A sermon by Claude Rouviere, 11/Oct/2015
•Early church community as a 'model’ (Acts 2, 42-47)
•Brothers and sisters, not friends
•Community is not THE aim
« They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together at the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. » (Acts 2, 42-47)
This well-known text describes the first fellowship of believers and gives us a model of how the Church should be but it seems that most communities have drifted from this over centuries.
Francis Chan wrote in ‘Crazy Love’ : « We all know that something is wrong. In the beginning I thought I was the only one concerned. Until the day I asked this question to twenty thousand Christian students : « How many of you, after reading the New Testament, wonder if you haven't missed something? » Almost everyone raised their hands and I was suddenly reassured. At least, I was not crazy »
The life of the early Church could sound like a dream but the Bible never says that there was an early church and then another one. There is only Christ’s Church and God’s Word says all we need to know to be what He wants.
A first point is self-evident from the beginning of this chapter even if Luke didn't think that it was necessary to remind us of it : this Church is born from Pentecost ; it lives fully in the power of the Holy Spirit. To restore confidence in the Holy Spirit, to let Him have all the authority in the Church seems to me the first essential step to come back to the Church that God wanted. But this could be a whole sermon in itself !
This early Church was clearly a community of life as shown by these words :
« everyone», « all », « together », « in common ».
When Jesus said « For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them » he highlighted something very special about community in His name : it’s a refuge where His presence is assured in a very special way.
Believers lived fully in fellowship not only for spiritual activities. It was just in this manner that Jesus lived with the apostles and He used the word « brothers » to show in what way He wanted His disciples to live. This image of the family means care of one another, help, support, encouragement. Brothers and sisters share what they live ; the young learn a lot from the old … It is what Jesus desires for His Church.
Going to church is really not the same thing as going to the cinema ! It’s being part of a community where people know each other, trust each other, share the joys and difficulties of being a disciple. Everyone knows he can count on others whatever he needs.
But do we dare to revel our needs ? And what about calling for help ? Often we are afraid of bothering people But Jesus Himself called the apostles for help in the garden of Gethsemane. They were not very useful, that’s right but it was before the cross, the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit that changed them ! But if we support each other especially with prayer, we will see God acting, we will be awed and we will grow up in faith.
No one is strong enough to face disciple life alone. They always will be dark days, days of discouragement when we will need to be reminded about God’s love and faithfulness ; days when we will have no more strength to pray and then others will support us with prayer and on the other hand, days when we will be happy to support and encourage others, sharing the mighty Works of God with them.
This text talks about prayer –and this too could be a whole sermon. Praying for others is good but praying WITH others is very important. This may be difficult for us because the language used in our Church may not be our mother tongue and it is difficult to pray in another language –unless one is perfectly bilingual- because often our heart goes faster than the translation ! And prayer needs to flow in liberty. This is something we could think about together in order to decide what we could do.
A friend shared something very interesting to me. She was at a prayer meeting and someone came with a Dutch friend. She didn’t speak French and so she prayed in Dutch. My friend didn’t try to understand because… it was impossible but she opened her heart to God and then a prayer came and she spoke it out loudly. The lady who came with the Dutchwoman said in her ear : « that is almost exactly what she said ». Prayer is not only human speaking and thinking. God is there !
But there is much more to fellowship as David said in Psalm 133 :
« How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity !
It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestow his blessing, even life for evermore. »
This very short psalm is fundamentally built around these words : « live together in unity » . Everything else describes this fellowship with the words « it is like », « it is as if »
First it is simply good and pleasant as said in verse 1, as human friendship can be but verse 2 compares it to the priestly anointing that was reserved for God. We must remember that some parts of the Temple were forbidden to those who had not received anointing.
In verse 3 the comparison with dew shows fellowship as a gift from God that brings freshness and life. It is rainwater and dew on Mount Hermon that gives life to the Jordan, the vein of life in this desert country
The last verse in a way, summarizes everything : « For there –in fellowship- the Lord bestows his blessing, even life for evermore ». If we simply « live together in unity » God can bestow on us « his blessing, even life for evermore » ! ! Have you ever thought about this ?
Could fellowship be a condition for blessing and abundant life ? Could God wait for His children to be united in communion to bestow His blessings ?
This is what David seems to be saying in this Psalm. As with salvation, God gives us the means to enter into the blessing of abundant life but we must accept them and put them into practice.
And this is not about well-being –not so easy to attain- in a small group of chosen friends but about spiritual communion with all the children of God, those who are easy to get on with and all others, even the ones who have hurt us, even those who don’t think the same about how and when Jesus will return : millenarian, premillenarian, postmillenarian, amillénarian… and even those who don’t care ;-)
Could we imagine that it was easier for the early Church ? That they were all kind and gentle ? Do you think that it was easy to live with Peter ? And with Paul ?
We are brothers and sisters because we have the same father. Let us not forget that Jesus taught us to pray « Our father », not « My father ». Why ? Perhaps because of the blessing and the abundant life. Love is not a choice, it’s a commandment.
Sometimes one of my sons came to me saying « he is not my brother anymore! » I explained to him that I understood his anger but that his brother will stay his brother forever. It generally was short but very painful for me. Could we imagine God’s heartbreak every time we find good reasons to avoid loving those who are also His children, not necessarily in our community but in the all Church ?
