42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 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, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Happy 4th Sunday of Easter! Today we are looking at the end of the second chapter of Acts, six little verses that hold the potential to change the way we see the church. Or they can be totally ignored, you know, because they are just six little verses And Jesus isn’t even named in this passage, so why bother?
I am planning to spend the next two weeks explaining to you why we should bother with this text, and it all comes down to one word: community.
Community is a hard word to really pin down. A good dictionary definition for community is a group of people living in proximity to one another who share a common set of values. But we could easily find exceptions to that definition. What about the online community? With modern technology, you may feel more connected to someone who lives thousands of miles away than you do to your own neighbor. Or, as we will be looking at the word today, what about the Christian community? There is something that is connecting us to Christians worshipping around the globe right now. I might even call a Christian in Indonesia or Africa my brother or sister.
So just what is community? Before we actually look at this text, I want to address some of the concerns that have been offered over the years about how our scripture for this morning has been interpreted. The first thing that we notice is that nowhere in this text does it say that we must live exactly as these early Christians did. So if you want to get fancy, you might ask the question, “Was this meant to be prescriptive or descriptive?” Was this meant to be an example of how followers of Jesus Christ should live in all situations throughout time, or does this text simply describe how the early church lived?
I’ll give you a very deep, theological answer to that question: I don’t know.
A second concern that people raise involves the timing of Jesus’s return. Many scholars have made the observation that the early church seemed to believe that Jesus was coming back soon. The events of Acts 2 occurred within the first two months after Jesus’s death and resurrection, so they may have expected him to come back any day. These people often point to verse 45, which says, “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” Yes, if you think Jesus is coming back in the next couple of days, you aren’t going to be worried about things like properties, savings accounts, or 401(k)’s.
I think that is actually a really good question, though I’m also not convinced that the first-century Jewish Christians had the same apocalyptic expectations that many Christians today have. But still, I think that to sell everything and cash in your retirement would be bad stewardship, and you would then be a burden for other Christians.
So no, we don’t know if this Christian community was meant to be a model for how to be the church, and we don’t know how or if the apocalyptic expectations of this community might have affected how they interacted and existed as the church. But what we do know is that for those first Christians, this is how they understood what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. And of these men and women, some had the chance to learn from Jesus himself or from his original disciples. So what we absolutely cannot do is dismiss this community based on a few questions to which we have no answers.
Today we are only going to get through verse 42. That’s right, one verse for the next 20 minutes. But do not worry, there are three things that I want to look at from this one verse as we seek to better understand the concept of Christian community. Verse 42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” So today, we will devote ourselves to the study of the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and to prayer. We will save the breaking of bread for next week as this practice comes back up again in verse 46. That’s right, eating was so important to the early church that two out of these six verses focus on it.
The first mark of Christian community is the focus on the apostles’ teaching. We can safely assume that when we are told that the Christian community focused on the apostles’ teaching that this means the remaining faithful of the original 12 disciples. And what were they teaching about? I would assume that they are teaching about Jesus, and not obscure algorithms or something like that.
Recall again that we are just about two months after Jesus’s death and resurrection, so where would this young movement go for stories about Jesus and for instructions on what he taught and said? They aren’t going to turn to their New Testaments, because they hadn’t been written yet. The Gospels aren’t going to be written down for another generation or so. And even if they had been written down, most of the people of the day would have been illiterate and not able to read them anyway. So for the early church to learn about Jesus, they had to gather together, to listen and share stories and teachings.
Today, most homes have at least one copy of the Bible stashed away somewhere, as I believe that the Bible is still the best-selling book in world. Even if you don’t have a print version of the Bible, you can access it online, with your smart phone, laptop, or tablet. Now don’t get me wrong, I think that it is great that the Bible is so available to people today, and I encourage you to read it! But one of the signs of Christian community is that we gather to discuss the teaching of the disciples, or our contemporary version would be to say that we gather to discuss the Bible or other teachings about Jesus.
We probably all know someone who is a Christian, reads their Bibles, maybe even listens to sermons online, on the radio, or on television, but they have no interest in going to church, participating in a small group, or interacting with other Christians. Without a doubt, you can learn that way, but at what cost?
Think of how Jesus actually taught. He always called people to a deeper understanding by not just telling people what to think and do, but by asking them questions, encouraging them to dig deeper. Jesus and his students often went back and forth, question, response, question, response. You can’t ask questions and you can’t get a response from a book or a television show.
Our Sunday school hour is meant to encourage you to ask questions and enter into conversations. Even my sermons are not meant to be one person teaching all the rest of you. This is why we allow a time of response after the sermon. Often you all point out things that I hadn’t considered or you share stories that bring new meaning to the things that I was speaking on. Sometimes you seem to miss the point entirely and I wonder what sermon you were listening to, but that’s okay. The point is that we, as a modern form of Christian community, dedicate ourselves to the teaching of the apostles.
The second mark of Christian community that I want to lift up this morning is fellowship. We sing about fellowship in songs like “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” Many churches have fellowship halls, rooms or even entire buildings dedicated to fellowship. Fellow is sometimes used as a synonym for a man or boy, as in the song, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” But the word also suggests that you have some similarity with a person, like when we sing, “Think of your fellow man/ lend him a helping hand/ put a little love in your heart.” So fellowship is obviously when there are people like you who are on the same boat.
