This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, April 22, 2018 at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling, KS. Listen to the audio here.
Read Acts 2:42-47, Luke 24:25-32 here
I want to read you a poem by Robert Frost. It’s one of my favorites.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast…
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each…
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Good fences make good neighbors. And yet, in Acts 2, we see people breaking downWe typically read this scripture and hold it up as the example of the perfect church. We talk a lot about the “Acts 2 church.” It’s a beautiful, idyllic picture. They are devoted believers, filled with awe. They are always together. They share everything. They are glad and sincere, and they are growing. They are the beloved community.
There are no fences in this picture, and yet they are getting along fabulously. They are still in their honeymoon phase as a fellowship. Just like the first year with a new spouse, or the first year with a new pastor. But as we read on in Acts, and in the rest of the New Testament, we see that it wasn’t long before things started to fall apart. I find it encouraging, actually, to read 1 and 2 Corinthians and see that many of the problems we have in churches today are practically the same as the problems they were having in the early churches. It’s easier in the beginning to get along, but as time goes on, the real work of community happens.
Early on in my life I learned a valuable lesson – if we take the time to talk to one another about our issues, we’ll be able to understand one another better and then everything will be fine. But it’s not always quite that easy. And so it sometimes is just easier to build fences.
Or walls. It’s a practice that has lasted through history. Millions of people go to China to see that great wall. They began building it all the way back in the 3rd century BC. It’s 13,000 miles long and was built to protect the people of China from being attacked by people they referred to as “barbarians”.
There’s another ancient wall in Great Britain called Hadrian’s Wall. It was built in AD 122 very near the border between England and Scotland in anticipation of the first visit of the Roman emperor Hadrian. This wall is 80 miles long. There’s no good record of why it was built, but historians think it was probably built to keep out the attacks of the people they referred to as “barbarians.”
We may not have walls like these between us and our neighbors. If we do have fences here, they’re usually to keep our pets or livestock in rather than people out. But we still build these kinds of walls around our hearts.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says Frost in his poem. He muses that it might be elves or nature that keep knocking stones out of the wall. In our hearts, though, it’s the Holy Spirit.
That’s why last week, our first week in this series called Thrive@United, we talked
The Holy Spirit is vital because it’s the Holy Spirit that keeps us connected to our source of life, Jesus Christ, and it’s the Holy Spirit that helps us see one another through God’s eyes. It’s the Holy Spirit that gives us eyes of grace. It’s the Holy Spirit that helps us to choose community over isolation.
Before we talk more about that, let me ask you, how many people does it take to build a wall? It depends how deep you stack them.
We choose community over isolation because God knows how we’re made and he knows that we need to. . .
Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. –Hebrews 10:25
I know I’m preaching to the choir in some ways with this one because you are here. Today you chose to come to worship and in doing so you chose community over isolation, and many of you make that choice faithfully every week. Thank you for being here. It makes a difference that you are here. The Holy Spirit works among us when we are gathered together, and especially when we pray together.
Jesus says in Matthew 18:20 “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Where two or more are gathered, God is there, and his presence brings joy, and therefore that joy is multiplied when we’re together. “Shared joy is double joy.”
People are not always good at being together. That’s why the Bible is so full of instructions for us about how to be better at being together. Let’s look at a few of those.
To answer before listening is foolish and shameful. Proverbs 18:13
James says it, too. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (1:19)
One of the reasons we sometimes avoid getting together with other people is that we don’t know what to say and so it’s awkward. Here’s the perfect solution: Listen first. In seminary, in the class on pastoral care, this verse from Proverbs was the one thing the professor wanted to make sure we always remembered. He made us recite it at the beginning of every class. It was on every exam. Say it with me…
Similarly, when we get together, we need to…
Another reason we avoid getting together is that people say hurtful things to one another. Sometimes on purpose, and sometimes not. If we listen more than we speak, we avoid that. Another way we avoid that is to be careful about what we say.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. –Ephesians 4:29
We thrive when we receive encouragement, but we shrivel when are criticized. It can be easier to be critical than encouraging. That’s why I often include this verse in my prayers. God, guard my lips…
Another important part of making community work it to...
