September 23, 2012

Five Elements of Church Life

Passage: Acts 2:42, 44-45, 47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. ... All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. ... praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

On June 13, 2005, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 came into being that calls on the business community, public sector, not–for-profit sector, and people with disabilities or their representatives to develop, implement and enforce mandatory accessibility standards.  Churches are included in this legislation; its first standard came into effect in 2012 that requires implementation of Accessibility Standards for Customer Service.  Among other things, this means that a congregation will establish policies, practices and procedures on providing its services to people with disabilities that includes the training of volunteers.  (At this point in the conversation my eyes glaze over and I am so grateful for those of the congregational leadership who know what this means and what to do about it.)

In 1960 in Denmark the unemployment benefits legislation was 421 pages long; by 2012 it had grown to a document containing 23,675 pages. How would the average citizen ever be able to figure out if they were in compliance with the legislation?  It puts me in mind of our Canadian tax code.  Have we made some things too complex; things that don’t need to be that way?

The 2010 Manual of the United Church of Canada has 251 pages; this represents only a fraction of a myriad of additional policies created over the 87 year history of the church’s history to govern church activities.  The Doctrinal section of the Manual started out with 20 articles that have guided these first 87 years.  At the 41st General Council this past August three additional doctrinal statements were added to the doctrinal section: a 1940 Statement of Faith that has twelve articles, a New Creed, and a Song of Faith that, written as a poem, prints out as nine pages.  When I wade through the Manual I am hard-pressed to find a concise statement of what a church ought to be doing.  When these statements of faith were added each statement was recognizes as a “subordinate standard”, “subordinate to Scripture”; that we are pointed to Scripture to find our way is very helpful.  The text from Acts 2 we are considering offers a concise statement of what the first believers thought they ought to be doing.

In last week’s sermon on this text I noted with you that these first followers of Jesus understood the mission of the church as bearing witness to Jesus Christ as the world’s true Lord and to work to make that sovereign rule a reality. The gospels everywhere affirm that the King and his kingdom are here.  When we pray “thy kingdom come” we are actually praying for the coming manifestation of a kingdom that is already here.

What does this kingdom look like?  We are told that these first followers steadfastly adhered to, devoted themselves to certain fundamental activities.  I noted with you last Sunday that they engaged in these things together; being a Christian wasn’t just about believing; it was about belonging.  To be joined to Christ is to be joined to all who are so joined to him.  Jesus turns us to God and to one another.  This is the reason the early church met house to house; it the rationale for why we are endeavouring to establish our small group ministry at Central.

In this message I invite you to consider the fundamentals these first followers devoted themselves to.  These activities emerge from the gospel because the means of the kingdom match the message of the king.  I believe that these foundational activities can be gathered up under five headings: discipleship, fellowship, worship, service/mission, and evangelism.

Discipleship—they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.  It is true that the word discipleship could be used broadly to mean the Christian life; I use it here in respect to the activity of devotion to the apostles’ teaching because it is this activity in particular that bears witnesses whose disciples we are; we are disciples of Jesus Christ.  Anything the church does has to be formed, informed and normed by the apostles’ teaching, or else what the church is about neither speaks Christ nor reflects him.

The first thing we must do in manifesting the kingdom that is already here is devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching. The apostles’ teaching, written, is the New Testament. By extension, the apostles’ teaching, continuous with the prophets’ teaching, is scripture as a whole. We must attend to scripture.

Does this make Christians people of the book (i.e. Bible)? In one sense the answer is “yes”, in another sense “no”.   Lets us consider the “no”. Faith binds us to Jesus Christ in a relationship more intimate than any relationship we have or can have with anyone else. We love him. We obey him. We aspire to please him. Second-hand hearsay about him is categorically different from first-hand encounter with him. We Christians are people of a person, the person of the living Lord Jesus Christ

When Mary Magdalene found herself startled on Easter morning she was face-to-face with Jesus Christ. By the end of the conversation she knew she had encountered again the one who had turned her life around years earlier. The selfsame Lord, present to us now, does as much today as he overtakes us and seizes us, transforms us and commissions us.

We Christians are people of the book, for scripture is the apostles’ teaching written. We have to be people of the book, because we know that false prophets abound, and pseudo-apostles (“wolves” is how Luke speaks of them) are everywhere. In addition there’s no limit to superstition, subjectivism, religious romanticism, frenzied fantasy, self-serving self-deception, and sheer, imaginative invention. We have to be people of the book (people of the apostles’ teaching) in that hearing and heeding Jesus Christ in person always takes the form of hearing and heeding the apostles. To be sure, hearing and heeding Peter, Paul, James and John isn’t the same as hearing and heeding Jesus. They are not he, and he is not they. Nonetheless, hearing and obeying Jesus always takes the form of hearing and obeying the apostles’ teaching.  We would not know Jesus except for the Apostles; there would be no Apostles except for Jesus.  We are bound up together in this relationship.

In her work of acquainting people with Christ or of service on behalf of the disadvantaged and dispossessed the church must always be devoted to the apostles’ teaching. When Mother Teresa was asked why she and her sisters arose at 4:00 a.m. daily and went to mass (scripture, sermon, sacrament) before attending to Calcutta’s neediest, Mother Teresa replied, “If we didn’t begin the day with mass what we’re about would be no different from social work.”

