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Portrait of a Thriving Church

May 11, 2014

As my wife and I continue to raise our three young children, we try to think about the values we want to instill in them. It’s not just about how we want them to behave, although we let them know that, too, but we have a certain ethos we are trying to cultivate in the family. We find ourselves saying things like, “That’s how we act in this family,” or, “This is not how we talk to each other in this family.”

What about our other family—our church family? How do we act? How do we treat each other? What sorts of things should we do? What are the values of this family?

The lectionary reading (Acts 2:42-47) provides some serious inspiration, some robust answers to that question. It gives a portrait of a thriving community of Christians.

The Four Things They Did

Acts 2:42    They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.

There are four repeated activities listed in verse 42, that the earliest church was practicing together regularly. These are all things that they devoted themselves to… they gave themselves wholly to these things.

1. The Apostles’ Teaching

The first thing to which the early church devoted themselves was the apostles’ teaching.

The Apostles Preach the Gospel, Gustave Doré (1832–1883)

The Apostles Preach the Gospel, Gustave Doré (1832–1883)

Earlier in this same chapter, Acts 2, Peter, one of the apostles, addresses a crowd who is amazed at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on this early community of believers.

He speaks of the life of Jesus, his death, and his resurrection. As one summary formulation of the Christian faith says, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” The apostles did us the great favor of writing down their teachings and the teachings of our Lord… so that we, too, can devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, just as the early church did.

At our own church we “devote [ourselves] to the apostles’ teaching” any time we gather to hear God’s Word read and proclaimed, when we study our way together through a book, or in a small group setting. We do that when we remind ourselves of the truths contained in Scripture, how the teachings of the Bible make available to us a fuller life than we could have ever dreamed of.

A thriving church devotes itself to the apostles’ teaching, to their words preserved for us now through the Scriptures.

2. The Fellowship

Second, they devoted themselves to “the fellowship.”

This term “fellowship,” that the author Luke uses, was also used in his day to describe the sort of close relationship that exists in a healthy and intimate marriage.

We can think about some of the marks of a good marriage: spending unhurried time together, taking a slow walk to just talk, sitting down for a meal and conversation, learning what makes the other person tick, trying to understand how to speak their love language. Happy marriages are not devoid of conflict, but have at least some established patterns for dealing with conflict when it inevitably arises. They’ll stop and carve out the time to work together on building the relationship.

My college roommate and I had so many post-conflict, relationship-clarifying talks our first year living together, that we often talked about how ready we were both going to be for marriage… how lucky two women were going to be to find such well-formed, emotionally mature men such as ourselves, who knew how to work through disagreements and differing life perspectives.

One kind of fellowship

One kind of fellowship

The analogy breaks down, obviously, and I’m not suggesting we think of ourselves as married to this church, per se. But there is something to be said for a repeatedly investing yourself in a close fellowship with others. It takes effort. And, you may have heard it said, sometimes to have a friend, you need to be a friend. Fellowship doesn’t just happen by all showing up in the same place together each week.

One writer puts it this way:

There are churches that view themselves as friendly and welcoming, but within which a visitor will not be drawn into conversation—where even members can suffer silently, unknown and unloved. Devotion to fellowship means nurturing the habits of hospitality—and it takes work: It takes courage to notice a newcomer, helping him or her find the coatrack or a classroom. It takes initiative to invite someone to lunch or a cup of coffee after worship…. It takes creativity to start a regular gathering where a small group can begin to know and care for each other.

A thriving church devotes itself to the creative, proactive work of building fellowship. Members of such a church make efforts to intentionally cultivate relationships.

3. The Breaking of Bread

Third, this early, thriving church devoted themselves to “the breaking of the bread.”

Alister McGrath writes about the passing of his aunt, barely 80 years old when she died. As he and some others were cleaning out her house, they found an old photograph of a young-looking man, someone his aunt had been in love with, but the relationship had come to an unexpected and premature end. His aunt was never married—this young man she had loved, and him alone.

Why did she keep the photograph, so many years after the relationship ended?

