The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”. In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith. On June 1, we visited Corinth, and talked about the ways that God called an unlikely group of folks together to accomplish a great mission. You can read about it in Acts 18:1-11.
Much of my early theology, for good or bad, was influenced by the 1970 Rock Opera Jesus Christ, Superstar. For instance, my view of the early church reflected the lyrics of the song titled “The Last Supper”:
Always hoped that I’d be an apostle
Knew that I would make it if I tried
Then when we retire we can write the gospels
So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.
There is a temptation, I think, to imagine the earliest followers of Jesus sitting around Jerusalem or Galilee, missing him and then deciding, “You know what? Let’s start up a church or something!” As if the Body of Christ arose because a few fishermen decided to make it happen and planned it out as a way to capitalize on their friendship and experiences.
The reality, of course, is that they were huddled together and trying to be faithful to the commission he’d given them. Before too long, their incessant preaching about the good news of Jesus’ resurrection resulted in some unwanted attention from the authorities and the death of one of their number, a man named Stephen. In the confusion that followed, the church scattered throughout the Roman Empire as followers became leaders, students became teachers, and disciples became apostles.
In recent weeks we have had the privilege of watching the spread of the gospel across the Middle East and up through Asia Minor into Europe. We’ve seen that the early church has a number of hallmarks, including a sincere faith and simple obedience, a commitment to holiness as away of life, an embrace of diversity amongst its members, and a willingness to risk itself on those the world sees as “nobodies”. Today, we find ourselves in Corinth, a “Navy town” just south of Athens and commanding the Peloponnesian Peninsula. The strip of land on which that town sat was low and flat and it actually made more sense for seafarers to unload their ships in the Aegean sea and have them picked up in the Gulf of Corinth than to sail them all the way around the peninsula. Because of this commerce, Corinth was a wealthy town. The city was destroyed about 150 BC and stood empty for a century or so, when Julius Caesar re-founded it as a Roman Colony. When he did this, many of the city’s new inhabitants were Roman Freedmen – former slaves who had been granted citizenship. That means then when Paul arrived to preach the Gospel, the town was “young” in comparison to much of the rest of the world, and its occupants were only a few generations removed from stagnancy and slavery. In the midst of this “melting pot” of the Empire, an unlikely set of characters emerges to found the Christian Church of Corinth.
The leading man in the drama, of course, is Paul of Tarsus. We’ve met him before – a powerful and dynamic old Pharisee who bounced from place to place preaching Jesus wherever he could. Here, he meets up with Aquila and Priscilla, a husband and wife team who are refugees from Rome. They are joined by Silas, a strong young man who is a Roman citizen and had been raised as a Jew. Timothy is there – Paul’s young friend who had been raised in a gentile household and had come to know Christ through Paul’s preaching. While there, these five people find hospitality first in the person of Titius Justus, a wealthy gentile convert to Judaism and Crispus, one of the leading and wealthiest Jews in that city. Both Titius and Crispus respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit and give their lives to Jesus.
Can you imagine this unlikely collection of people? What a crazy way to launch a movement. In fact, it sounds like the beginning of a bad theological joke: A Pharisee, some refugees, a couple of Romans and a few rich Jews walk into a Peninsula… But those seven people are the ones that God starts with when he launches First Church, Corinth.
Here’s today’s trivia question: what film has been shown the most often in the history of American television? The answer: The Wizard of Oz. What would you suppose is number 2?
You are never going to get this:
The Magnificent Seven.
Think about this group of people in Corinth, and about those two movies, along with just about every “buddy” movie ever made – for example, The Dirty Dozen, Toy Story, or Lord of the Rings. There is at least one particular aspect of those plot lines that carries over from film to film: the fact that the characters are thrust together by an outside force and are made acutely aware of the differences between them. “But he’s an action figure!” “Who let the dwarves in?” In many circumstances, these differences would prevent the characters from ever relating to each other.
But in each of these films – and in the early church – the characters find themselves in a situation where the mission of protecting the town, defeating the Nazis, or destroying the Ring of Power matters more to them than the differences of which they were first aware. And so Dorothy leaves Oz, the village in Mexico is saved, and Woody and Buzz live to make another movie.
It is entirely possible to envision a situation where the magnificent seven people mentioned in Acts 18 would find themselves in a room together, take a collective sniff, and walk out without ever coming to know each other or the task to which they were called. Instead, though, these men and woman came together for the sake of the One who had called them all to himself. They committed their lives to each other, and they brought out the best in each other for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This kind of commitment and call is not unique to Corinth, of course, but it’s demonstrated very well here. We see that the early church would not have survived without the twin realities of fellowship and accountability. Because these people came together and chose to relate to each other in this way, the world was changed by the power of Jesus Christ.
The sad reality is that in 21st-century America, we can convince ourselves that we really don’t need these things at all in order to be faithful to Jesus. In the absence of real pressure or persecution, we find it easier to pick at the things that we don’t like about each other rather than losing ourselves in the immensity of the call that we’ve been given.
In much of the church today, the word “accountability” is never mentioned and “fellowship” has come to mean hanging around a sterile room with coffee and donuts for fifteen minutes after a worship service in which nobody has really spoken to anyone else. We’re all deeply concerned about “our personal relationship with Jesus”, but not, apparently, overly committed to walking around inside that reality with anyone else.
