Keywords: Church, Devotion, Miracles, Mission
Dear congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,
We live in a time in history when things seem to change very quickly. Technology alone goes through changes at a staggering pace. A lot of it is a wonderful blessing. For example, if you suffered through cancer five or ten years ago, and someone is diagnosed with the same cancer today, it is very likely they will have options of treatment that did not exist when you had cancer. Medical breakthroughs happen more rapidly today than in even the past decade.
And communication is so different today. We are able to see and speak to people anywhere in the world. If you aren’t sure how to do that, just as a grade school child and they will show you. We can travel to any part of the globe today in relatively little time and with minimal risk. That is something very new in history. We have become “glocal” residents, meaning, living in one local area and yet having global impact and awareness. Yes much is changing.
And the church is not insulated from this reality. There is much anxiety, discussion, worry, wonderings and also excitement concerning what the church needs to be in today’s changing age. There are conferences to attend and books and articles to read and discussions to have to wrestle with what we as church are supposed to be and do in our own “glocal” settings.
In doing so it is always tempting to look back on the past and yearn for something that was, perhaps some golden age of this or that congregation or denomination. We might look back to the practices of the past and wonder if perhaps we need to model ourselves on what seemed to work well back then.
That is also one way that people read the Book of Acts: as a looking back to how it is supposed to be. So as we approach this passage, it is important to realize that Luke, who wrote this account under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is not trying to give us a picture of the good old days.
You know what the good old days are, right? Those are the days of long ago about which we have forgotten all the bad things. There really are no such “good old days.” There is only our selective memory or our creative story telling about the past. The Book of Acts is neither of these. Acts is not trying to say, “Remember what the church used to be and do?”
This is the Word of the Lord for the body of Christ in all times and all places. So it is easy to think that if we want to continue to thrive as a church, or to grow or be impactful, that all we have to do is do what the Christians did in Acts. In other words, it is easy to read this passage and say, “Here is the formula for success for a church!” And then we try to get each other to do what it says there.
Is this the good news of this passage? We would be saying, “Here are some more things for us to get busy with, and if we do this, we will solve all the problems of church life and be a success story.” However, what we read is not a formula for success. The account in Acts is not there for us to simply mimic, copy, or imitate. To view it that way assumes that what we read in Acts was an account of the pure church before history and change messed it up. It is to assume that to become a better church we should simply do what the ancients Christians did because they had it all correct.
Instead, Acts points to what God does in this world, both back then and today. This is about the impact of the work of Jesus in this world through His Body. So when we read such a summary of this work as we just read, it is not a blueprint of what plan of action we should take, but a look into the impact of the ongoing work of Christ by His Holy Spirit in this new community He is gathering.
And from that impact we can come to understand and trust more deeply what the Lord intends for us in our time and place. We can look at ourselves and ask the question, “What is the Lord doing right here?” We can be assured that Christ is at work, and that the impact, however it plays out in this time and place, resonates with the themes of the way it played out in Jerusalem among the Jewish Christians there.
So, this is not a formula for success; not a list of goals and action plans for us; but a formula for faithfulness. Another way to say this, is to ask, “What happens when the Spirit of the risen Jesus is at work?” Let’s examine the passage.
Verse 42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Now for the word devoted, do not think of “devotions” as we usually use that word. That is something we do. We do devotions. We read the Bible, and spend time in prayer, alone or with a few others.
No, what is in view here in the word “devoted” is, “to identify with, to be closely associated with, to attach oneself to a person or a cause.” One way to understand that in our context today would be the idea of a diehard fan.
For example, if you are into hockey, to be a diehard fan of, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs, is to cheer for a team that hasn’t won a championship in nearly half a century. A diehard Leafs fan is someone who celebrates much after the first few games of the season, especially if the Leafs win a few at the start. Because at that point in the season they can be in a nine-way tie for first place. Diehard fans celebrate being in the lead and don’t stop cheering when that lead evaporates. That’s what it is like to be a diehard fan, not a fair weather fan, but a diehard fan, someone who is ridiculously hopeful and who will be in it for the long haul.
“They devoted themselves …” in other words, they became diehard fans … of Jesus Christ! They were not simply ethnic Jews who worshipped the LORD but they became followers of Jesus Christ, the LORD made flesh among us. They did not call Caesar Lord, but Jesus Lord overall and Savior of the world. This was the teaching of the Apostles to which they devoted themselves: namely, that Jesus died and arose to save us and ascended to rule the universe and display the Kingdom of God.
They devoted themselves. They became diehard fans. They signed up for the fan mail; they got the T-shirts and joined the Facebook group and followed the Twitter feeds. They painted their faces the team colors and it was all they could talk about. Diehard fans—devoted … Does that sound a bit strange? Does becoming a diehard fan seem a bit of a ridiculous way to describe devoting yourself to the Apostles’ teaching? Well, perhaps it is a good way to jar us loose from a view that the believers there simply studied more, like in school, as if they added a new education component to their lives, lives which for the rest, remained basically the same as before. This was not the case. Jesus changed everything for them. They were crazy for Jesus.
