Based on Acts 2:42-47, that part of Acts where people got together around bread and wine and shared their stuff and were happy about it.
A couple of months ago, I was listening to a podcast, and the host, Pete Holmes, asked the guest, Rob Bell, “Given what we know about how the Bible was compiled, about how the gospels were written decades after the actual events, about how the authors may have been a bit biased, about how history was recorded differently back then, how do we know that this all isn’t a bunch of horse manure?” He might have used a different word.
I really enjoyed Rob Bell’s response.
“Sociologists tell us that large numbers of people don’t simply turn on a dime, and start rallying around something out of nowhere. So, as a starting point, we know that SOMETHING happened in first century Palestine. And from there, we read some of the guiding words that this movement put out. And we find that they chose to declare that Jesus is Lord, and they organize themselves around bread and wine, and making sure everyone was taken care of. And, since they were firmly in the middle of the Roman Empire, they asked themselves the question: Is the world a better place because of coercive, military violence of the Romans, or through the sacrificial love and solidarity of the Jesus way? And then these first followers of Jesus invited others to these meals and said “Come and see what this movement is all about.”” – Paraphrase of Rob Bell on You Made It Weird Podcast with Pete Holmes.
Something happened, and these are the stories that have been told and retold and resonated with over the past 2000 years, and us being here, right now, at Grace Mennonite Church, however long and imperfect that journey has been, is a result of that something.
Today, we can look back at that something and point to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Especially those of us who identify as Anabaptist, because we believe that Jesus is the lens through which we read Scripture. We get the life of Jesus, the teachings, the healings, the conversations. We get the resurrection of Jesus, where Jesus gets the last word, and death doesn’t win. But we don’t spend a lot of time on the death of Jesus.
A while ago, I used this line in my sermon, and there’s something poignant about it, so I’m going to use it again.
“The cross wasn’t so we could walk in the power of the resurrection. The resurrection was so we could walk in the power of the cross.” – Gred Boyd
Something happened, and that something has suffering right in the middle of it. That something that happened 2000 years ago, this something that we call Grace Mennonite Church, in the middle of them all, is suffering.
Suffering, it seems, is not only a part of this journey, but an important part this journey. It’s what changes us.
This week, as I was writing my sermon, I came across this great line by, who else but Richard Rohr.
“Sermons don’t change more people. Circumstances change people.” – Richard Rohr
I told Ash this earlier this week, and she said, “Oh. So if what you say doesn’t even matter in the end, don’t worry so much about your sermon.
Circumstances change people. Two weeks ago, I mentioned that we believe that we’re in control of our lives when things are humming along nicely. A little bit of family time, a little bit of gardening, a little bit of coaching ultimate, a little of lake time, a little bit of work to pay for everything.
But then, quite quickly, our circumstances can change. A health crises, a job loss, an unexpected pregnancy, a car crash, a natural disaster, a war… any of these quite quickly reminds us that our control over our lives is more or less an illusion.
I recently have come across a great definition of suffering that I simply love.
Suffering is every time we are not in control. – Richard Rohr
Suffering is every time we are not in control. Health problems? Suffering. Little babies who leave us parents sleep deprived? Suffering. Natural disasters? Suffering. Waiting at a red light? Suffering. Grumpy co-workers? Suffering. Root canals? Suffering. No wifi? Suffering.
None of this suffering is fun. Some of it, in the end, is quite harmless. Some of it is frustrating. Some of it leaves us in a puddle of tears. But it’s the only way that we grow.
Because “Any attempt to engineer or plan our own enlightenment is doomed to failure because it will be ego driven. We will see only what we have already decided to look for, and we cannot see what we are not ready or told to look for. So failure and humiliation force us to look where we never would otherwise.” – Richard Rohr in Falling Upwards.
When I was in California with Richard Rohr and Rob Bell a few months ago, we were talking about spiritual growth and enlightenment, and how we grow, and one person asked question: “Do you have any good books to help our spiritual growth?” Which was a great question, because I love books. So I got my pen ready for the answer.
I’ll never forget Richard Rohr’s response: “Books are good. But you probably won’t grow from them. The only way we grow is through great love and great suffering, and great love always leads to great suffering.”
That’s a bit of a kick in the pants, eh? Not very exciting stuff, is it?. Suffering is how we learn and grow, but for most of us, suffering is the number one thing that we try to avoid in our lives.
**An important aside: I will never tell someone that God’s has purposed their suffering. But that’s different than someone finding purpose in their own suffering. A good understanding of this should stop all those awkward foyer conversations during funerals about God having a plan, or whatever else garbage people say to grieving families.**
I think, if we go back to the SOMETHING that happened in first century Palestine, the Jesus event, the resurrection only happened because of the suffering. Circumstances happened to Jesus in the form of crucifixion, and it killed him, much as we all face death. Circumstances happened to the first followers of Jesus, and it was in those moments of pain and loss that they found grew and found life in the Jesus way.
