The Church’s Life
We are living in an increasingly secular American culture. Today, nearly half of America’s citizens are unchurched, and there’s a rapidly growing segment of people who describe themselves as people who “love Jesus but not the church.” And these are people who don’t hold “wacky” views about Jesus either. Their views about Jesus are pretty orthodox, fairly similar to the views about Jesus of those who attend church regularly. They get Jesus. They love Jesus. They even want to follow Jesus. But they don’t get, or want to be a part of, the church. Does the church matter anymore? If God is immanent and omnipresent, do I really need to get up early on a Sunday morning and go to a building to sing songs and hear a message? Can’t I take my Bible and go for a walk in the woods or something?
At one point in his journey towards Christ, Nathan Foster (the son of author Richard Foster) was living “a ragged attempt at discipleship.” He wanted to follow Jesus. He was trying to follow Jesus, but he was struggling. And he was afraid to share his honest thoughts about God and his disillusionment with the church, especially with a father who had given his life to serve God and the church.
But one day as Nathan shared a ride with his dad on a ski lift, he blurted out, “I hate going to church. It’s nothing against God; I just don’t see the point.” Richard Foster quietly said, “Sadly, many churches today are simply organized ways of keeping people from God.”
Surprised by his dad’s response, Nathan launched into what he calls “a well-rehearsed, cynical rant” about the church:
Okay, so since Jesus paid such great attention to the poor and disenfranchised, why isn’t the church the world’s epicenter for racial, social and economic justice? I’ve found more grace and love in worn-out folks at the local bar than those in the pew … And instead of allowing our pastors to be real human beings with real problems, we prefer some sort of overworked rock stars.
His dad smiled and said, “Good questions, Nate. Overworked rock stars: that’s funny. You’ve obviously put some thought into this.” Once again, Nathan was surprised that his “rant” didn’t faze his dad. “He didn’t blow me off or put me down.” From that point on Nathan actually looked forward to conversations with his dad.
It also proved to be a turning point in his spiritual life. By the end of the winter, Nathan was willing to admit, “Somewhere amid the wind and snow of the Continental Divide, I decided that if I’m not willing to be an agent of change [in the church], my critique is a waste … . Regardless of how it is defined, I was learning that the church was simply a collection of broken people recklessly loved by God … Jesus said he came for the sick, not the healthy, and certainly our churches reflect that.
Spurred on by his father’s acceptance and honesty and by his own spiritual growth, Nathan has continued to ask honest questions, but he has also started to love and change the church, rather than just criticize it.
Today we’re starting a new series of sermons called “We Are The Church.” And we’ll be looking to Scripture for guidance on what it means to be the church, the people of God in the world today. We don’t GO to church. We ARE the church.
Today we’re looking at Acts 2, where we encounter the early church on the day of Pentecost and the days following, just after the sending of the Holy Spirit as a permanent presence with the church. We see them living out the biblical mandate to BE the people of God in the world. That’s an interesting thought, “BE the people of God. BE the church.” We usually think of the church as a building. We GO to church, we DO church, but Christ wants us to BE his people, to BE the church. In the book of Acts, we see the LIFE of the church. Turn with me to Acts 2:41-47.
Acts 2 begins with the BIRTH of the church and ends with the LIFE of the church. In John 14, Jesus says to his disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever … But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:16, 26). So when Jesus leaves, returns to the Father, the Holy Spirit will come. And then in the first chapter of Acts, as Jesus prepares to ascend to the Father, he tells them, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Now, look at Acts 2:1-4. At the request of the Son and the direction of the Father, the Holy Spirit came upon the 120 followers of Christ that existed in the world at the time (that’s the number Luke gives us), and THAT DAY, because the coming of the Holy Spirit played out in front of the people gathered in Jerusalem, 3,000 people were added to their number, and the church, the people of God in the world, was formed.
The universe exists because God called it into existence. The earth and moon and sun exist because God called them into existence. And the church exists because God called her into existence. We call Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the birthday of the church, because on that day the followers of Christ were called together into the people of God as a people no longer identified by a certain genetic or cultural or ethnic marker, but as a people identified by their common connection to Christ. And that connection exists in and because of the Holy Spirit. God calls us together and forms us together as his people.
Now, there are lots of different ways of thinking about the church as the people of God. The first is all authentic followers of Christ everywhere and throughout all time. That’s the church as the people of God in the world. And then there are individual churches, smaller groups of people that make up a part of the body of Christ in a given area. The point is, the church isn’t a human invention. It is God’s drawing of his people together, in the Holy Spirit. The church exists because God has called us together into existence.
So he must have a plan for us then, right? So what does our life together as the church, the people of God in the world, look like? Look at Acts 2:42. “They devoted themselves … ” Let’s look at that word devoted for a minute. What does it mean to devote yourself to something? Devotion is a serious commitment, isn’t it? It isn’t a whim. It isn’t a half-hearted thing. It’s an “all in” kind of thing. And notice that THEY devoted THEMSELVES. God called the church into existence through the Holy Spirit, God enlivens the church through the Holy Spirit. And then Christ’s followers DEVOTED THEMSELVES. There’s something for us as the people of God to do. We aren’t passive attenders of church services. We devote ourselves to something, to someone. And what did they devote themselves to?
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching.” The verb tense here indicates something more along the lines of a consistent, repeated, ongoing action. In other words, they “continually devoted” themselves to seeking the instruction of the disciples. They were steadfast & focused on the Word of God. They craved the teaching of God’s Word. They couldn’t get enough of it. In Colossians 3:16, St. Paul says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching & admonishing one another in all wisdom.”
