Unity, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit
Acts 2 : 42 - 47 provides us with a picture of the perfect early Christian Church. In verse 41 we learned that about 3,000 became Christians on and around that first Pentecost as a result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and Peter’s preaching. It is possible that they all met together near or around the Temple precincts. Presumably, there were various meeting places all over the city of Jerusalem. They were mostly full time Christians. Many must have given up their jobs. Some had not begun the journey home after the Feast but had stayed on. The 12 apostles preached and taught them, baptised, confirmed and admitted individuals, couples and whole families to membership of Christ’s Church. They had Holy Communion probably several times a day to accommodate everyone. There were lengthy enthusiastic and Spirit filled prayer meetings. They ate communal meals one with another.
These first Christians were filled with awe and wonder at what was going on. They were caught up in it. God was very real to them, very close to them, they could almost touch Him. They lived as a community. Some here will remember the flower power hippy communities of the sixties. I don’t know if anyone here ever belonged to one. We should not think that the first Christian Church was like that. The hippy communes were for young people; they adopted free sexual practices; they experimented with drugs. They all degenerated and fell apart and people moved on to more stable and orthodox lives and living, many becoming conservative members of business and society. Throughout the Christian Church’s history there have always been attempts to replicate this first Church communality. The monasteries took the ideal to the extreme and nunneries followed. After the Reformation, independent church groups sprang up without dedicated ministries. These were devout people however, who lived exemplary lives although regarded as unorthodox in not being under the jurisdiction of the Church. One of their distinctive characteristics was pacifism. The Christian Brethren are descendants of these.
The Iona Community in the 20th century was an attempt to have and kind of in and out community, to which people could belong in addition to being a church member, giving them a more defined identity and agenda. Residence was not mandatory and people lived and worked as normal where they were. There was an attempt to recover Celtic Christian spirituality to offset the Biblical and doctrinally based process of the Church of Scotland. The Roman Catholic Church formed Opus Dei - the words just mean Work of God. This is a lay movement of strict and devout Roman Catholics who operate in a semi-clandestine way, seeking to influence society and politics through strategic placings in government, industry and education in particular. In the Church of Scotland The Crieff Brotherhood grew from the long evangelical ministry of William Still. It sought to balance the left leaning liberal Iona Community in the Church of Scotland. So the sense of belonging which is the essence of community has always operated in the Christian Church at various strengths and commitments and degrees. Even our local Church here is a community. At least for an hour each Sunday we are together here for worship. For some it is no more than that and for others it is because they contribute life and time to specific purposes that enables the congregation to be managed and ordered, to outreach the next generation through Christian education in Girls Brigade, Boys Brigade and Stepping Stones, and to share friendship through other activities.
In those heady first days of the Christian Church, however, the spiritual temperature was very high. And it actually reached to the members’ pockets and possessions. Some of them sold their businesses, houses, land and properties and donated everything to the Church so that those who had nothing could be fed and housed. Community life has always involved partial or whole surrender of money and property. Even our local church depends on members’ financial contributions. But at the very beginning some were so responsive to the Holy Spirit’s obvious presence that they were happy to live by faith in God’s provision alone. The question was, however, 'Could this be a long term strategy?' These first Christians also held Holy Communion Services at home following the way Jews had celebrated the Passover - in their various homes - those who still had them - a natural enough development. They went about each other’s houses for shared meals. They enjoyed a highly charged worshipful atmosphere of blessing and spiritual happiness.
Last Sunday evening we held the second Communion Service of the day. I think, only 6 people attended in addition to about 12 elders. On the face of it, it was hardly worthwhile opening up the Church for such a low numbers. Indeed, the Kirk Session had discussed some time ago whether the evening Communion Service should be stopped due to the very poor numbers attending. The elders agreed to my request to keep it going mean time. The service proceeded and we shared the elements of bread and wine in the normal way. The elders returned the trays to the Communion Table. And then something happened. We were suddenly aware of the extraordinary peace of Jesus Christ among us. It was the combination of being so few, of the stillness, of the evening sun’s light streaming though the west windows and projecting the colours of the stained glass windows, of the very presence of the risen Jesus Christ in our midst and the welling up of the Holy Spirit of joy within. We did not start speaking in tongues - but - it was special and significant to be there. The dream has not died. The Holy Spirit has not evaporated with time. Even to our modest Christian commitment, such blessing and affirmation from heaven came.