Yes, the story ends in resurrection, but the cross wasn’t so we could walk in the power of the resurrection. The resurrection was so we could walk in the power of the cross.
We only grow through suffering and failure. Otherwise, what’s the impetus for grow? If life is humming along just fine, why change? Sermons don’t change people. Circumstances change people.
So, in order to grow, are we supposed to simply wait for suffering, to wait for something that we don’t have control over, to happen to us?
Well, whether we’re waiting for those moments or not, they’re going to happen. . But I think there’s also something else we can do.
Mel taught me this, but he learned it from a wise author whose initials are RR.
“We can’t think ourselves into a new way of living. We have to live our way into a new way of thinking.” – Richard Rohr
We can’t think ourselves into a new way of living. We have to live our way into a new way of thinking.
He also writes this: “To get a real grasp of the truth of the gospel, I believe we have to enter into solidarity with at least one person who’s different than us. This means crossing to the other side. For example, if you’re afraid of a certain race or religion, then the best thing is to head directly there. If a certain set of people scare you, then you have to enter into solidarity with them. We have to endure being with those people for a while and learn to view reality from their standpoint. That’s why Jesus says we have to love our enemies. It’s the only way to grasp the whole picture. It’s the only way to learn to love the other side of our soul.
But I repeat: Don’t try to solve it in your head; Simply act. First you agree to give yourself, then you will understand it, not the other way around. Otherwise you get caught in all kinds of protective reasons why you do not need to give yourself and you never make the dive.” – Richard Rohr in Simplicity
And here’s the catch. Once you move towards someone, especially if they’re different than you, your entire life changes. You become less judgmental, you understand life is more nuanced than simple black and white, and you will be more loving. And when you love someone, you open yourself up to hurt and suffering, and that’s precisely when you grow.
Let’s make this as practical as possible for us here this morning. Let’s go back to the SOMETHING that happened in first century Palestine. These followers of Jesus were getting together, sharing bread and wine and their lives, and inviting others to join them.
They were audacious enough to invite both rich people and poor people.
They were audacious enough to invite both Jews and Gentiles.
They were audacious enough to invite both men and women.
They were audacious enough to invite both slave and free.
They were audacious enough to invite both oppressor and oppressed.
How long do you think it took for those categories to mean less and less? That the walls started to break down? How long do you think that people who might once have been enemies started to see themselves as brothers and sisters? How long do you think it took for people to start seeing each other not as better than others, but as equals? How long do you think it took for one person to see the suffering of another and seek to relieve it?
You don’t think into a new way of living. You live into a new way of thinking.
It probably wasn’t easy for the slave owners. Or the slaves. Or the sexists. Or the racists. Or the rich people. Or the poor people. Or the liberals. Or the conservatives. Or the one who thought they were better than everybody else. Or the ones who were convinced of their own rightness. But once you start to care for someone who is not like you, your world can never be the same.
Let’s make this even more practical for us here this morning.
This is why I think that belonging to a church is one of the most counter-cultural practices in our world today. Because we end up having to figure out how to live and love together long term.
We’re audacious enough to invite rich people and poor people.
We’re audacious enough to not only invite people of all races, but also the racists, and try to love them too.
We’re audacious enough to not only invite people who are straight and gay, but also those who are seeking marriage equality, and yes, those who aren’t as well.
We’re audacious enough to invite pacifists and non-pacifists to come together and try to figure out how to follow the Prince of Peace together.
We’re audacious enough to believe that if we gather ourselves around Jesus, we will inevitably have to start figuring out how to love other. And because we will disagree about things, our lives together will inevitably be complex and messy. But that’s okay. Because even if our life together is messy and complex, as long as we are orienting our lives around trying to love each other and the world, to love the “least of these”, to love those who are unlike us, then we are doing something that is rarely replicated in the rest of our world.
This is not the easy path. This is the hard path. Why? Have you ever had a conversation with someone who thinks differently than you about wealth? Or same-sex marriage? Or the role of church and state? Or climate change? Or politics? Or how to interpret scripture? Man, these relationships are full of potential anger, animosity, pride, suffering, and angry posts on Facebook. Lots of potential for suffering here.
But the resurrection was so that we could walk in the power of the cross.
But we just never wake up and say, “I thought about it, and now I’m more loving! If this was the case, racism would have ended generations ago. We can’t think into a new way of living. We live into a new way of thinking. And at the very least, we can do that by showing up somewhere once a week where we at least try to love each other.
SOMETHING happened 2000 years ago that was a turning point in history, where people started gathering around bread and wine and looking after each other, and even loved each other, even if they were different.
My hope and my prayer is that this resonates with us as much as it did for the first believers all those years ago. Because it is a story that has the power to change the world.