Utopia is a perfect society. It has the perfect law or legal system, the perfect societal structure, and the perfect political machine or government. Utopia is the idea of the perfect community where everyone lives in harmony. There are people who strived for this idea. Plato’s Republic was the first writings to give an idea of what this would look like. Some others followed suit with their own ideas, like Thomas Moore and Francis Bacon. H.G. Wells also wrote on the subject. It is a great idea but is it only that, an idea.
Last week we read the verses right before this. Peter had stood up to give a message after the Holy Spirit arrived on the scene. He preached and 3000 people were converted. The church started and exploded and now we get this image of how it was working out for them in the first leg of the journey. Things seemed to be going well. There seems to be this utopian feel to this movement. Listen again to verses 44-45, All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. How much more ideal can you get. Everyone was of one mind and they had everything in common. Is this the way church is supposed to be? Are we supposed to be together on everything?
In my second year as an associate one of my youth workers came up and said he had a vision. He had this idea that came to him in the middle of the night and he couldn’t go to sleep afterwards. For the last two nights this is all he could think about and he wanted to know what I thought about it. His vision was to renovate the third floor of the education building of the church. The third floor was 7,200 square feet and only 2,200 were being used to house the youth ministry of the church. The other 5,000 was being used as storage. The youth worker’s vision was to renovate the whole floor to give more adequate space to the youth and the church in general.
When I heard this vision he laid out for me and when I heard his passion and his desire to do it, I knew it was from God. This was a vision that could not be stopped because it was from God and together we moved forward in our hopes to make this a reality. It was a slow process. We factored in the growth of the youth group, what the program needed for space, and we had a giant brainstorming session with the youth. It was exciting and you could sense the Holy Spirit working in the room. Then the meetings started.
We had to decide on an architect, construction company, plans, costs, capital campaigns, redo the plans, look at other options, and stuff it takes to do a project like this. When I left this appointment I did not know if it would ever be finished, but it did. A couple of years ago I was invited back to the dedication. The result was beautiful and although different than the original idea in some respects, it was finished. It only took six years to renovate 2/3rds of the space. Six years of meetings, redrawing, long arguments in committee meetings, and lots and lots of prayer. But it was done.
Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, Florida went through a larger type of change. They were at a crossroads in their life as a church. Through a long process of discernment, they found a vision and a mission for their congregation. They took that vision and translated it into a complete renovation of their facilities. Over the course of ten years they remodeled and constructed a new education building, family life center, and sanctuary. They completely renovated their whole church.
For one church it took six years to renovate 4,800 square feet of space and another ten years to complete renovate every inch of theirs. So what was the difference? Money? No. Passion? No. Support? Maybe. But the reality is one church had a shared vision and the other didn’t. In one congregation everyone was on the bus and they knew what direction they were heading. In the other there were people who hopped on and off the bus and many people were trying to sit in the driver’s seat. When there are too many hands on the wheel, the bus doesn’t go anywhere. The difference between the two churches was Vision.
The early church held a common vision. In the early stage of the church the mission of the church was still fresh on everyone’s minds. The apostles told people what Jesus’ last words were to them, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:19-20) There was no ignoring that call into ministry and the people of the early church were listening and following.
They were doing so by doing four different things. The scripture today tells us that “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” It was these four things that pulled them together as a community and gave them purpose. It was what drove them to profess the story of Easter and is what lead them to the success they were experiencing.
Let’s take a look at these four areas for a minute. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings.” It is important to get close to the source. Here the early converts to Christianity were one step away from Jesus himself. If they were not among those who saw Jesus speak, they were able to hear, talk to, and interact with the apostles who had just finished following him around for three years. They could listen to James and John recount the story of the Transfiguration or the Parable of the Sower. They listened to them retell Jesus’ teachings on loving their enemy and reaching out to the poor. Jesus never wrote down any of his teachings. Instead he trusted the apostles to tell the world about him. They have done so because without them we would have never been able to read their words.
