If only we could return to the early church, then we’d have it made.
This statement, in one form or another, is one that I hear fairly regularly. The sentiment is nice, but it’s just not a notion that I can support, and I have a feeling that if you’re honest with yourself, you don’t want it either. Worse than that, it’s not what this world needs.
This world doesn’t need the early church, it needs a modern church. The watching world today needs us to be more faithful in word and deed and more practical in our ministry.
You see, the early church, despite what you may have been told to believe, didn’t’ have it all together and they weren’t perfect. They struggled with sin, just like our churches do. They, at times, had bad theology. The early church still wondered what faithful and effective ministry looked like in a rapidly changing society. Hopefully this is something that sounds familiar to you.
So the next time someone tells you about the need to be “just like the early church”, ask them which one? The racist Galatian church? The sexually immoral Corinthian church? The unloving Ephesian church? Read the New Testament letters, the church struggled. The church, throughout history has always been a mash up of broken, struggling, and sinful people.
So the beautiful thing is not that the church is perfect, but that God chooses to work in and through the church despite her imperfections.
This means that our desire should not be to return to the early, but to create markers about what an engaged, transformed, and faithful church looks like. In essence, what did the early church do that made it successful, and how to we translate that into our day and age, in the contemporary American culture in which we find ourselves?
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 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.
In this passage, Luke gives us the clues about the faithful church, regardless of what time period it may find itself in.
Now, before we dive into the three areas of a faithful church, I think we need to talk a bit about devotion. Now, I could talk and talk talk about it and waste ten minutes of your time, of I could just go ahead and show you, so let’s watch this thirty second clip, and I think we’ll all have a better idea about devotion.
That’s devotion, isn’t it? They are clearly devoted to many things: football, friendship, winning (or maybe I should say not losing), and to Sunday NFL Countdown. Countdown bids itself as the place to be who need to know. Feel like you can’t miss the latest NFL news? Be sure to catch Countdown. In a sense, they are asking you to be devoted.
To cling on and not let go.
To, in many ways, have such an obsession that you orient your life around. Don’t just catch the highlights, don’t just have our shown on as ‘background noise’ but watch, attentively, with the sound turned up and your notepad out. If you miss this, you miss everything.
Not that’s devotion.
Our devotion to three areas of faithfulness will propel us into a life of mission, so imagine with me, if you will, a perfectly balanced three legged stool. Each leg is needed so it doesn’t lose its balance, and it holds up perfectly the platform to reach something higher.
So too this is the case with our life in the church. In order to be a faithful church, a devoted church, a church that this community needs to experience and encounter the power of God’s Spirit and the love of the resurrected Jesus, we must be devoted to three things in a life of mission.
We first must see our commitment to correct teaching. The early church studied the apostles teaching, those that had been with Jesus. The listened to the stories, they heard of the miracles, they studied the teachings, and they understood the Kingdom of God. The life of the early church was governed by how much it understood Jesus and strived to be like him.
Any faithful church must model this too. We have the stories and teachings of Jesus, the records of the miracles, and a chance to see and experience the Kingdom of God; yet far to often we neglect this. Many of us act like my friend in seminary who once quipped, “Yeah, I’m not sure about the last time I read my Bible, I always find Jesus in community.” Really? Really!?! And then we want to wonder why our churches struggle? Look, community is vitally important to a healthy church, it’s what we’re going to talk about next, but it can never come at the expense of diligent Bible study.
Listening once to a pastor, he offered a comment that has stuck with me. He compared Bible reading to the Israelites receiving manna: new food was required each day. He said, “Many of you wonder why you struggle each day and why that verse you found meaningful last week doesn’t seem as life-giving anymore. You need new manna for a new day. Bible reading is important not because it saves you, but because it provides you with daily spiritual food that nourishes your soul.”
The second area of devotion displayed in the early church was to Fellowship and the breaking of bread. This, for them we must understand, was much more than our modern idea of “going to church”, indeed, such a concept for them would have been unthinkable. You don’t go to church you are the church. Fellowship was an identity marker for them, a visible sign and reminder of the resurrection power of Jesus.
