Note to readers: This sermon is the first in an ongoing series Keith and Laura are preaching in summer 2013 on the Book of Acts.
Text: Acts 2: 22-47
As a pastor, I can only stand in awe of what was just read. I get excited at the sheer abundance of new converts. Peter’s sermon reaches into the heart of those who hear it and the community jumps from a few beleaguered followers of Christ to a megachurch. And then the community continued to grow! Lives are radically transformed as this new church embraces communal living, with those who have, selling and giving to those without. People were eager to learn more about this new way of life, coming together to eat and learn and pray together as they celebrated the goodness of the Holy Spirit in their midst. Wow.
And then we look around at the state of the church, or state of the churches on every corner, and wonder what happened. The standard set by this passage is beyond my reach or the reach of any church. In fact, it goes beyond the reach of our imaginations. We are tempted by the nostalgia of these early church days, and in fact many people have continually tried to recreate it. If you were to go home and type ‘Acts 2 Church’ into your Google search engine, you would come up with over 2 million links. Some of those links lead you to commentaries, but many lead you to a plethora of groups, churches, and congregations that go by the name “Acts 2 Church.” There are networks and programs and processes to becoming an Acts 2 Church, all attempting to recreate the early church.
But can we recreate the original? As much as I want to say yes, I don’t think we can. We can’t for a couple of big reasons. First we are separated by 2000 years of cultural and historical differences. We can’t go back in time. It’s like the parent who keeps their child’s bedroom exactly the way it was when that child went off to college to try and hold on to the feelings they had as Johnny grew up. But Johnny’s gone, off creating his own life. The church of today can never be the church of 2000 years ago. In fact, we can’t even be the church of 10 years ago, or of last year, or even of last Sunday, even though many of you are sitting in the same pew. We will always be the church, but we can’t be the church of yesterday or even of tomorrow. We are the church of today.
The other reason we can’t recreate what happened in the early church is it wasn’t created by people. It wasn’t created by the apostles or those first 3000 converts getting together and talking about what kind of programs they were going to have. It came into being by the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that is moving with us today. The Holy Spirit breathed life into the church and what we read about was the effect, not the cause. The Holy Spirit is not a program. We can’t regime when the Holy Spirit will come blowing in.
Since we can’t recreate what the early church was, do we just gloss over this passage so we can hurriedly get through the book of Acts and into the meatier letters of Paul? No. This passage doesn’t mean we be church in a certain way for the rest of eternity. What it does give us is insight into the life of the early church following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, giving us a shape and vision to what a 21st century Spirit-led church just might look like. It points to what the church can be when people get out of the way and respond to the Holy Spirit moving in their midst. So, we can’t recreate what the early church was, but we can’t ignore it and set it aside, either. We can’t revive what happened, but there are things that are happening in this text that we have to pay attention to. We pay attention to them because we want to be intentional in what we do. We hope and pray that the Holy Spirit is guiding us as we make decisions as the church today, that we aren’t doing things and creating programs because we ‘should,’ but we are responding to the gift of the Spirit by the grace we have received in Jesus Christ.
And that is where we begin, Jesus Christ. The early church’s foundation was built on repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Those first converts accepted Peter’s message of the Gospel. They experienced the forgiveness of sins found in Christ and received the Holy Spirit. This is one of the reasons why every Sunday one of the first things we do in worship is confess our sins, repent, and receive forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ. I’ve been asked why every Sunday we have to go through the downer of being reminded we are sinners. Because the forgiveness we have found in Christ is good news. We are redeemed sinners. Sin and death no longer have a claim on us. We are new people, called to live and experience new lives like those new converts to the church. The grace and forgiveness we receive affects the way we live and our relationship with God, each other, and all of creation.
And we respond to that new life like the early church did, as they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.” It would have been awesome to have sat a Peter’s feet, hearing his stories of Jesus, but the early church has handed down the teaching of Biblical truth as central to the business of the church. We are called to explore these wonderful rich texts that have come down to us in their names. Now, no specific way is given, just active effort. We are called to dwell into Scripture here on Sundays as a community, but also in small groups and as individuals through the week. Delving into the Word of God takes us deeper into a relationship with the living God that we experience in the pages of scripture. I once read that a church that has the Spirit and not the Word of God will blow up, a church with the Word of God and not the Spirit will dry up, and a church with the Spirit and the Word of God will grow up.
We also respond to the Spirit in our midst by devoting ourselves to fellowship. Now, this go beyond what happens in the back of the sanctuary after services on Sunday. It’s more than that, and I like to call it Divine Fellowship. It’s about the relationships that exist between members of the church and the effort to include others into those relationships, because a commitment to Christ is a commitment to his community. And those relationships are built and sustained by the Holy Spirit when we walk out the doors of the church. Fellowship means nurturing the practice of hospitality, taking the courage to notice and welcome the newcomer, to invite them into deeper relationship for a meal or a cup of coffee outside the walls of the church. With Divine Fellowship, people are made to feel at home, growing close enough for rejoicing in each others joys, and sharing tears over their greatest losses. Divine Fellowship is about the ever increasing size of the family of God.
The breaking of the bread together by early church appears to be a combination of that divine fellowship and eating with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper together in worship. In that time it was called the Agape or Love Feast, a celebration of the community. For them, it happened in both the home and the temple, formal and informal. Gathering here for worship around the Lord’s table is as important as gathering around your dinner table at home. Christ is present at both. Next time you set the table for dinner, leave an open spot for Jesus. Just having that visible reminder of his presence will want you to invite others to the table. And as those bonds of fellowship are increased and strengthened because of Christ’s presence, we will find that our table becomes his table, and the one who was our guest also because our host.
And we lift up prayers together as the early church did. We respond to the forgiveness that we have found in Christ and the new life we have been given by the Holy Spirit by praying. More than a part of worship, prayer is for each of us the opportunity for communion with God. The text uses the word “prayers”, giving the indication that the early Christians were learning different set prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer or the Psalms. There are many ways to pray, here as a community, and as individuals at home, and those prayers must be done intentionally and with energy because the Spirit is moving us to call upon the name of the Lord for what he has done in our lives.
Friends, we can’t be the 1st Century Church, but we can be First Presbyterian Church of La Grande today, responding to the gifts of forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ that have been lavishly poured out upon us by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is here, with us and alive, moving in our midst and we respond to what God has done in the Spirit by being a learning congregation, a worshiping congregation, a caring congregation, and a praying congregation. Amen.