May 11, 2014

They Devoted Themselves To

Passage: Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10
Service Type:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers

Freelance journalist James Harrington was profiled in a January 2014 article in the UK Guardian. “My wife and I are atheists, but our daughter wants to be baptized a Catholic,” Harrington begins. Harrington identifies his wife and himself as “religiously disinterested bleeding-heart liberals.” They sent their eight-year-old daughter to Catholic school for purely quality-of-education reasons—now his daughter wants to be baptized a Catholic. “Looking back, we realised we had regularly discussed our differing beliefs,” writes Harrington. “Our daughter brought us Genesis. We gave her the Michael Bay-friendly Big Bang. She brought us the Nativity and peace and goodwill at Christmas. We gave her family, friends and good food. She brought us the crucifixion. We gave her the Easter Bunny. She brought us heaven, God and an afterlife. We gave her 21st-century life and a brief future as worm fodder. After all that—and in spite of our gentle antipathy to god and creation—she still had the courage of her convictions to say to both of us, to our faces and again in front of the priest, that our world view isn't enough for her. She believes. She wants to be baptised and she wants to be Catholic.”

The observation Harrington made about his daughter’s desire to be baptised; the observation that caught my attention was this one—“that our world view isn’t enough for her.” As I reflected on that comment it resonated in my heart because it aptly described my own experience with respect to the many voices competing for attention in our world. I studied philosophy, for example. As I read various philosophers or the teaching of various schools of philosophic thought I found that for all their strengths, something always lacked, questions remained unanswered, they ended with the suppositions with which they began. Or as Harrington put it with respect to his daughter’s assessment of the world view he offered his child; the world view offered in any of these philosophies—or all of them together, for that matter—“wasn’t enough.” As influential as the thought of Aristotle and Plato have been for Western society, I never felt compelled to become devoted to advancing an Aristotelian lifestyle nor a Platonic way of thinking. Neither of them in themselves, nor together, was ever enough.

A few weeks ago, on a Saturday evening, Valerie and I were looking for little something to eat and we happened upon a restaurant/pub and found ourselves listening to a young woman do a reading from a book she had recently authored. A very particular way of life was being championed in this book and as I listened questions exploded in my mind mostly about the sufficiency of the world view being advanced and its adequacy for an account of life. Apparently people found it satisfying and I wondered why.

The next day I was here at church and as I was listening to the choir sing their anthem “Hosanna”—on the day we rehearse our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem—I was struck by the glory of the gospel; by the life-affirming reality that is the good news of Jesus Christ. I want to be clear that faith in Jesus Christ can never be reduced to choosing the most satisfying world view; any more than thinking of faith as a life-style choice. Still, I ever marvel at the gospel that demands my best intellectual rigor but is never subject to it; it is always greater calling for yet more. The height and depth and length and breadth of the love of Christ can be explored yet ever remains knowledge-surpassing.

I wonder if Christians today appreciate the magnificence of the gospel. We read today of how these first followers of Jesus, in response to all Jesus had done for them, “devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching.” When you read “Apostles’ teaching” think “gospel”. If Luke were writing about us and our lives as a community of believers what would he say we were devoted to doing? Do we appreciate the greatness of the gospel? Do we grasp the magnitude of the One who is this good news, whose intention for us is that we “may have life, and have it abundantly?” (John 10:10) Would not such a vision cause us to be similarly as devoted to the Apostles’ teaching as were these first Christians?

1. What was Luke referring to when he observed the devotion of these first followers? In other words, what were they doing such that he would remark on their devotion to the Apostles’ teaching? Devotion means having strong love or loyalty for something or someone; but how does this manifest itself? Well, some things we can deduce. The met together in temple courts and house to house; groups large and small meeting together to learn together. We can discern something of what the Apostles’ teaching consisted of as we read the New Testament. However, lots of details we don’t have; how often they met, what a teaching session looked like, etc.

It is clear that such devotion did not mean they spent every waking moment thus engaged. They went to work, earned a living, cared for households, planted gardens, harvested food—in other words they lived life. The devotion was apparent because the Apostles’ teaching could be seen in the character of their lives. Each generation of Christians needs to work out the practicalities of how this devotion functions; we need to do so for our life together as a congregation. The principle remains; loyalty to Jesus is lived out in our devotion to certain things, among them the Apostles’ teaching.

Today is a day set aside in our culture to honour mothers. The Bible teaches us that mothers, along with fathers, ought to be honoured; the first command with a promise attached to it. The mother of our Lord is held up in the New Testament as a woman of great faith. I invite you to consider the life of a Christian woman and mother born Susanna Annesley. We reflect on Susanna’s life through this prism of how she worked out this devotion to the Apostles’ teaching in her life. In observing some things of her perhaps we might be inspired for what it might look like for us in our era.

Susanna was born in 1669. She was the daughter of Rev. Dr. Samuel Annesley, a learned puritan clergyman whose home welcomed a stream of puritan preachers, scholars and writers, among whom were Thomas Manton (his Works comprised twenty-two volumes) and John Owen, the ablest theologian among the puritans and at one time the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. Susanna's spiritual and intellectual formation was rich.

In 1662 The Act of Uniformity decreed that all clergy must conform to all beliefs and practices of the Church of England. Two thousand refused, and were expelled from pulpit, parsonage and university during "The Great Expulsion". John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim's Progress) was imprisoned. Susanna’s father was among those expelled. Little wonder that Susanna horrified her parents when she was only twelve as she announced that she was returning to the Church of England!