McGrath writes,

As she aged, she knew that she would have difficulty believing that, at one point in her life, someone had once cared for her and regarded her as his everything. It could all have seemed a dream, an illusion, something she had invented in her old age to console her in her declining years — except for the photo. The photo reminded her that she really had loved someone once and was loved in return. It was her sole link to a world in which she had been valued.

In the same way, McGrath goes on,

Communion bread and wine, like that photograph, reassure us that something that seems too good to be true—something that we might even be suspected of having invented—really did happen.

Jesus, you will remember from last week’s reading, was made known to two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, in the breaking of the bread.

Breaking bread together is a way we remember and reinforce the content of the apostles’ teaching: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” When we break bread and drink from the cup together, we remind ourselves that something “really did happen.”

4. Prayer

Fourth, this early, thriving church devoted themselves to “prayer.”

praying handsHere, too, devotion and initiative are needed. It takes dedication to remember to pray not just here, not just today, but throughout the week for each other. And it also takes devotion to have the guts to share something vulnerable, to ask others for prayer for specific things we are in the middle of. But as we do, we find ourselves growing together into a closer fellowship of Christians.

A thriving church devotes itself to prayer.

One More Thing They Did

And there’s at least one more thing this early church did, that still stands out as an example to us. That is in verses 44 and 45.

44 All the believers were together and had everything in common.  45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.

This passage and these verses in particular have inspired many an intentional community to actually move in and live together as disciples. Churches are a little bit different, in our context, but part of a deliberate devotion to fellowship is making sure we care for our own, especially when they are in need.

One other translation says that “they sold from time to time,” implying that this was not just a one-time event, but an ongoing solution that the church offered to the financial challenges its members faced.

With Determination, With Glad and Sincere Hearts

Luke twice mentions the devotion that the church had in working together to build a healthy and faithful community. In verse 42, “they devoted themselves….” In verse 46, “Every day they continued to meet together.”

It was continually, with perseverance, over and over, time and time again, that the church persisted in coming together. They worked at it, and they didn’t stop working at it.

But lest we think it was all work and no fun, Luke also says, “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” They were truly happy to be together. They thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.

Come, Devote Yourself to the Church….

“It is not good to be alone,” we hear, very early in the Bible.

Loneliness is a sort of pre-existing human condition, and the church is its best antidote.

Do you feel flat, dull, or stale in your walk with God? Come, devote yourself to church, and have your faith renewed by worshiping with others who want to love and know the same God you do.

Are you listless, directionless, or looking for wise counsel as to how to live? Come, devote yourself to the teaching of the apostles, and we as a church will dwell on God’s Word together.

Do you feel despondent as you eat another quiet meal alone? Come, devote yourself to the fellowship of the church, where we spend time in meaningful conversation with each other, often with food and drink in hand.

Have you forgotten who you are, and who Christ is? Do you need to remember again just how much Jesus loves you, precious child that you are? Come, devote yourself to the breaking of the bread, and know Jesus—and taste his love—in the physical reminders of his body and blood, given for us.

Are you facing a scenario that is far beyond your capability, that has you throwing up your hands in surrender? Or have you experienced a recent joy, the excitement of which is so great you have to tell somebody else? Lean on others who will mourn with you, who will rejoice with you, and who will pray with you and on your behalf. Come, devote yourself to prayer, and find renewal and strengthening from the prayers of others.

God, Who Makes it Grow

The last verse in our passage says, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Ultimately it was God who grew that young church.

mulberry treeWhether it’s numerically or in other ways—spiritual depth, strength of fellowship, vulnerability of relationships—it is God who adds to the health and vitality of a fellowship of believers. We are planters, though, and we can dig out a small hole in the dirt and drop in a few seeds. We can cultivate what we’ve planted by watering it and protecting it from pesky garden predators—those forces that would prohibit growth together. We can nurture this organic, living body we call our church through our perseverance, our continual commitment to be together, and with glad and sincere hearts.

Come, let us devote ourselves to the work of nurturing this church: through learning the Scriptures, through fellowship, through the breaking of the bread, through prayer, and through sharing with each other when we are in need…. And as we work, let’s watch God move among us and make us grow.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached on Acts 2:42-47 today. All Scripture quotations come from the NIV (1984) or TNIV. See my other sermons, if you desire, here.

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