Too True to be Perfect

father knows best

Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

When my husband and I bought our first house, we had neighbors that, over the years, we came to refer to as “Paul and Paula Perfect.”

Have you ever had neighbors like this?

Paul and Paula seemed to be the perfect parents, with perfect children, living in a perfect house that I regularly observed as I stood at my kitchen window in my decidedly imperfect house.

Paul and Paula’s yard was perfectly landscaped within an inch of its life where as ours was frequently unkempt. Unkempt is a polite word for disgustedly weedy.

Paul and Paula’s house was perfectly decorated inside and out, while our house was sorely in need of paint and we were still living out of boxes from a cross-country move and sitting on IKEA furniture we’d picked up second hand.

Paula’s makeup and hair and clothes were always – you guessed it – perfect.

In those days, I counted it as victory if I showered before noon and made it to Supercuts every couple months. Paula’s attire was straight out of Ann Taylor. My outfits regularly consisted of stretched out maternity jeans and old sweatshirts permanently stained with baby goo.

If Paul and Paula’s lifestyle was right out of “Father Knows Best,” the Rothenbergs were “Raised by Wolves.”

Or so I imagined while standing at my kitchen window. Gazing at my perfect, perfect neighbors.

Of course, I am exaggerating.

Paul and Paula weren’t out to make me feel bad or invite comparisons.In fact, they were extremely nice people. Our daughter often played with their little boy while Paula and I chatted on her perfect patio.

And that pleasant relationship lasted for a while until the day our daughter accidentally kicked their son in the head while swinging on the Perfect’s swing set.

Yeah. Stitches and everything.

I felt terrible, my daughter felt worse, but after that incident, we didn’t see Paul and Paula very much.  I can’t remember if they moved away first or we moved first, but it was one of those weird neighbor-ish friendships that never was actually a friendship.

I know Paul and Paula were not perfect, of course.Nobody is perfect.

Nobody has it all together. The older I get, the more I understand outward appearances don’t mean very much.

And let’s be honest. My bad attitude about Paul and Paula had more to do with me than with them.

I looked at them then I looked at myself smack dab in the middle of raising a young child in a new city, trying to adjust to serious adulting, and feeling like I was doing a terrible job at pretty much everything.

I projected all my insecurity onto these perfectly nice people.

And that is how we might approach Luke’s description of an early Christian church in our text today.

It seems to be a description of what sounds like a totally perfect church.

This text in Acts 2 comes right after Peter’s Pentecost sermon.People responded to the message of forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, they responded by repentance and being baptized; but it didn’t end there.Their lives were transformed. Their time was spent praying, praising God, learning, sharing resources, and eating together.

And isn’t it a beautiful picture of church? It’s perfect, really.

It is a church full of miraculous promise with the power of the Holy Spirit birthing a community into being.

It is a community that upends the social structure in favor of one built on study, fellowship, worship and equality flowing from love.

It is a gathering of people who are united as one body, sharing everything, agreeing on everything, in awe of everything.

And it is a congregation that brings in new members not once a year, or once a month, but every single day.

Every time I’ve read this passage, I cringe. I’ve never been in a church that fits this description. Yet, I’ve imagined this Acts 2 church is the way church is supposed to be.  Perfect.

And I’m not the only one.  If you Google Acts 2 Church, you’ll get about 21 million hits. Every denomination and every non-denomination has literally dozens and dozens of congregations that go by the name “Acts 2 Church.”

Dozens of books have been written to tell church leaders how you too can become an Acts 2 church. There are blog posts. Magazine articles. Conferences.All to create a modern version of the ancient Acts 2 church.

And if you look at church history, there have been communities and congregations of “Acts 2” churches emerging again and again.

From the Desert Mothers and Fathers in the 4th century, to monastic communities, to the Catholic Workers Houses of Dorothy Day to Christian Peacemaker Teams from the Mennonite tradition, to people living in intentional Christian communities in Pittsburgh today.There has ever been Spirit-led attempts to live into this Utopian vision laid out in the books of Acts.

And why not? It sounds pretty wonderful. The psalmist may very well have been envisioning an Acts 2 kind of church when writing Psalm 133: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”  We read this text from Acts 2, and it sounds like church the way it was always meant to be. A good place with completely committed people, with more than enough to go around and living an abundant life.

Acts 2 sounds exactly like the church Jesus had in mind while he walked on this earth, and exactly like the church we should be. Especially given the miracle of the resurrection we’ve just experienced again on Easter and the excitement of Pentecost that is just a few weeks away.

