Communal Discipleship

Kevin Gasser

Staunton Mennonite Church

1/27/08

Acts 2:37-47

37Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day 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, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

            Every Sunday, I have a set routine.  I wake up at 6:30 in the morning with the best of intentions of getting out of bed and preparing myself for Sunday morning worship.  I grab my sermon, sit down on the couch, and try to stay awake while I read through the text a number of times.  It is always a bad sign when I can’t keep myself awake with a sermon.  If I can’t keep myself awake, how can I expect to keep you all awake?  Then at 8:00 I begin to get cleaned up and ready for church.  We try to hit the road by 8:30, and Sonya drives while I practice my sermon in my own head. 

            It takes us about 35 minutes to get to the church and the ride is pretty enjoyable.  We drive down 81, right through the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.  The view is amazing, with mountains on either side, trees in bloom in the spring, and magnificent colors in the autumn, snow on the treetops in the winter.  But as enjoyable as this trip is, it can be difficult along the way.  There are a lot of elevation changes with trucks creeping up the hill at Wyers Cave.  There are the dangers of wildlife running out in front of you, cars changing lanes, and State Highway Patrol officers nestled into the median (not that we ever break the speed limit J).

            On our journey to the church, we enjoy all of the good that surrounds us.  But we are also aware of the dangers that are out there as well.  We do not blindly travel up and down 81, but we rejoice in the beauty that God has surrounded us with while avoiding the dangers with one another’s help.  And the best part of the journey is that we don’t have to do it on our own.  Sonya and I have one another to help us to see the beauty of God’s creation, and help one another to avoid the dangers.

Last week I spoke with you about pointing people toward Christ.  But I want you to know that pointing someone to Christ is not the end of our Christian responsibility.  There is more, much more.  And unfortunately for those of us that like to get things done and finish them up early, this next step is a life-long engagement.  The next step is communal discipleship; walking with one another as we follow Jesus.  Today I would like to talk about communal discipleship.  And I would like to show you why we all need communal discipleship, and how to actually practice communal discipleship.

Why we need communal discipleship

Our scripture for today begins with a group of people that have been pointed to Jesus.  Peter has just delivered a message that Jesus of Nazareth is both Lord and Messiah and many of the hearers believe.  They have been pointed to Jesus, and they begin their journey to Jesus.  But this is where I get very confused.  I get confused because these new believers ask something of Peter and the other more experienced followers of Jesus Christ.  The new believers ask, “Brothers, what should we do?”

Now the only thing that I can figure out here is that there must have been more women present than men.  Because men never ask for directions.  And this is what these new believers were doing.  They were asking for directions.  They knew that they were beginning something new, they knew that they had been pointed to Christ, but they did not know how to get from point A to point B.

I would liken our lives as Christians to that of a journey.  All of us began this journey because someone else pointed us to Christ.  Whether it was our parents, friends, relatives, or neighbors, most Christians began this journey when someone else pointed them in the right direction.  I doubt that very many people ever begin this journey without anyone ever providing some sort of direction in their lives, though I suppose it would be possible.

But when we are pointed to Christ, in that moment when we first believe, we do not immediately arrive at our final destination.  We do not find ourselves face to face with Jesus in heaven.  We do not experience the kingdom of God in its fullness.  Instead, we become followers of Jesus Christ, we become his disciples.  That is why I suggest that we are on a journey; a journey to Jesus, walking in the footsteps of our savior.  Seeking to know him, seeking to see him face to face.

It is my belief that our journey to Christ as his disciples is best done in community.  This journey is made easier and more enjoyable by surrounding ourselves with other people that are on the same journey.  But before I get into that, I want to share with you something that I have been thinking about a bit.  I do not believe that the same person that points a person to Christ is necessarily the same person that needs to walk with that person on this journey to Christ.  The evangelist does not have to be the co-disciple to the person on the journey.  It would be nice if they were, but they don’t have to be.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”  Paul did not walk with the Corinthian converts each step of the way.  He pointed them to Christ, stayed with them for a time, and then moved on to another geographic location.  But he did make sure there was someone in place to walk with the Corinthians on their journey to Christ.  Apollos was there as a co-disciple to “water” the seed that Paul had planted.

That does not mean that Paul just pointed these people to Christ and then forgot about them.  We know he wrote to them at least three times.  And we know that he prayed for the Corinthians.  But because of the calling that Paul had been given, he was not able to stay and walk with the Corinthians on their journey to Christ.  But he also didn’t point them to Christ and say, “You’re on your own.” either.

We need other Christians on our journey.  We need co-disciples of Christ that can walk with us every day.  Like my drive down 81 with Sonya on a Sunday morning, we need others on the journey that can help us to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation that surrounds us.  Someone who can point out the flowering dogwood and the blooming wild flowers.  And we need others on the journey to help us to watch out for the deer running across the road and potholes that exist along the way.  We need others to help us with directions when we get lost, especially when we have not been to the place we are trying to get to.  Having someone on the journey with us can be a huge benefit when we get into new territory.

But all too often, we think we know where we are going and that we don’t need anyone else to help us on the journey.  Even when we get lost, we are too stubborn to ask for directions.  I am not at all immune from this conceited belief that I know where I am going all of the time.  I don’t think that I have ever stopped and asked for directions.  I fit the stereotypical male figure that doesn’t stop, no matter how lost I get.  And it isn’t as if I was ever told not to ask for directions.  I don’t ever recall my father sitting me and my two brothers down and teaching us, “Now boys, as men we don’t stop and ask directions.  We just keep driving past the same water tower and hope nobody else notices that we are lost.”  But somewhere along the line, this belief that it shows weakness if I stop and ask for directions has been ingrained upon my mind.  It is hard to admit when I am lost and in need of help.