We are told that the first Christians enjoyed the favour of all the people. No one, as they say, had a bad word to say about them. Goodness not their own indwelt them enabling them to be better than they were by nature. That is the Christian purpose. To make what we cannot be by ourselves. And here we may admit and confess that our Church has not been successful in that for everyone. For many throughout the hundreds of years of the Church of Scotland and still throughout this land in congregations do not display the goodness of Jesus Christ in their conduct and manner towards one another. Neither is their consistent loyalty outside the walls of this sanctuary. This passage of Scripture ends with the words, 'And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved'. Unity, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit are essential for spiritual and numerical growth in any age and in any place. Proactive confession of Jesus Christ is essential too and the inspirational indwelling of the Holy Spirit has to be our motivating and driving force in all that we do.
Did this perfect pristine Christian community last? The answer is ‘No’, it did not. Within a short space of time there was a serious case of embezzlement in the new born Church. Persecution broke out as Jewish authorities tried to kill off this sect at birth when they realised that this was not a happy new branch of Judaism but a rival Covenant with God. Stephen was martyred and many fled for their lives - taking the Gospel with them, of course. Years later in the Church in Corinth, Paul had to chastise the new Christians for their behaviour in Church.
'In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!' (1Cor 11: 17-22).
Today in the Church of Scotland there is a great deal of dissension and strife in congregations. Some of these disputations go to Presbytery and then if unresolved on to Judicial Commissions in Edinburgh. Matters are usually not dealt with well, if at all. There was a recent case of a bearded Minister in Airdie who attended a fancy dress party dressed as a Nun. His photograph found its way on to Facebook. It provoked complaints and publicity in the newspapers. In the congregations around us there have been troubles and griefs in Whitburn South, Brucefield and Polbeth with West Calder. Armadale has a settled ministry now after a 4 - 5 year vacancy caused by internal fighting and struggle. Three ministers have left the ministry on health grounds and one moved to Ayrshire. At Tuesday’s Presbytery we learned of two complaints against the ministers of yet another two churches close to here. Both involved argumentative and difficult people making a case out of not very much and seeking to pursue their grievances through the courts of the Church.
Church of Scotland congregations are brittle, fractious and easily damaged by internal disagreement and fighting. We live a long way in time and in spirituality from the first Church. The reasons for this are historical and personal. The Church of Scotland is not that Christian in itself. Its internal processes are excessively legalistic and offer no means of or encouragement to reconciliation. Church people are often nominal rather than deeply committed Christians. At Tuesday’s Presbytery there was a clear distinction between those who favoured legalistic, retribution laden responses to the difficult complainers and those who sought a higher ethic of finding a way for forgiving reconciliation. I was in the latter camp.
We have survived here and continue to survive not because there are not cliques and undercurrents - there are. Not because everyone likes me because they don’t. Not because everyone is loyal - they’re not. Not because there are not real disagreements from time to time - there are. We survive because people here have their say but - crucially - they do not pursue their disagreements beyond this congregation itself. They do not use losing an argument or a vote as an excuse for projecting their own agenda. But - sadly, neither do people easily forgive and they never forget. In the typical old Scots fashion, they take the huff and don’t speak. They may not attend worship much, rarely or hardly ever. And so there is an uneasy truce. One of the main aspects of my calling as Minister is to foster and keep peace and unity within this Congregation. But that is also the calling of elders and it is the duty of each and everyone also who has taken vows of membership.
We can’t agree on everything but we can respect each other’s point of view. We may be far from the Holy Spirit filled joy and ecstasy of the first days of the Christian Church but our perseverance and restraint is admirable and beneficial. Some people attend this Church faithfully every week or nearly so and are not much involved additionally. But your coming and going in peace is a blessing. You contribute much by your courtesy and respect. You set the tone of the congregation because you are always here. Unity, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit break through from time to time. More often perhaps than we want to recognise. We should be more thankful. And rejoice.