St Michael’s 29th May 2016
Readings – Acts 13:1-12; Matthew 10:32-42
It is very easy to have a romantic view of the early church. The book of Acts presents a wonderfully exciting picture of the first believers as they go out, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. On almost every page there are stories of extraordinary miracles and dramatic conversions, of new places reached for the gospel and cities won for the Lord. And as I read it, I confess I find hard not to wish that the church today was rather more like the one Luke describes here. I would love this morning for there to be dramatic signs and wonders among us, and hundreds of people coming to faith.
But the reality we face is rather different. For a start, most of us are not called to work in pioneer regions. Our calling is to keep on with the good news in the same place we have always been. Our faith, for better or for worse, has been shaped by two thousand years of church history. We might be happy to ditch our denominations, but we have things like buildings to consider, and our creeds and our liturgy, which surely count for something. Plus of course our daily lives are very, very different and in so many ways better than those living in the Roman Empire, and you can’t simply wind back the clock and try to set up the same model of church as existed two thousand years ago.
So what is the relevance of the book of Acts to us as a church? The short answer is, that whatever our history, whatever our way of worshipping the Lord, this book gives us some key underlying principles which should form a basis for the life of any church in any place at any time. How those principles work out will vary from church to church, but what is more important is that we understand them and seek to apply them to our life here at St Michael’s and St Barnabas.
Now there are doubtless many, many points you can take away from the book of Acts, but this morning I want to briefly outline seven key principles which the Lord has particularly laid on my heart.
First of all, the early church was a gospel-centred church.
Last week we read these words of the apostle Peter in Acts 2:38: Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was in response to these words that the church of Jesus Christ was founded. The church was a community of believers who turned to Christ, repented of their sins, were baptised and received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
That definition of a church sounds fairly obvious and I hope all of us agree that the church should be this same kind of community today. Yet the sad reality is, too often the church seems to lose its focus and turns into something else.
So, for some people the church is a religious institution where the primary focus is on making sure the rules are obeyed, and the right procedures followed. In effect, the church is a kind of club where all the members have to sign up to the constitution in order to gain entry.
For others the church is a voluntary organisation which seeks to do good. So it becomes some kind of charity working alongside people of all faiths and none, seeking to justify its existence by the work it carries out.
And then there are some who use the church as a kind of spiritual self-help group. The focus here is on teaching how Jesus can fulfil your every need, and realise the potential you have already in you.
Now there is no doubt that a church needs to have proper procedures. It should of course aim to serve others, and it should of course show how Jesus can make a difference to real lives. But if there is no understanding of the need for repentance, no acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord, no openness to the Holy Spirit, then the church has lost its reason for existence.
I hope you realise that so far I have been talking about the church in general, and not about St Michael’s and St Barnabas. As your minister, it would be very difficult for me to talk about how gospel-centred is this particular congregation. But let me make one observation which I hope will encourage you.
It used to be the case that over coffee, at the end of the service, the conversation was usually about something fairly neutral, like the weather or Argyle or the state of the building. It wasn’t that the people back then weren’t faithful, far from it. It was more that we – and I definitely include myself here – had perhaps lost some of our confidence in the good news of Jesus Christ and were a little hesitant in speaking about our faith.
But recently I’ve noticed a change. As I flit around amid the groups of people standing around talking, someone over there is inviting their friend to Christianity Explored. Another is offering to pray for someone they perhaps have only just got to know. Small groups of people are getting together to look at the Bible together. That to me is a great sign of the health of this church, and it gives me real hope and confidence for the future.
So the early church was a gospel-centred church. It was secondly, also a grace-filled church.
What do I mean by this? Let’s read on to Acts 2:42-44:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.
You see, at Pentecost men and women were not only brought into a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ. They were brought into a new relationship with one another as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Up until that point most of them were strangers to each other. The first believers came from many different nations, backgrounds and social classes. Yet when they heard the good news, they became as one in Christ.
So for a start in the early church there were no insiders or outsiders – everyone had been part of the church for the same length of time! Nor there were any cliques where some were included and others excluded. Rather there was a deep, deep love which flowed into practical acts of generosity and service. Goods and possessions were seen as blessings to be shared; talents and gifts were seen as reasons to help one another. It’s little wonder then that the early church grew so fast. Because ultimately whatever we may say about the good news, it is the quality of our relationships one with another which bears out the truths we claim about Jesus Christ. And if we are serious about growing the church we need to watch our relationships one with another and strive for that same Spirit-filled unity in and amongst us.
And as these verses show, the early church was a church devoted to prayer.
We have already seen in our sermon series how, whenever the first believers faced a new situation or an unexpected danger, they prayed. That does not mean each of them simply went away and prayed on their own. Rather as Acts 4:24 puts it: they raised their voices together in prayer to God.
Now a week last Wednesday this church was full for the meeting with the archdeacon and I am so grateful for everyone who turned out and made for their contribution. I only long for the day when the church is as full for a prayer meeting. As I have said before, the history of the church shows that revival begins when believers meet together to pray, when there is an earnest seeking after the Lord’s will, when there is a passion for the Lord to make us more like Him.
