Friday, May 18, 2012

Summer Vacation

And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42).

Everyone loves a vacation. It is a time to suspend reality, if only for a brief period. All year long we go about our hum-drum lives, doing the same tedious work, dealing with the same frustrating people and issues. Each day seems to melt into the next, as we mechanically repeat the habitual litany of meaningless acts that, summed up, total our working life. We get up. We bathe. We eat. We go off to work. We eat. We come home from work. We eat. We watch television. We go to sleep. Repeat ad infinitum, ad nauseum. We endure this hellish cycle for what seems to be an eternity until – Ah! The weather turns hot, the days become long, and the vacation season is upon us. For two weeks or more, depending on how much seniority you have at your job, this depressing existence will fade into the background and you will take a vacation.

Of course, if you have children, or have ever interacted with children, you know that they become just as excited about the prospect of vacation as adults. Ask most any school aged child what their favorite part of school is, and they will invariably answer, “summer vacation”. American children may not realize it – or, indeed, even care – but they have the British to thank for the concept of summer break. In Great Britain, the word “vacation” once specifically referred to the long summer break taken by the law courts and universities. This custom of what has morphed into the “summer vacation” was introduced by William the Conqueror from Normandy. William decided that everyone should take some time off from learning, and law, and get down to the important business of the grape harvest. To this day in England, and in most of the rest of Europe as well, they take the summer vacation pretty seriously. In the not-too-distant past, many upper-class English families would move to a summer home for part of the year, leaving their usual family home vacant.

Unfortunately, our spiritual life seems to play the yin to our secular life’s yang. By that I mean, all the while we are slaving away at our boring secular jobs, waiting for summer to get here, church life is busy and exciting. Beginning with Advent and running through Pentecost – the festival season, as it is called – gives worshipers something different and exciting to look forward to nearly every Sunday. First there is Advent, with the anticipation of the coming Christ. Advent is followed by Christmas, where we celebrate Immanuel – God with us, born in human flesh. Next come Epiphany and Transfiguration This is the “Time of Christmas”.

After the time of Christmas we enter into the “Time of Easter”. This begins with the solemn preparation for the Lenten season with Ash Wednesday. Lent, though with muted color and focused on repentance, has special music and, in many congregations, midweek worship services, complete with soup supper. Holy Week brings Lent to an intense close, focusing on the suffering and death of the Savior. We finish strongly with celebrating the Risen Christ with Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Holy Trinity.

Then, however, begins the long, dark, tea time of the church year’s soul. We enter the time after Pentecost. In the Roman Catholic tradition, this portion of the church year is known as “ordinary time”, and after a couple of Sundays you can tell why. The festivals are gone until November. The colors on the altar stay the same green for the duration of the summer. The church settles into routine, and it is difficult for even the most energetic of pastors and church musicians to focus on “ordinary time” with the same zeal that they brought to bear on the festival season.

Oh, sure, a congregation might try to spice up “ordinary time” by observing some of the lesser festivals on the church calendar. Let’s face it, though; It doesn’t matter how interesting the life of Polycarp of Smyrna was, singing a hymn verse about his life and crafting a collect around him just doesn’t compare to the Christmas Eve candlelight service; or to All Saints Day; or to the depression of Good Friday; or to the exultation of Easter. It just isn’t the same. Couple this perceived increase in monotony in the regular Sunday worship service with the fact that the beginning of “ordinary time” coincides with “vacation time” and maybe you can see the seeds of conflict.

In the summer, vacations are the order of the day, and vacations all too often separate the Christian, for a time, from his home, and home church. What’s the problem with this, you might ask? Surely it isn’t sinful to take a vacation! Certainly not. However, couple the “vacation” with the “weekend getaway”, the “Sunday drive” and the “mental health day”, and a disturbing pattern begins to emerge. Nearly every Sunday, the highways beckon the Christian to sacrifice the quiet hour with God for some new sights, some new pleasures, some new friends. This is much more than a harmless vacation. These days turn into an excuse to assuage the guilt that we feel at indulging our sinful human nature, by neglecting our spiritual health, growth, and welfare.

As a result of this subtle neglect, many a Christian’s life in Christ and with Christ lacks spiritual vigor and strength. Left to fester for enough time, this situation will result in our spiritual malnourishment. We all know of fellow Christians whose spiritual lives have sunk to the point of suspended animation. If you think hard enough, you may even call to mind someone – a friend, perhaps – whose ship of faith was eventually dashed apart on the rocky crags of neglect and worldly indulgence. In each and every case of such spiritual malaise, or spiritual death, that you can think of, the first step down that road was, most assuredly, taking an extended vacation from their Christian faith.

