PRAYER: Expand our hearts and minds O God, that we may see the world as you do and be strengthened to reimagine the church in your image. Remind us of our calling to demonstrate your love in all that we say and do.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
The other night, Anna and I went out with a couple of friends to a restaurant in Red Bank, NJ. I want to tell you about this restaurant because I’ll bet it’s unlike any restaurant you’ve ever experienced.
It’s called the JBJ Soul Kitchen. It is a non-profit community restaurant that serves food to absolutely anyone regardless of whether or not they can pay. They serve a 3-course meal based on American Regional cuisine, beginning with the option of a soup or salad. Each guest also has the choice of an entrée such as a fish, meat, or vegetarian selection. The meal is finished with a freshly made dessert. Their chefs prepare many of the dishes with natural, locally sourced ingredients from their garden or the JBJ Soul Kitchen Farm. In fact, when you walk from the parking lot to the restaurant, you walk through their very large garden in which much of their food is grown.
The menu has no prices. You select what you like and are encouraged to make a suggested donation. If you are unable to donate, they invite you to join their community to learn about resources and volunteer opportunities. People who volunteer at JBJ Soul Kitchen learn job skills working alongside professional restaurant people and that can lead to qualifying for job training.
JBJ Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, NJ. You may ask what JBJ stands for, which is an excellent question, and I’m so glad you asked. It stands for Jon Bon Jovi – the New Jersey Rock and Roll legend. His charitable foundation runs this restaurant – there’s another one down a little further in Toms River, and they are making a big difference in their communities by ensuring that people who need a meal can get a meal. And people who otherwise have no resources, can get resources… and then can contribute themselves by giving of themselves.
The four of us went and paid for our meals – of course. But we were served by people who were volunteering there – anyone of whom could have eaten there at some point and was unable to pay. They were demonstrating exactly what our text in chapter 2 of the book of Acts is describing.
This passage is very challenging. It’s challenging because by the time people read this particular section of Chapter 2, they’re just flat out exhausted. They’ve been through a lot just to get to verse 42 where our reading begins.
In the first 40 verses of this chapter alone, we’ve read about Pentecost, the Holy Spirit coming down and entering into all the disciples. The languages that people were suddenly speaking – and understanding! The disciples were accused of being drunk… and then Peter’s sermon. Oh, Peter preached a sermon that (1) accused everyone, himself included, of crucifying Jesus, and then (2) told everyone that God raised Jesus up – not for any reason other than to proclaim that God’s purposes cannot be undone by any evil, any human act, or even death itself.
Peter is making it clear that Jesus was resurrected because God acted to resurrect him. He is proclaiming the continuing activity of God in the world, and the Holy Spirit is now present in the disciples… and today, God continues to be active in the world.
In response, the people gathered asked Peter, “Then what should we do?” Peter’s response was to repent and be baptized. Repent. But we must remember that Peter was speaking more of a collective repentance rather than an individual one. He was telling the people gathered about Jesus and the fact that they need to reorient their lives together in Jesus, who is Lord and Messiah. It is more than recognizing the inherent goodness of Jesus; it is about reorienting their lives by focusing on Jesus and allowing the Spirit to make things new.
All of that happens prior to verse 42. We haven’t even gotten to our reading yet today. It’s ok to admit that it is exhausting. And then we begin reading in verse 42:
42The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity.
Wow. By the time we get to verse 42, and we read about the fact that they all lived together and shared all of their resources. It’s ok to admit it: it’s a lot to take in. And admittedly, most people, when they read this, they get a little resistant. They might push back a little bit and perhaps even point out that this would not be something that we can do in our world today.
Some people read this and they view it entirely through a lens of socio-economic politics. They view this passage as a pie-in-the-sky Pollyanna reading. I won’t lie: it absolutely could be read in that way. But that is not what this is. I cannot stress that enough. Peter is not asking you to give up your home and let anyone move in that wants to (or needs to). This passage is not suggesting that you leave your cars unlocked with the keys inside just in case someone needs it. There is no one asking you for your ATM Pin. It’s just not about that. We know from reading the rest of Acts that the church would soon have problems and challenges. This model didn’t last and I’m not suggesting that we try it again.
