Being Disciples While Navigating Change

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
May 3, 2020
[COVID-19 Pandemic, Week 8]

Acts 2: 42-47 (CEB)
42The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44All the believers were united and shared everything. 45They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

How we are to live as disciples of Christ? How we are to make disciples of Christ? These are considerations that should be at the forefront of every Christian’s mind all the time. And that’s no less true now, even as our world looks massively different than it did just a few weeks ago. Though worship is an important part of discipleship, we can’t gather to worship in churches right now. Though stewardship is an important part of discipleship, we can’t pass the offering plate right now. Even though sharing in communion is an important part of discipleship, we cannot gather in community or share “one loaf” right now. Not only are we in the midst of a massive cultural shift that will likely have a lasting impact on our lives, but on top of that, things are changing and shifting still every day. So, through this season of Easter, as we move from Easter to Pentecost, we’ll be spending some time considering what it looks like in our world today to “Be Disciples and to Make Disciples.”
One of the really important things that happened right after Jesus’ death and resurrection that we rarely talk about is that there was a huge cultural shift in a very short period of time, particularly among the Jewish population. This passage from Acts that I read a few moments ago highlights some of those changes. Where and how people lived was changing. New spiritual practices were taking root. Understandings of meals and property ownership were shifting, even as a sense of communal obligation for service to one another was growing. At the same time, Luke reports that there was great numerical growth, as “the Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.” Even in a time of great change, we can still be disciples and make disciples.
Fast forward about 2,000 years, and here we are. We are living through a period of extensive change. Our worship practices have changed drastically in just a matter of weeks, the ways that we love and serve one another in the name of Christ are shifting. Everything that we are used to, everything about our Christian life and practice that we have grown accustomed to, is being shaken up! So the question for us in this midst of all of this is, how do we adapt? How do we grow in our discipleship, even during this time? How do we continue to work for the growth of God’s kingdom despite the shifting landscape? This passage out of Acts offers us several clues from the earliest Christians, so let’s dig into this a little bit and see what we can learn about discipleship in the midst of change.
I believe there is one lesson here that is the foundational for all else. So I want to offer that first, and I hope that we will keep this in mind as we move through all that Luke reports in these few verses. Indeed, the early Christian community experienced rapid numerical growth, and significant shifts in their mindset around community and stewardship. But these shifts were not a cause, they were an effect. The cause was faith. In the midst of change, faith was the anchor for the earliest Christians. At the foundation of this new movement, this new reality, was faith. After Christ’s death and resurrection, it was the faith of the people in God’s ongoing work that made possible the continuing and even rapid growth of God’s kingdom.
The core of discipleship is faith in Christ our Savior. Now, I realize that these days our faith may feel more like waves rocking the boat than an anchor holding us steady, so I want to share a few observations from the last few weeks that will hopefully bolster our faith a bit. Perhaps one of the most unsettling things for all of us in this has been the fact that we cannot gather in worship. One of our church members posted a great meme this week. It was a painting of the Devil and of Jesus side by side. There was a conversation added to the painting. The Devil says to Jesus, “With Covid-19 I have closed your churches!” To which Jesus responds, “Wrong! I have opened one in every home.”
Sure, worship might not be happening in church buildings or sanctuaries right now, but it is happening in lots of other places. And with all the digital platforms blowing up on Sunday mornings with livestreams and videos of sermons, prayers, hymns and spiritual songs, I think it’s possible that there might actually be more people worshipping every week than before this all started. Which leads to a second point, we humans are amazingly adaptable. For all the discomfort we experience in the face of change, when push comes to shove, we’re usually pretty good at doing what needs to be done, adapting and accepting, and then moving on as best we can. And that’s what has been happening over the last several weeks. We’ve been adapting and adjusting as needed – sometimes daily. I had a church member remark to me a week or so ago that all of this has pretty well proven that we are capable of handling change. And friends, at the root of our ability to adapt and to thrive no matter the circumstances is faith.
