Baseball, like any sport, has rules. Most of these rules are codified in a complex document that has been revised and ratified at various times by the owners of the baseball clubs in Major League Baseball. You follow these official rules, and if you don’t, you pay a penalty. Unless you’re the Houston Astros; if that’s the case then go ahead and break the rules to win the World Series and Major League Baseball officials will shake their finger at you and slap you on the wrist.
But baseball has unwritten rules as well. Some of these include:
Do not bunt to break up a no-hitter.
Do not spend time admiring a home run you hit.
Do not steal bases if your team is ahead by a significant amount.
Do not try to steal signs while standing in the batter’s box.
Do not speak to a pitcher who is in the process of throwing a no-hitter.
A pitcher should not indicate displeasure if one of his fielders commits an error.
If a player violates an unwritten rule, he probably knows that the next time he steps into the batter’s box, the pitcher on the opposing team will throw a “purpose pitch” (otherwise known as a “brushback pitch”) or a bean ball.
Thou shalt not break the unwritten rules of baseball! These rules, evolved over time, are meant to establish boundaries for behavior which, if observed, contribute to good sportsmanship. In baseball, the players know that there’s no showboating, no headhunting and no sign stealing. Again, unless you’re the Astros, in which case – don’t do it again or we’ll slap the other wrist.
Apparently, in the Eastern part of the US, there is an unwritten rule known as the Massachusetts left or Boston left or Pittsburgh left. This is the practice of waiting after the traffic light turns green in your favor, so that one (or some say two) cars in the opposite direction can turn left in front of you before you proceed through the intersection.
Do you suppose there are unwritten rules in the church?
The most important unwritten rule of church is you can probably say with me: “Thou shalt not covet nor sit in thy neighbor’s pew.”
Some other unwritten rules of church life might include:
Thou shalt laugh at thy pastor’s corny jokes.
Every potluck shall include cheesy hash brown casserole (aka potluck and/or funeral potatoes), deviled eggs and at least two jello “salads.” Please note: required dishes may vary in your area.
Sometimes, the unwritten rules of the church are unknown to us. They are rules in place without us being aware of them. Josh Daffern, blogger and pastor of Centreville Baptist Church in Virginia, suggests that many churches have six unwritten rules. People attending this church shall:
1) look like us,
2) dress like us,
3) talk like us,
4) vote like us,
5) sin like us and
6) believe like us.
If you can’t follow these rules, you should probably find another church.
Today’s text, however, speaks of a different set of unwritten rules that governs our shared life together as the church. In verse 42, we read: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
1. It’s an unwritten rule that we’re all in. This is suggested by the word “devoted.”
What does it mean to be “all in,” or devoted?
It means we are totally committed. If we’re going to sign on as a follower of Jesus, we do not do this halfheartedly. We have total buy-in.
Jesus hinted at the need for complete surrender in His encounters with several disciple wannabes. One fellow said he was going to follow Jesus, but had to attend a funeral. Another said he was going to follow Jesus, but had to say goodbye to his family. Jesus knew that these would-be disciples did not have total buy-in. “No one who puts a hand to the plow,” he said, “and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
The early church did not need to be told this. The new Christians were all in. The text says they were “devoted.” The Greek word means “to continue to do something with intense effort, with the possible implication of despite difficulty — to devote oneself to, to keep on, to persist in.”
Luke, the writer, chooses the same word in verse 46: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.” The new Christians devoted themselves to gathering every day at the temple. They persisted, they continued.
Most congregations today have a mix of people. Not everyone is all in. And perhaps that is because people are at different stages in their faith journeys.
The problem lies with those who believe that they’re really mature, strong Christians, when actually — let’s get real — their level of commitment to Jesus and the Jesus way is at best lukewarm.
The prickly Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, understood this when he wrote: “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly” (emphasis added).
In Revelation, the church at Laodicia was criticized for its failure to be “devoted” to the degree that the first Christians were devoted. “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16, NIV). Strong words, but the readers at the time knew exactly what was being said here.
The pipes that brought water to Laodicia traveled underground and so the water was cold and refreshing when it arrived at the city. In addition, near Laodicia in what is today Pamukkale was (and still is) a hot springs where once Cleopatra and Roman troops quartered and refreshed themselves. The water flowed out of this spring at a very hot temperature and was good for soaking away aches and pains, but by the time the water reached Laodicia, it was only lukewarm.
The message is clear: the unwritten and normative rule of the church and those who follow Jesus is that we’ve got to be all in. We’ve got to be devoted.
We’ve got to be hot or cold! Never tepid.
2. It is an unwritten rule that we are students of the Master we follow. “… To the apostles’ teaching …” Of course, the course outline offered by the early apostolic professors featured the life and teachings of Christ, and the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the Messiah who had so recently appeared.