I joke, but yet metaphorically, we are on the same boat. The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia. Koinos is a prefix that means to share something, and is often placed before words that mean purse, home, or mother. The disciples had a shared purse. Some shared a home. James and John shared a mother, or we would probably say that they were brothers. Koinonia simply means to hold something in common, to share something.
So when you sit around after church talking with others, you are experiencing koinonia, you are sharing a conversation. When you eat with another person, you are experiencing koinonia, you are sharing a meal. Koinonia isn’t limited to “Christian” activities. Some of you like golf and you hit the links together. That is a shared experience, and even though some people have been known to lose their religion on the golf course, when you golf with others, that is koinonia. That is fellowship.
Koinonia also doesn’t have to be a shared experience of something good. When people get together in support groups, like a cancer support group, or an addicts’ support group, koinonia, fellowship happens there. You have a shared experience.
Koinonia/fellowship is also used to describe our relationship with God. Interestingly, koinonia is only used to describe our relationship with God after Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came and dwelled within the hearts of the disciples. When we spend time in prayer or study, we are experiencing koinonia, we are in fellowship with the divine.
In a world that values independence, we Christians value fellowship, an interdependence on one another. In good times and in bad, we are together. We are in this together.
The third and final aspect of Christian community that I want to lift up this morning is prayer. Prayer is a simple thing with a difficult pronunciation in Greek: proseuchomai. Proseuchomai is a compound word, formed by the word “pros,” to or for, and “euchomai,” which means wishes or desires. Eucharisto is a very similar word, which means “thanksgiving.” So a pros-euchomai is to offer God your wishes or desires. A pros-eucharisto is to offer God your thanksgivings.
All of that is just a fancy way of describing talking to God. The early church talked to God. Thanks for this, God. And if you can, would you mind helping out here, God? We make prayer a lot more difficult than it needs to be.
This makes me think about what Jesus said right before he taught the disciples how to pray what we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer.” In Matthew 6:5, Jesus says, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”
You’re not supposed to be doing this for other people. You’re just talking to God. Sometimes you do it out loud, sometimes you do in silently. You can do it standing, sitting, or on your knees, it doesn’t matter. Eyes open, eyes closed. This is about talking to God, not performing for an audience.
When you walk outside in the morning and the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and the birds are singing, you can say, “Thanks for the beautiful day.” That counts! You don’t have to say, “Lord, we thanketh thee, almighty creator of heaven and earth. And we do beseech thee to guide us in thy ways.”
I have a friend who is also a pastor that happens to be serving in a different denomination than I am. Without a doubt, our traditions are different from one another. He is in more of what we call a “High Church” tradition, where the pastors wear robes and stoles, they light a lot of candles and say a lot of liturgy. They even require a Master of Divinity, a three-year graduate degree, for their pastors to be ordained. There’s a place for that, and yes, I’m going to be a little critical of these practices, but all-in-all, we agree on a lot theologically, even if our practices might be different.
Recently, this friend was sharing a story about when he started at his church and some of the practices that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. This is totally natural, and every pastor does this when they start in a new church. There are always going to be things that the pastor is uncomfortable with, especially because they are not familiar with the tradition of that practice. There were some things that I changed 11 years ago when I started at Staunton Mennonite Church, and I’m sure that I didn’t always do my part in understanding those traditions before I changed them. So if I offended any of you, I apologize.
As I was talking with this friend, he was joking about what we call our congregational prayer time, where you all are given a chance to share your prayer concerns and praises. This time usually immediately follows our sermon. This friend said, “I’ve put a lot of work into my sermons, and I just spent 20 minutes trying to give a powerful and moving sermon. Why should we let the congregation share after that?”
His thought was that his sermon should be one of the last things that the people hear before heading out the door so that they are charged up and ready to face the world. But when he started, there was a tradition that the people in the church could write down their prayer requests before the service, place them in a basket, and then the pastor would pray for them after the sermon.
So on his first Sunday, when my friend was handed this basket of prayer requests, he intentionally just left them on the altar rather than praying for the specific prayer requests. He was afraid that the people would pray for silly little things.
I get that. And as some of you who have served as worship leader know, we can get some strange prayer requests. But I always come back to this one thing: If it was important enough for that person to share it, it is important enough for me to pray about it.
My initial thought when my friend shared his story was to think of Jesus’s critique of the hypocrites and their prayers. Here is my friend, standing up front, wearing his robes and stole, he is a highly-educated white man, and he gets to decide which prayer matter?
No sir. Who devoted themselves to prayer in the early church? “They” did, the church did. Every man, woman, and child. If some kid wants to pray for their dolly, God is there to listen. If you want to pray for your great Aunt Agnes and her hemorrhoids, God is there to listen. And though it might be awkward from time to time, we are there to listen as well. Because one of the marks of the early church was that they talked with God.
The early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, and to prayer. I think that those are pretty good things to begin with when we talk about forming a Christian community.