Pentecost: RSVP

The Story Luke TellsPentecost is near, which means many churches will turn their attention to the book of Acts.

A couple of Pentecosts ago I recommended Justo L. González’s excellent The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel.

González notes that Luke’s story in Luke-Acts doesn’t really end per se: “Paul has suffered countless vicissitudes. He has been shipwrecked. He has finally made it to Rome. He is awaiting trial before Caesar. And then—nothing!”

(If you can never remember how Acts ends, rest assured! This may be why.)

Gonzalez goes on:

In telling his story and leaving it unfinished, Luke is inviting his readers to be part of it, to join the throng. ….But since the story is unfinished, it is more appropriate to conclude it with “RSVP,” like an invitation that awaits a response. This is what Luke demand from us: not satisfied curiosity about the past, but a response here and now. RSVP!

It’s neat to think about the church today as being a new sequel to Luke-Acts. Or, more accurately, the threequel to those two stories: Luke, Acts, the Church Today.

May God continue to empower with his Holy Spirit those of us who would RSVP faithfully to his invitation!

 

 

(Adapted from an earlier post on this blog.)

 

A Greek Word for the Twitter Age: σπερμολογος (spermologos)

Here’s a fun Greek word: σπερμολογος (spermologos). It appears only one time in the Greek New Testament, and nowhere in the Septuagint. Here it is in its context, Acts 17:18:

τινες δε και των Επικουρειων και Στοικων φιλοσοφων συνεβαλλον αυτω, και τινες ελεγον· τι αν θελοι ο σπερμολογος ουτος λεγειν; οι δε· ξενων δαιμονιων δοκει καταγγελευς ειναι, οτι τον Ιησουν και την αναστασιν ευηγγελιζετο.

A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with [Paul]. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

The NIV 2011 (above), NRSV, and KJV all translate σπερμολογος (spermologos) as “babbler.” HCSB has “pseduo-intellectual.” NASB has “idle babbler.” NET has “foolish babbler.” Not to be outdone, the Message offers, “What an airhead!”

Context determines meaning, which makes a word like this tricky, since it has no other uses in the Bible. The LSJ lexicon notes its use in, among other classic works, the play Birds by Aristophanes, where it refers to birds picking up seeds. In the 1st century B.C. history of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, σπερμολογος  describes a “frivolous” person. For the noun form LSJ offers, “one who picks up and retails scraps of knowledge, an idle babbler, gossip.”

BDAG has this: “in pejorative imagery of persons whose communication lacks sophistication and seems to pick up scraps of information here and there.” I also like its gloss of “scrapmonger”! In the part of the entry that covers the Acts verse, it says, “Engl. synonyms include ‘gossip’, ‘babbler’, ‘chatterer’; but these terms miss the imagery of unsystematic gathering.

Also helpful is Louw-Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains:

one who acquires bits and pieces of relatively extraneous information and proceeds to pass them on with pretense and show.

And then this gem, from the same source:

The term σπερμολογος is semantically complex in that it combines two quite distinct phases of activity: (1) the acquiring of information and (2) the passing on of such information. Because of the complex semantic structure of σπερμολογος, it may be best in some languages to render it as ‘one who learns lots of trivial things and wants to tell everyone about his knowledge,’ but in most languages there is a perfectly appropriate idiom for ‘a pseudo-intellectual who insists on spouting off.’

The implications for an easy-to-access information age are obvious–how much of the Internet is gathering information like seed and passing it on, without stopping to research and truly evaluate it?

We could pontificate, but back to Acts–this is what some Athenian philosophers called Paul: a σπερμολογος. The parenthetical statement in Acts 17:21, however, makes this the height of irony:

Αθηναιοι δε παντες και οι επιδημουντες ξενοι εις ουδεν ετερον ηυκαιρουν η λεγειν τι η ακουειν τι καινοτερον.

(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Did you catch it? Louw-Nida says a σπερμολογος engages in “two quite distinct phases of activity: (1) the acquiring of information and (2) the passing on of such information.” Acts 17:21 says the Athenians themselves (who leveled the σπερμολογος charge against Paul) spent all their time in two phases of activity: talking (#2 above) and listening (#1) to “the latest ideas.”

Moral of the story: check yourself before you call someone a σπερμολογος.