I am afraid that this self dependency has crossed over into our journey toward Christ.  And I know that I am as bad as anyone else in this matter.  I remember in college, and I don’t even remember what the issue was, a person asking me if I minded if they prayed for me.  I remember clearly my reply, “Don’t worry about me.  I’ll be okay.  Pray for someone who needs it.”  It wasn’t even that I wasn’t asking for directions, I was refusing guidance. 

So when I read this passage from Acts 2, I am amazed by the new believers and their asking for direction.  So many of us have the attitude that we can get through this on our own.  We will find our way.  We can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.  But looking back on my journey as a Christian, I can see that the single most important thing, outside of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has been those on the journey with me.

I could probably go through this congregation and know something that each of you has had to struggle through in the last couple of years.  Whether it is the loss of a spouse, cancer in a loved one, sickness, injuries, temptations, each one of us has been afflicted with something.  And I know that most of you would give me the same answer if I were to ask you what helped you get through such a hard time.  You would tell me it was the church.  And when I say the church, you know that I don’t mean the building in which we are sitting right now.  I am talking about the people that make up the church.  Those who are on this journey with us.  It is our fellow disciples that keep us pressing on toward Christ.

How do we practice communal discipleship?

So how do we practice communal discipleship?  Looking back at our scripture we can see a couple of themes that come up more than once.  Verse 42 reads, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the fellowship.”  Then in 46, “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.”  The three practices from this discipleship community that I wish to lift out are the devotion to the apostles’ teachings, prayer, and the breaking of bread.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings.  These teachings were not original with the apostles, so where did they learn them?  Well, what other name do we call the apostles by?  They are also called the disciples.  The apostles’ teachings are really the teachings of Jesus Christ that the original disciples learned in their own community of 12 plus Jesus.  So a part of the communal discipleship of the early church was to study the teachings of Jesus.  But to say that they devoted themselves to Jesus’ teachings means more than they learned the teachings.  To be devoted means that they lived out Jesus’ teachings.  And memorizing the teachings isn’t the hard part.  Living them out is.

And this is where the discipleship community really comes into play.  To live out the teachings of Jesus requires help.  We need the guidance of others to watch out for the dangers along this pathway, much like Sonya and I help each other to watch out for dangers on the highway.  Now I know that it can be hard to take someone’s advice when we are driving.  I hate a backseat driver that tells me to slow down or to increase my following distance from the car in front of me.  But I need to know that it is for my own good.

And if someone in our discipleship community is giving us advice on how to live out the teachings of Jesus, we need to remember that they do it for our own good.  If someone tells you, “Maybe you shouldn’t be spending time alone with that attractive person of the opposite sex,” or “Maybe you need to forgive that person who hurt you,” we need to remember that they are doing it for our own good.  That is a part of what it means to be in a discipleship community.  It doesn’t always feel good to have someone point out our weaknesses as a Christian, but it is for our own good.  And when we devote ourselves to Jesus’ teachings, we need the help of others to help us keep the teachings of Jesus.

Both of these verses speak about the importance of prayer in our discipleship communities.  Verse 46 says they met frequently in the temple.  And I am going to guess that they didn’t just meet there for church league softball or another committee meeting.  They were meeting to pray with and for one another.  And I cannot emphasize the importance of praying for one another enough.  We need to be remembering each other in prayer.  That is why we have certain prayer requests listed in our bulletin every week.  Praying for one another reminds us of others struggles and helps us to connect with that person and with God simultaneously.

And the final thing that I notice in this discipleship community in Acts 2 is that the disciples devoted themselves to the breaking of bread.  Now it does not say that they devoted themselves to breaking bread together, but based on everything else that we find in this passage, I think it is safe to assume that this breaking of bread was in the presence of other disciples, other followers of Jesus Christ.

The biblical scholars do not agree on whether this passage is referring to them taking communion together or if it refers to a common meal.  But it is my belief that anytime the disciples got together to eat, anytime they broke bread, they did it in remembrance of Christ.

But what is really important to note here is where they broke bread.  They broke bread in their own homes.  And I believe that this is a huge step in the development of communal discipleship.  Pot lucks, carry-in meals, and the like are all wonderful.  Fellowship meals are great.  But if you really want to get to know someone, if you really want to let them into your life and be vulnerable with them, you invite them over to your home.

I am aware that many of you have never been to our home in Harrisonburg, and for that I apologize.  But when we move into our new place in Staunton, I plan to invite everyone over.  But it is scary to have people over.  And not just because you never know what to cook, or whether or not your house is clean enough.  It is scary because when people enter into your home they can see how you live and what is really important to you.

If space aliens were to come into our neighborhood and into our homes this night, what would they think about us?  Would they believe that we worship a 21” box with wires coming out the back of it because all of our homes are designed around this box?  Would they look at the books on our bookshelf and see that we are more interested in love novels and smutty books than in the Bible?  If someone from our own neighborhood came into our home, what would they think about us?

When we invite people into our homes, we invite people into our lives.  People can see that we are not perfect, well groomed and well put together.  People can see that we fall short of this Jesus Christ that we profess as Lord.  And that is scary.  It is scary to let people into our lives.  But it can be wonderful as well.  Inviting another to break bread in our homes is an invitation to join us in the dirt and dust, the dirty laundry and the stinky tennis shoes that make up our lives.  Inviting others into our home to break bread is saying “Let’s walk through this together.”  Inviting others into our home to break bread is an important part of communal discipleship.

I think it is possible to make this journey to Christ on our own.  It is possible, but why would we want to even try.  Let us be willing to ask for help, because none of us has all of the answers.  And let us devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  Let us walk this journey together.  Jesus never said that this journey would be easy, but he never we would have to do it on our own either.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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