What are we to do, stop taking vacations? Are we to use every spare moment of our waking lives in attending worship services? May we never go out of town? Shall we only take trips that can be concluded between Monday and Saturday, so as not to miss church at our home congregation? Though we should seek to plan our lives around our Christian fellowship, and not vice versa, that isn’t exactly the point. Let us look to Holy Scripture, to the Christians at the church in Jerusalem for our example:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

The issue here is not so much the physical act of being in church, but more so the mindset of the Christians of whom St. Luke writes in the concluding verses of Acts, chapter two. St. Luke says that they “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship…” The word “devote”, according to Merriam-Webster, means, “To commit by a solemn act; to give over or direct (as time, money, or effort) to a cause, enterprise or activity.”

So, what St. Luke is telling us here is that these early Christians were committed to Christ by a solemn act (Holy Baptism). As a consequence of this commitment, they were giving over and directing their time, money, and efforts, to their endeavor, which he describes as the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers – in other words, worship and Christian fellowship.

It could have been so easy for these Christians to fall back into the routine of their daily lives. At the time of which the words of our text speak, the exciting events of the Day of Pentecost were past. The rush of the mighty wind, that sound that had gotten the people’s attention, and focused them on the Apostles, was now silent. The flaming tongues of fire which had manifested, divided, and rested so dramatically on the heads of the Apostles – the symbols of their God-given power and authority to preach the Gospel of Christ – were no longer seen upon them. The words of St. Peter who had preached to the crowd that Pentecost day were no longer ringing in the people’s ears. Many of those who had heard St. Peter’s sermon and who were “cut to the heart”, as the Scriptures describe the scene, had most certainly departed Jerusalem after the feast was over. The streets of the city had returned to their “ordinary” hustle and bustle.

With all the eventful, exciting things seemingly at an end, it must have been a powerful, albeit subtle, temptation for these new believers to lose the enthusiasm they had at Pentecost, at their conversion and baptism. In the absence of such visible wonders, it would have been comfortable to lapse into their former ways, their former habits, their former associations which had filled their past lives. It would have been easy to drift away from “the fellowship” and to forsake their fellow Christians for the friends, companions, and diversions they had in former days; Easier still, in the face of the persecution they were beginning to feel at the hands of the Pharisees, and later, the Romans.

None of that happened. What is documented by St. Luke is not a church with an attendance problem. He doesn’t write, “many of the people have left the fellowship, but the fellowship is still surviving with good attendance numbers since it began contemporary worship services on Saturday nights at the local forum.” On the contrary, he says, “…the Lord added to their number day by day, those who were being saved.” God, through his means of Grace, by the power of the Holy Spirit, builds and nurtures His Church.

The faith created in these Christians, just like the faith God created in each one of us at our conversion, by His means of Grace, was alive. How could it be otherwise? That faith was created by the preaching of the Gospel of Christ – the Word of God – which is described by the author of Hebrews in dynamic terms:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

These Christians had, from the mouth of St. Peter, heard preached the living and active Word of God, and it pierced their hearts. Never again would they be the same. They knew and acknowledged the evil of sin, and their own sinfulness. They also knew the remedy for sin – the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They knew Jesus as their Savior. They believed that Christ’s blood, shed on the cross, cleansed them from all sin, and they ached to be fed with the life-giving, faith-nurturing food of God’s means of grace – his Holy Word and Sacraments.

We are no different from these Christians at the church in Jerusalem after Pentecost. More accurately, we began our Christian journey no differently from them. We sinners, dead in our transgressions, came to faith in Christ by the same means of grace as they. We received the same living faith, by the power of the same Holy Spirit. We run the risk of stagnation, however, if we take a vacation from our faith. A living faith, just like any other living thing, must be fed and cared for, in order for it to grow and mature. If it is neglected it will weaken, wither, and die.

It is evident from St. Luke’s description of the congregation of believers in Jerusalem after Pentecost that they were no part-time Christians. They were Christians every day of their lives, at all seasons of the year. Their faith took no vacation. They fought the “old Adam” living in them – their sinful human nature – when it called them to neglect the fellowship of believers, and thus weaken their faith, to Satan’s delight. Their confidence in the Gospel led them to partake of the holy Sacrament frequently for the strengthening of their faith. And, the joint prayer with their brothers imposed upon them the welcome necessity to join with them regularly in public service.

Our faith, our steadfastness, our perseverance must never be made dependent upon days, festivals, and seasons. Let us be sure to be Christians all the time, every day of our lives, during all seasons of the year, and in every place where we happen to find ourselves. It is vitally important for our spiritual wellbeing that we gather around Word and Sacrament, and nourish our faith at every opportunity we are able. If we do not partake of the rich spiritual banquet Christ has provided us, that faith in us will become weak, emaciated, and it will ultimately die. St. Paul writes in Galatians:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law (Galatians 5:16-18).

Let us then, on the basis of the early Christians – those first generation believers of the church at Jerusalem – under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, remind ourselves that, while the Christian may, from time to time, go out of town, the Christian’s faith takes no vacation.