The New Community

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 2:42-47

There’s an old saying: If you’re looking for the perfect church and find it, don’t join. Because then it won’t be. But that shouldn’t stop us from wanting our churches to be better than they are.

Listen to this description of the life of the new community of faith in the church in Jerusalem.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in 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, niv

Does that sound appealing to you? To me this golden age of the Christian church sounds too good to be real. If you are a Christian, you probably wish your church was like this. I know I do. If you’re not a Christian, you probably would want to become one if you could find a group of believers who actually lived this way. Sadly we Christians must confess to our shame that there’s a huge gap between what we see of the church in Acts 2, and how we experience it in our own times and places.

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?

If the church were more like it ought to be, like it could be, like it used to be (and still is, in a few special instances), we wouldn’t know what to do with all the people. They would be breaking down the doors to get in. Why? Because people today are hungry for community. They want to belong somewhere, they want to be included in something that’s real and important. They want to be able to experience love that is available, genuine, non-exploitive, caring, inviting. And people are searching for God. Ours is becoming a very spiritual age. Just a few years ago scientific skepticism was dominant and acceptance of the supernatural was totally out. Now, it seems, the theme is, “I want to believe in something more than what I can see!”

Luke’s account of the life of the earliest Christian church shows the answers to both these needs being lived out. The Jerusalem church was a welcoming community that genuinely knew and worshiped God. The problem with much of the spirituality of our age is that it doesn’t know the difference between reality and fantasy, or who God is. People today, especially in the tired and confused societies of the west, are taking their quest for faith in all sorts of bizarre directions. They believe, alright, but in what? In crystals and reincarnation, in spaceships and extraterrestrials, in guardian angels who work miracles for them. But not in God, not the personal, living, holy, just, gracious God of the Bible. People are looking for love, fellowship and community, but for love without faithfulness, fellowship without giving, community without commitment. Is it any wonder they fail to find what they so desperately want?

The answers are found in the church of Jesus Christ. Or, at least, the church as it should be. When the church is functioning in the power of the Holy Spirit, when it is living out the life of God as a new community of the people of Christ, it meets our most basic human needs. Our most basic human needs? Beyond mere physical survival, they are the needs that make us human – the need to be related to God and to each other. This is what the Christian church is designed to satisfy.

THE CHURCH AS IT SHOULD BE

Acts 2:42-47 provides a wonderful picture of the life of the church during its earliest days in Jerusalem. Let’s look there for the distinctive marks of a church that is healthy and filled with the Holy Spirit. Luke describes four of them:

  1. The first mark of the Spirit-filled, Spirit-led church is a commitment to doctrine and teaching. A spiritually healthy church is a learning and studying church. The very first thing Luke reports about the earliest Christians is that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (v. 42a). Of course, they had the advantage of the apostles all being physically present in that church. Imagine what it must have been like in those first weeks and months. You could gather for worship and listen to Peter tell stories about the life of Jesus, or to John’s teaching on love.
    But while we no longer have the apostles in our churches, we do still possess their teaching. For the apostles, including the apostle Paul who was later appointed to this high office by the risen Christ himself, have left us their teaching in written form. The New Testament consists primarily of books written by these eyewitness authorities, or by their personal assistants. So for us today, to be devoted to the apostles’ teaching means that we will study and follow the scriptures rigorously. If we want to imitate the life of the early Christians, we must steep ourselves in the thought of the Bible. If we want to follow the leading of the Spirit of God, we will be committed to the written word of God, because the Holy Spirit always leads people to the Bible. To be devoted to the apostles’ teaching means we are eager to learn, that we love doctrine – which is just another word for organized teaching – and theology, which is the study of God himself. And it means we will be committed to the authority of the Bible. We accept the fact that the apostles have the right to tell us what to believe and how to behave. If there is a conflict in some question of faith or morality between what the New Testament says and what some avant-garde religious leader says, our choice will be clear. We’ll go with the apostles – that is, if we want to be part of the authentic historic church.
  2. The second mark of a church that’s led by the Spirit is a commitment to practicing genuine fellowship and ministry to the needs of people. A healthy church is an accepting and a caring church. Look again at how it was in the Jerusalem community:

    They devoted themselves to the . . . fellowship. . . . Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. (vv. 42b, 44-45).

