refuge and the power of the community touches his soul, so that he asks to be admitted to the order. At one point he looks around the abbey hungrily, wistfully “He neither admitted to himself or hid from himself the ache he felt to belong here; he just allowed it to be; he did not know how he could leave.”
That’s the way community should affect us. But as I thought about that I realized – and I think Penelope Wilcock intended this that the ideal monastery and even the ideal church are also the ideal family. And much as I love the community of the church, the community of my family has been even more significant to my life. So this week we’re starting a series of sermons applied to families. We’re not going to study many passages that address families directly, but we’re going to apply important and instructional sections of Scripture to our family situations. We’ll talk about things like time, money, the Bible, prayer, humility, kindness, and encouragement, and we’ll apply them to families.
But this morning I want to start the series by looking at a Scripture that describes the community of the very earliest church, Acts 2:42-47, and by looking at how that community was worked out in the monasteries, and by applying all that to life together in our families. We can, I think, find in our families a place of common devotion, common stuff, and common meals. We can, I think, strive to find in our families real community. We can resolve to do things together.
And for the sake of full disclosure, I need to tell you that in all this I am deeply indebted to and merely a student of my wife. I am neither by nature nor by nurture very good or very intuitive about these things, but she is both, and any community that our family has achieved is the result of her initiative and tireless labor, with at worst my grudging and at best my cheerful cooperation.
Acts 2:42-47 is the first description of the community life of the earliest church. After Jesus returned to heaven the disciples waited in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit was poured out on them. Then they boldly spoke to the crowd about Jesus, speaking in tongues that the many foreign visitors could understand. And the Peter stood up and gave the first sermon of the new era, emphasizing, of course, the resurrection of Jesus. Peter instructed them to turn to Christ for forgiveness of their sins. And that day about three thousand were saved.
Luke, the author of Acts, immediately describes the community that they formed. Acts 2:42-47 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
I. Common Devotion (Acts 2:42-43)
I see three shared commonalities, or characteristics of community in that description: common devotion; common stuff, and common meals. Let’s look at each of those and apply them to our families. Common devotion is seen in verses 42, 43 and 47, and is focused around the word, prayer and worship.
‘They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching.’ Having received Christ, and his forgiveness and his Holy Spirit, these 3000 converts wanted to know all about Jesus. And we know from Peter’s sermon that such teaching is based on the Scriptures of the Old Testament and on the words and acts of Jesus. This became a hallmark of the early churches; the entire New Testament consists of the truth about Jesus supported by the truths of the Old Testament and applied by the Holy Spirit through the apostles to the lives of the believers.
Verse 42 is a summary verse; we’ll address the fellowship and breaking of the bread later in this message, but the fourth thing he mentions is prayer. The early church prayed. At almost every juncture in the book of Acts, whether making decisions, sending out missionaries or responding to persecution, the believers prayed.
And they worshipped. Verse 43 is not directly about worship, but when Luke says that awe came upon every soul he uses the word commonly translated fear, and often associated with the worship of God, and in the New Testament, of Jesus. Furthermore the signs and wonders that were being done through the apostles would tend to create awe and fear and wonder among the people.
Later, in verses 46-47, we see the church directly at worship: day by day they attended worship at the temple and they were full of praise for God. So the community feeds off the word of God and the teaching of the apostles, and they respond to God’s words and his works with worship and with prayer.
Now if this sounds familiar it is because these concepts have been a key part of our thinking at Trinity. The second sentence of our vision statement says that we commit ourselves to learn and obey God’s word, to depend on him in prayer and to exalt him in worship. Our wheel illustration has prayer, worship and the Word lined up on the vertical axis, the God-oriented spokes of the wheel. We don’t always do these things as well as we should, but we recognize them as the core of our Godward orientation, our devotional life as a community.
And when we think about monasteries, we find that same core of Godward devotion. You may or may not be aware of it, but all the monasteries of the middle ages operated under a set of rules or instructions often called the Rule, which governed many aspects of their life as a community. The Rule of St. Benedict, which was written in the sixth century, is heavily based on Scripture and has provided effective guidance to almost fifteen hundred years of monks. And in this rule, devotion to God is central to the scheme of life. The monks gather as a community to pray and worship seven times a day, they listen to Bible readings at meals, they receive teaching from their abbot.
In The Hawk and the Dove this daily cycle of prayer and worship and the word is crucially important to almost all the characters. The very dailyness and repetitiousness of it makes it a place of peace and comfort to the brothers, a place where they can take their souls out and examine them, a place where they can cry out to God and receive his presence, comfort and love. In one of the stories Brother Allen is tormented by a lack of peace coupled with the crippling sense that his whole life could be summed up in the phrase ‘spoiled brat.’ He is crushed by his selfishness. But he is released by the stern and yet compassionate rebuke of his abbot, and sustained by the comfort and care of his brothers who make him eat and sleep, and he is saved in the worship service, vespers, where a brother reads from Isaiah: “He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. Upon him was the punishment that brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.”