When we read this passage a moment ago, I only read through verse 46, because that’s were a lot of people tend to drop off. There’s one more verse:
47They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.
My friends, this is the word of God for the people of God, now let me tell you something: the point of this passage is not verse 44, “All the believers were united and shared everything.” The point is verse 47: They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.
Even though we are not going to follow this model and form some idealistic, yet unmanageable commune, there should be no doubt that something very profound happened to these people. They had been transformed, and through them and those that came after them, the world would begin to be transformed as well. Not because they lived together and shared everything, but because they demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.
That’s the takeaway here. That’s the community we’re called to form. The community is built upon the fact that all of us have something to give; all of us have something to share. We don’t have to give up our freedom or our self-identity, but rather, it’s about how we view what God has given each of us. We can see glimpses of that all around us.
Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The key to this is found in how everyone – absolutely everyone – was part of the community; no one was made to feel left out.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes this: “In a Christian community everything depends upon whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable.”
He says that a community that allows members to be left to feel useless will ultimately fail. Every member must receive a sense of usefulness – a sense that they are usable. Bonhoeffer continues, “Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of fellowship.”
This is a reminder that service should govern the Christian community. Bonhoeffer quotes Romans 12:16 which says, “Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” He concludes by saying that once a person has experienced the mercy of God in their life, they will aspire to serve others.
The mutual love and service that was present in the early church is the same mutual love and service that we witnessed the other night in Red Bank.
One of the most famous post-resurrection stories in the Bible is the walk to Emmaus in which two disciples are walking the seven mile journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and all the while, they’re walking beside Jesus&ellip; only they were kept from recognizing him. The whole time, Jesus is right there beside them, but they don’t recognize him. Until when? Somebody tell me when they recognize Jesus&ellip;.
They recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. In the sharing of grace, in the sharing of a simple meal and fellowship. “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.” They were not breaking any barriers or creating anything terribly new or unusual. They were answering a call to meet the needs of the people in their community.
Listen to the words Matthew Skinner writes in our book study on Acts: “A commitment to discernment is not a naïve fascination with newness. Christian communities should never exhibit an anxious compulsion to innovate or carelessly rewrap old reliable messages into new packaging because of fear or boredom. The church discerns because it wants to play an active role in discovering and participating in all of the experiences of the community, welcome liberation, and obedience that God has in store through Jesus Christ. Discernment proceeds from the conviction that the Holy Spirit continues to church up those opportunities and beckon believers into them.”
There is a word for what the disciples established: Koinonia. It means fellowship, and the earliest believers in the earliest Jesus community that we see in Acts 2 worshipped God and demonstrated God’s love and goodness to everyone. Nobody put themselves or their tasks ahead of anyone else – even recognizing the inherent goodness in allowing other hands to contribute – not putting their need to complete every task ahead of the opportunity to allow others to serve. Bonhoeffer writes, “Only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of God’s love and mercy.”
This is a call for discernment in the church for us. The Holy Spirit is present and available to us all, and all we have to do is say “yes.” And we do that, not by hoping that some people will find themselves wandering in our door on some random Sunday morning or for Breakfast Church in Kingwood or Dinner Church in Frenchtown. We build Koinonia in how we demonstrate God’s goodness, in living out the liberative work of God in feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, “bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
I have been saying for a long time that we must redefine what it means to be the church in the 21st century. That doesn’t mean that we have to reinvent the church; instead, it means that we can look to the early church and welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives and become the new creations that we are called to be.
Rather than draw lines between us in our lives, we can begin the faithful work to identify the connections we have that draw us into new life. What would happen if our church operated in a way that connects needs and solutions? In what ways could this church offer connectedness, welcome and involvement with those who most need to be cared for and offered new life? Instead of lamenting our differences, let us celebrate the rich new life that is offered in community built on the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This is who we are called to be if we are unafraid and ready to answer the call to serve as Christ and his followers demonstrated. Together, as one community united in Christ, let us praise God and demonstrate God’s goodness to everyone.
To God be the glory!
For more information about JBJ Soul Kitchen, visit their website at www.jbjsoulkitchen.org