So they fully attached themselves, devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, what is today the Bible. The Word of the Lord, the living Jesus through his Word and Spirit has something to say about every part of our lives. The Lord speaks into the life of his Body, not just in worship time, but into his Body of believers in each day and moment of our lives. They devoted themselves to the Word of God. It encompassed their whole selves. They became diehard fans.
And then, they devoted themselves to the fellowship. The ancient Greek word Luke uses is “Koinonia”. Translating it fellowship can be misleading. It sounds like getting together with Christian friends for a barbeque or a turkey dinner. But Koinonia is not simply being together. It is being together for a cause.
There is a purpose and goal to being together. This is more like a unit in an army. They may be close and spend a lot of time together, but their fellowship is not the point itself. In an army unit the close bond of the soldiers is not a product of simply spending time together but it is the result of the mission they share in. Koinonia or “fellowship” is about the mission we are on together as the Body of Christ.
It is good to spend time together as a congregation in all kinds of ways. However, simply being together, getting to know each other better, finding a few more friends, that is not the goal. The goal is growing in faithfulness to the mission of Christ in this world. We gather to encourage each other in our faith and life for Christ. We help each other be Christians in our jobs, homes, neighborhoods, schools, in our travels, our retirement, our relationships, our service work, whatever we do. In other words, we devote ourselves to grow in faithfulness to the mission of Christ: to bear witness to the Kingdom of God in all areas of our lives.
The result of such a shared mission is a closer bond of fellowship. The next time we get together as groups of Christians in whatever setting it might be don’t let the conversation just stay with how work went or, how our mother is doing, or what truck we are thinking of buying. We need to pay attend to what we hear and see the Lord doing and calling us to in all these specific contexts. If we ignore the work and calling of the Lord in the different areas of our lives, we are likely not going to live much differently than those who are not devoted to Jesus.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching (a whole-life thing) to the fellowship (for the Kingdom purpose of that whole-life following of Jesus) and, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” These last two go together. In ancient Judaism, the meal formally began with the breaking of the bread. So too the Christians ate together. But since Luke is writing this account decades after the events occurred, writing to Theophilus and to the congregations that would receive this by the Spirit’s leading, he most likely also has in view the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
In Luke’s gospel, we already find the account of the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, in which he inaugurates the Lord’s Supper with the bread and wine. There is also the account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, where Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
And now in Act 2 we see a devotion to the breaking of bread, to communion, a deep persistence in seeking and acknowledging the presence of the Lord with them in the Body. Why devote to that? Why not simply acknowledge that, put it in a creed or so, and just print it in the back of the hymnal in the church benches? Why be devoted to this? Because everything of this sinful world and in our sinful nature, leads us away from the Lord. Nothing of itself points us to the presence of the Lord Jesus by His Spirit with us right now.
Especially in our anti-spiritual, scientific worldview so prevalent today, there is not much room for a real “God with us.” Emmanuel gets relegated to a few religious practices on Sundays. But the reality is, that Jesus ascended and all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. Jesus is ruling the universe. He is here with his Body the Church. If we do not practice together what we say is true, it is very likely we will drift toward doubt about the Lord’s presence.
And so they broke bread together and prayed, communed and communicated with the Lord. Not just request prayers, but prayers of praise and thanksgiving for what God was doing in Christ Jesus; prayers of listening to Jesus and glorifying His majesty and power.
We also read that the neighborhood was in awe and wonder. There were many wondrous and miraculous signs done by the apostles. It can be easy for us to dismiss this part as being something wonderful for the church back then, but not all that pertinent to us today. “Yeah, easy for them, they have apostles doing miracles … if only we had that … then people would come to church.”
A history channel once aired a program looking into the archeological evidence about religious practices of that time in history. Seems most of the great temples of the different gods in Luke’s day used all kinds of sophisticated machinery and chemistry to wow the crowds into believing the gods were paying them a visit. It was quite fascinating how much mechanical engineering was employed to have statues groan or speak, or cry tears of blood. There was even a temple to Zeus that had an iron chariot seemingly float through the air in front of the statue of the god.
The narrators of the program commented that the competition was steep in those days for religious followers in part because of an upstart new Jewish religion (those Christians) who had no temple shows. The miracles of the apostles were not magic shows to wow the crowds. They were not attempting to compete in the ancient temple show competition. Nor were they an ancient equivalent of a modern televangelist doing healings on national television which is often about the show itself and gaining supporters. The miracles bore witness to the presence and work of Christ by the Spirit.
