Sunday, November 23rd @ St Barnabas & St Michael’s
This sermon also uses this passage to reinforce the key priorities for the life of our two churches, which we have been working on for the past couple of years or so
A common passion
People who have a common interest love to get together. There are clubs and associations for almost any human activity under the sun – be it bee-keeping or bungee-jumping or anything else you can possibly think of. And if you’ve ever been bitten by the bug for a particular pastime, then you will know that meeting other enthusiasts is far more than simply doing things together. It’s an opportunity to share ideas, to talk about your passion, to meet like-minded people. It’s little wonder, then, up and down the land so many of these clubs and associations have such a committed, active membership. People, it seems, will go to almost any length to find others who share their love for, say, Citroen cars or Elvis Presley records, or in my own particular case, playing chess.
And yet when it comes to the church somehow the situation seems all very different. All too often it appears people go along out of a sense of duty, or because it’s their turn on the rotas, or simply just because they happen to be doing nothing else that day. The idea that church is about a meeting of people who share a common love, a common passion and commitment, sadly seems to be lacking and the result, in this country at least, is that slowly, year by year, the church is dying on its feet. It’s not necessarily that people have stopped believing, and it’s certainly not that they want the local church to disappear – the outcry when the local parish church is threatened with closure bears that out. But the idea that the church is an association to which anyone would choose to belong is already generations out of date.
So my task this morning is to ask how this situation has come about. After all, the church was founded at the day of Pentecost with a huge wave of enthusiasm, and it was a dynamic, active group of people that every day was growing both numerically and spiritually. Church was cool; church was exciting; church was where it was at, and it is no surprise that those who had gathered at Pentecost from every part of the known world returned home with a message that would soon sweep right across the empire, and cause churches to be planted in the most far-flung and most unlikely of places. The energy, the vibrancy, the passion of these early Christians was infectious, and folk wanted to join in, and be a part of this radical movement called church.
So what’s gone wrong? I think there are a number of answers to this question, and I shall look at four of them this morning.
The need for focus
First of all, in many cases it appears that the church has lost its focus. People look at the local church and they see one of those huge red thermometers outside showing how far it has reached in its building appeal, or they pick up a parish magazine which seems to be all about the forthcoming flower festival. Or they turn on to the news, and hear how at a national level the church is arguing about which forms of service ought to be allowed, or what to do about the rising cost of pensions. The general impression the church sends out is that, by and large, it’s an organisation that it is primarily concerned with keeping itself going, that whatever message it may claim to send out, its real concerns are the maintenance of buildings, the raising of finance, the right forms of service.
What about the early church? Verse 42 of today’s reading: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And why did they concentrate on these things? Because, very simply, they knew they owed literally everything to Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was less than two months prior to this that the original disciples had witnessed Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion, and it must have seemed for three unimaginably awful days that their world really had come to an end. And it’s only when you begin to feel their grief, their hopelessness, their despair, that you start to realise just what a difference the resurrection of Jesus made to their lives. From that point on, knowing Jesus became the most important thing to them, and even before the day of Pentecost and the massive outpouring of the Spirit, they came together to study the Scriptures, to pray, to break bread in obedience to Jesus’ commands. He was their passion and their joy; their focus and their object of devotion. Nothing mattered to them more than discovering more about Jesus and His will for their lives, and they would do anything to find out more about Him.
And I think the most basic problem that the church faces today is that we have lost this freshness and this joy about the good news of Jesus. After all, we have heard many times that Jesus has died and risen for us. We proclaim that same message every Easter and we also proclaim the cross and resurrection most Sundays through our songs, our liturgies, our creeds. Yet at the same time we have become completely dull to the fact that we too owe Jesus everything. He is the brother who causes us to be adopted into God’s family. He is the great high priest who has made the perfect sacrifice. He is the lamb of God who takes away our sins, and the sins of the world. He is the good shepherd who leads us out into good pasture and directs us with His voice. He is the bread of life who satisfies our deepest hunger. He is the king of kings, and Lord of Lords, who directs the course of human history. He is the cornerstone on whom the church is built, and the fountain of living water from whom the Holy Spirit comes to all who believe. He is our righteousness, holiness and redemption, our wisdom from God. He is… well, the list just goes on and on, and how dare we focus on anyone or anything else?
I am more and more convinced that until we regain our passion, our spark, our enthusiasm for Jesus then the church will continue to wane and to die. Jesus has to be the centre of all that we do, and without that passion for Jesus we will never live up to our primary calling to be His body, the church. So, can I ask, how devoted are you to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer? Because unless we are passionate about these things, then I believe no matter how lovely our new building is, no matter how many people come to have a look, we will only grow as a church if that focus on Jesus is our top priority.
The need for fellowship
But secondly, we must consciously strive to change people’s perceptions as to who the church is actually for. Because I don’t know about you, but I believe there’s a widespread misunderstanding that church is only for people who look a certain way, or who have a certain level of education, or who come from a particular type of background. That word fellowship I used conjures up in many people’s minds the idea that the church is basically another kind of club, for people who don’t tend to go down the pub, or watch TV, but want to meet people of their own types. And I have to say, that in some ways the church has colluded in that understanding. There are too many people in our streets who have been made to feel uncomfortable when they walked into church for the first time, or who would feel out of place because they have, say, body piercings or tattoos all over their body.
