This is a copy of my ‘sermon’ preached at our Virtual Service on YouTube on Sunday 3 May 2020. The Bible Reading is Acts 2:42-47. If you didn’t get a chance to watch this when it was released, you should be able to catch up at Emmanuel TV YouTube Channel my talk begins at 15.00.
Some people have a slightly romantic view of the way the first Christians met together and are comparing our current situation with that of the early Church and, whilst they also met in homes, they also met in bathhouses, storerooms and cemeteries – anywhere they could! There would have been 20-30 of them meeting at any one time, but they met mostly in secret and did so under fear of arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death.
An enforced lockdown seems nothing in comparison does it? And just like the church today, the style of those meetings took on a different style dependent on theological and regional differences as well as economic class.
There was no such thing as a ‘church’ building. They put a greater emphasis on being the church rather than going to church (although they certainly emphasized the importance of meeting together). And with our buildings closed, and public worship on hold, will we, have we, discovered God’s presence in some surprising places?
From our reading in Acts 2:42-47, I want to highlight four characteristics of the early Christians, which I’ve titled ‘A Christian’s Way Of Life’. These are vital if we are to live as disciples of Jesus. I want to suggest the early Christians were a: Learning, Worshipping, Serving and Evangelistic community.
1) They were a Learning Church
The verb ‘devoted’ used in vs42 is translated from two Greek words Pros/kartereo which means to attend constantly. This was a continual rather than an occasional devotion! The early Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and gave a high priority to understanding the truth of the Good News of the Gospel. Having come to know Jesus, they wanted to know more about Him and, there’s no doubt that God’s word brings us to a closer relationship with Jesus and enables us to grow spiritually in our daily lives.
Devotion to knowing the truth is not something that was only needed by the early Christians: it is something that is desperately needed in our world today.
One of the consequences of Dan Brown’s books, such as the ‘Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Angels and Demons’ is that it highlights how little Christians know about their own faith, history, and the teachings of the Bible!
His more recent book ‘Origin’ follows a predictable pattern involving Professor Robert Langdon cracking a complicated code, spread over several continents, but it’s an interesting read which asks the questions: Where do we come from? Where are we going? We live in a world where people are asking these questions. The issues that dominate our society are issues that we must be able to grapple with. Have we, for instance, learned to think Biblically about COVID-19 and God’s purpose in all of this?
Revd Canon Simon Butler (chair of the House of Clergy on General Synod) said recently: “… we should leave our theologising to a time when people aren’t dying or facing hardship.” He couldn’t be more wrong. There isn’t, it seems to me, a more important time for us to be reflecting theologically in what is going on around us than now.
I’m thankful the Apostle Paul didn’t use that as an excuse not to write his Pastoral Letters whilst languishing in a Roman dungeon or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote some amazingly reflective theology awaiting execution in a Nazi prison. Unless we make it our business to think theologically about what the Bible says about the issues facing people in their daily lives, we won’t have any real answers for ourselves – let alone anyone else.
2) They were a Worshipping Church
And this was both formal and informal. It took place in the temple courts and in their homes – an interesting combination – a mixture of large and small group worship.
The early Christians devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. Some may suggest the breaking of bread refers to sharing in Communion and there’s no doubt that the early church had been gathered together into one fellowship through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
However, it doesn’t exclusively refer to Communion. Martin Luther spoke about every meal as being sacramental in nature. And I agree. Every time we sit down across the table from one another and share food, we strengthen our fellowship together just as Jesus did when: Feeding the 5000; eating with Mary and Martha; enjoying afternoon Tea with Zacchaeus. Sharing the Passover Feast with his disciples and preparing Breakfast on the shore.
The early Christians knew the necessity of seeking God and His will in prayer. They quickly learned to use prayer effectively because of the persecution they suffered. After Peter and John were rebuked by the Sanhedrin, and returned to the fellowship, prayer was the first order of the day. When Peter was imprisoned, the fellowship came together to pray. The early Christians were devoted to prayer as a way of life and God moved in their midst as a result. Philip Yancey is his book: ‘Prayer: Does it make any difference’ writes:
The main purpose of prayer is not to make life easier, nor to gain magical powers, but to know God. I need God more than anything I might get from God.
A primary school class went on a field trip to a local fire station. After the children had an opportunity to examine the fire engines, the Firemen’s apparatus, living quarters and so on, one of the firemen began to talk to them about fire safety. He said: If you think your house might be on fire, the first thing you should do is go to the door and feel it to see if it is hot. The second thing you should do is fall to your knees. He asked: Does anyone know why you should get on your knees? One little boy in the front raised his hand and said: You get on your knees so you can pray that God will get you out of that mess!
That’s probably not a bad description of our prayer life! We all have the tendency to make prayer an emergency exit – to get us out of trouble – when it should be the front door to all we are and seek to do. American evangelist D.L. Moody once said:
The Christian on his knees sees more than the philosopher on tiptoe.