Galileans at Pentecost

"Pentecost," by Jan Joest van Kalkar (1505 – 1508)
“Pentecost,” by Jan Joest van Kalkar (1505 – 1508)

 

Pentecosts reminds us that God pours out the Holy Spirit on any and all persons who would receive… and he uses unexpected persons as his conduits!

The use of “Galileans” to help usher in the era of the Spirit is also a sort of breaking of barriers. It shows that when God chooses to do something marvelous, he does not necessarily wait till a person high in earthly esteem comes along. He does use such people, of course, as we see with God’s using Paul. But he is not limited to them.

The key to usefulness is the fullness of the Spirit, and the Spirit can bring life to anyone he chooses, provided that he or she is open to this enlivening.

(Ajith Fernando, Acts: The NIV Application Commentary)

Image above via Global Christian Worship.

After Luke and Acts: Part 3 of Luke’s Trilogy

As I’ve been working on the Book of Acts for my last few sermons, Acts has been working right back on me. I’m still thinking about my encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. This last week, as the lectionary moved from Acts 8 and Acts 10 back to Acts 1 (for the Sunday after Ascension Day), I found myself thinking in terms of Acts 1:8 as a prequel for what had been happening so far.

Just before he ascends, Jesus tells the disciples to wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

He says:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

They had wanted to know when the kingdom would be restored, but Jesus points them to a different when: the when of the Holy Spirit.

One implication of Jesus’ response, I think, is that we don’t have to know when or have life’s tensions resolved to be a witness right now to what we have seen in Jesus.

We don’t have to understand all the ins and outs of the kingdom of God–we may even think of its consummation as being a loooong ways away–to be able to make a contribution to it today, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

There’s an African proverb that says, “That which is good is never finished.”

The Book of Acts is like this. It’s not finished. If Acts 1 serves as a prequel for the whole narrative, Acts’s sequel is being written by men, women, boys, and girls who make up the church today.

The Story Luke TellsJusto Gonzalez comes at this another way in his excellent new book,The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel (Eerdmans, 2015).

He points out that Luke’s story in Luke-Acts doesn’t really end: “Paul has suffered countless vicissitudes. He has been shipwrecked. He has finally made it to Rome. He is awaiting trial before Caesar. And then—nothing!”

(This helps explain why after a recent read-through of Acts, I was at a loss to remember what happened to Paul at the end!)

Gonzalez goes on:

In telling his story and leaving it unfinished, Luke is inviting his readers to be part of it, to join the throng. ….But since the story is unfinished, it is more appropriate to conclude it with “RSVP,” like an invitation that awaits a response. This is what Luke demand from us: not satisfied curiosity about the past, but a response here and now. RSVP!

Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

We are the sequel to the two-part combo of Luke and Acts–the threequel, if you like. The story of the church in the world now becomes the third part in Luke’s trilogy. Luke-Acts-Us.

Holy Spirit Power

With the omission of the Holy Spirit and demon monkey dream I described having in college, the below is adapted from the sermon I preached on Acts 2:1-21 today. (Message me if you’re curious about the dream.) You can read the Acts text here. Scripture quotations below are 1984 NIV.

Surprise Birthday Parties

Party HornIf you’ve been to a surprise birthday party, you know how much fun it is. Whether you’re the one lying in wait for your unsuspecting friend or family member, or the one about to be surprised… it’s hard to match the buzz of a room waiting to yell, “Surprise!”

There’s some nervousness and jitteriness involved, too. You’re gathered to celebrate someone who could walk in at any moment, but you’re not sure when. She’s here–oh, wait. That’s just a late arrival.

Waiting for God to Come

The disciples in Acts 2 had gathered on the day of Pentecost–“all together in one place,” the text says.

They had gathered, in part, to celebrate a Jewish festival. Pentecost was the Greek name for the Feast of Weeks, one of three major yearly celebrations the people of Israel observed. It came 50 days after Passover. In this Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, the people offered God their gratitude for the crops that had come in.

Jerusalem was hopping. There were lots of pilgrims there, a whole host of international visitors, to observe the feast.

Jesus’ followers, who were Jewish, were gathered, “all together in one place,” for this festival of Pentecost.

But they had convened to worship for another reason. They were waiting for something–waiting for someone.

The disciples must have felt that same anticipation you have when you’re waiting to blow your party horn, but your expected guest is still maybe a ways off.