Miraculous and wondrous signs are still present today in the apostolic church, meaning the people sent by Jesus Christ. Christ is still at work. There are miracles of hardened hearts totally changing to following Christ, or of marriages, beyond hope, being restored, or of addictions being broken and people’s lives healed. There are wondrous signs of reconciliation between enemies and more. This is the miraculous and wonderous work of the Lord.
In 2011 the story was in the news of toddler Kienan Hebert who was abducted by Randal Hopely in Sparwood, British Columbia, Canada. There was much outrage and anger alongside the fears and anguish in the whole community there. But after Kienen was found, there on livecast news, the parents of the toddler, Paul & Tammy, announced that they forgave Randal for his awful act. All the news could say about this act of forgiveness was that the Heberts were “deeply religious.” They could attribute this act of forgiveness to nothing else.
But think about this: someone kidnaps your little boy and then you forgive him. It was not easy. Paul Hebert mentioned that he prayed that he would not be angry when he met with Randal. Not be angry?! How could you not be angry? How could they so publically forgive him? Only by the miraculous wonder of the grace of Christ at work in them and through them.
Such miraculous and wondrous signs from the Lord simply don’t make our news very often. But the more the church is a place of real healing and restoration, through the ministry of Christ in His people, the more people will be in awe of what is going on. The early gathering in Jerusalem “enjoyed the favor of all the people.” This was the ministry of the Lord.
The more open we are about our walk with Christ, about our hurts and failures, our need of healing and restoration; the more we stop trying to fit into this world, and live as “diehard fans” of Jesus, the more others, also broken, hurting and lost, will be brought by the Lord Jesus into his mission in this world through His Body.
They met in their homes. They met daily in the temple. They sold possessions and goods in order to care for those they were coming to know Jesus in the Koinonia, the fellowship of Christ and His Church. Jesus was not an add-on to the rest of their lives. It was not about adding religion to their already busy lives.
This was about a new identity in Christ. This was a change in last name, a joining a new family; a new brother & sister hood in the presence of our Brother Jesus who is Savior and Lord. And this remains the case today, despite this world’s constant efforts to side-line faith to the private lives of individuals. This is a life encompassing and transforming calling.
We are still first and foremost, followers of Christ Jesus, participants in what He is doing in this world. This way of life clashes with the world we live in. Satan too is not going to sit by and let this flourish without opposition. But, we know that this project called “church” is not our idea, nor our mission, but God is at work in Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.
By Him we follow His way and devote our lives to His purposes in every aspect. This is both real and possible. Real because it is the Living Lord who is here. And possible because by unearned grace, His Spirit has been given us to transform our lives to be diehard, radical, life-long fans of Jesus. And in Christ in our midst we find the love of God and the hope for all whom the Lord gathers. Amen.
Prayer of Response
Lord Jesus Christ, this congregation is yours and you are at work here and now, for the glory of your Kingdom. Help us to trust your Word in how you have revealed the ways in which you work in this world through your Body. When we long for the past, remind us you are present now. When we worry about the future, remind us you are faithful to your purposes and ways. When we grow weary of our calling, remind us again of your gift of new life that refreshes and renews us. Use us mightily for your glory in whatever way is needful in this time and place. Gather your whole church into the glory of your Kingdom. We pray this in your most holy and precious name. Amen.
Order of Worship
Welcome and any announcements
GOD GATHERS HIS PEOPLE IN CHRIST
Call to Worship: Psalm 111:1-3
Opening Song: “O Give the Lord Wholehearted Praise” PsH #111 vs 1,2,3,6
Words of God’s greeting based on Jude vs 1, 2 (can be prayed): Lord God, you have called us into fellowship with you. You love us as our perfect Father. You keep us through the grace of Jesus Christ, and indwell us by your Holy Spirit’s presence. May you grant us mercy, peace and love in abundance. Amen
Mutual greeting extending to each other the peace of Christ.
Song of response: “The Ends of All the Earth Shall Hear” PsH 542
GOD RENEWS US IN HIS GRACE IN CHRIST
Prayer of confession
Word of assurance: 1John 1:5 – 2:2
Word of calling: Ephesians 2:19-22
Song of response: “Church of God, Elect and Glorious” PsH 533
GOD SPEAKS TO US IN THE WORD
Prayer of illumination
Bible reading: Acts 2:42-47
Sermon: “The Church in Acts: Formula for Success of Faithfulness?”
Prayer of response (see above)
Song of response: “There’s No God as Great” PsH 517.
GOD LEADS US TO RESPOND IN SERVICE
Prayers of intercession
Giving in thankfulness (include offering prayer)
Song of praise: “In Christ Alone” or “Christian Hearts in Love United” PsH 513
Word of God’s blessing based on Phil. 1:9+ (can be prayed):
Lord, make our love abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that we may be able to discern when is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled by the Spirit with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of you our One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Closing song of praise: “Shout for the Blessed Jesus Reigns” PsH 539 vs 1,2,4