That to me is why the prayer week was so significant. It wasn’t just that we reached out to people out there with an offer to pray, although that was immensely valuable. It was that throughout this week there were small (and sometimes rather larger) groups of people from Monday to Friday in this church praying together. I want us to think and, yes, pray how we can build on that prayer week, because when we pray together in the name of Jesus, the awesome truth is that God is pleased to listen and to act.
Acts 4:31 tells us: After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. And that is not an isolated occurrence in this book. We often speak of the book of Acts as the story of the early church but it is also a wonderful account of what happens when Christians pray. How far, I wonder, have we really discovered the power of prayer for ourselves here at St Michael’s and St Barnabas?
As can be seen from the verses I have already quoted the early church was also focused on the word of God.
Acts 6:1-2: In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.”
Why did the twelve apostles not get involved in the daily food distribution? It wasn’t because they saw this practical task beneath them. They had been present when Jesus washed their feet, and they knew just how much their Lord and Saviour had given up for them. Nor was it simply the case that they decided that practical administration wasn’t their gift. That could easily have been misunderstood as an excuse for not doing what they really didn’t want to do in any case.
No, the apostles focused on the ministry of the word of God because they knew ultimately only that word could heal the divisions in the church. The food distribution would sort out the immediate issue, but the word of God would address the underlying problem. Because, you see, whenever there is an issue of concern, the answer always is to go back to what Scripture says.
After all, the Bible was never intended to be a theological textbook providing theoretical answers to question nobody ever asks. Rather, the Bible was written so that God could speak through His Holy Spirit to every situation that we face. This doesn’t mean that it is always easy to understand what the Bible says. So again, we need to get together to listen to what the Lord is saying to His church. And once more, in recent weeks, I have been so encouraged by what has been happening in this regard. Our growing Thursday group, our Christianity Explored course, the women’s conferences, I am sure, are planning seeds for the future which will be of immense and direct relevance for the life of the whole church.
But this doesn’t mean that what lies ahead will be plain sailing. For the fifth principle of the early church was that it was refined by suffering.
Acts 8:1: On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Now I guess that all of us here find the idea of suffering and persecution uncomfortable. We don’t like the idea that the Christian faith might involve a cross and we may wonder why a loving Heavenly Father would let His children go through such trials. But actually persecution is the tool that He uses to refine our faith; it shows whether when push comes to shove we really care that much about following Jesus.
Fortunately the early church was prepared for the suffering that faced them. They knew all about the suffering of Jesus Christ. The apostles had been eyewitnesses of the cross, and they would have passed on all He taught about His suffering and His death. They also had been baptised, and in those days baptism was very different from the comfortable religious rite we practice today. You see, as soon as you confessed Jesus as your Lord, you were breaking from the rest of society who owned Caesar as their King; from your family and friends who worshipped other gods; even from your business partners who would exclude you from their trade association. Baptism really was about saying goodbye to an old way of life and making a commitment that bore a real cost.
But because the early church knew what they could expect, they had a robust Christian faith that prepared them for every season of life. And that is important. I get worried today when a kind of “Christianity lite” is preached, when the message is all about the wonder of God’s love and the joy of coming home to your Heavenly Father. That message is of course true. But it’s only half the story, and it seems to me that if we want to make disciples who stay the course we need also to teach about the cross and the cost of commitment. So that when that evil day comes we together are able still stand, confident in Jesus’ ultimate victory.
And yet for all the trials and tribulations that the first believers faced, the early church was an outward-looking church.
Acts 11:19-21: Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
Imagine, if you will, arriving in a new place like Antioch and calling yourself a Christian. The locals would already have heard about you. They would have known the trouble you caused. Perhaps the police had orders to arrest you as soon as you showed up. Would you be willing to start sharing the good news?
Yet it seems as we read through the book of Acts almost nothing stopped the first believers speaking out. They knew just what a radical difference Jesus had made to their lives. They had a story which simply had to be told. And so they told that story, not only to people like themselves, but also to people that perhaps they previously had very little to do with. They realised that Jesus was far more than a Jewish Messiah; He was the hope for the whole world. So in many ways it didn’t matter whether the person they were seeking to reach was Jewish, Greek or from any other background. They simply saw those around them in Antioch as folk who needed to hear about Jesus, and so they spoke.
And again what has encouraged me recently is the way that folk have been learning to speak out about their faith. So thinking once more about the prayer week, it was so encouraging to hear about the conversations out on the streets. But of course the people we reached then were really only very few in number, and maybe that week reminded us again of the huge work still to be done. Even if we as a church grew to say, 100 on a Sunday morning, we would still only represent 1% of the total population of the two parishes. That is why we must never be satisfied with only a little growth, or a few answers to a few prayers. We need to remember the courage and boldness of the early church, and ask to follow their example in clear and confident witness.
This leads to the final point that the early church kept in step with the Spirit.
Acts 13:2-3: While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
Now I don’t have time to look in any more detail at this passage. But it is important to note that all I have said about the early church fits together. What I shared together are not seven random points but basic principles that arose from the Lord’s commission to go and make disciples of all nations.
So the church was a gospel-centred church.
It was a grace-filled church.
It was devoted to prayer.
It was focused on the word of God.
It was refined by suffering.
It was an outward-looking church.
And it kept in step with the Spirit.
So today may we learn to be like the church we read about in the book of Acts, so through us the name of Jesus may be known and many may be saved. For His name’s sake. Amen.