“Allen,” the author says, “felt as though the words were turning him inside out. Timidly, hungrily, humbly, Allen’s spirit reached up, yearned towards God. Wave upon wave upon wave of peace swept through him, cleansed him, comforted him, healed him. As he walked out of Vespers to the refectory for supper, he was bathed in peace, alight with peace, overflowing with peace. Father Peregrine smiled as he watched him go.” That’s the power of the Word and of worship encountered in a caring community.
And that kind of community is equally powerful in our families. Community is built as we orient our lives around the Word of God and prayer and worship. Now you know that I’m not preaching a magic formula and I’m not going to give you a list of rules, but I think inviting our families, whatever their size shape or ages to share in the centrality of word and worship and in a rhythm that pursues those things in quiet times and in family worship times and in speaking of Jesus to one another – this kind of common shared devotion to one greater and more loving than we are is immensely healthy for the family.
Now I thought Penelope Wilcock and I were the only ones who’d seen the similarity of monastic community and family community. But as I looked for images of the Rule of St. Benedict, I ran across ‘The Rule of St. Benedict for Families,’ and the ‘The Rule of St. Benedict for Fathers.’ I read an interview with the author of the second one, who said “St. Benedict's rule has survived because he had a deep understanding of human psychology, he tempered discipline with compassion and he saw the spiritual quest as a joyful pursuit of God within the structures of ordinary life. It is this joyous delight in everyday spirituality that makes the rule come alive for so many. Benedict was writing a practical rule for ordinary people to live together. He expected them to work hard, read hard and pray hard. His rule therefore applies to family life because it is about the grace-full blend of prayer, work and living together.”
Family life at its best is also a joyful pursuit of God, a joyous delight in everyday spirituality. A family, like the early church, or a monastery is blessed when it shares a common Godward orientation of by prayer, the Word and worship.
II. Common Stuff (Acts 2:44-45)
Moving on, verses 44 and 45 remind us that a family is a place where stuff is held in common. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” That’s a really powerful statement, especially when you recognize that in Greek as well as in English the word common is the root both of the word community and the word fellowship. When I was a young believer this Greek word ‘koinonia’ was really popular. It seemed like every youth group in America changed its name to ‘koinonia.’
So they had all things in fellowship. This doesn’t mean they gave up all personal property, but all things were available for the needs of the community. We do this in marriage: in a community property state both the husband and wife are assumed to own an equal share of all property held by either. In the early church they held an equal share of all the property held by all the believers. In practice this meant that they were willing to give cheerfully and generously to the needs of the saints. Verse 45 “They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
In the medieval monastery, this same kind of community was reflected in the vow of poverty; the monk turned all his worldly goods over to the monastery and refused to keep as a personal possession any goods or monies that came into his hand. Instead all things were held in common. The abbot might have a few luxuries in his house for guests, but he usually ate the same food as the novice. He had the same two robes as any brother, and the same hard bed. In the monastery, at its best, the brothers shared abundance if it came, and gave it away together. They shared poverty as a matter of course.
In one of the later books in the series the cellarer, the one whose job was to manage the holdings of the abbey, made a grave mistake and lost them most of a year’s supplies – for their copying of books, for their other little industries and for their table. And when the chapter as a whole met to deal with the crisis, they voted to tighten the belt, to do without, to double down on what they could produce rather than to take the monastery into debt. It was a community decision, and they all pitched in and lived with the consequences.
That feels to me like the way a family should work; I’m tempted to say ‘must work.’ In my pre-marital counseling I counsel that husbands and wives not have ‘my money’ and ‘your money’ but that they cultivate, even in setting up their bank accounts, a sense of ‘our money.’ It doesn’t matter who earns it, or who spends it, it’s all ours; we manage it together. For some of the couples I’ve worked with, that has seemed really hard counsel. I expect it sounds radical to some here: ‘we can keep separate checking accounts and still have a sense of sharing.’’ Maybe so, but in my experience anything separate separates.
We hold things in common. In our family we’ve consciously named things to aid that. We don’t have ‘my car’ and ‘Gail’s car’ though at times it might have appeared that way. But we’ve always had ‘the Mazda’ and ‘the van’ or ‘the little Honda’ and ‘the wagon.’ It’s language that acknowledges community. We try to make decisions of austerity and prosperity together, and often that means not being fair: it means one person receiving a blessing, a trip, a new suit while others stay home or wear worn clothing.
