April 30th, 2023 “Acts 2:42-47 - Four practices for growth reflected in the early Church”
“May the words from my lips and the meditations of our hearts always be pleasing to you O God.”
Today the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada marks vocational Sunday. I was tempted to use the provided sermon but then I read the section of Acts appointed for today. And it seemed to speak to me and to our task of reimagining ourselves, looking at our future and reinvigorating our sense of being a spirit led congregation.
Over the course of the next few weeks I will be focusing my sermons on the material from the Book of Acts. The Book of Acts is our most comprehensive history of the spiritual and political movement that gave birth to the early Christian Church. Today’s reading has become the emblem of early Church community.
I would like to reread the passage from today as we examine just what Luke wanted his readers to learn or know about this early movement.
RE READ PERICOPE ACTS 2:42-47
It is important to begin by acknowledging that Luke was not a journalist or a historian. Luke was not in fact even describing how things really were in this community. This was a goal. Luke’s description is an idealized and enthusiastic depiction of a transitional time when Jewish practice and new beliefs were still coalescing into a new way of life.
Luke tells us that Christisan faith has changed where people live, how they understand property ownership, their sense of communal obligation in response to personal crisis. It has changed how they view something as basic as a meal, its purpose and its implication. Eating together has become a spiritual activity. Luke gives us an idyllic picture of the Church filled with people who are awestruck at the wonders and signs of the Apostles who had gathered a community sharing all they had for the benefit of everyone. All needs were met and God increased their numbers.
Luke’s depiction of the growing community has been taken literally - and it should not be! It has led to a focus on numerical growth as the primary evidence for testing the spiritual state of Christian community.
It is easy to wish that we were in the position of the early Church with people coming to faith each day - more and more people joining the community. It is easy to go from there to a longing for our past - nostalgia for a time when the pews were full - the Sunday school was full - the confirmation classes were full - the times of fellowship were frequent and well attended.
But this desire for the days of the past does nothing for us now. It does not provide a template for our future. It is not our reality and truth be told - the harsh truth - it has not been our experience for a very long time. Perhaps our future should look more like what Luke describes - what the Church could be in its finest realization.
Luke tells us that in the early Church all needs were met and God increased their numbers. What could this mean for Advent or the larger Church? What is the relationship between meeting needs and enlarging the community?
Did the increase come as people saw the Church caring for the neighbours, sharing everything, eating together and praising God? What could we - so concerned about diminishing numbers and falling revenues learn from this description of the early Church?
Our reading from Acts today shows us four qualities of Christian community - its a guide and I believe it is a place for us to start.
Luke tells us that the early Church devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. These four elements were crucial to developing Christian community in the early Church and still have relevance. Teaching and fellowship may take on new expressions but the centrality of Jesus should remain. And equally important we should not overlook the importance of the sense of responsibility for one another.
Maybe this is where Advent 2.0 should be this coming year? Maybe this section from the Book of Acts should be our guide, our template, our goal. Maybe this reading should be the how of how we live and not die.
What built the faith of the early Church and can we do it too?
They devoted themselves to the “Apostles’ teaching. We are all called to dwell in the scriptures. Are we doing this on a regular basis? Or do we rely on what we will hear when we come to Church?
They devoted themselves to “fellowship”. Those early Christians did enjoy breaking bread in their homes. This means nurturing the habits of hospitality and it takes work. How are we doing with this? We have resumed a monthly coffee hour but are we all committed and devoted to fellowship or are we content to let someone else do it? How truly welcoming are we? When there is devotion to fellowship people are made to feel at home and people get close enough for genuine relationships, rejoicing, encouragement and support.
They devoted themselves to the “breaking of the bread”. This is a clear reference to communion or the eucharist or the Lord’s supper. Faith and community are fed by the sacrament. Do you feel you are fed when you receive the bread and the wine? Is this feeling something you want to share with other people? The promise of the Gospel is available to all our senses but we will miss it if we are not devoted to it.
They devoted themselves to the “prayers”. It is clear by the plural that the early Christians were learning some kind of set prayers - the Lord’s prayer, the Psalms or other forms. The involvement in prayer is more than a part of worship. Prayer is for each of us an opportunity for communion with God. To be devoted to prayer each of us and our community here at Advent must pray intentionally.
This is what the Book of Acts tells us the early Church did. Needs were met and God provided growth. Can it happen for us? Is this a practical way forward for Advent? Acts gives us a vision of what the Church can be. I want to be a part of that Church. Do you? Acts gives us a vision of a community committed to mutual support. I want to be part of that Church. Do you? Acts gives us a vision of the Church as a place where the deepest human longings for God & community were being met in abundance. I want to be part of that Church. Do you? Acts tells us that the response of the people was awe and amazement. I want that to be my response. Do you?
We are called to the task of discernment. All of us. This is the work of the faithful. This is the work of the Advent family. We are called to reclaim our identity as a spirit led community. You are the disciples.