But this wasn’t just a really big Sunday School class there was more two the teaching of the apostles. What they were promoting was radical teachings. It was truly a counter-cultural movement. As followers were coming they had to give their lives to these ideas and when they did some found themselves in jail or being tortured or even killed. Later on in Acts we get the story of the stoning of Stephen, the Church’s first martyr. He gives a speech in front of the Jewish Council. He professes the mission of the Church and tells them God’s love and care goes beyond Jerusalem. The Council gets so mad that they take him out and stone him. One of the people that approved this killing was a guy named Saul. Later he is converted and changes his name to Paul. You may have heard of him. Even though the teachings of the apostles were clashing with the culture around them, the converts to Christianity stood by them and found strength in their teachings.
The early church also had great fellowship. The Greek word that is used here is koinonia. I have mentioned this word before and it means something a little deeper than when we use the word fellowship these days. It is more than just gathering together to enjoy each other’s company or fun times. Nowhere in the New Testament is it described this way. Koinonia is deeper. It is connecting with people but in a raw way. It is like an AA meeting. In these meetings people expose themselves to others. They are honest about their problems with alcohol and the damage it has done to their world. If you ask someone who attends these meetings I doubt you would hear them describe them as a ‘great time.’ Instead they would use words like meaningful, powerful, or moving. That is koinonia. It is the intimate relationships we have with other Christians who push us beyond our comfort zones out of our shared love of God.
The early Christians also devoted themselves to the Breaking of Bread. We usually use this term to mean Holy Communion. It meant the same thing back then too. Yet, it also meant simply sharing a meal together. When we share a meal with someone it is an intimate occasion. I know that Linda and Saundra are at the beach this week with the UMW but if you were here for their presentation about their trip to Kenya you heard stories of meals being shared. [show picture] Here is a picture of Linda who was given a potato to eat during one of the services they attended. She actually bid on this potato during the service and then it was passed around for others to join. I bet you as long as Linda lives she will remember eating this potato. Why? Because it was that good? No. Because she was able to get the first bite because she is scared of germs? No. Because in that moment of passing a cooked potato around during the church service she experienced what it truly means to share in the Breaking of Bread. It was an intimate and powerful time of connecting with other people.
The last thing the early Christians did was devote themselves to prayer. Once again this was place they could intimately experience God. If they were to follow the counter-cultural teachings of the Apostles and put their lives on the line for God, they would want to be deeply connected to God. If they were going to lift up this new community and be focused on the mission, they would have to get assurance, strength, and a sense of peace from somewhere. They received it from prayer. Prayer is where we connect with God, where we can ask questions and receive answers. It is where we communicate our needs and passions and where we receive strength to see them through. Prayer links us to God and links us to one another. If you want to experience something powerful, experience someone praying over you. It is an awesome feeling because of those connections that are happening in that moment.
With these four focuses being the foundation of this new community anything was possible. Anything was possible because they were unified together under this one vision and one mission. They were fueled and guided by the Holy Spirit and when this happens you simply need to get out of the way because great things are going to happen. Verse 43 says that “Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.” They were in awe because they saw what could happen when people tapped into the Holy Spirit and focused upon a shared vision.
When we look at those two churches I talked about earlier, one had a shared vision. They knew where the bus was going and everyone on board was excited about their destination. The other never really had a shared vision. There was too much controversy and struggles for power. They were not unified together. They were still able to accomplish something but it took a really long time to flush it out and complete it. Hyde Park was able to do much more in just a little longer time because of that shared vision.
If we look at other large movements in our own history we can see how a shared vision enabled great things to get done. The American Revolution could not have happened if people did not rally around the idea of our independence. The Civil Rights movement would have easily been crushed under the persecution if the people and leaders did not have the shared vision of perusing equality for all people. We are witnessing lots of revolutions in the Middle East now and they will be successful if there is a shared vision that people can tap into.
Proverbs 28:19 says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” We get a sense of utopia when we look at the early church because they had one vision, one purpose. They looked to the teachings of the apostles, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer as a way to gain strength, sustain their efforts and continue to move forward. It wasn’t easy and many would lose their lives for being a follower of “the Way.” Yet, when the Holy Spirit is moving people nothing can stop it. Nothing can get in the way of God’s work when it connects and finds its roots in people’s hearts and souls. That is the utopian idea of how God can work. We see that in the early Church and the Church today. Thanks be to God.
And all God’s people said…Amen.