Fellowship—they devoted themselves to the ... fellowship.  Fellowship is that activity of the church whereby we live out Jesus’ command to love one another as he loved us.

Do you recall the risen Lord’s question to Peter, to Peter in his humiliation and shame and remorse in the wake of his denial, a denial born of a 15-year old girl’s remark, “You say you aren’t a Galilean? You sound like the Galilean soon to be strung up.” The question Jesus asked? – “Do you love me?” Jesus doesn’t ask Peter, “Do you feel as wretched as you should?” “Do you promise never to deny me again?” “Do you think you’ll ever be a leader?” Simply “Do you love me?” And Peter’s answer, “You know that I love you.”

Jesus said that if you love me you will keep my commandments.  His command for his disciples is to love one another.  We love Christ only as we love the body of Christ.  The Apostle John drives home this point when he wrote: “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”  It would appear first-century followers of Jesus found it as hard to love some of Jesus’ other followers jut as we find it today.  We need to admit that the church is difficult to love. The church is the bride of Christ; a bride, we must admit, that is disfigured.  Christ loves the church nonetheless.

In speaking of the love of Christ for the church the writer of the letter Hebrews says of the people of the church that “Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”  Imagine, in spite of all of our brokenness Jesus is pleased to introduce us as one of his own.  As often as Christ asks “Do you love me” he asks in the same breath “Do you love those I love, those I’m not ashamed to call my brothers and sisters?”  Our obedient answer is fellowship.

Worship—they devoted themselves to ...the breaking of bread and the prayers. A third thing we must do in manifesting the kingdom that is already here is what we are doing now in this service: worship.  “They devoted themselves to the breaking of the bread (the Greek text supplies the definite article: plainly there’s a reference to the Eucharist) and to the prayers.” Luke tell us that the same people were found in the Jerusalem temple and house to house. Plainly they worshipped publicly in the temple and in their homes; they celebrated the Lord’s Supper; they prayed the prayers of the liturgy.

Worship is the collective activity of the people (work of the people, liturgy) expressing our acknowledgement publicly of God’s unspeakable worthiness.  God is the audience we are the performers.

We hear much today about our culture as a culture of narcissism. Narcissism is the state of rendering oneself the measure of everything. The narcissistic person measures everyone by herself. She assesses every situation in terms of how it affects her. She views other people in terms of what they can do for her. There is no suffering like her suffering; no cause like her cause; no ‘right’ like her ‘right’; and of course no victimization like her victimization. She’s wholly self-absorbed. Our culture is indeed narcissistic.

Worship is essential. Worship is the one thing the church does that nothing else in our society attempts to do. Worship is the one event that takes us out of ourselves. Worship takes us away from ourselves, takes us away from ourselves by taking us up into someone else.

We worship God for what he has done for us in Christ in accord with his agenda. He has created us. (He didn’t have to.) He bore with his recalcitrant people for centuries (despite unspeakable frustration) as he brought about the fitting moment for visiting us in his Son. He incarnated himself in Jesus of Nazareth, thereby submitting himself to shocking treatment at the hands of the people he came to rescue. In the cross he tasted the profoundest self-alienation, as the penalty his just judgement assigned for sin he bore himself, therein sparing us condemnation. He has bound himself to his church and to the world even though the world’s sin and the church’s betrayal grieve him more than we can guess. He has promised never to fail or forsake us regardless of how often we let him down. Surely to grasp all of this is to see that we owe him everything.  We worship as our grasp of what God has done for us in Christ impels us to worship.

Service/Mission—they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. The fourth thing the church knew they were to be devoted to do was service/mission.  They willingly served the church and the needs of the hurting world around them.  Luke tells us the earliest Christians “had all things in common…they sold their possessions and goods and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need.” In short, they sat loose to what they owned, for they knew that Christ had freed them from being possessed by their possessions.

The passage just quoted has given rise to much controversy in the church. Some people have read it and concluded that scripture forbids private property and requires communism of sorts. But the text doesn’t support such an interpretation. The passage tells us early-day Christians exercised hospitality in their homes. Then plainly they hadn’t sold their homes. We should note in this regard that Jesus nowhere forbids private property to all Christians; neither do the apostles.

In setting the record straight about Acts 2, however, we mustn’t lessen the impact of Luke’s word: early-day Christians were noted for their generosity. They owned but they didn’t hoard. They possessed but they weren’t possessed. They had open hearts, open hands and open homes. They recognized the needy person’s claim upon their abundance.
Jacques Ellul, wonderful Reformed thinker in France , sobered me the day I read in one of his fine books, “The only freedom we have with respect to money is the freedom to give it away.

Evangelism—And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (goodwill of all the people). It is evident that these first believers—who lived in a world as religiously pluralistic as ours—had some mechanism for inviting and welcoming people to join the church.

Evangelism has nothing to do with pressure tactics whether overt or covert. Evangelism, one beggar commending the availability of bread to another beggar, is witness. We should note that witness is something we find everywhere in everyday life.  When you are looking for someone to do some work in your home do you not rely on the witness of people you know and their commendation of a contractor/professional?  Evangelism is neither more nor less than recommending Jesus Christ on the basis of our experience of him. And by this means the Lord ever adds to our numbers those who are being saved.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. ... All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. ... praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.