Now all who believed were together.
In 1976 tremors devastated the highlands of Guatemala. Thousands of people were killed, and tens of thousands were left homeless. A philanthropist offered to sponsor a relief team from our college. This flyer was posted in our dormitory: “Needed: students willing to use their spring break to build cinder-block homes in Quetzaltenango.” I applied, was accepted, and began attending the orientation sessions.
There were twelve of us in all. Mostly ministry students. All of us, it seemed, loved to discuss theology. We were young enough in our faith to believe we knew all the answers. This made for lively discussions. We bantered about a covey of controversies. I can’t remember the list. It likely included the usual suspects of charismatic gifts, end times, worship styles, and church strategy. By the time we reached Guatemala, we’d covered the controversies and revealed our true colors. I’d discerned the faithful from the infidels, the healthy from the heretics. I knew who was in and who was out.
But all of that was soon forgotten. The destruction from the earthquake dwarfed our differences. Entire villages had been leveled. Children were wandering through rubble. Long lines of wounded people awaited medical attention. Our opinions seemed suddenly petty. The disaster demanded teamwork. The challenge created a team.
The task turned rivals into partners. I remember one fellow in particular. He and I had distinctly different opinions regarding the styles of worship music. I—the open-minded, relevant thinker—favored contemporary, upbeat music. He—the stodgy, close-minded caveman—preferred hymns and hymnals. Yet when stacking bricks for houses, guess who worked shoulder to shoulder? As we did, we began to sing together. We sang old songs and new, slow and fast. Only later did the irony of it dawn on me. Our common concern gave us a common song.
This was Jesus’ plan all along. None of us can do what all of us can do. Remember his commission to the disciples? “You [all of you collectively] will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8 niv). Jesus didn’t issue individual assignments. He didn’t move one by one down the line and knight each individual.
“You, Peter, will be my witness . . .”
“You, John, will be my witness . . .”
“You, Mary Magdalene, will be my witness . . .”
But rather, “You [the sum of you] will be my witnesses . . .” Jesus works in community. For that reason you find no personal pronouns in the earliest description of the church:
All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.
A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy. (Acts 2:42–46 nlt)
The cameo contains only plural nouns and pronouns.
“All the believers.”
“Awe came over them all.”
“All the believers met together . . . and shared everything.”
“They sold their property and possessions and shared.”
“They worshiped together . . . and shared their meals.”
No I or my or you. We are in this together. We are more than followers of Christ, disciples of Christ. “We are parts of his body” (Eph. 5:30 ncv). “He is the head of the body, which is the church” (Col. 1:18 ncv). I am not his body; you are not his body. We—together—are his body.
But his body has been known to misbehave. The brain discounts the heart. (Academics discount worshippers.) The hands criticize the knees. (People of action criticize people of prayer.) The eyes refuse to partner with the feet. (Visionary thinkers won’t work with steady laborers.)
A clear case of mutiny on the body.
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. (1 Cor. 12:15–18)
The early Christians surely chuckled at these word pictures. What if the whole body were an eye? If you were a collection of eyeballs, how would you function? Five eyes on your hand, which is an eye, attached to your arm-sized eye, affixed to a torso eye from which extends your neck eye, and . . . The thought is ludicrous! You’d have to bathe in Visine. But, then again, you couldn’t bathe, for you wouldn’t have hands.
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’” (v. 21).
We cannot say, “I have no need of you.” The megachurch needs the smaller church. The liberal needs the conservative. The pastor needs the missionary. Cooperation is more than a good idea; it is a command. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3 niv). Unity matters to God. There is “one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16 niv).
What if the missing ingredient for changing the world is teamwork? “When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there” (Matt. 18:19–20 msg).
This is an astounding promise. When believers agree, Jesus takes notice, shows up, and hears our prayers.
And when believers disagree? Can we return to my Guatemalan memory for a moment?
Suppose our group had clustered according to opinions. Divided according to doctrines. If we had made unanimity a prerequisite for partnership, can you imagine the consequences? We wouldn’t have accomplished anything. When workers divide, it is the suffering who suffer most.
They’ve suffered enough, don’t you think? The Jerusalem church found a way to work together. They found common ground in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Because they did, lives were changed.
And as you and I do, the same will happen.
We will help more and more people, such as José Ferreira. He runs a small pharmacy in a slum of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It’s really more a tin-walled shed and bench, but since he sells medicine, it bears the hand-painted sign Farmácia. He started his store with three dollars’ worth of medical supplies that he bought from a larger pharmacy downtown. As soon as he sells the medicine, he closes his store, walks to a nearby bus stop, rides one hour to the larger pharmacy, and buys more stock.
By the time he returns, it is dark, so he waits until the next morning and repeats the cycle: open, sell the product, close the store, and travel to purchase inventory. Some days he does this twice. Since his store is closed as much as it is open, he scarcely makes a profit. He and his family live in the back of the shack and subsist on the equivalent of three dollars a day. If rains flood the favela and wash away his shack, he will lose everything. If one of his children comes down with dengue fever, he likely will not have the money for medicine. José knows this. But what can he do? He indwells the low-ceilinged world of the poor.
But while José is struggling in Rio, God is working in London. A good-hearted taxi driver named Thomas reads an article in a magazine. It details the fascinating process of microfinance. Microfinance provides small loans to poor people so they can increase their income and decrease their vulnerability to unforeseen circumstances. Thomas is not rich, but he is blessed. He would happily help a fellow businessperson on the other side of the world. But how can he? Can a British taxi driver help a Brazilian merchant? Through microfinance organizations, he can.
So he does.
A few days later José is offered a microloan of fifty-five dollars. In order to qualify for it, however, he has to join a borrower group of six neighboring businessmen. Each one receives a loan, but each member of the group cross-guarantees the loans of the other members. In other words, if José does not repay the loan, his friends have to cover for him. (Peer pressure turned positive.)
José puts the loan to good use. With the extra capital he is able to reduce his purchasing trips to once a week and keep his store open all day. After two years of growing his business and paying back his loans, he saves a thousand dollars, buys a plot of land in the favela, and is collecting cinder blocks for a house.
How did this happen? Whom did God use to help José Ferreira? A taxi driver. A humanitarian organization. Fellow favela dwellers. They all worked together. Isn’t this how God works?
This is how he worked in Jerusalem. The congregation is a microcosm of God’s plan. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. And when we do, statements such as these will be read more often: “The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. There were no needy people among them” (Acts 4:33–34 nlt).
Our only hope is to work together.
Some years back a reporter covering the conflict in Sarajevo saw a little girl shot by a sniper. The back of her head had been torn away by the bullet. The reporter threw down his pad and pencil and stopped being a reporter for a few minutes. He rushed to the man who was holding the child and helped them both into his car. As the reporter stepped on the accelerator, racing to the hospital, the man holding the bleeding child said, “Hurry, my friend. My child is still alive.”
A moment or two later he pleaded, “Hurry, my friend. My child is still breathing.”
A moment later, “Hurry, my friend. My child is still warm.”
Finally, “Hurry. Oh my God, my child is getting cold.”
When they arrived at the hospital, the little girl had died. As the two men were in the lavatory, washing the blood off their hands and their clothes, the man turned to the reporter and said, “This is a terrible task for me. I must go tell her father that his child is dead. He will be heartbroken.”
The reporter was amazed. He looked at the grieving man and said, “I thought she was your child.”
The man looked back and said, “No, but aren’t they all our children?”
Indeed. Those who suffer belong to all of us. And if all of us respond, there is hope.