St Barnabas, 27th April 2014
Reading – Acts 2:42-47
In the world of global marketing, brand management is big business. You look at a company like Coca Cola or Ford and you will immediately see they spend enormous sums developing and protecting their identity. After all, they know from all the market research done over the years that brands are massively important. Because customers who trust a particular brand tend to stay loyal to it; they associate that brand with certain values such as reliability, service or quality. And though you cannot see or touch a brand, it can appear on a balance sheet as the company’s most valuable asset, fiercely protected from any competitor who would dare to copy it or detract from its value.
Now it’s a long way from thinking about global marketing to thinking about the church. The church is not a business. Its core aim is not to sell this particular product or market that particular strategy. And the measure of its success is not how much revenue it happens to earn. And yet the fact remains, the church is a global presence. In nearly every area of the world, there are groups of believers who call themselves Christians and nearly every group of Christians is aiming to make an impact on those who are not yet part of the church.
Yet the sad fact remains that all too often these groups of believers do not spend enough time considering – for want of a better expression – what outsiders think about this brand “church”. Instead they so often seem to be focused on matters which are of purely marginal importance to the wider world, such as structure or ecclesiastical politics, or else on making sure that they remain pure and distinctive from other branches of the same organisation. And when they have argued long and hard about such matters and finally start to think about mission and outreach, they wonder why so people have such confused ideas about the church and what it actually stands for.
It is, I think, worth stopping and considering that when the Bible talks about the church, it has very little to say on so many things we hold so dear. There’s very little liturgy in Scripture, for example, maybe just one or two fragments of early hymns. There’s certainly nothing about buildings or denominations. And even who gets to run to the church, well, there’s a healthy debate about exactly what the Bible does say. It seems from reading Scripture closely that the church should take many different forms, according to the particular culture it finds itself in, but be prepared to be as flexible as possible to commend as many possible to Christ.
But where Scripture is clear is that whatever shape the church actually takes, there should always be some core values which it communicates clearly to the wider world. So whether the church is high church or low church, traditional and liturgical or informal and charismatic, there should always be a certain ethos which permeates everything it does so that people, to quote an expression, know “it’s the real thing” or maybe that “it does what it says on the tin”.
We can see this when we come to look at our first reading this morning. Now this is a very special passage because it is the very first description of the church in the Bible. We are coming into the book of Acts just after the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples and three thousand people were converted in a single day. And from that point on, there would always be groups of believers meeting together in Jesus’ name in worship and prayer, groups of believers that would come to be known as church.
Now people have often looked rather enviously at the church in Acts. It seems to have been such an energetic, dynamic movement spreading like wildfire across the Roman Empire and many people believe if only they could somehow recreate the early church, we would see similarly spectacular results today. The only trouble is, we do not know enough about the early church to work out how it operated. Were there female leaders, for instance? Did they practice infant baptism? These and other questions we simply cannot answer.
But whatever shape the early church took, we have here a wonderful and inspiring description of the life of the first believers, and if we want to think how we should communicate ourselves to the wider world, then surely here is a blueprint that we at St Barnabas should aim above all else to follow.
So what can we take away from this passage? Let me suggest five things:
First of all, the believers were committed. Verse 42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And when it says, “They”, I presume that Luke who wrote this book was talking about each and every member of the early church. There’s no suggestion in this verse that the devotion and commitment was confined to a select core in the church, or people who weren’t too busy doing other things. No, the clear impression from this passage is that each and every person was equally enthusiastic and passionate about their faith.
Because for all those who gathered there, their lives had been turned upside by the good news of Jesus Christ. Nothing mattered more to them that the fact Jesus had become their personal Lord and Saviour and they would do whatever they could to learn more about what it might mean to serve and obey Him. So when the church gathered, everyone turned up because they did not want to miss out on what the Lord was saying. Appointments were rearranged, meetings postponed, because what was going on in church was of the utmost importance.
Now I realise that in the long run the enthusiasm of the church died down, that gradually it had to adapt to the reality of being a settled presence in a certain time and place. And yet maybe for us who have been believers for many years, we need to remember that passion and enthusiasm we had when we first came to the Lord. A church without a spark is a lukewarm church, and if you want to know what the Lord thinks of a church like that, then you just have to look at what He says to the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:16.
The church was devoted. Secondly, the church was focused. Listen again to verse 42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Now we know from elsewhere the church did spend time feeding the poor, looking after widows and doing lots of good, practical activity. But at the core of the church’s life were these four core activities: learning from the apostles, gathering in fellowship, sharing hospitality at the Lord’s Support and prayer. Why? Because it was through these things that they grew in the love and knowledge of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and as we have seen, nothing mattered to them more than knowing Jesus better.