Serious followers of Jesus want to know all they can know. They’re eager to drink at the fountain of knowledge. They are interested in what the Word has to say. So the study of God’s word is a given. It’s what we do.
Granted, studying the word of God sort of is a rule. We are told to study; we are expected to study. So, perhaps, it is not an unwritten rule so much as a written rule.
But, what is interesting is that these early Christians did not need to be told. They wanted to study. They had a need for the word of God like a baby needs its mother’s milk. No need to explain to them; they wanted the nourishment of the word of God.
Still, lest the importance of study elude us, the Bible is clear: We need to be in the word of God.
“How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word” (Psalm 119:9).
“I treasure your word in my heart so that I may not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).
“As newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow unto salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).
“This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful” (Joshua 1:8).
I know some people continue to be reluctant to study the Bible because it seems like a daunting task. Yet, never has it been easier. Bible study helps are numerous, as are translations that make the Bible accessible to our understanding. The King James is no more authoritative than any well researched modern translation. Pick the NIV or NRSV or even The Message and start reading the Gospel of Luke or John. Just start. Too often, as Kierkegaard said, our reluctance in not based on difficulty in studying but fear that we must follow what is easily understood in God’s word.
Students in U.S. public education are required to study U.S. history. Often, this happens in eighth grade.
Students in France are required to study French history.
Students in the United Kingdom are required to study British history.
Makes sense, right?
Christians, likewise, should want to understand who they are, how they are connected to God, and what God expects. We only can discover the answers to these and other questions by emulating what the early Christians did: they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
3. It is an unwritten rule that we relax around a table together. These Christians studied the apostles’ teaching, then they broke for potluck and conversation. “ … and fellowship, to the breaking of bread …” (v. 42). “They broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (v. 46).
I’ve visited congregations that, by the way they acted, are probably very comfortable with our current physical distancing. But not this one. I know there is no need at this point to encourage you to be about the breaking of bread together. You miss it as much as I do. We have always loved to be together. And we will be together again – prayerfully sooner than later.
Of course, this time together is not always focused on talking about religious matters or our faith journeys. Sometimes, we talk about the stock prices or the price of corn. One can imagine the early Christians gossiped about what the local governors might do next.
It’s what you call koinonia. I don’t believe Luke’s reference to “breaking of bread” is a Eucharistic notation but, even if it is, Paul shows us (in 1 Corinthians) that the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper followed at the end of a shared meal. The early Christians enjoyed eating together.
This is one of those “rules” that is so obviously the norm (that is, Christians involved in a community of faith enjoy drinking coffee, eating potato salad and hot dogs, and fellowship) that it would be cause for alarm if member of a congregation didn’t particularly like each other, and didn’t really care to spend time with one another.
The larger point, however, is that many Christians in fact, do not like each other; and I already mentioned I’ve seen some. This is often influenced by factors that go beyond our faith in Jesus Christ.
These days, a Christian who is on the wrong side of the political fence, the religious fence, the worship-style fence, the liberal-conservative divide, the economic fence, or from the wrong side of the tracks or the border — well, that’s going to be a problem.
It’s an unfortunate reality that 2,000 years after the Christians to whom Luke referred in our text met for potluck, we have erected fences and barriers that make it difficult for the body of Christ to be one. We prefer to keep our distance from those Christians unlike ourselves. Some religious traditions will not allow other Christians to even participate in Holy Communion. Others have established shibboleths (that is divisive customs or traditions) based on political and social issues.
Yet, the ideal for us as Christians is demonstrated in this text: People of faith should be able to sit down and break bread together. A large part of the disappointment for many of us, when the Holy Week Services had to be canceled, was the fact that we would miss out on the community meals.
4. Finally, it is an unwritten rule that Christians are grateful, generous and glorifying people — and goodwill ensues. It’s right here in the text: “They … ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (v. 46). As they ate together, they did so gladly. They were grateful. They also had generous hearts. They gave to the poor. They sold some of their possessions and donated to the needy. Generous. And they glorified God (v. 47).
And if you meet people who are grateful, generous and glorifying God, what’s going to happen? You’re going to like them! You will have goodwill toward them (v. 47).
So there you have it. Unwritten rules.
This is an important discussion because we all know what happens when unwritten rules are broken. It’s not pretty.
Benches clear. Dugouts empty. Fists and punches are thrown. Bats fly. Players can actually get ejected from the game! All because some silly unwritten rule — like brushing back the pitcher who’s up to bat — is broken.
In the church, breaking unwritten rules either leads to serious problems, or is indicative of serious problems that already exist within a faith fellowship.
Better to live by the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law, and endeavor to emulate the model left for us by the earliest of Christians, those who came to Christ on the day of Pentecost.