Through prayer, we can enter into any situation we choose. We can travel to any part of the world we choose. We can stand alongside any individual we choose.
3) They were a Serving Church
The early Christians devoted themselves to the fellowship (Koinonia, meaning common). In his book ‘Simply Christian’ Tom Wright writes:
The church exists primarily for two closely correlated purposes: to worship God and to work for his kingdom in the world … The church also exists for a third purpose, which serves the other two: to encourage one another, to build one another up in faith, to pray with and for one another, to learn from one another and teach one another, and to set one another examples to follow, challenges to take up, and urgent tasks to perform. This is all part of what is known loosely as fellowship.
The early Christians recognised the importance of sharing with other believers and met, vs46, on a daily basis. It’s a well-known fact that people generally gravitate to others in similar circumstances and find comfort in the common ground they share. The opposite is true of the church – we are thrust together with people who are nothing like us.
The early Christians, we are told, vs44: … had everything in common. It was a comprehensive fellowship that transcended issues of age, education, social status, and ethnicity. It was a fellowship where lives were so entwined, they lost sight of what’s yours and mine. They sold their possessions and gave to those in need, vs45. This is the beauty of the church, and a testimony to the unifying love of Jesus.
Some suggest the early Christians gave up ‘capitalism’ and became ‘communists’ by putting all they had into one pot and dividing it up among themselves. But that’s not what this passage suggests at all. It’s simply that, as they grew in faith, and what it meant to be a community of believers, they entered into one another’s sufferings and individual burdens became mutual burdens.
4) They were an Evangelistic Church
So far, we have considered the study, fellowship, and worship of the early church, for it is to these characteristics Luke says the first believers devoted themselves. Yet, it seems to me, these are aspects of the internal life of the church; they tell us nothing about its compassionate outreach to the world.
However, it was, as a result of their devotion to these three aspects of their deepening relationship with the Lord that He added to their number daily those who were being saved. And so, my fourth point is that they were an evangelistic church. Just as their worship was daily, vs46a, so was their witness.
Those early Christians weren’t so preoccupied with learning, worshipping, and serving that they forgot about witnessing. For the Holy Spirit is a missionary Spirit who created a missionary church. Evangelism must play a central part of our everyday life if we wish to be an authentic expression of a Christian community in the 21st C.
It’s interesting that Bishop Stephen, in his most recent book: ‘On Priesthood: Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels and Steward’ (which took him nine years to write) suggests that clergy should see evangelism as their primary calling – and he’s soon to be an Archbishop! Suddenly I don’t feel out of place at all! But Bishop Stephen is not saying anything new. Canon Robert Warren, a former Archbishop’s advisor on Evangelism, said:
Mission should dominate the life and worship of a church.
Jesus never instituted the church to be a social club for Christians to be a holy huddle, we are called to live in a wider community than the church community.
It’s so easy to become caught up in the ‘bubble’ of being church, with our friendships and lifestyle so rooted in church life that we lose sight of the world around us. I realise that’s probably not the case at the moment. I’m encouraged when I hear stories of church members shopping for their neighbours, etc., all of this is our witness to the world. Be sure to keep in contact with your non-church friends as well as your church friends.
There is no doubt that these are testing times. A radical shift in how we ‘do’ church has been forced upon us in ways that are completely out of our control. We are still adjusting. The world we inhabit has changed overnight.
Times of crisis can are often the times of renewal for the Church and they can be for us if we trust God to lead us in this new and uncertain world. I believe this time is a time in which the very nature of what it means to be church is open to questions and open to experimentation.
Those early Christians were living in a time of crisis, but their lives were transformed by their experiences of meeting the risen Jesus and through the anointing of, and the indwelling of, the Holy Spirit. As a result, the early Church was a spirit filled church, and:
- They were devoted to being a learning church, eager to receive the apostles’ instructions and to obey what Jesus and the apostles taught.
- They were devoted to being a worshipping church both in the temple and in the home, in the breaking of bread and in their prayers.
- They were devoted to being a serving church and they persevered in their support of one another through their loving. caring and sharing.
- They were devoted to engaging in continuous evangelism and being a missionary church.
Whilst, as I mentioned earlier, it’s slightly dangerous to compare our situation to that of the early Church, these four characteristics are, I believe, hugely relevant for the church in any and every generation, to live ‘A Christian Way Of Life’.
What will it mean for us to live these out in the days and weeks and months to come? How does the church remain visible when our buildings are closed? What might this mean for us as a Team Ministry? How will resources be deployed in the future? What might our future priorities be? How will this impact on our structures – both locally and nationally?
I don’t have the answers, but one thing’s for sure, the church of tomorrow will be hugely different from the church of yesterday – even more so. I don’t know about you, but I’m quite excited by the opportunities this will bring our way.