Sunday, 11 May 2014

marks of the church

For the last couple of weeks since Easter we have been looking at Peter’s sermon that he gave on the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit had enlivened all the disciples after Jesus had ascended to heaven and they started speaking in other languages. The crowds in Jerusalem had come from all over the known world for the festival. They hear the disciples speaking in their own languages and talking about powerful actions of God. Peter steps in front of the crowds to explain what they are experiencing. He tells the story of Jesus- his life, death, resurrection, ascension. The crowd asked what they should do and Peter invites them to repent, be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit. Many come join the church that day. The author says about 3000.

The preacher John Stott has said a more accurate name for the Book of Acts would be- “The Continuing Words and Deeds of Jesus by his Spirit through his Apostles’”. What we read about in Acts is a group of people who are caught up in God’s mission of love. Jesus’ proclamation about the Kingdom of God being near is still being proclaimed through his disciples. The power of God is still present in the disciples. Now we read in Acts about what that community was like. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42). These are marks that were essential and basic to the early church, but they are also essential and basic for the modern church and we would do well to pay attention to these.

First, when these early believers gathered they dedicated themselves to the teaching of the Apostles. The Apostles were those who spent time with Jesus while he was teaching before his crucifixion and resurrection. The Apostles were the ones who wandered the roads with Jesus as he went from town to town teaching and healing. They were the ones that were with him for the three years of his ministry and their souls were shaped by being in his presence. After the resurrection we read in Acts that Jesus spent 40 more days teaching them about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). We also read that many miracles were done through the Apostles (2:43), which also authenticated them by showing that the power of God was active and alive in them just as the power of God had been active in Jesus. These Apostles were those that were most formed by Jesus, and so the teaching of the Apostles is the teaching that is most formed by Jesus. As the community met they devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles, which is to say the Apostles’ teaching about Jesus and his teachings. The first thing they dedicated themselves to was to be a learning community. All Christians are disciples, and a disciple is an “apprentice” or a “student”.

Today the teaching of the Apostles comes to us in the New Testament. That was one of the tests for how a writing would end up in the New Testament- it was connected to an Apostle. The ancient Christian devotion to the teaching of the Apostles is paralleled by our devotion to the teachings we find in the New Testament. We are called to have our lives shaped by the Bible. The New Testament because it is the teaching of Jesus’ Apostles, and the Old Testament because it was the Bible of Jesus and his Apostles.

Second, we read that they devoted themselves to fellowship. The word translated “fellowship” (koinonia) comes from the root for “common” (koinos). This means they had a “common” life, not in the sense of “ordinary”, but in the sense of “together” or “shared”. It was a shared life in that they shared in the life of God, but it was also a shared life because they shared their lives with one another. This was a community that was dedicated to one another. We read that “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:44-46). I don’t think this is proof that they were communists or that no one had any personal property, but I think they cared about each other deeply. They spent a lot of time together and when they saw need in the community they were willing to meet that need with their resources even if it meant selling their new car or a rental property. This doesn’t mean that they sold everything they owned and lived together, but they were unwilling to see someone in need when they had the resources to meet their needs. It’s what you would do for someone you love. It’s what you would do for your children or your parents (if you have a healthy loving relationship with them). You respond to the needs of those you love in the best way you can. But, their common life wasn’t just about meeting each other’s needs. They met in each other’s homes. They ate together. They enjoyed each other and they were generous with each other.

We are called to a life of fellowship. This goes well beyond coffee after church. We are to learn to care about each other deeply. That means we are to learn to be vulnerable with each other. We will have people in the fellowship who we can be real with, who we can cry with and laugh with, who we can call at 2:00 in the morning when we have been in the emergency room. We will have people in the fellowship we know outside the walls of the church building. We will know their stories- their joys and their pains- and they will know our stories. Their joy will cause us joy and their pain will cause us pain. And when their lives fall apart we are willing to make sacrifices to pull them back up. This is the kind of fellowship we are called to.

Thirdly, we read that they dedicated themselves to “the breaking of bread” and to “the prayers”. The way the phrase is worded in the original language shows us that they weren’t just meeting to break bread together as we might say when we share a meal (though they certainly did do that). We read that they were dedicated to “the” breaking of “the” bread and to “the” prayers. It is very likely that this is a reference to the Eucharist and to some sort of shared times of prayer. We are called together to worship. In our individualistic society I might be tempted to say, “I can pray at home and read my Bible at home, or go for a walk and meet God. Why do I need to come to Church?” The first answer to my question would be that this is what Christians have always done. It is a part of the tradition of the community of the Apostles and we should always be wary of tossing that aside. Our base assumption should be that they had a good reason. We are shaped and formed by our common worship. We learn from each other and we challenge each other. Off on our own we might convince ourselves that we are doing quite well and are people full of love and compassion, but when we are together worshipping we can be shocked by our impatience and the hurt and judgementalism that is so close to the surface. In our common worship we come together as God has always called His people to gather before him. God has called us into community and being shaped as his people means learning to stand before him as a gathered people and to be shaped by being together. We are called to worship together.

The preacher John Stott sees in the statement “day by day the Lord added to their number” (Acts 2:47) as a forth mark of the church. He says this forth mark of the early church is evangelism. That word tends to freak us out a bit. What this means is that they welcomed others among them, they were not shy about sharing their story, and they acted with compassion for those around them. Evangelism isn’t about hitting people over the head with your bible or cramming your beliefs down someone else’s throat. It can be as simple as asking someone else what they believe about spirituality and being willing to share what you believe if they happen to ask you. Evangelism can be welcoming new faces and being willing to make them feel at home. It means being willing to invite new faces out for coffee and inviting them into the hospitality of the fellowship we spoke about. We are called to be a community that cares about the spiritual lives of others and we make the effort to welcome those who are not already a part of us.

May we be a community that is shaped deeply by the spiritual teaching of the Apostles. May we love each other deeply and live lives of vulnerability and availability to one another. May we worship together, being nourished by the Body of Christ that we might be the body of Christ in the world. AMEN

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