How can we say « Abba Father » without loving those who are our brothers and sisters in our father’s heart ? Remember : « By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another ». It’s easier to stick a fish on my car… Sometimes the attitude of the Church denies the gospel that it is supposed to announce. The world looks before listening…
Rodney Smith (English evangelist) wrote with great pertinence. : « They are five Gospels : Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Christians. There are some people who have never read the first four »
The text of Acts 2 lists the activities of the early Church and its fruit. I also note a notion of discipline. The verb « to devote oneself » seems to be about the time spent while in Greek the verb indicates more a sustained effort that could be better translated by the word 'persevere'. It is not only a question of presence but it is about making progress, digging deeper, without giving up.
First « the apostles' teaching », the « fellowship », « the breaking of bread » -that could mean Holy Communion- and « prayer » result in « awe at the many wonders and signs». The word translated by « wonder » means in Greek « signs sent by the gods » and the one translated par « signs » speaks about marks which enable us to recognize, about proof. It’s a kind of stamp put by God in order to validate the witness of His Church.
Then, Luke describes the radical and visible commitment of this community : to have « everything in common », to « sell property and possessions », to « give to anyone who had need », to meet everyday at the Temple, again the breaking of bread, to eat together, the joy and praise that resulted in many conversions everyday.
But it is very important to note that God is always the one who acts : the community and the apostles don’t produce wonders or signs. They are only the means and the Greek word « dia » said precisely « through ». They are in no way the principal actors nor the subject of the sentence. It is written : «many wonders and signs happen through the apostles. ». The apostles are exactly like a pipe that drives water to a watering place.
You really need the pipe but it is only the water which quenches and gives life, not the pipe ! Take a pipe, even a new one, a very long one, you will never drink unless water flows through it.
This Church was in some ways the extension of the group of apostles. They lived together with Jesus, they shared the gospel everywhere they went. Jesus is no longer present physically but they aren’t alone ; He is still the centre, the reason for this fellowship, the strength and the light they need to continue the mission and Jesus is still acting through them BY the Holy Spirit.
Paul uses the image of the body. Jesus is the head. In what state is the body that we offer to him ? It seems to me that in this country, we give to him a heap of scattered limbs and organs. What can He do with this ?
Together, around Christ who continues to be, by the Holy Spirit, present and acting through them. It’s very simple and nevertheless not so easy because through the centuries the Church has slidden away from this model.
Could we try to see what could weaken the Church ?
Firstly, community can be such a soft and comfortable cocoon that the spiritual life of others comforts and is enough. No need to seek God. And then, gradually, professionals of the faith have been established (I don’t speak about ministries, but about faith) When Jesus died, the curtain of the Temple was torn from top to bottom but through the centuries, the Church mended it. The strength of the Church is not the number of attendants but the number of people entering God’s presence.
Community is a gift from God for believers and the world but the main danger is to build such a nice community only on human foundations where God is no more the centre nor the main actor. Also, good programs can be based only on human strategies, more like marketing than faith and their results will be very human and won’t show the power of God.
Another big risk is to give priority to activities (even very spiritual ones, even ones that help others) rather than to God himself. They could become idols, like the bronze serpent that Hezekiah must destroy because the people of Israel offered incense to him.
But no activity, even shown to the world in love will give sense to the Church. What I do FOR God will never replace what God wants to do IN us, THROUGH us. We are God’s instruments !
Finally, the image used most frequently in the Bible to express God’s Relationship with His people is the image of a couple. Could you imagine a husband who would like an intimate moment with his wife. She answers : « I do the shopping, I do all the cooking, I do all the washing, I take care of the children, I even help the neighbors… what more do you want ? » It makes you laugh ?
But we say this to God, very often… perhaps not in words but in facts.
No program could take priority over the time of love with God, the time on the mountain, in the tent of meeting, in the silence of prayer. Even with fasting. Individually but also together. Speaking about God will always be less important than listening to God.
Our deeds –even excellent- our work –even very hard- our perseverance are not the objective. Let us remember the letter to the Church in Ephesus :
« I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance… Yet I hold this against you : you have forsaken the love you had first » (Rev 2, 2-4)
We often understand the word ‘protos’ (first) as an indication of time (the love you had first) but in Greek, the main meaning is about priority, value, first place.
« I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance… Yet I hold this against you : you have forsaken to give me the first place in your love»
Jesus didn't blame this Church for its lack of good works but the lack of desire for Him. Religious activities can easily make us forget God or relegate Him to second place.
But loving God must take precedence over deeds and work !
I believe that the world will be transformed if –and when- the Church will come again to the absolute priority – the intimacy of a loving relationship with God.
The whole Bible tells us about God's desire for a loving relationship with us.
Do you know why we can find in the Bible such a surprising book as Song of Songs ?! So that we never forget God’s burning desire. A fiancé doesn’t desire that his fiancée does things for him but spends time with him. Do we dare to hear what the Bible says through this image of a loving couple that runs throughout all the Bible ?
How can we respond to God’s desire for us ? What we can do for Him will never replace in His heart what he wants to do WITH us, IN us ! This is how the the early Church lived.
If we dare to do the same, TOGETHER, then the world will see that He is God ! There will be wonders and signs and He will add daily to the Church those who will be saved !