But we try to make decisions openly and with the interest of the whole family in mind. Let me give one other little example which is somewhat of a learning point for us as a family at the moment. And it is about sharing responsibilities. So our dishwasher is broken. It inconveniently skips all the washing cycles and goes directly to dry. So for the moment we’re washing dishes by hand. For the first few days there was an attitude of ‘I’ll wash my dish, you wash yours, and it will all get done.’ But it doesn’t all get done if you only wash the dish you ate off. So we’ve consciously tried to think community: if I have a moment to wash, I fill the sink with soapy water and I wash whatever is dirty. And at the next meal somebody else does that. We try to hold our stuff and the responsibility for our stuff and even our problems in common. Not yours and mine, but ours. This is harder than I’m making it sound: but it’s worth it.
III. Common Meals (Acts 2:46-47)
So the early church had common devotion to God through the Word and prayer and worship. They had common stuff; everything was shared in the community. And finally, and this will sound trite but it’s not, they had common meals. Verse 46: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.” This is simple, yet profound. They ate together with generosity and thanksgiving.
One of the most striking aspects of Christ’s ministry, both to us as we read the Gospels and to his contemporaries at the time, was what students of Scripture call table fellowship. Jesus ate with people. Jesus ate with his followers. Jesus ate with sinners. Jesus ate with Pharisees. Ten times in Luke and elsewhere we see Jesus at someone’s table. Often these meals were disruptive – they were Gospel events. In that culture to invite someone to a meal, or to accept such an invitation showed acceptance, honor, recognition, even commitment to fellowship and friendship. So when Jesus ate with a prostitute or a sinner or even a fisherman, he was making a statement about who he accepted, who could have fellowship with him. Even now, in communion Jesus invites us, sinners, to share a common table with him. And the early church embraced table fellowship. From the earliest days they shared meals together.
We’re going to do that today as a church, we call it potluck. And my prayer is that we will receive the food with glad and generous hearts – toward each other.
In the monastery, all meals were taken together in the rectory. During the meal they didn’t talk, but a reader read from Scripture to engage and edify the minds of the brothers. Then those who had read and those who had prepared and served sat down together to eat their meal. These meals might be simple, but they were usually wholesome good food, and the presence of the community in the refectory for meals was a sign of their unity and community.
In The Hawk and the Dove the monastery goes through a dreadful season in which all this good wholesome food is made much less appealing by the hand of a poor head cook – the kitchener as he was called. But then the abbot discovers that one of the novices is a superb cook. He says “Brother Cormac, God bless him, is faithful and dedicated but he is not gifted. We have been waiting and patiently praying for someone with culinary intelligence to come alongside him in the kitchen; and Brother Conradus has come as a pure gift of grace.”
That’s what we are to each other in our families, even in the kitchen. We can make our family table a place of table fellowship, where everyone is accepted, where everyone has a voice, everyone is honored. It’s not hard: it doesn’t take a red plate, though if you have one it’s great to use it sometimes. But it does take a commitment to sit down and eat together. And if you have someone, like my wife, with culinary intelligence, who can make those meals adventures in culinary enjoyment, then all the better.
Rarely have I offered you a more practical application than this: eat meals together as a family. This month the Journal of Adolescent Health reported on a study of 26000 Canadian children ages 11 to 15 which showed a strong positive correlation between having meals together and mental health. "More frequent family dinners related to fewer emotional and behavioral problems, greater emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful behaviors towards others and higher life satisfaction," said one of the authors. The positive effects were the same regardless of gender, age or family income. "We were surprised to find such consistent effects,” the author said. "From having no dinners together to eating together seven nights a week, each additional dinner related to significantly better mental health." The researchers said family mealtimes are opportunities for open family exchanges, and allow parents to teach children about positive coping and health behaviors, and adolescents to voice their concerns and feel valued -- all of which help promote good mental health.
All this isn’t a surprise, but it does reinforce our desire to share meals as a family. This is something my wife has been a huge proponent of for years, and I think if you did that same study at a micro level using just the people in our home, you would find the same kind of benefits. And I don’t believe it’s an accident that this particular behavior is mentioned in the first account of community in the early church, nor that it is associated with the growth of the early church – because it is just a wonderfully healthy thing to do.
So what have we said? The early church was characterized by common devotion, through the word, prayer and worship, along with shared resources and share meals, community times that made fellowship a reality.
Again, the first verse was a summary: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
So the question is, what practical thing can you do to build community in your family. I don’t want to insist on one particular thing, though I don’t think you would go far wrong to focus on this meal thing: ‘We’re going to do this together: Thursday dinner.’ Or maybe Sunday through Thursday dinner if you can make this work.
But I don’t want to be too specific. What I’d like to suggest is that sometime in the next twenty four hours you as a family complete the blank at the end of this sentence: “We’re going to do this together: ___________” What will it be? A meal? A home repair project? A giving project? A prayer project? A Bible sharing time? A worship time? If you are going to try to make your family a community, modeled after the community of the early church and the monastery, you’re going to have to complete the sentence and put community into practice: “we are going to do this together:”