Now it may seem an obvious thing to say, but we need to constantly be on guard that whatever else we do as a church does not pull us away from these four core activities. There are, for example, some churches which are very active in good works, and they massively help the local community. But at the point these good works become more important than personal devotion to Jesus Christ, then a line is crossed from being a church to being just another volunteer organisation.
As a church we feed the poor, tend the sick, befriend the lonely, not simply because we are part of the third sector, but because the love of Christ compels us to. That love should be – to use a dreadful marketing term – our unique selling point. So when others look at the church, they see not only the good we do, but the reason why we do good, that our passion and our greatest desire is to know Jesus, and draw others to His love.
We need to be committed. We need to be focused. We need to be expectant.
I wonder is your reaction to verse 43? Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. Quite a few people look at the wonders and miracles done in the book of Acts and come to the conclusion that this was somehow a special age where the Holy Spirit was particularly at work in a way that we don’t see today, that these wonders and miraculous signs were for a different time and a different place and we shouldn’t really expect them to happen today.
But I for one struggle to see any idea in Scripture that the Holy Spirit works differently from one period of time to another. Indeed there are plenty of believers around the world who can testify to the very real and very powerful work of the Holy Spirit in their lives even today. If there is any issue with a failure to see God at work, then maybe we have to admit that the problem may lie with us, rather than with God.
Because, if we’re honest, we do often have such low expectations of God. We have such a limited understanding of what He is able to do. And when we see tangible results to our prayers, we tend to be surprised as if this was somehow the exception that proves the rule. While God can and does at times work powerfully in spite of ourselves, maybe we need to admit that sometimes it is our own basic scepticism that can quench and grieve the Holy Spirit.
We need to be committed. We need to be focused. We need to be expectant. We also need to be generous.
Verses 44-45: All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. You see, the love of Jesus Christ permeated every part of the believers’ lives. It didn’t just affect their worship or their works of charity, but their wallets as well.
Now again, some people look at the very early church and see some form of primitive Communism at work, that in essence private property was abolished and everything was held for a collective good. Quite apart from the fact that Communism is in essence a godless philosophy, this again is to misread what was going on. There is no suggestion that the believers abandoned their work, or gave up their trades and businesses. But from the moment they came to believe in Jesus Christ, they had a whole new perspective on their possessions and their money. What they owned and they earned, they saw as blessings of generous Heavenly Father, blessings to be shared and given away.
So when it came to church finances, no-one had to run stewardship campaigns or write letters to the congregation. People gave naturally and freely, because they knew how much Jesus had given for them. This didn’t mean however, that others took advantage of the situation. Because when everyone is on fire with the love of God, no-one is out to feather their own nest or serve their own interests. All contributed and everyone was involved – a point I will be developing further over the coming year as a result of our annual meeting held yesterday.
We need to be committed. We need to be focused. We need to be expectant. We also need to be generous. And finally, we need to be joyful.
But then again, how can we be anything but when we have truly grasped the love of Jesus, so rich, so free and so infinite? Joy is not an emotion you can decide to turn on and off as the situation arises. You either have it or you don’t. If you have a deep, deep conviction that Jesus loves you, then you will have joy, no matter how difficult or how terrible the situation you are facing. If you doubt His love or it no longer excites you, then you will not have joy in your life, no matter how hard you try to convince others.
And maybe this is one reason why people outside the church get so confused when they look in. They have been told that knowing Jesus is wonderful; that there is nothing more precious than receiving the gift of His love. Yet when they look at the people who go along to church, what do they see? People who are weary, perhaps, or discouraged or bored – in fact, almost anything other than joyful.
How is it that church in Jerusalem continued to grow so rapidly? After all, if they were spending every day together, you might wonder if they had any opportunity to spend quality time with their family, their friends, their neighbours. The simple answer is that when they went out from their meetings, they had a joy which was instantly recognisable and completely unmistakeable.
Listen to what Luke says in verses 46-47: Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. There was no high-pressure evangelism, no special gimmicks to draw people in. Simply lives which were committed, focused, expectant, generous and above all else joyful. And the Lord added to their number daily.
Now I’m not suggesting this passage gives us a quick formula for instant and lasting growth. It’s not exactly as if we had three thousand people turn to the Lord last week. But neither must we make the opposite mistake and think this passage says nothing to us. If we want to be the real thing, if we want to communicate what brand “church” is all about, then these verses spell out how the love of Christ should transform us at the very deepest level, how the love of Christ should transform all of us.
So for each and every one of us, we need to ask, how far are we committed? How focused are we on getting to know Christ better? Do we expect God to work in power? How generous are we with our possessions? And do have that deep, deep joy of Jesus in our hearts? Because if all of us can answer all these questions positively, then I believe we too will see growth, real growth in our presence, and others drawn to know the Lord in a real, life-changing way.