What about the church gathered at Jerusalem at that first Pentecost? Well, at first glance it sounds all very similar. Verse 44: All the believers were together and had everything in common and surely that’s a description that could apply to many churches, couldn’t it? But a quick glance at the three thousand people cramming the temple courts shows us that in fact this was a very different kind of gathering. Of the twelve apostles, for example, one was a former tax collector, and collaborator with the Roman authorities. Another was a former terrorist and revolutionary. Others were converted fishermen, used to hard, physical manual labour. And what about those who had just been converted at Pentecost? We can’t be absolutely certain, but it would seem likely that many of them would have been the God-fearers from every part of the empire listed at the start of chapter 2 – Romans, Arabs, Africans, Greeks, to name but a few. This was a church of every background, of every ethnic mix, and of every age.
And what brought them together was not just a common human interest, or a shared curiosity about the Christian faith, but a deep, deep work of the Spirit. So far we’ve passed over verse 43, but it really explains how this amazingly diverse and inclusive fellowship came together and stayed together. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. Lives quite simply were being transformed, and the way they were being transformed was not that ordinary men and women were being moulded into a sort of respectable, middle-class church sub-culture, but quite simply that through the power of the Holy Spirit they were becoming more like Christ. That sick person was dramatically healed; another was given great patience in their suffering; that broken relationship was mended; that marriage prayerfully put back together; that legacy of bitterness replaced by acceptance and forgiveness; that missed opportunity no longer resented and regretted; that grief and despair touched by resurrection hope and joy. Everywhere you looked the Spirit was at work and it was little wonder everyone was filled with awe. What about us? Do we see evidence of God changing lives here? Is our reaction when we meet our fellow believers Sunday by Sunday one of awe? If not, then we need to think why not. What is it, exactly, that is stopping us from becoming the kind of fellowship the Lord Jesus wants us to be?
The need for faithful living
Maybe one answer is to look at the way we live our Christian lives outside of our regular Sunday gatherings. After all, a third and very common reason people give for not joining a church is that no matter what it teaches about Jesus, and no matter what the depth of fellowship, its whole message and witness is undermined by the simple fact its members do not practise what they preach. The people they know who call themselves Christians are in reality as much interested in looking after number one as anyone else, and there is little concrete evidence that they are that concerned about applying their faith to their everyday lives.
Whereas what marked out the church in Jerusalem, and gained it such a good reputation was precisely the fact that their focus on Jesus and their Spirit-filled fellowship resulted in such faithful living that everyone sat up and took notice. There was quite simply no area of their daily life that was not shaped and moulded by the gospel. So when it came to how the church members used their money, for example, what marked them out was an extraordinary and costly generosity. Verse 45: Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Or again, when it came to time management, verse 46: Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. Or when it came to the whole question of hospitality: verse 46, again: They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. For these people, the Christian faith was all about an integrated, holistic lifestyle. They didn’t need a yearly stewardship campaign to remind them they needed to give a tenth of their income to the local church. Nor did they need to make space in their diaries once a month or so to come to church. And they certainly didn’t see church as an activity that only took place outside their own front door. You see, because they realised they owed Jesus everything, they gave Him every part of their lives.
Now I realise of course that life was rather different in those days, and maybe the rhythm of the daily routine was rather slower. But I think it would be wrong to imagine that somehow these first believers who gathered in Jerusalem had in a sense nothing else to do. They still had to go down to the market to buy food; they still had to do the cooking and the cleaning and the washing; they still had businesses to run, and government officials to deal with. But because Jesus’ death and resurrection was so real to them, the Christian faith, if I may put it this way, was woven into every thread and fibre of their being. And in that sense belonging to the church was not the same as joining another club or association. It was about being part of the body of Christ, and living for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords wherever they went, whatever they did.
Clarity about foundations
And what was the result? The end of verse 47 gives the answer: the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (repeat). You see, because others could see a church focused on Jesus and because they saw a deep level of fellowship, and because they saw such faithful living, the church was irresistibly, and undeniably attractive. There was, in fact, no need for a separate mission or evangelism committee, and the PCC didn’t have to scratch their heads and work out how to drag more people through the doors – not that they had their own church building anyway. No, in a very real sense folk saw Jesus in these first believers, and as they saw Jesus, so the Lord added them to their number.
But we mustn’t imagine for one moment that the church didn’t have anything more to do at this point. After all, there’s a sense in which it takes a whole lifetime to understand what it means to follow Jesus Christ. Presumably these newcomers had to be taught how to focus on Christ as they themselves came under the apostles’ teaching, and learnt how to pray. They had to be integrated into the fellowship and experience the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They had to be shown, presumably by Christians wiser and older than themselves, how to live out their faith in the busyness of each day. But because the church itself was clear about the foundations of its faith, it was therefore able to pass those foundations on. And so began a cycle where these new Christians grew in the faith, and so passed on the faith to others who had just been converted, who then in turn passed on the faith to others, and so on.
Questions for us
Let me therefore ask you:
What is our focus as a church? Are we devoted to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer?
What about our fellowship? How much is the Holy Spirit at work in our lives individually and corporately, to make us the people Jesus calls us to be?
Does our daily routine show evidence of faithful living? How far does the good news of Jesus Christ affect the way we use our money, our time, our possessions?
Are we clear about our foundations? Do we know the good news of Jesus Christ in such a way we can explain it to others?
In short, do we realise we owe everything to Jesus, and His death and resurrection?
Let us pray…