So what is wrong with us, church? Why are we lurking around here in our stretched out maternity pants and our weedy gardens and our unholy propensity to kick people in the head even when we don’t mean to? At least metaphorically.

It is both curious and reassuring to me, that Luke never mentions this utopian church again outside of these five verses. In chapter 4, there are 3 verses that expand a bit upon the renunciation of private ownership and how everyone in the community shares everything with everyone equally.

Then a church member named Ananias comes along and withholds money from the group after he and his wife sell some property at a huge profit.  When Peter calls him out for being selfish and not following the rules of the community, Ananias drops dead. Then about three hours later, Peter calls out Ananias’ wife about her role in the crime and she drops dead as well.

Yikes. So much for perfection. Not only does the Acts 2 seem too good to be true, but also the penalty for not fulfilling your pledge seems a little steep to me.

After that unfortunate incident, we never hear again about this Utopian Church in the book of Acts. It didn’t last long, as far as we can see. It does not seem to serve as a durable model as the Christian franchise expands into Rome and beyond. Eventually the Christian church builds structures and hierarchies until it fits in quite well with the Roman Empire.

Thankfully, this idealized model of God’s church and church leadership is not the only one we see in scripture. We see all sorts of faith communities in the Bible – from the wandering, murmuring tribes of Israel to the quarreling church in Corinth.

We see Jesus sitting at table and breaking bread with sinners and tax collectors and loose women and despicable Pharisees. We see God plucking up an adolescent shepherd, the runt of the litter, to become Israel’s greatest king ever.

Scripture is full of weedy communities and imperfect people.

All of which tells me that God’s idea of the perfect church is always God’s idea, not ours.

And God will work with imperfect people.  Because the church is not dependent upon the goodness or perfection of the people in it.  The church is dependent upon the goodness and perfection of God. And the church relies not upon own perfect power, but on the perfecting power of God’s spirit.

It could very well be that Luke doesn’t give us portrait of an early Christian community to tell us this is the only way church should be, or to make us feel bad for what the church has become. Or to warn us that if we are not generous givers, we’ll end up like Ananias.

In fact, given the way it appears and disappears in the book, many scholars have concluded that this idealized community never existed at all.

It could be that the writer of Luke is giving us this beautifully crafted portrait to tell us that the reign of Jesus Christ means that anything is possible. That in each imperfect church and in each imperfect human being in the church there is a perfect spark of potential. And that spark is the Holy Spirit.

And with the Holy Spirit, ordinary people can perform wonders, even if they are not always wonderful people!

Ordinary people can capture the awe of living in the Holy Spirit, even if they are not feeling so awesome themselves!

Ordinary people can serve as witnesses to and participate in the incredible goodness of God, even when we feel we are not good enough.

I am in the middle of writing an article for our denominations’ publication, Presbyterians Today.   The topic for the article is about spiritual wounds.  And how people are hurt by the church, yet somehow are able to find their way back to a healthy relationship with a loving God, despite the hurt.

Sometimes that reunion takes years. Sometimes it never happens at all.

As I have been interviewing people for this article, I’ve been struck by an overall theme of their stories. Again and again, people tell me what hurt them most was that rather large gap between what the church said it believed and how it actually behaved.  I have heard story after story of churches and church leaders who purport to be strong in Christian doctrine and practice, yet fail to demonstrate the grace of Jesus Christ and the love of God.

Many of the people I’ve interviewed said what hurt them most was the feeling they could not bring their authentic selves into these church spaces. They felt the church wanted them to be perfect, and if they couldn’t be perfect, they were not welcome, or worse, made ashamed for being who they are.

The pattern of life we see in the Acts 2 church is not about being a perfect church, but about being an authentic community.

A community that gathers.

A community that hears the Word and wrestles with it, together.

A community that shares meals.

A community that prays.

A community who seeks to share what they have with the poor.

A community that cares for one another and loves one another and accepts one another.

It is a pattern of life that does not require perfection, but our willingness to participate. Which is what we are called to do in the church.

Participate.

Show up.

Keep imperfectly serving and imperfectly worshiping and imperfectly following Jesus.

Day after day. Week after week. Trusting in God’s promises. Trusting that Jesus is with us. Trusting that the Holy Spirit will sustain us.

Trusting that anything is possible, thanks to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

At this table, we are welcomed by Jesus,

Accepted for who we are, imperfections and all.

At this table, we are a beloved community, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to love one another as brothers and sister, and share in the abundance of God’s grace and love.

At this table, through the power of God’s spirit, we receive a tiny glimpse,an awesome preview, a hope-filled glance

of the community that will finally be, the perfect expression of God’s perfect kingdom.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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