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. -- Colossians 3:13
We have a hard time being forgiving if we don’t accept it for ourselves, so we need to accept forgiveness, so we can pass it on. Plus, it’s circular. Jesus said…
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Matthew 6:14-15
Have a face of grace.
When Thomas Jefferson was president, he and a group of companions were traveling across the country on horseback. They came to a river that had left its banks and washed the bridge away. Each rider was forced to ford the river on horseback, fighting for his life against the rapid currents, and face the very real possibility of death. A traveler who was not part of their group hesitated to attempt it, and instead to stopped to watch. After several had plunged in and made it to the other side, that traveler asked President Jefferson if he would carry him across the river. The president agreed without hesitation. The man climbed on, and shortly thereafter the two of them made it safely to the other side. As the stranger slid off the back of the horse onto dry ground, one in the group asked him, “Tell me, why did you select the president to ask this favor of?” The man was shocked, admitting he had no idea it was the president who had helped him. “All I know,” he said, “is that on some of your faces was written the answer ‘No,’ and on some of them was the answer ‘Yes.’ His was a ‘Yes’ face.”
A yes face is a forgiving face, a face of grace. Let’s ask God to help us have yes faces.
This week, I’m asking you to choose community. Choose to be available to the Holy Spirit leading us to grow in the way that we are connecting with other people, growing in our relationships with people in this church and in our community. Here are some ways we can do that:
1. Join a small group.
a. There’s one starting this Tuesday night led by Arn Froese and Andy Giorgetti about reading the Bible in light of contemporary issues. It’s a great opportunity to have conversations about what’s going on in our world and in our lives in a safe environment. If you would like to go to that, please let us know on the yellow card along with your name and email address so that we can put you on the list for that group.
b. There’s another opportunity starting in a few weeks on Sunday evenings led by Ginger Reed. This group will be studying a book of the Bible. If you’d like to be on the list for that group, let us know on the yellow card.
There are others opportunities in the works, and there will continue to be, because this is a very important part of growing together as God’s beloved community.
In both our scripture readings today, food is an important part of how people connect, just like it is in the church. In Luke, it is not until Jesus eats with the two men that they recognize him. Here’s some ways to put food into the equation.
2. Invite someone to coffee or lunch
a. Ask God to help you decide who to invite. It might be someone inside the church that needs your encouragement or would be good encouragement to you. Or it might be someone outside the church who doesn’t know Jesus or is struggling to follow Jesus. Pray about it and see what name comes to mind.
3. Coffee Time
a. Starting in May, I’m going to be hanging out at Broadway Market on Thursdays. Come join me and let’s get to know each other better.
b. Or if you’d like to meet with me at a different time or place, put a note on the yellow card and we’ll set something up.
4. Make Eye Contact
a. It sounds so simple but it’s an important step in choosing community, but if we aren’t intentional we don’t do it. When we’re among other people we often avoid eye contact, but if we will make eye contact, we are speaking volumes to them. We are acknowledging that they exist and are not invisible. We are respecting them as fellow humans. We are opening the way for further contact – maybe just a hello, maybe more.
Four good ways to start choosing community and to work on being together:
being listeners, being encouraging, being forgiving and being available.
I love this question that Henry David Thoreau asks in his book Walden:
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
That miracle happens through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us, working among us, working through us, drawing us together, and helping us to be like the beautiful community in Acts 2, helping us to see with God eyes, eyes of grace.
“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” -Romans 15:5-6
 I edited out some parts. Read the full poem at the link above
 Swindoll, Charles R.. The Grace Awakening: Believing in Grace Is One Thing. Living it Is Another. (p. 4). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.