The disciples were waiting for the Holy Spirit.

In Acts 1, the risen Jesus–as he was about to ascend into heaven–had said something rather provocative to them. He had made an intriguing promise:

Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit….

[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

A baptism with the Holy Spirit–you will receive power, and the result would be an international witness, to the ends of the earth.

So the idea of a birthday party at Pentecost is fitting. Except the Holy Spirit wasn’t the one born then. The Holy Spirit has been with the Father and the Son from all eternity. The Christian church as we know it was born on Pentecost. On that day the church received a special gift for which it had been waiting: The Holy Spirit. As presents go, it doesn’t get any better than that.

In the power of the Holy Spirit, the church began its mission of preaching the Gospel to all nations.

The Ultimate Power Source

“[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you….”

Talk about power. It says:

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Though Scripture speaks elsewhere about speaking in tongues as possibly being its own sort of heavenly language, in this passage, the disciples actually start speaking other languages!

It’s like an instant upload of Pimsleur into their brains and mouths.

And the Holy Spirit came “suddenly,” Acts says. The disciples didn’t conjure God’s Spirit and make him appear. The Spirit just came.

This reminds us of what we usually know, but often forget: our lives can change in an instant. In a second, God can descend on you, infuse you with the Holy Spirit, and set you on a completely new course. He may not choose to work this way all of the time, but it is possible–well within his power.

As the disciples spoke a catalog of languages, a bewildered crowd asked:

Are not all these [people] who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?

The Linguistic Territory Acts 2 Covered (Source: Zondervan Atlas of the Bible)
The Linguistic Territory Acts 2 Covered (Source: Zondervan Atlas of the Bible)

Presumably, this rag-tag, humble, scared, not highly educated gathering shouldn’t know this many languages between them. They’re not world-traveling, cosmopolitan polyglots!

But…

[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

When the Holy Spirit comes on you, you receive a new power that allows you to do what you couldn’t do before. The Holy Spirit is the ultimate power source, the provider of strength to even weak and confused Christians.

We who have accepted Jesus’ invitation to walk with him, by virtue of our new life in Christ, receive the Holy Spirit that the church received on Pentecost.

Being a Christian means you have the Holy Spirit living in and with you.  And with the Holy Spirit comes supernatural power.

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you may prevail against what Ephesians calls “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you may be strengthened in the core of your being (Ephesians 3:16).

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, “so that you may abound in hope,” Paul would later write, “by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you can produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23): “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you will have the right words to say in a difficult conversation that would otherwise stump you.

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you will have patience–supernatural patience–when you’re at your wits end.

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you may heal the brokenhearted around you, with the healing power of God’s love.

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you can share the good news of Jesus, even if the thought of mentioning Jesus by name to somebody else makes you a little squeamish.

After all, if the Holy Spirit can give fluency in languages to the disciples, so they can praise God in dialects that others understand… the Holy Spirit can surely give us words to tell other people about Jesus.

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that we can transform this world more into the place God wants it to be.

Desire the Holy Spirit

Did the disciples fully understand what Jesus meant when he promised “the Holy Spirit”?

I’m not sure. But they were waiting for the fulfillment of that promise–not passively, but proactively. After Jesus’ ascended into heaven, Acts says, “They all joined together constantly in prayer.”

They desired the gift of the Holy Spirit. They wanted that power, so that they could be God’s witnesses near and far.

This Thursday our almost-four-year-old son had his closing program at his pre-school.

Everyone in his class with summer birthdays had received a birthday pin earlier this week. It’s a dove with a cross behind it. “A Holy Spirit pin,” they call it.

The closing program this last Thursday was every bit as cute and funny and well-performed as you’d expect from a well-coached group of exuberant pre-schoolers. Our son seemed to enjoy the program until we were talking afterwards, when he realized… he couldn’t find his Holy Spirit pin.

So he said: “I want my Holy Spirit! I want my Holy Spirit! I want my Holy Spirit right now!”

We knew where the pin was–not there with us. So we consoled him with this fact and gave it to him later, at which point he happily showed his big brother: “my Spirit!”

He sure desired that Holy Spirit pin and all the significance that it held for him.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.

The Holy Spirit has come, giving birth to the church at Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit is with us here, as we gather in one place to seek the Lord.

The Holy Spirit lives inside each one of us who has acknowledged Jesus as Lord.

