There is a problem with the little snapshots of life in the early church found in the Book of Acts.
“It is discouraging because everything is so darn perfect, so blue sky and idyllic. It is hard not to compare that church to the vexed and contentious churches we live in today,” said the Rev. Thomas G. Long at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday morning worship service. His sermon title was “Learning How to Squint,” and the Scripture reading was Acts 4:32-37.
On the day of Pentecost, Luke took out his cellphone and took a snapshot of the formation of the early church. Peter, Long said, preached a compelling sermon and 3,000 people formed a new community. People continued to join the community every day.
“Today we are hemorrhaging,” he said. “Our children are choosing ‘none of the above’ as their religious preference. We use every occasion to beat ourselves over the head with every hot-button cultural issue.”
Long was on vacation at Sunset Beach in North Carolina one time and saw “a ghostly light over the water.” It was a man, pushing an inner tube with a piece of plywood on top and a battery and headlight on top. He was “ginning” for flounder, using the light to find where the flounder had hidden themselves on the bottom of the channel.
Long got in the water with him and as they talked he found out the man’s name was Sonny and he was a furniture factory manager. He asked Long what he did and he said, “I’m a Presbyterian minister.” After a long silence Sonny said, “I used to go to a Methodist church and my wife and children were active. Then I got elected to the governing board and saw more pettiness and bigotry than I ever dreamed. I got that at work and I don’t want it in my spiritual life.”
“We want church to be like Pentecost every day, but we can’t have it every day. Or can we?” Long said. “The Scripture story we read today is two chapters past Pentecost. The church had collided with the culture, had theological disputes, its leaders had served jail time, the bloom was off the rose.”
But the snapshot Luke shows in Acts is one of a community in which “great grace was upon them all.”
“It’s been downhill ever since, unless there is another way to look at the church,” Long said.
In one of his preaching classes, the students were looking at those snapshots in Acts and getting more and more gloomy. Most of them would not be going to large, vibrant churches but small, declining ones. One student said, “It reminds me of Eleanor Reynolds.” Asked who she was, the student replied she was the church historian of his home church and he had read her a little pamphlet on the history of the church.
“She made it sound like the Wednesday night fellowship was a preview of the heavenly banquet,” the student said.
“Luke was a local church historian,” Long said. “You know how they write. ‘Rev. and Mrs. Smith came in 1932 and the whole town turned out to hear his sermon and they took it to heart. They served nine years and the fruits of their ministry can still be seen today.’ Why say stuff like that? Because it is true if you know how to squint.”
He said when you squint, you can see God working in the broken places of our common life.
“You can see that we have not been abandoned by God; in the broken places God is building the beloved community,” Long said.
At a family night supper, a pastor was sitting next to a man who turned to him and said, “Pastor, you need to correct my theology. Last Sunday, during the Lord’s Supper, I felt like my wife, who’s been gone two years, was sitting with me. And I also felt our daughter, who died a long time ago, was there [with] our parents, and I got all fired up at the table. You need to correct my theology.” The pastor said, “No, you’ve got it right.” The man learned how to squint to see God creating the beloved community.
Long and his family attend a Presbyterian church in Atlanta that is across the street from the Georgia State Capitol. There are many homeless people in the congregation, “and we went from talking about caring for the homeless to being the homeless,” he said. There are other homeless people who will not come in, but the associate pastors take their guitars and go out and have services with the people on the street.
One Sunday, one of the associate pastors told the people on the street that on Wednesday there would be a service in the small chapel of the church where they would take oil and ashes and put them on the forehead of their neighbor and all of them were welcome to come. They passed the word around, and about 40 homeless people came.
Across the street, a state legislator told his colleagues there was an Ash Wednesday service across the street and about 60 of them came with him to the service.
“To those who could squint, when the homeless person put a cross on the forehead of a state legislator and a state legislator put a cross on the forehead of a homeless person, it was the kingdom of God,” Long said.
Another time he was visiting Arrendale State Prison, a women’s prison, near Alto, Georgia. Candler School of Theology has a certificate program at the prison and if inmates complete the program, they can attend Candler when they are released. Long was talking with the head chaplain when two students came across the yard. Long commented on one of the books they were reading.
One of the women said, “This is really good stuff. We are learning about agape love, you know the kind of love that is so generous that it doesn’t ask for anything in return. That’s the kind of love God has and we can participate in it, even here. I used to do terrible things to myself, but now I don’t even have to take my medication. Every day I get up and ask how I can be part of agape love.”
“As I looked at her, with the walls and razor wire of the prison behind her, when I squinted, I haven’t seen anyone more free,” Long said.
There was silence as the congregation contemplated his words.
The Rev. Robert Hagel presided. Vicki Carter, director of the Chautauqua Scholarship Program of the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons and a director and conductor of musical theater both on and off-Broadway, read the Scripture. The Motet Choir, under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, sang “Take the World, but Give Me Jesus,” by Larry Shackley. The Mr. and Mrs. William Uhler Follansbee Memorial Chaplaincy provides support for this week’s services.