“The people devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” Acts 2.42
The quote is from our first reading today, from a description of the early church. It describes how the Christians, new converts all of them, found joy in their new faith, coming together to learn, to pray and to take part in the Eucharist. We hear about the awe of the new church at the many signs and wonders being done by the apostles, and how the people had glad and generous hearts and praised God, while God added to their number. Doesn’t that sound amazing? Who wouldn’t want to be part of a church like that?
But skip forward a few years to the next reading, from the first letter of St Peter, and we glimpse a church in very different circumstances. Here we find Peter trying to encourage a suffering church, a persecuted church. A church in which people are having to endure terrible pain. Not much awe here, no signs and wonders, no glad and generous hearts – just endurance, and a reminder that Christ also suffered. I’m not quite so keen to sign up to this sort of church, to be honest. I much prefer the first kind.
But the reality is that we don’t get to pick.
Right now, you might feel you are part of a church which is closer to the second kind. The four things that characterised the early church – teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer –are hard for us. We can still find teaching, we can still pray – but without church we can’t share the sacrament of the Eucharist and we can’t share fellowship, at least not beyond our immediate family. We can be thankful we are not actually being persecuted, like the church Peter is writing to, but still, locked out of our church building, unable to gather together, joy and awe feel unlikely
But not impossible. Have you ever had the experience of joy in a time of suffering? It’s surprisingly common – moments of joy upwelling within us, even as we grieve, worry, suffer. Or maybe in a time of pain and loss you’ve found yourself laughing, enjoying yourself, and feeling guilty about it? Again, surprisingly common.
Because our lives are not either/or – they are much more often both/and. Grief and joy. Awe and despair. Light within the dark. Doubt and hope.
This is a theme that will come up over and over again in the next few weeks as our readings remind us that in our lives good things and bad things exist side by side and that seemingly irreconcilable differences can be held together. Much like the Kingdom of God, which we think of as not now but in the future, but which in reality is both now and not yet, available to us now in flashes and glimpses, and not yet here with us, not yet fully realised on earth.
We can explore this together as we approach Ascension and Pentecost, the seasons when we reflect on what it means for God to be present on earth, among us. But for now, let’s take heart from the Gospel reading today, when Jesus reminds us that he calls us by name and that we hear his voice. I came, he says, so that we might have life – and have it abundantly.
With my prayers that you might find abundance and joy in these days of loss and lack.