This sacrament is not an exercise in nostalgia, though it is remembrance; here at this table, the past, present, and future are joined in a meal that gives us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, even in the presence of our enemy, whether that enemy is human, virus, or death itself.

Acts 2: 43-47

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.

Glory Days

I imagine Luke writing these verses in Acts and then stopping for a moment and looking out the window. “Those were the days,” he thought. “For one brief shining moment, the church was happy within and respected and admired by all on the outside.”

I can relate to that feeling of nostalgia that permeates these five verses in Acts. As energizing as it was to scramble last March 13 for our worship team to put together an online service by March 15, to learn how to use Zoom for meetings, and then preach and lead worship from my own home, I miss the old days.

I miss the days when we worshiped in the old sanctuary and crowded in for Easter; when we could come together for celebrations and for funerals, when the children would come forward and crowd together for the children’s message. 

I don’t exactly miss the school lunch room, but I miss the worship experience we had there. Handshakes and hugs, and filling a space with singing and laughter and prayers; not just taking communion, but serving it to one another with those ancient words, “for you,” “for you,” “for you.”  That’s what I miss.

But Luke does not sit staring out of the window and remembering the glory days for very long. He picks up his quill and writes the story of what happened to the church after its glory days when thousands joined in response to each sermon, when everyone sold what they had, shared the proceeds with each other, worshiped in the temple together and then shared meals with each other, visiting and worshiping from house to house.

After that, Luke says, a couple of the apostles, Peter and John, healed a man born unable to walk. Which would have been fine, but when they used the opportunity to preach about the resurrection of Jesus, it didn’t sit right with the religious muckety-mucks. Something about disturbing the peace. So, they spent a night in jail before they got a chance to have a hearing in chapter 4.

By chapter 5, that whole arrangement of disciples selling their property and giving it up to the whole community went horribly awry with a couple named Ananias and Sapphira. It seems that somewhere along the way, human sin crept into the motivations for giving. Instead of a generous response to God’s gift in Jesus Christ, sharing became a status symbol, something like Jesus had described as he watched people hiring a brass band to call attention to their temple gifts. So, Ananias and Sapphira sold some property and gave some of the proceeds to the community. They laid it at the feet of the disciples, and lied to them and said they gave all the proceeds.

By the end of that chapter, Ananias and Sapphira are both dead and those people of the Way who had lived in such blissful harmony just three chapters before are scared, angry, and feeling a bit icky about the church budget.

It didn’t take long for those glory days to fade and the days of trial to begin.

And yet, Luke keeps coming back to this, to these days of awe and wonder. He knows, by the time he sits there writing, that those days are behind the church now, but he wants us to remember them. There was this time, these few days or weeks, when the church of the first century drew very close to what God intended it to be. It was generous, it was loving, its members lived their days in awe and wonder, with eyes wide open to the amazing things God was doing through them.

When Luke tells us that “many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles,” the next thing he tells us is that everyone shared everything. That in itself is a wonder. And perhaps it is a sign of what it looks like when God answers our prayer, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

John does something similar in today’s Gospel reading. His language about Jesus as the good shepherd calls to mind the most beloved of the psalms, the 23rd. Yes, we say, “The Lord is my shepherd.” We can find great comfort in that ancient psalm of David, and with what we have learned of Jesus, we have no problem slipping him into that role of the good shepherd who provides us with all our needs, who restores our soul, who leads us in paths of righteousness, who keeps us close to him even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

And then, John reveals a darkness underneath that beautiful and nostalgic image of the good shepherd:

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”

We can discern a dynamic in the community that produced the Gospel—a dynamic of leaders who abused their authority and led some people astray. John calls them thieves, bandits, and strangers, revealing a spirit of division that had infected the community. In John’s view, some of the shepherds, or pastors, had tried to lead people in their own way rather than following the good shepherd, Jesus. They had forgotten, or perhaps never heard, the wisdom that “with much power comes great responsibility,” to quote Voltaire. And Spiderman.

The good news here is that both Luke and John tell us that the good old days are not the only good days.

The resurrection is not just something that happened long ago. It is something that will happen to us. In the midst of all the warnings about thieves and bandits, the Good Shepherd reminds us,

“I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly.”

And, the signs and wonders continue throughout the book of Acts—not just instantaneous healings, and earthquakes that break the chains of imprisoned apostles, but the kind of things we see in our own congregation—radical generosity, extraordinarily deep and joyful relationships that bridge the world’s boundaries of race, class, political positions, gender, or orientation.

So, the more I read the book of Acts, the more I come to see that Luke’s nostalgia is not really about the past. It is about embracing a future God is unfolding before us.

Awe and wonder, devotion to generosity, breaking bread together, fellowship and prayer: these are the marks of a community that listens to the voice of the Good Shepherd. These have always been sources of deep meaning and joy for us, they are now, even in this valley of the shadow of death, and they will be again, when we come together again face to face.

In 1985, the week after my ordination, I celebrated home communion for the first time because she was bed-bound and unable to gather at the church. A couple of elders and I took the elements of communion to a woman who had spent her long life serving others through the church, Presbyterian Women, the local food bank, and she had started the Meals on Wheels program in that small Texas town.

She was at the end of life after a stroke had left her paralyzed, and she had physically diminished to a frail shadow of the woman I had seen in the pictures on the bulletin board.

When I asked if there was a particular scripture she wanted to hear, she said, Psalm 23. I began to recite from the Revised Standard Version, and she said, “No, not that translation. That one,” and she pointed to the Bible on her nightstand. I assumed it would be the King James version she grew up hearing, and I had that one memorized from Sunday school.

But, the translation at her bedside was not the King James. It was the Good News for Modern Man, a Bible she had used when she taught the Junior High Sunday School class a few years before.

The first verse is rendered,

“The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need.”

I read the psalm, and an elder read from the Gospel,

And we all shared the bread and wine together.

Before we left, one of the elders asked our home-bound sister, “Can I bring you something? Anything?” 

She smiled, tapped on her Good News Bible, and quoted the psalm, “I have everything I need.”

At the church a dear friend of mine serves, virtual communion has been a point of great controversy. “If we cannot be physically present with one another,” one elder said, “then we cannot experience the presence of Christ. This is the slippery slope to doing away with communion completely.”

As you might have discerned, I strongly disagree. Here at this communion table, and there at your communion table, as we share the bread and the cup, we celebrate the movement of the Spirit throughout all time and space. We celebrate our unity, not only with one another now, but with believers all over the world, and in the past and in the future. The Spirit cannot be bound by any worldly force, not even a pandemic.

This sacrament is not an exercise in nostalgia, though it is remembrance; here at this table, the past, present, and future are joined in a meal that gives us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, even in the presence of our enemy, whether that enemy is human, virus, or death itself.

It will not keep us from breaking bread and fellowship with glad and generous hearts—these are the signs and wonders that the Spirit has given since the beginning of the church, gives today, and will continue to give in all our remaining years.