That’s too bad, because the word that is most often translated as “fellowship” in the New Testament is the Greek word koinonia. It shows up nineteen times in the Bible, and in addition to being used to signify being together, it also means “participate” or “sharing” or “contribute”. “Fellowship”, for the New Testament church, meant more than just being in the same room – it meant doing together. One Writer has defined the complexity and beauty of “fellowship” in this way:
Fellowship is a relationship of inner unity among believers that expresses itself in outer co-participation with Christ and one another in accomplishing God’s will on earth.
I know, that sounds way more complicated than lining up for cookies in the back room before we head home, but it’s a goal worth striving for.
But more than a goal worth striving for, it’s something that has saved my life and has shaped the reality of a core group of my friends and colleagues in ways that I believe have changed the world right here in Pittsburgh.
For at least the last fifteen years, every other Wednesday morning I spend two hours with a group of seven other Christian leaders. Most of these guys, most of the time that we have been together, have been pastors – but not always. To be honest, if you were to come into the church at 7:30 on Wednesday morning, you might be amused to hear the volume of the laughter that comes out of that room. Sometimes we use our time together to complain about the churches we serve, and occasionally we offer our services as armchair quarterbacks for the Steelers.
But I am here to tell you that there is not a day that goes by that we don’t remember the mission that has called us into that room together. And that collective memory, and the practice of it, has led that group of men to a practice of fellowship that allows us to walk into the messiest breakdowns, the most painful losses, the wildest opportunities, and the deepest questionings that our lives and ministries have brought to us. We come together, you see, because we realize that we need each other in order to accomplish that mission on which we have been sent by Jesus.
And that level of fellowship leads, it seems to me, directly to a practice of accountability that is reflective of that practiced by the early church. When I use the word “accountability”, I mean that we are willing to love each other enough to tell the truth to each other. This practice implies a mutual submission to the mission of which I’ve spoken – we’ve got to be convinced that the call we’ve received (to be the Body of Christ) is worth the risk of naming truth to someone who might not want to hear it at the time. As we do this, we have to remember that it’s not about who is right and who is wrong, but rather it’s about positioning ourselves, each other, and the group so that we can be best able to hear what God would have us hear in the days that we’ve been given.
It’s not all that complicated, you know. I mean, I was sitting with Margaret Tranter watching “Dr. Phil” the other day, and it occurred to me that’s all he does – speak truth to people who need to hear it. “So, how’s that working out for you?” and “What are you going to do about that?” are the two most important questions that Dr. Phil asks. Of course, it means a little more when one of your best friends asks you those questions after you’ve unfolded a story of frailty and folly…and it’s a lot easier to answer them when you’re not in front of a television audience, and the person who is asking you the question is willing to walk with you towards the answer… but, I repeat, it’s not complicated. Sometimes, it’s just hard. Accountability is like that.
All of which leads me to the question of the day. We see the church in Corinth growing in faithfulness because the people there are willing to engage with each other and to offer themselves up to God in intentional relationships characterized by fellowship and accountability. I’ve told you about one way that I’m trying to do that in my own life. What are you doing to participate in that kind of lifestyle?
Who knows you? Who hears your dreams? Who helps you be better than you are? Who tells you the sometimes-ugly truth about yourself? Who helps you to hear the grace of God when you are sure you don’t deserve it? Who walks with you when you’re not sure you can stand on your own? Who celebrates with you when you are happier than you have any right to be?
Is there anyone like that in your life?
As you think about answering that, let me offer you a couple of thoughts, and a baby step.
Here’s the easiest thing you can do to move toward that. Get your picture taken for the church directory.
I know, I know, you hate the hardsell. You don’t like to primp for photos. You think it’s a racket. Get over it.
Last time I checked, there were 13 people who had signed up to have their photos taken for our church directory. For crying out loud, people, how are we going to get into life-changing relationships with people if we’re not sure what their names are? Sign up for that stupid directory and get a copy and figure out who you are.
Because look around the room, beloved. We have been called to a great mission – the greatest! We have been asked to represent the Body of Christ in this place at this time. And these folks? We’re the ones that you’re stuck with. Look, Steve McQueen might not have wished to be working with Yul Brenner or Charles Bronson to save that village in Mexico, but somehow they wound up in the same movie. Just like you. Can we continue to grow in our ability to embrace community as we move towards the mission on which we’ve been sent?
But past having your photo taken, and beyond your grudging acceptance that you’re stuck in a movie with people like me, let me ask you to find someone, or someones, in whom to invest yourself. Maybe it’s a group of people, such as the ladies who gather here on Tuesday mornings. Maybe it’s one other person that you can just check in with each week – and if she or he isn’t here, that you’ll call or text and find out what happened. Look for a chance to share one of your passions – fishing, gardening, birdwatching – whatever! – with someone as a means by which you can connect about things that really matter.
Are you in a relationship where you can offer feedback to someone else as they attempt to live a life that is faithful to Jesus? Are you able to tell someone else about the places that are difficult for you?
Next week, we’ll gather here for the Lord’s Supper as we celebrate the “birthday of the church” on Pentecost. I dare you to show up here ready to participate, not in a private devotion or personal sacrament, but in the common call that is ours as followers of Jesus. There is one bread. One body. We are in this together, my friends. Let’s look for ways to act like that every day. Thanks be to God for the Body of Christ. Amen.