At her sister's wedding she met Samuel Wesley. He too was moving from Dissent back to the Church of England even though his father had been fatally mistreated during The Great Ejection. (His father had died at forty-two during his fourth imprisonment.) In 1688 Samuel and Susanna were married. The marriage was difficult. Samuel, chronically in debt, kept his family in financial hardship; in addition he fancied himself a poet and scholar, deflecting time and energy and preoccupation to entirely forgettable poetry and a Latin commentary on the book of Job which consumed twenty-five years. Not surprisingly Susanna wrote, "I think we are not likely to live happily together,”

She and Samuel had nineteen children, ten of whom survived infancy. The most famous would be John (fifteenth) and Charles (eighteenth). Cherishing the rich puritan heritage of academic excellence Susanna set up a school in her home. Classes were held six hours per day, six days per week. "It is almost incredible what a child may be taught in a quarter of a year by a vigorous application ", commented Susanna, "...all could read better in that time than most women can do as long as they live". The curriculum consisted both of academic subjects and of Christian instruction. The spiritual formation of her children was undertaken through her weekly private conversations with them all: "On Monday I talk with Molly, on Tuesday with Hetty, ...on Thursday with Jacky (as she always called John). John so cherished these times he asked if she might convert the customary hour spent in one-on-one conversation to an hour spent in writing him on various themes… her letters to John give a window into her intellectual rigor and grasp of doctrine. Three of her sons, Samuel Jr., John, and Charles all graduated with MA’s from Oxford and became clergymen in the Church of England.

Her influence upon John and Charles, and through them upon worldwide Methodists, is incalculable. (The United Church of Canada is the largest denomination in Canada as inheritors of the Methodist tradition). While Methodism came to display its characteristic spirit, its unique style (outdoor preaching to huge crowds of the unchurched, for instance), and its special emphases (not least its conviction that God could do something about sin beyond forgiving it) Susanna was the conduit for the puritan riches which so largely formed the substance of Methodism. Like Deborah of old she was "a mother in Israel" (Judges 5:7) as she bequeathed to her sons and their heirs the wealth for which her foreparents had suffered unspeakably: the necessity for doctrine as a provisional statement of the truth of God and vigorously disciplined discipleship among these riches. Here is a woman “devoted to the Apostles’’ teaching.

A few years before she died she had written John, "I have long since chosen him [i.e., God] for my only good, my all...". "Children, as soon as I am released sing a psalm of praise to God", whispered the seventy-three year old mother of the Wesleys minutes before she died. Five of her children were present. Such was the spiritual heritage bequeathed to her children.

2. In the year 1711 her husband, Rev. Samuel Wesley was in London attending Convocation and had appointed a Rev. Inman as curate in his place. Judging the sermons of Samuel's assistant to be vacuous Susanna decided that whenever her husband was out of the pulpit the assistant's feeble pronouncements should be supplemented by more nourishing fare. Susanna adopted the practice on Sunday afternoons of reading sermons to her family. One of the servants told his parents and they wished to come. These told others, and they came, till the congregations amounted to forty, and increased till they were over two hundred, and the parsonage could not contain all that came. She read to them the best and most awakening sermons she could find in the library, talked to the people freely and affectionately. There meetings were held "because she thought the end of the institution of the Sabbath was not fully answered by attending Church unless the intermediate spaces of time were filled up by other acts of devotion."

Inman became jealous because her audience was larger than his, and he wrote to Mr. Wesley, complaining that his wife, in his absence, had turned the parsonage into a conventicle; that the Church was likely to be scandalized by such irregular proceedings; and that they ought to be tolerated no longer. Mr. Wesley wrote to his wife that she should get some one else to read the sermons. She replied that there was not a man there who could read a sermon without spoiling it.

Inman, went above Samuel’s head and complained to the Rector who wrote to Mrs. Wesley that the meetings should be discontinued. Mrs. Wesley answered him by showing what good the meetings had done, and that none were opposed to them but Mr. Inman and one other. She then concludes with these wonderful sentences: "If after all this you think fit to dissolve this assembly do not tell me you desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send your positive command in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting this opportunity for doing good when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The impact of these meeting were not lost on the boys John and Charles who later developed a whole network of religious societies who met for the same purpose as Susanna was holding these meetings. (As a woman in the Church of England Susanna was not allowed to "preach"; nonetheless authorities deemed reading someone else's sermon aloud in public to be acceptable!) Years later when John hesitated at allowing a layman to preach Susanna wrote, "That fellow is as much called as you are". Indeed, John would appoint women as lay preachers in the Methodist societies. It is not much wonder that Susanna Wesley is called the mother of Methodism.

Most of the Australian cast of Disney's Broadway hit The Lion King were on the same plane from Brisbane to Sydney recently. The group staged a musical flashmob on board, regaling their unsuspecting fellow passengers with an acapella version of "The Circle of Life." Their joyful performance transformed a mundane flight into an unforgettable moment for the plane.

In a sense this illustrates the church's role in culture. We all share a journey with our friends, neighbors, and family members, experiencing the common, everyday occurrences of life. There may not be a lot we can do to steer the plane—but we can sing a song, devoted to the Apostles` teaching we have wonderful news to share. It is a story that blesses the world and points people to Jesus—whom to know is life eternal. Because the love of God is unfathomable so the good of the gospel for human life is unfathomable.

(My own mother`s commitment to my spiritual welfare.)

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers