September 16, 2012

They Broke Bread House To House

Passage: Acts 2:46-47

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 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.

You too may have seen the various captions from the “God speaks” billboards.  Now that the NFL season has begun I was imagining a banner across the front of our church with this caption:
“Let’s meet at my house Sunday before the game.” – God.   Or now that children have returned to school we might have a second banner: “C’mon over and bring the kids” – God.  Wouldn’t it be grand if full churches were simply a matter of displaying clever sounding invitations?

The news about church attendance in Canada is not encouraging.  The front page of the recent issue of the Canadian magazine Faith Today features an article entitled Hemorrhaging Faith.  It was a report on a new study from The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and several partner groups that examines why and when Canadian young adults are leaving, staying and returning to church. Hemorrhaging Faith  reported: “By young adulthood only one in 10 respondents raised in Catholic and mainline traditions reported attending religious services at least weekly—compared to four in 10 raised in Evangelical traditions.”

Kevin Flatt, a professor of history at Redeemer University College, recently completed a study of the United Church that is to be published in the next issue of the Journal of Communication and Religion. The United Church of Canada is experiencing significant membership and church attendance decline.  Prof. Flatt estimated attendance could hit zero by 2040.  A prediction of zero sounds rather severe; still, studies done by United Church entities all predict continuing decline.

At the 41st General Council the document The State Of The Church 2012 was released.  According to this report “statistics show a clear drop in church participation and membership in the last 50 years. For example, in 1960, the church welcomed 66,226 people (adult and children) into the church by baptism, and 40,482 by profession of faith. In 2010, 9,733 baptisms and 3,847 professions of faith were recorded.”

Our own recent experience at Central has been one of decline and we wonder what to do.

1. I wonder if Canada’s believers need a refreshed vision of why we bother with church at all.  Is there really something about the church that nothing else can take its place?  Is its mission really so compelling as to inspire dedication and service?  Is being at church—a gathering of Christ’s people—really any different than being at other community organization’s meeting?

Luke gives us a summary of the activities of those first followers of Jesus.  “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. …  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”   When Luke says “they devoted themselves” (v.42) and “they spent much time together” (v.46) he uses a word that means to persist in adherence to a thing.  The hallmark of these first Christians was this faithful adherence to particular activities.

Why did they do this?  Did they have too much time on their hands?  Did they feel the need to start a new religion? Were they unfulfilled in life and needed a new challenge?  Did they meet together hoping to generate some business leads through being together with each other?

When Jesus Christ rose from the dead a sign—“under new management”—was posted over the world.  When Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter morning, he rose as the beginning of the new world that Israel’s God has always intended to make. (N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus, p.191) In the resurrection of Jesus Christ God’s kingdom is now launched, and launched in power and glory, on earth as it in heaven.  When Jesus Christ ascended to heaven it marked his enthronement as the one who is now in charge. AS the revelation of the Apostle John asserts: “‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” Jesus’ ascended declares that the world is now being run from heaven.  Easter tells us that Jesus is himself the first part of new creation; his ascension tells us that he is now running it.

If we are to begin to understand what drove these first followers of Jesus to launch the church we need to step into their thinking, in particular their thinking about Jesus Christ. In the forgoing outline of the meaning of Jesus raised and ascended I have endeavoured to paint with broad strokes the background of the convictions of the Apostles.  When Peter announces to the crowds on the day of Pentecost that “this Jesus whom you crucified, God has made him both Lord and Messiah”; Jesus risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father is the framework for the particular claims about Christ he preaches.

When we read in the Bible of “heaven” and earth” we typically think of a great divide; completely removed from one another by distance and character.  If we think of heaven having space somewhere it is generally far above the space the earth occupies.  Not so for the worldview of the Bible’s authors.  “Heaven” and “earth” were conceived to be in close proximity; their spaces actually overlap and interlock each other.  One place where heaven and earth were thought to meet was the Temple in Jerusalem because God has promised to dwell there; it was heaven’s bridgehead into the world; a sign that God was establishing his dominion in the middle of the world.  This is why mapmakers for centuries depicted Jerusalem as the centre of the earth.

The gospels all attest that Jesus went about announcing the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Jesus announced that Israel’s God was right now becoming king, was taking charge, was establishing his long-awaited saving and healing rule.  Heaven and earth were being joined up—but no longer in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The joining place was visible where the healings were taking place, where the party was going on (remember that heaven rejoiced when sinners repented, said our Lord), where forgiveness was happening.  In other words, the joining place, the overlapping spheres of heaven and earth, was taking place where Jesus was and in what he was doing.  Jesus was, as it were, a walking Temple; a living, breathing place where-Israel’s-God-was-living.

These first believers knew themselves indwelt by Christ and understood that when they gathered Christ was present with them.  The church as Christ’s body in the world is to be the place of heaven and earth overlapping each other.

The church of Christ is called to be the means through which Jesus continues to work and to teach, to establish his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven.  This is what he taught us to pray after all—thy will be done one earth as in heaven.  The crucial factor in Jesus’ kingdom project picks up the crucial factor in God’s creation project.  God intended to rule the world through human beings.  Jesus picks up this principle, rescues it, and transforms it.  In Luke’s account of the first Church Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, his own Spirit, into the lives of his followers, so that he himself is powerfully present with them and in them, guiding them, directing them, and above all enabling them to bear witness to him as the world’s true Lord and work to make that sovereign rule a reality.

In the most recent issue of The United Church Observer a short article asked “can you question the divinity of Jesus and still be a Christian?  The author, Rev. Janet Silman, wrote that “believing Jesus is divine is not as crucial as doing the will of God.”  She did equate “following Jesus” with “doing the will of God.”  My question is this: if Jesus is not the Lord of all why bother to follow him at all?  If Jesus is not the rightful king of heaven and earth why would we give any attention to this thing called church?  I would never want to discourage anyone from asking questions; probing the truths revealed in scripture is how we learn of God—we are to love God with our mind.  Often, though, it is our questions that need adjustment; more importantly it is God’s questions of us that are the more important ones.

2.  Dietrich Bonheoffer is one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century; his book The Cost of Discipleship is a wonderful discussion on what it means to follow Jesus in the world.  In 2010 author Eric Metaxas’ biography of Bonheoffer’s life of was published.  Bonheoffer was imprisoned and executed by the Nazi’s—two weeks later the Second World War ended.  He was executed because of his involvement in the failed plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler.

Bonheoffer had qualified as a university lecturer in theology at Berlin University; in 1932 he took up his post there, giving seminars and lectures.  A student named Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann recalls that there were only a handful of students in the lecture hall that first day of Bonheoffer’s lecture.  “After a few words of welcome he explained the meaning and structure of the lecture .... Then he opened his manuscript and started his lecture.  He pointed out that nowadays we often ask ourselves whether we still need the Church, whether we still need God.  But this question, he said, is wrong.  We are the ones who are questioned.  The Church exists and God exists, and we are asked whether we are willing to be of service, for God needs us.”

Ours is not the first generation to face questions about the vitality and necessity of the church.  I think that the Dr. Bonheoffer has it exactly right.  We are the ones being questioned—will we serve Christ, which is to ask will we serve the Church.  To claim to serve Jesus is to love what he loves and Christ loves the Church and gave himself up for her.

3. These first followers of Jesus understood that the mission of the church was to bear witness to Jesus as the world’s true Lord and to work to make that sovereign rule a reality.  What did they do to make that happen?  Luke tells us that they devoted themselves to some foundational things—we aren’t to understand that these are the only things they did but we are to understand that these are bedrock.  You see Luke is writing this story some forty years or so after that first day when three thousand were added to the church.  The church has spread to many parts of the Roman Empire and Luke wants to remind them of that which is foundational.  He wants to teach the church—many of whom have no members now living among them who were first-hand witnesses of these beginning events; Luke want to remind them that the things they are called to persist in doing are because the apostolic leadership commissioned by Christ set this pattern from the beginning.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. …  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”  Embedded in this text is a description of the fundamentals of kingdom work; the foundation on which it rests for any generation of believers.  It is my conviction that if we give ourselves to these the church will live; it is upon these that the church has thrived.  We often come at this with the wrong question—how can we get more people to come to the church.  It seems to me that if we are devoted as these first followers to the fundamentals these other things will emerge. “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved”, Luke reminds his readers.

Next Sunday I am going to explore with you these foundational things.  Each of them arises from the nature of the gospel and promises of God.  The point I invite you to consider today is that they did these things together.  “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* (*house to house) and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”  Jesus command to “love one another” implies as much.   The gospel is social, as John Wesley was fond of saying; indeed, faith is intensely personal but it is never solitary or individualistic.  To be joined to Christ is to be joined to all who are so joined to him.

The methods of the kingdom are consistent with the message of the king; God comes among us in the person of Jesus Christ to rescue people.  You will notice in Jesus’ own ministry he called people to himself and worked through them to proclaim the kingdom’s arrival.  Not only did the first followers engage together in kingdom fundamentals but there is a pattern to their gathering that is, I believe, worthy of noting.  They met at the Temple to take up aspects of these kingdom fundamentals—in a large public gathering.  They also met in their homes—literally house to house—to participate in kingdom activity.  Given the size of their homes these would be a smaller group size.  I believe that there is a helpful pattern for us here that was important for the gospel in the first century and for the church today.  It is the impetus for our initiative at Central to develop our small group ministry.

4. On Trinity Sunday (June 3, 2012) I invited you to consider that the Biblical notion of love implies the doctrine of the Triune God.  The Apostle John affirms in his first letter that God is love; in the Bible love is not merely an ideal or concept—not mere ideation.  Love, biblically, is a relational expression; you need someone to love.

For God to be love then the very nature of God’s love is dependent upon an inner relatedness within God—it implies the doctrine of the Trinity. That love is relational arises from a God whose love is relational.  Perhaps you have read William Young’s bestselling novel The Shack; it is the story of a man who meets with God.  Whatever the shortcoming of Young’s theology may be, he captures well this picture of the three persons of the Triune God being completely self-forgetful and self-giving for the other persons of the God head.

The cross of Christ, revealed to be the very essence of God’s love for humanity, is Jesus’ self-giving, self-forgetful offering of himself for us. This is the self-giving self-forgetful love of the three persons of the Triune God for each other turned towards us.  It is the love Jesus speaks about when he said: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. ... This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”