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My Little 242

May 17, 2011

“My Little 242” Acts 2:42-47 © 5/15/11 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian
Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

You’re no doubt familiar with the common classification system of biblical texts. There are gospels and epistles, historical and wisdom works, psalms and apocalyptic. And that has served us well for centuries.

But I want to propose another method this morning. I believe that Bible verses fall into categories rather like cars do. Some texts compare to those really old vehicles that at one time were state of the art, but now are merely historical curiosities. Others are workhorses, like a good solid truck. Others are family cars, that everybody can relate to and enjoy. And then finally, there are the muscle cars.

My nephew Brett has worked on his share of vehicles, including a vintage pickup truck he and his late brother Matthew restored from the frame up. He once defined a muscle car as one “intended for performance, not comfort.” I suppose there are exceptions, but, by and large, Brett’s standard is the right one: performance, not comfort. And that’s what I would say about these passages from Scripture. They challenge us, make us squirm, demand action, but also get the adrenalin pumping.

I suggest also that muscle texts, like muscle cars, often have three number names. For cars, it’s the cubic inch size of the engine. You may remember from the 1960s the Oldsmobile 442, for example. Or the Ford Torino Cobra 428 and the Chevy Nova 396.

So, imagine if you will some preachers drinking their favorite beverages and talking about muscle texts. Bobbie Sue Bigchurch says: “I just love my John 316. I went from 0-60 souls saved in 10 seconds with it last Sunday.” Her friend Elder Brown just shakes his head. He’s pastor of the True Gospel Tabernacle of Jesus the Solid Rock and the Only Hope of Salvation in the Holy Ghost, Inc. Bobbie Sue’s bragging is a little too much for him: “Well, you’re just full of the Spirit, aren’t you? You ain’t seen nothin’ till you watch a Romans 623 in action. Last week in revival, people were getting rid of their sins and their $20 bills, they were so taken by it!” They hear their colleague laughing. He’s Dr. Powers Pointer of the Cathedral of the Joyous Consumer. “Ya’ll are such amateurs. What you need is the ultimate: the Romans 828, with the multimedia option. I had people lining up to get into the door just to hear about it!”

Well, those preachers can have whatever they want. But I love my little Acts 242. It’s such a classic, not too flashy, though it does take some maintenance to keep it going. On the grill is this inscription: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” Come with me and do a walk-around, look under the hood, kick the tires, and see what makes it tick.

First, though, I probably need to tell you a little about the 242’s background. It began as a dream in the mind and heart of God, the Master Designer. What if people could live in community, learning about God’s love, enjoying each other’s company, honoring each other’s gifts, depending on God for whatever they needed? It was a daring and awesome idea. He decided to focus on one group—Israel—to test the concept. Over and over God sent men and women to share the news, to display the power, to invite others to try out the 242. Some did. Most preferred the models of other designers, which were easier to operate and didn’t cost so much. Finally, the Designer sent his Chief Engineer, the wisest and best and most engaging person anyone had ever met. He was the One through whom the Designer fleshed out his designs. The One who held everything together. And lots of people were excited with the 242 at first. They listened to every story the Engineer told about it, watched as he put it through its paces. But then, those who had invested in other approaches decided to put an end to the Master Designer’s campaign to see his dream finally realized. The killed the Engineer and ran off those who believed in his ideas.

But then, the 242 came roaring back, with more strength than ever. The naysayers and those who loved other designs couldn’t stop it. Everywhere you looked, there it was. You could no more stop it than you could a wildfire or a mighty, rushing wind. And everybody wanted it.

The Acts 242. Here again are its main features: the apostles’ teaching; community or fellowship; the breaking of bread; and the prayers.

I want you to really get into the 242, so we’re going to learn a little tech-speak together. Every field has its nomenclature, and the area of muscle texts is no different. You say, preacher, that’s all Greek to me. And, of course, you’re right! So let’s have a Greek lesson.

I want you to say some words with me. The first is didache. Didachā. Let’s say it: (all pronounce it.) (Say it again.) It means “what is taught” or “instruction.” This was specifically the didach of the apostles, those whom Jesus had called and sent out in mission. But we ought not think this teaching was just about a man born to die or even to rise again and ascend, as in the so-called Apostles’ Creed. That classic affirmation skips over Jesus’ entire life and teaching between his birth and death. Instead, what Luke means by “instruction” is what the apostles heard and saw in Jesus: the way he treated people, the care he took with the marginalized, his refusal to think inside the box, his insistence on the spirit of the law and not the letter. Luke sums up as Acts begins: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” It’s Jesus’ words and actions both that matter. Both save us. Both are part of the instruction of the apostles. They taught people how to live day by day after the enthusiasm and excitement of Pentecost eventually wore off. They helped people know how to find wonder and awe and gratitude “day by day,” whether in the Temple and at home. They taught what kingdom living was like. Today, when people are looking for authentic disciples, and finding so much hypocrisy, intolerance, and hatred in the churches, following the apostles’ teaching is more important than ever. It is kingdom living in the way of Jesus that will draw people in as it did so long ago.

Next is koinonia. Koinonia. (Again, pronounce twice.) This is “fellowship” or “community.” Now, we can and do have fellowship in a nice club of like-minded folk. The word sometimes is in a phrase with “fun and….” Koinonia includes that sort of togetherness with its pleasant conversation and conviviality. But it is much more.