    Now, the first requirement for fellowship in the church is that you be a part of it! A surprising number of people seem to think that Christianity is a purely individualistic, private choice. That is not an idea taught by the Holy Spirit. What we learn from him is that if a person is really linked to Christ by faith, he or she is also part of the church. This point was well stated by the great theologian Karl Barth:

    If [Christ’s] life is ours, then our life has to be the life of members of his body. We cannot be outside. Because he is inside, we too are inside with him. . . . One can be a good citizen without belonging to a political party. One can be a good musician without joining a choir. . . . But one cannot believe as a Christian without believing within the church.

    The fellowship experienced in the life of the Jerusalem church was real, and it was intensely practical. Luke says that they devoted themselves “to the fellowship.” The word he uses there is koinonia, which means “things shared in common.” That is exactly what the earliest Christians did; they shared life together. They shared everything they had. They held their possessions in common, and used them to meet each other’s needs. Their fellowship was lived out in practice. They didn’t just talk about having a common life together and helping one another when they were in trouble, they did it.
    This passage is always a little embarrassing for modern Christians, especially wealthy Christians from western societies. We know, most of us, that we don’t share as much as we could, or should, with our brothers and sisters around the world. I know I don’t. Luke’s report makes me feel guilty. Now, I recognize that no church is perfect. There never has been a community that completely lived out the life of Christ – not even the earliest church in Jerusalem. As we will see all too soon in the book of Acts, this church too had its problems. Nor was their communal sharing of possessions absolute, or required. Luke makes it clear that practicing communal living in the church was not coercive. It was voluntary, and in order to meet the immediate needs of that situation. But having said all that, I wonder . . . am I sensitive enough to the suffering of my fellow Christians? Am I sacrificing any luxuries or comforts in order to help feed and clothe them? Is my commitment to fellowship within the body of Christ genuine, or is it mostly talk?

  3. The third sign of the Spirit’s presence was evident in the church’s worship. Their common life evidenced a commitment not only to helping each other, but to worshiping God with each other. A healthy church is a praising, praying and celebrating church.

    “They broke bread and ate together. And they prayed. Everyone felt that God was near. . . . Every day they met together in the temple courtyard. In their homes they broke bread and ate together. Their hearts were glad and honest and true. They praised God. They were respected by all the people. Every day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved.” (vv. 42-47, NIrV)

    When Luke says that the earliest Christians gathered to break bread, he’s not just talking about them getting together for a nice dinner. They certainly shared meals with each other as part of their fellowship, but the phrase “to break bread” is used here in a special sense. Luke is referring to the breaking of the bread at the Lord’s Table, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This is the act of Holy Communion, the central ceremony of Christian worship which commemorates Jesus’ sacrifice for sin in dying on the cross. The bread of communion represents Christ’s body, broken on the cross. The cup of wine points to his blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins. So the key mark of this early church was the worship of Jesus Christ. They gathered for prayer and praise, in homes privately and in public at the Temple, to worship God and feed on Christ in their hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving.

  4. The final mark of the Spirit-filled, Spirit-led church is mission; a renewed church is a missionary church. Notice Luke’s concluding comment: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47). Salvation is really God’s work. He must enlighten minds deceived by sin, open hearts to the truth of the gospel, energize wills to turn and believe in Christ. But the Holy Spirit works through the ministry of the church to accomplish all these things. We know the Jerusalem church had a strong commitment to proclaiming the gospel. Peter demonstrated that on Pentecost. The first chapters of Acts are filled with stories of the church’s repeated witness. We also can guess without too much difficulty that their life of fellowship and worship must have been very appealing to their fellow citizens. When it is obvious in a church community both that love is real and that God is present there, it won’t be surprising if its numbers grow day by day.
    The Spirit is present in this kind of church, a learning and loving, a worshiping and witnessing congregation. If you are a Christian, help your church become more like that. Pray and work for the Holy Spirit to develop these signs of his presence, of spiritual health in your fellowship. And if you’re not a Christian, if you’re thinking of becoming one, or even just want to learn more about what Christianity is like, look for a church like this. That’s the place to start.