So with faith undergirding them, let’s look specifically at what those earliest disciples did as their world was shifting around them. And here’s a hint – what it came down to was that they practiced their faith. And everything those earliest disciples did, we can do too. Luke tells us that the first Christians were devoted to the apostles’ teaching. Now, I get that the twelve apostles are not around anymore. But some of them are – their words are captured in Scripture. There are writers and preachers now and back through history whose wisdom can help direct us toward God in Christ Jesus. We, too, must devote ourselves to studying the scripture and seeking guidance and wisdom from leaders of the faith about following Jesus and being his disciples.
The second thing the disciples devoted themselves to was fellowship. Now, around Wesley Memorial, when we think about fellowship, we probably think about donuts and coffee in the Gathering Point, or a really amazing shared luncheon in the beautifully decorated gym. Fellowship is a time to rest and restore with fellow believers as we share our hearts and our joys, as we get to know one another on a deeper level, brothers and sisters in Christ. And again, here we are in this time of change, when fellowship as we have known it is not possible right now. But fellowship is still possible, and it’s probably more important than ever right now. Mary Ellen played Yahtzee with her cousins on Zoom a few weeks ago. We are having virtual gatherings right now on Sunday mornings at 11. I know that has become an important time of fellowship for many in our congregation as we live through this period of social distancing. Obviously, not everyone has the ability to connect in the digital world, but we can connect over the phone, too. This is a commitment we need to make, however we can make it happen, even from our homes. We must remain devoted to fellowship, to growing closer to one another in genuine rejoicing, and encouragement, and hope.
Then we learn that the early Christians were devoted to “the breaking of bread.” Of course, we are reminded in these words of communion, but Luke also tells us that they shared food with gladness and simplicity. Indeed, there is a call here to share regularly in the sacrament of communion. I know we can’t do that right now, but still, “the breaking of the bread” is important. “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” Sharing the bread draws us together. As I said, this is what we all desperately need right now. And maybe we can’t walk down the aisle of the sanctuary to receive the bread and the juice, but we can still “break bread.”
I was watching a video this week put together by a guy who drove into Chattanooga a few weeks ago in the aftermath of the tornado to help out. He brought his chainsaw, and he headed out to Jenkins Road and just started looking for people who needed help getting trees cleared off their homes and out of their yards. At one point, he paused for a minute in the midst of his work, and he said, “You know, you don’t have to do physical labor to help out. That little girl who just walked down the road with her wagon and handed me a bottle of Gatorade. That made all the difference. That kept me going.”
People from this congregation, and other congregations, and servants all around East Brainerd and Chattanooga have been doing what they can in the last few weeks to make sure people who’ve lost their homes, who’ve been without power, who’ve been moving from one place to another still have food. This is one way of breaking bread together right now. Even though we may not be sitting down to share a meal, the sharing of food is a service and a sign of God’s work in the world. Cooking up a hot meal for someone, or picking up groceries for our neighbors, these are ways that we can practice discipleship as we remain devoted to “the breaking of bread.”
Finally, those earliest disciples, and us too, we practice discipleship through prayer. Friends, prayer can happen anywhere and anytime. Like faith, prayer must undergird everything. There is nothing, absolutely nothing about what is going on in our world right now that can stop our prayers. So let’s pursue this with energy and intention. Let’s pray more for one another, and for our church, and our world more than we’ve ever prayed before. What’s stopping us? Every act of discipleship must be focused on Christ and grounded in prayer. If we can manage nothing else right now, I know we can manage prayer. And you know, I think if we can connect with God in prayer on a regular basis, our eyes will be opened even more to the signs and wonders of God’s work in our midst.
Things are changing a lot right now, and they are changing fast. It is scary and it is unsettling and it is not easy. But just because worship looks different, and fellowship looks different, and breaking of bread looks different doesn’t mean that God’s kingdom won’t continue to grow. We still have a role to play as disciples. Even in the midst of great upheaval, God is still good and we can still demonstrate that goodness to the world. In faith, we must remain devoted to the practices that keep us grounded in God’s love and connected with the world around us. We can still be disciples and make disciples, [and God in Christ Jesus expects nothing less].

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