What about us? Here’s one key question I think we need to wrestle with: if we want our churches to grow, if we want to share our faith, if what we profess to believe is to be seen and experienced by real as others, how much time do we spend outside of Sunday morning seeing each other? How many of us are involved in a small group, prayer time, fellowship group, or voluntarily give up your free time to spend it with other people? The honest answer? Not many. If we want to grow in our faith, and ultimately be able to share it with others, we must first live it out as a representative of God’s transformed community with other like-minded believers.
In that community of fellowship, the early church was devoted to the breaking of bread. Certainly it was communion, but it was much more than that. It was part of a larger meal, called the Agape Meal or Love Feast, where they gathered into each others homes to share a meal, hear the scriptures, celebrate Christ through the Eucharist, and commission each other to go and live faithfully.
This love feast was another visible representative of the reconciliation work that Christ had accomplished. Rich and poor shared a meal together. So did Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. All big no-nos in their world, they believed that the church brought all people together, despite what society dictated. What about our churches? Are we willing to be characterized by who we are willing to eat with: the rejected, despited, outcasted, or otherwise labeled peoples in our society? The early church was, and any faithful church today needs to be willing to as well.
The last area of dedication that we need to develop into a healthy habit is that of prayer. Listen to what one author had to say on the subject of prayer in the church:
Part of the spiritual warfare which the Christian has to wage in daily life is the prayer which must be constantly offered in faith. The particular admonition is that in this prayer we are to see to it that along with intercession for all the saints (and for the apostle) who are engaged in this battle there should also be endurance or perseverance in prayer. Prayer knits together the Church militant with a firm bond. It establishes the community in the power of God. The bond should not be broken. Indeed, it should become increasingly close. The roots should go deeper and deeper into the sphere of God’s life and power. To this end, there is need of persistence… Prayer is not just a pious exercise. It is serious work. It is part of the battle, of our spiritual warfare. (Kittel)
Our churches, must be dedicated to prayer, but unfortunately I think we are too often intrigued by the idea of prayer, and not prayer itself. A serious question for us to consider: do we actually pray during for the requests people share with us? Are we willing to be people who pray? It’s easy to say we like prayer, it’s much more difficult to be a people that are dedicated to prayer.
And so, it’s easy, I think, to stand up here and offer a rather simplistic idea of how to do this. Most sermons will conclude in some way to tell you to just go home and practice. You’re convinced of my point, you know what you need to do: to study more to be more faithful in coming to church and not making lame excuses, or to praying. You’re convinced to actually pray for somebody instead of just saying, “I’ll pray for you.”And yet, if I offer you that conclusion, I think we have not only missed the point of this passage, but un-lovingly advanced a simplistic and individualistic version of the Gospel.
This passage, believe it or not is not about you, it is about the church. This passage is a reminder of why we need each other. Some of us are better at Bible knowledge. We thrive when we get to study the Scripture and share it with others. The church needs you not to study privately more, but to teach us how to study it together. Others here are good at fellowship, they have the gift of hospitality. We need you to model for us how to create safe and welcoming environments that invite all people into the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And there are those that have a real dedication to prayer. We see them every week taking notes during our prayer time, they take the list home and pour over it daily. And we need you. We need you to teach us how to pray. To invite us into those times of fervent prayer where the Spirit moves and his people are blessed. Choose not to remain silent any longer but to exercise your gift as one of the healthy legs and lead us in prayer, today, tomorrow, and this week.
May we be people that seek to live on mission with God, but may we also realize that the platform is worthless without sturdy legs, without the sturdy and supportive leg of fervent study and an understanding of Scripture, without the sturdy and supportive leg of fellowship and hospitality, and without a sturdy and supportive leg to be a people dedicated in prayer.
This is adapted from a sermon given at Garden Parch Church in Denver, Colorado and part of our “Missions in Acts” series here on the blog.