We who have the Holy Spirit have the Holy Spirit’s power. Power to hope. Power to bear good fruit, to live lives of exemplary Christian character.

We who have the Holy Spirit have the Holy Spirit’s power to speak words of wisdom at just the right time. Power to be patient when we least feel able. Power to heal. Power to love. Power to prevail over the forces of darkness and evil.  Power to proclaim the good news of Jesus to people from all nations, vocations, and walks of life.

We receive power from the Holy Spirit–power that comes even and especially in our weakness. Power to face each new day.

Let us desire the Holy Spirit. Let us want the Spirit and his power. Let us admit to each other and to God our need to live lives that are wholly directed by the Holy Spirit’s power. Let us pray together, in this sacred space, “Come, Holy Spirit.” Let us pray when we are apart, every hour of every day, “Come, Holy Spirit.”

As we wait for God–even if we’re not sure of what might happen when we pray this way–let us say, as Christ’s gathered church: “Come, Holy Spirit.”

Becoming a Living Martyr

The below is adapted from the sermon I preached on Acts 7:54-60 today. You can read that text here.

The Stoning of Stephen

As the mob closes in, Stephen is distracted, beautifully distracted, by a vision of Jesus. “Look,” he says, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Usually when we hear about Jesus at the right hand of God, he’s seated, as on a throne. But it’s as if Jesus stands up to receive his servant Stephen, to welcome him into an unmediated experience of God’s love and presence, for all eternity.

The Stoning of Stephen, Gustave Doré (1832–1883)
The Stoning of Stephen, Gustave Doré (1832–1883)

His angry listeners thought they were hearing blasphemy, and so covered their ears. This Jesus who died was to them a heretic, rightly crucified under God’s curse for claiming to be something he was not. And Stephen says he sees this Jesus standing next to the one God! So bad was this blasphemy that they had to rush him out of the city of Jerusalem. The holy city should not be subject to such absurdities.

Verse 59 says that as he was being stoned, “Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’”

This should sound familiar to us. Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, also records Jesus saying on the cross, “Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

“Then [Stephen] knelt down,” Luke writes, “and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’”

More familiar words. Luke also records Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Stephen is remarkably like Jesus in his death. He is able to ask for forgiveness for those who are unjustly killing him.

Stephen makes death by stoning look easy. Luke says in the NIV that he “fell asleep”…. It was actual death, obviously. But so smooth, so easy, so forgiving and loving, so peaceful was the way in which Stephen faced his execution, that he simply “fell asleep.” And he entered into God’s presence.

“The Blood of the Martyrs…”

An early church theologian named Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Even on that day of Stephen’s death, there might have been a small seed planted in Paul’s heart, as he collected coats from the crowd.

Stephen was the first Christian martyr after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Before Stephen there was John the Baptist. After Stephen there were James, Peter, and a host of other apostles and church leaders. A number of means were used for martyring someone. Some of them quick and sudden, others slow and painful.

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” because we marvel at the courage of our sisters and brothers in Christ who stand for Jesus, come what may. Books of the lives of martyrs have long been popular among Christians, for use in private devotion and in public worship, to inspire, encourage, and exhort the body of believers to persevere in their faith.

I’ve been reading about one such martyr lately.

Catholic Archbishop Óscar Romero made it a hallmark of his ministry to stand with the poor, the marginalized, those who were on the other side of power. Romero, in what would be his final recorded sermon, gave a litany of the recent deaths of peasants and students in his El Salvador, even naming some by name, so that unjust violence and oppression would not go unnoticed. These victims have names, he insisted. Amazingly, his sermon concluded with an appeal to “the National Guard, the police, and the military” who were responsible for the killing. He said,

I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.

As he was preparing the Mass in a service of worship the next day, he lifted the chalice high, and was shot in the chest, falling at the feet of the crucifix.

“May God have mercy on the assassins,” he said, echoing Jesus and Stephen. Like Stephen, he committed himself into the hands of his Lord Jesus.

Martyrs Today

Most of us will never stare a martyr’s death in the face, but today, throughout the world, Christians do. Some of their stories are known, many others are unknown.

Sadly, we don’t have to look very hard for martyrs in 2014. Just this last week in Sudan, a 27-year-old woman, Meriam Yahia Ibrahim, received a death sentence for not recanting her Christian faith in favor of Islam. She has a 20-month-old son and is 8 months pregnant.