Have you ever watched professional golfers and been awed by their ability to land a shot from two hundred yards away just a few yards from the hole? You wonder how they can judge the distance to the hole with such precision. Do they have an internal GPS system that enables them to guess the distances on the course with uncanny accuracy? Not really. What they have is a yardage book.
A yardage book is a map of each hole on the course that gives distances from various landmarks on the hole to the green. Decades ago Arnold Palmer and his caddy began drawing rough yardage charts with little pictures of trees, fairways, greens, sand traps and such of the various holes on all the courses they played. Jack Nicklaus was the pro who really made yardage books popular. Today along with the maps many pro golfers will keep what essentially is a personal journal of how they have played each hole of the course, what clubs they have used from various distances, what the wind was doing, and so on, and what happened to their shots. Golfers swear by their yardage books.
Zach Johnson, winner of the 2010 Colonial, says, “I feel naked without it out there. It’s my golf bible.” Steve Marino says, “You see what you did in the past, you make sure you have the right number and then trust all of it, because the room for error is nil.” Scott Vail, caddie for Brandt Snedeker, says, “There are huge ramifications if you are just even 1 yard off.” One former caddie, George Lucas, has made a business out of driving the country and charting distances of some 1,000 golf courses and publishing his data in a book that is now available to the public.
And what were the apostles at this time teaching? The good news of Christ revealed in the Word of God. For them, that was they Old Testament. We can, should, and must learn to read, study, understand, and apply the Word of God for ourselves. But we cannot do that in a vacuum, just on our own. If all we ever do is head out into the woods with Bible in hand and read it, we’ll find ourselves quickly getting off-course. Why? Because as fallen, broken, self-centered, sinful human beings we are really good at fooling ourselves. We’re really good at reshaping thoughts, words, and ideas so that they suit us. But God’s call is to BE shaped BY his Word, BY Christ, not to shape His Word, reshape Christ, to fit us. And that kind of discernment and correction for getting off track happens in community. Together. As the people of God walking life’s path together.
And that leads us to the second thing they devoted themselves to: “the fellowship.” The word translated as “fellowship” here is the Greek word Koinonia. It signifies not just any old connection, but a deep connection. It’s talking about a lot more than shared cookies and bad coffee in the foyer after worship and an occasional potluck. We’re talking about deep connection. Shared life. For this kind of deep connection, shared life, Koinonia to exist, we have to share IN something together, and we have to share OUT something together. We share IN Christ. We are united not by common political views or cultural norms or similar ethnicities. In fact, God consistently pictures his church, his people in the world, as being diverse in those areas and united by something deeper. We are united by our common relationship to Christ. By our common desire to follow Christ. By the Holy Spirit alive and at work in each one of us.
And we share OUT in loving service to others. In Galatians 6:1, St. Paul tells us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” This kind of sharing out involves both empathy and generosity. Sharing something with someone, or sharing in what someone else is experiencing. This shared life, deep connection, grows from our common relationship with Christ, and is marked by deep generosity. Financial and material support for the needy. Look at Vv. 44-46. Now, they didn’t divest ALL private property. In addition to meeting together for larger gatherings in the temple courts, they also met for smaller gatherings in private homes. But they viewed their possessions as tools to help one another, and anyone in need. They held loosely to things.
So let’s say that Pat over here is injured and can no longer work, and all of Janet’s time is taken up caring for him, so she can’t work either. They’d quickly become destitute, right? Not if the church, the people of God in the world, have anything to say about it. And let’s say that Marilyn over here has an extra piece of property, beyond the house that she and Dave live in. And she knows that this property exists not for her to hold onto in greed, to pad her economic holdings. It belongs to God, and she holds it loosely, and she decides to sell it and give the money to Pat and Janet so that they will have food and clothing and shelter while Janet helps Pat recover. No one is on their own. We’ve got you. That is Koinonia.
And then they devoted themselves “to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Although it seems obvious that they shared meals together regularly, more is in view here. The breaking of bread is referring here to the sacrament of holy communion, to the Lord’s Supper. The bread that represents the broken body of Christ. The wine that represents the shed blood of Christ. They worshipped God together regularly and well. Look at Vv. 46-47. Luke tells us that they gathered together with “glad and generous hearts.” Glad hearts. Exuberant joy. Their worship was joy-filled. Holy Spirit-filled worship produces the Fruit of the Spirit, the first of which is JOY (Gal. 5:22). The joy pictured here involves a more uninhibited joy than is customary or acceptable in the staid historic churches of western Europe, the US, & Canada.
And they worshipped with generous hearts. The word translated as generous here is also sometimes translated using the word “sincere.” To be sincere is to be free of pretense. Authentic. Real. Their worship was sincere. There was a sincere, simple quality to it. They meant it. And their joy, their authenticity, their generosity, drew people in.
As the people of Christ Church, we are A PART of the people of God in this region, and in the world. To what are we devoting ourselves? We use three words here to describe our reasons for existing: WORSHIP, WORD, and WITNESS. The fellowship, Koinonia, underlies all three. We worship, alone and together. We grow in our knowledge of Christ through our experience of relationship with Christ and through our growing knowledge of the Word of God together. And we witness to the goodness of Christ through word and deed, with generosity and sincerity and joy. Every church is filled with broken people, because we are all, in our own unique way, broken. But we are connected deeply to Christ and to each other through the Holy Spirit. Yes, every church makes mistakes. Every church in some way falls short. That’s why we need grace – the grace of God and grace for one another. But is the church important? Even necessary? You’d better believe it. What, and whom, are you devoting yourself to? Let us pray.