Below is the message and conversation from Week 8 of How to be a missionary without ever leaving Lancaster. This week we dealt with being Counter Cultural in community formation. Would love your thoughts, comments, questions, insights, etc...
The theme for today, as part of our conversation on the second stage of being a missionary/planting a missional church (which is community formation), is centered around two words. These two words can bring up lots of word images, thoughts, ideas, and feelings. The two words that we’ll be unpacking and applying to the Scriptures for this morning, are the words Counter Cultural. So just quickly, give me a word or two about what comes to mind when I say the word counter cultural.
The funny thing that I didn’t hear mentioned by anyone was the words Christians, or the early church. Somehow we never thing about followers of Jesus being counter cultural. We picture some radical, hippy-like person, protesting the armed forces, hugging trees, attacking the banking industry, and we thing also of places and events like the 60’s and Woodstock. But if we look at our Scripture this morning, we will see that the early Christians and the early church did community formation, discipleship, and mission in what would, even by today’s standards, be considered a radically counter cultural way.
So let’s turn to our Scripture today and see what it might have to say to us about how to be a missionary without ever leaving Lancaster, as well as about the tough work of Community Formation, which is a huger part of being a missionary/planting a missional church.
Let’s look at the New Testament book of Acts chapter 4:32-35. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”
Let’s look at a few of these verses and see why we can truly call the early Christians and the early Church counter cultural. Counter Cultural to the Roman Empire, the empire in which they found themselves in. And also counter cultural to the current culture that we find our selves in within the United States.
Verse 32 is pretty counter cultural, both to the culture at large, and even to the current American church. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions were his own, but they shared everything they had.” This idea of one heart and mind, means that the early church, at least in Acts, and in this situation, they were united. They were unified. They were in complete accord. They were together, not just in the being physically with each other, but they were together in what the church was all about. It’s mission, if you will. But unity, in the early church, didn’t mean uniformity. As I mentioned the other week, the early church was the most radically inclusive place. They were the ones who would have men and women together, with children in their midst. You have slaves, and free. Jews and Gentiles. Rich and Poor. And any other social/racial structure that could divide people. But in the midst of all this inclusivity, and differences, the early church was radically counter cultural, because they were united.
In the midst of that unity, the way that they looked at their own possessions, was definitely counter cultural. They looked at their stuff in a communal way. Their possessions weren’t there own. They shared what they had. If someone had a home, they shared it (or sold it). If someone had money, they gave it. They were a communal group of people, even down to their possessions. I truly believe they believed that their possessions weren’t their possessions, but God’s possessions, given to them by God to steward them well, for God’s glory and for his Kingdom. They recognized God’s ownership of everything; it all belonged to God and to his people.
Think about how we in American react to this. Some people, when reading this scream, “That’s socialism. That’s like communism. That’s evil.” As if our consumer, market driven, capitalist America is more of a biblical, Christian “government.” But what would it be like if we, as followers of Jesus, truly lived in this way. What if people in our community, lived this way. What if we had a communal lawn mower and let not only Veritas people use it, but our neighbors as well? Why do we need 12 different lawn mowers for 12 different families? What would it say to the watching world when not only the followers of Jesus were united (I recently heard that there is 33,000 denominations), but also truly looked at their possessions as God’s and were willing to give, lend, sell, get rid of, bless others, these possessions? How would this grow the Kingdom and grow the community? But you say, this is impossible. That was then. This is now. There is no way that Acts 4 can be lived out in America in the 21st century. And I would first say you are probably right, unless we start where the early church started, with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Look at verse 33, “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.” The preceding verse as well as the next 2 following, I believe are predicated and rest on verse 33. Without the apostles centering their lives of Jesus, there would be no unity, sharing possessions, selling what they had and giving to anyone who had need. This type of behavior that the early church here in Acts was known for can’t be explained or rationalized away without the fact that something got a hold of them so strongly that everything else paled in comparison. That thing that led the early followers of Jesus to live such counter cultural lives, being unified, looking at possessions in a communal way, selling and giving things away, was that their entire lives were surrendered to the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lord’s. They weren’t just Christians who showed up once a week, to a building, to be a part of something, with totally unconnected other individual Christians. They were a communitas (a community on steroids, with a larger purpose that drove them), centered on Jesus and his mission. Being a counter cultural follower of Jesus, both then and now, means being rooted in the life, death, and resurrection and means living life in opposition to the radical individualism that plagues our American society. We need to see ourselves as connected. Connected to those early followers of Jesus, connected to follower of Jesus today, and also connected as humans, who are all made in the image of God. As I mentioned last week, what if we saw each person as our brother, sister, mother, or father. How would that make a difference in how we treat people, serve people, and love people?
And the last act of counter cultural life that we find in this text is found in verses 33b-45, “And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” Can you imagine how counter cultural this community was then, and again, honestly how counter cultural this community would be today? Did you hear those 7 words, “there were no needy persons among them?” What would our community, at Veritas be like? What would the community of followers of Jesus be like? How would this counter cultural existence spill out from the lives of followers of Jesus into our community? Can you imagine how this type of community, would be attractive, and just draw people into it? That you knew that when things were at their worst, that you weren’t alone. That someone had your back, was pulling for you, and would literally sell what they had to make sure that you were going to be looked after, and taken care of. And we see that this type of community was attractive, and people came to know Jesus, because Jesus was being lived out in the flesh by these early followers of Jesus, who were living out this counter cultural life of discipleship, mission, and community.
How far have we come from those counter cultural days, when we don’t even consider being a follower of Jesus as counter cultural? We need to get back to the understanding that to follow Jesus, to live out the Kingdom, to be about the work of community, discipleship, and mission is the most radical, counter cultural thing a person could do, and give their life to. But how? How do we take this counter cultural message and put it on the ground and live it out in Lancaster 2,000 years after these early Christians? That is what we are going to unpack together.
1. What part of the text stood out to you the most as being the most counter cultural aspect of the early Christian community? Why? 2. Why don’t you think we see this kind of counter cultural community of Christ followers in our day and age? Is it even possible? If yes, than how (give us some ideas), and if no, why not? 3. How might we apply this counter cultural expression of community to our life together as Veritas? What is something that you might do this week to move toward this counter cultural life? 4. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what are we going to do about it?