But the Islamist courts and government that have handed down her sentence cannot destroy her faith in Jesus, or even the Church of Jesus, to which she belongs, with us.

Like Stephen, she has committed himself into the hands of her Lord Jesus.

A Christian’s death because of his or her following Jesus continues to inspire the Church to grow.

A hip-hop artist in El Salvador, 30 years after Romero’s death, reflected on the former Archbishop’s ubiquitous cultural presence in that country. “What [Romero’s] killer did,” he said, “was to keep three generations thinking about him.”

How did they do it?

How did these men and women face death so calmly? So peacefully? How did Stephen and Romero both ask, with their last breaths, for God to forgive the ones who turned them into innocent victims?

I’m convinced that by the time a Christian martyr is confronted with death, she has already died a thousand deaths, by living for God.

In the moment that a disciple of Jesus looks the end of life in the face, he has already died to himself, many times over, by accepting Scripture’s call to follow Jesus.

When Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me,” he says, do it daily. Take up your cross in life, in your everyday life. Not just in death, but in life.

Which is a funny thing to say, if you think about it. We’ve got a rather sanitized view of the cross. It’s a thing we might wear around our necks, or a centerpiece in some church sanctuaries. But it’s a symbol of death. For Jesus, it was a means of martyrdom.

A Call to Be Living Martyrs

The call to “take up our cross daily,” then, is a call to martyrdom, maybe in death, for some… but for sure it’s a call to be living martyrs. We who follow Jesus have a call to die to ourselves, each day.

Two years before his death, Archbishop Romero paraphrased Jesus a bit, though I think he captures his meaning well. He said,

“Let those who would follow me deny themselves”…repress in themselves the outbursts of pride, kill in their hearts the outbursts of greed, of avarice, of conceit, of arrogance. Let them kill it in their hearts. This is what must be killed, this is the violence that must be done, so that out of it a new person may arise, the only one who can build a new civilization: a civilization of love.

Stephen, when he came to the day of his stoning, was already dead to himself. He was already fully alive in Christ, living for God alone. His whole being was consumed with imitating Jesus.

At his dying he said the same things Jesus said in his death, “Father forgive them.” “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” And so, mind-boggling as his final prayers are, they are not anything you wouldn’t have already expected, if you knew him.

Those kinds of prayers were already part of his daily life. Prayers like,

Father, forgive those who do wrong to me. Jesus, have mercy on those who mistreat me, who misunderstand me, who fail to give me the benefit of the doubt, who take advantage of me. Please forgive them.

And, prayers like,

Jesus, into your hands I commit this day; I give you my work. I devote my time to you. I lift up my children and my family to you—they are truly yours and not mine, so I commit all of us into your care.

Stephen fixed his eyes on Jesus as the crowd started to pick up heavy stones. But this sort of “looking up,” this sort of steady gaze on the person of Jesus, was already an ongoing posture in Stephen’s life.

We must die to our carnal desires that make an empty yet compelling promise of life. We must live instead to the will of Jesus.

We must die to the values of this world, a society that tells us that newer is better, that less is worse, that power over others is something to be procured and preserved. We must live instead to the values of the kingdom of God, where the pure in heart see God, where we are satisfied not with buying or getting more stuff, but where we are satisfied in God when we hunger and thirst for righteousness.

We must die to arrogance and greed, and live instead to humility and generosity.

We must die—as we are able—to our impatience with others who insist on taking our time and attention, when we’d rather keep to ourselves.

We must die to our desire for revenge, and live instead to show mercy to even the merciless who don’t deserve it.

We must die to any impulse we may have toward violence, and live instead to make peace.

We must die to ourselves, and live to Jesus, losing our lives for his sake.

Like Stephen, we must commit ourselves every day into the hands of our Lord Jesus.

“Beautiful is the moment,” Romero said, “Beautiful is the moment in which we understand that we are no more than an instrument of God; we live only as long as God wants us to live; we can only do as much as God makes us able to do….”

Into your hands, Lord Jesus, do we commit our spirits.

Into your hands, Lord Jesus, do we commit our lives.

Into your hands, Lord Jesus, do we commit our desires and dreams.

Into your hands, Lord Jesus, do we commit our whole selves.

Portrait of a Thriving Church

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.