Saturday, 20 May 2017

Acts 2- life lived under the shepherd

We are in the season after Easter and so we are living in the glow of the resurrection of Jesus, and watching his early disciples live in that glow as well. In some churches today is called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because there is a theme of shepherding in our readings.

Today, I would like to look at the reading from the Acts of the Apostles. By this point in our reading there is no longer any doubt about Jesus being the messiah. This company of disciples knows who Jesus is. They are on the other side of the resurrection and have spent time with Jesus after he came back from the dead. Our reading from Acts tells us how to live as a people with a resurrected Lord shepherding us. What should the Christian community be like?

We read in Acts that, “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, and 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 new Christian 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.

This is probably what the prophets of the Old Testament were talking about when they criticized the people for abandoning the widow and orphan to their poverty. They became unwelcome in the community of love, otherwise their needs would have been met. The prophets weren’t criticizing their lack of charitable giving- they were criticizing their lack of love. Their lack of help for the widow and orphan was evidence of their lack of love. … This issue was solved in the early church. The community the prophets yearned for was present in those early disciples.

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 go to the emergency room. We will have people in the fellowship we spend time with 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 worship to express our love and appreciation to God. We have lots of ways of doing that, but we should never forget that whatever else worship is, it is a focus on God, and we should try to not let anything else distract us from that. From the time we walk in the door of the church we should keep God in our mind’s eye. As we pray, we should speak to God as someone standing in front of us. As we sing, we should make ourselves aware of God’s presence with us. As we approach the altar we should see Jesus welcoming us to his table and offering us his life.

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 that 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.

Beyond that, we are shaped and formed by our common worship. We are meant to encourage each other. 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 that we 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 rises up within us.

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 a forth mark of the church in the statement “day by day the Lord added to their number” (Acts 2:47). He says this forth mark of the early church is evangelism. That word tends to freak us out a bit. We imagine someone knocking on doors and handing out leaflets, or a televangelist crying into the camera.

Evangelism means a number of things. It means not hiding what you have found to be so helpful to you. It means the early disciples 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 friends 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.

We have to admit that this isn’t always who we are. We don’t always make the teaching of the Apostles the center of our lives. We don’t always commit ourselves to deeper fellowship with other Christians. We have to admit that we can sometimes worship in a way that we don’t focus ourselves on God. We sometimes hide our faith because it have become unpopular. When we see these in ourselves that is a call to repent, which is to adjust our minds- To turn away from what has been keeping us from fulling embracing the life of a disciple, and refocus on the joyous life God wants for His people.

May we be a community that is shaped deeply by the spiritual teaching of the Apostles- a people filled with the wisdom of Christ. In shared lives of deep fellowship, may we love each other deeply and live lives of vulnerability and availability with one another. Showing our love for God, 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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