Luke tells us that the church had “all things in common.” That was a typical Greek philosophical term for “being friends.” It’s how friends treat each other—borrowing each other’s clothes or tools, not keeping secrets, helping out in crisis. But this kind of friendship also had ongoing economic impact. The church made distribution of goods so that no one would be in need. This was an attempt at fulfilling the Old Testament vision of Jubilee, what Jesus taught about the “favorable year of the Lord.”

A hymn by the contemporary composer Fred Kaan perhaps sums up this ideal of koinonia and connects it with the didache: “Teach us, O Lord, your lessons, as in our daily life, we struggle to be human and search for hope and faith. Teach us to care for people, for all, not just for some, to love them as we find them or as they may become.

“Let your acceptance change us so that we may be moved in living situations to do the truth in love; to practice your acceptance until we know by heart the table of forgiveness and laughter’s healing art.

“Lord, for today’s encounters with all who are in need, who hunger for acceptance, for righteousness and bread, we need new eyes for seeing, new hands for holding on: renew us with your Spirit; Lord, free us, make us one.” Koinonia: a community of acceptance and help that dares to live out the vision of friends sharing life with glad and generous hearts, and so making Christ known to the world.

Didache. Koinonia. A third feature has a little longer name. It’s te klasei tou artou. Tā klasei too artoo. (Same procedure.) It translates as “the breaking of the bread.” Probably this discipline is one of the most radical and counter-cultural the church can do. Eating together levels the playing field, makes us all the same. Both host and guest at any table, in any home, share a common need to be nourished and filled. None of us—unless some of you are aliens or angels masquerading as human—none of us is pure spirit, non-corporeal, without need of food or drink. Snobs and bigots know this very well, so they decline to eat with those not of their perceived class or not of their race lest they be reminded of the essential facts about being human.

Sharon Daloz Parks has a must-read book called Big Questions, Worthy Dreams. In it, she talks about the meaning of the table, the place of breaking bread together: “It has been said that the table is a place where you know there will be a place for you, where what is on the table will be shared, and where you will be placed under obligation. In every culture, humans have eaten together…. In the practice of the table we learn to share, to wait, to accommodate, to be grateful. The table is emblematic of economic, political, and spiritual realities…. It has served many as a place for learning how we can disagree yet remain deeply aware of our common bonds” (156).

The ancient church recognized that every table, every meal, is in fact, a holy ritual, a sacred experience where Jesus is present with us. Whether in a home or in a sanctuary or at a picnic, hospitality and graciousness, glad and generous hearts, are the outgrowth of our knowledge that Jesus is always an unseen guest. Te klasei tou artou, the breaking of the bread, is one of the best and most important features of the Acts 242.

So, didache, koinonia, te klasei tou artou. Instruction for daily living in continuity with Jesus. Community that welcomes others as friends and cares for their needs. Breaking bread that breaks barriers. All wonderful features of the Acts 242. Finally, we hear about tais proseuchais. Tice pros-oo-kice. (All say it.) The prayers. Note: not merely “prayer” or “prayers,” though praying is an essential practice. What we’re looking at here is the daily, regular, disciplined practice of “praying the hours.” The early church continued the Jewish practice of designating certain times of the day especially for prayer. Whether said by individuals alone or a community gathered, prayers were focused, and in continuity with language and practice from old days. Phyllis Tickle explains: “Centuries before Jesus…the Hebrew psalmist wrote that ‘Seven times a day do I praise you….’” She points out how Jews accommodated themselves to the Roman business schedule, marked during the day by the ringing of bells. Prayers thus became fixed at six AM, nine, noon, three, and six PM. Later in Acts, we find Peter on a rooftop at noon, away from the Temple, but still observing prayers. Peter and John were at the Temple at 3 PM for prayers and healed a man with a disability.

Tickle goes on to point out that words became fixed as well as the hours of prayer. From the earliest days, the psalms were used in the Christian community as they were in the Jewish synagogue and Temple. By 60 AD, before Acts was written, the Lord’s Prayer was being used in Christian worship three times a day.

A church that likes the style and features of the Acts 242 practices regular prayer in continuity and connection with ancient tradition. So does the individual believer. There are plenty of resources around—operating manuals, shall we say—to help us do that. Ms. Tickle’s three-volume The Divine Hours is just one. There are even websites now to help with these practices in our high-tech postmodern world. Saying “the prayers” connects us with people who at the same hour are also bowing before God, and because of the progression of time zones around the globe, there is an unbroken stream of prayer flowing around the world that we can enter into. The church prays without ceasing. Tais proseuchais, the prayers at the appointed hours, is another great feature of the Acts 242.

This muscle text, like muscle cars, both inspires and demands devotion. “They devoted themselves,” we’re told by Luke. The Greek word is too much of a mouthful, but it means “kept at it,” “persevered in,” “continued in.” If you buy a muscle car as a collectible and never drive it, never take care of it, never wash and wax it, your investment goes to waste and what do you have to be proud of or enjoy? So too with muscle texts like the Acts 242. It calls for keeping at it. Remember Brett’s definition? “Built for performance rather than comfort.” Discipleship is not meant for our comfort or convenience. It’s about doing.

Near the end of the movie The American President, Michael Douglas, as the president, makes a speech about America, particularly freedom of speech. “Being an American is hard,” he observes. “You have to want it really bad.”

I would say the same about following Jesus and taking ownership of a text like the Acts 242. “You gotta want it.” This is a demanding way of life. But we do not go it alone. We have the koinonia. We pray the prayers. We gather to be strengthened in the breaking of the bread. We have the manual of instruction from the apostles. And powering it all is the Spirit of the Master Designer.

So, that’s my little 242. It’s a great muscle text. Whadaya say, then? Wanna go for a test drive?

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