Sunday, May 14, 2017

The First Church of Jerusalem

Last Sunday Victor reminded us of Palmer Becker’s summary of an Anabaptist identity: “Jesus is the center of our faith. Community is the center of our lives. Reconciliation is the center of our work.” This summary helps give clarity to what we mean when we say we want to be an Anabaptist church.

Over the next three Sundays I want to ask a related question: What shape did the first church take? A particular concern of the first Anabaptists was what we sometimes call “primitivism”, when “primitive” means “original”—that is, what the first church in Acts looked like. Their concern was to try and restore the church to the kind of fellowship found in the book of Acts. We see a similar movement in the Wesleyan Church, which was formed by a merger of the Wesleyans with the Primitive Methodist Church.

Today I want to look at that first church, using the summary statement in Acts 2, following the formation of the disciples into a growing group at Pentecost. What we see this morning reflects the first two of Palmer Becker’s three summaries: Jesus is the centre of our faith and community is the centre of our lives. I will focus especially on the first one.

Next Sunday I will look at Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council, which gives us insight into the third of Becker’s statement: Reconciliation is the centre of our work. On May 28 I plan to examine Paul’s experience of an enforced house fellowship in Acts 28, which picks up the second summary idea: Community is the centre of our lives. Acts 2 occurs within the first two months of Christ’s death and resurrection. The Jerusalem Council took place about 20 years later. Finally, Paul’s imprisonment in Rome was about 30 years after Christ’s death and resurrection. So we are looking at the first church over the first 30 years of its life.

The Text
Look with me at Acts 2: 42-47.
Chapter 2 describes the events of Pentecost—the way that the disciples were waiting for God’s Spirit; the way that God’s Spirit fell on them, leading to speaking in the languages of all the Jews gathered at Pentecost; the response of the people to this outburst; Peter’s sermon to the people, leading many to repent [of killing the Messiah] and joining themselves to the group of those who follow Jesus as God’s Messiah. Verses 42 to 47 then describe the way that this first group of disciples lived and worshipped. Each of the segments of Acts 2 deserves its own full treatment, but we look this morning just at verses 42-47.

Verse 42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
The text is clear. They took four basic steps [that is, “they devoted themselves to”]:
1. They listened to and followed the apostles’ teaching. (”Jesus is the centre of our faith.”)
2. They practiced “fellowship”. (“Community is the centre of our lives.”)
3. They broke bread regularly—probably on a daily basis. (“Jesus is the centre of our faith.”
4. They spent a lot of time in prayer. (Ditto!)
We will discuss these four more fully below.

Verse 43: “Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.”
This statement makes it clear that their lives continued the life of Jesus himself. Just as his ministry was characterized by signs and wonders, so also were their lives. The point of these “signs”—miracles of healing and casting out evil spirits—was always to bring people to faith in Jesus. They healed and delivered people, as the record in Acts shows, not so much because they were trying to replace hospitals, as because these actions were a sign of God’s presence, helping people to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

Verses 44-45: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”
This part of the summary expands on the fellowship that they practiced (verse 42). Both of these two qualities—the use of signs and wonders, and the practice of radical koinonia—are developed more fully in the next summary statement Luke provides in Acts 4.

Verses 46-47: “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.”
Luke closes the summary with this note—that they continued to worship in the temple (which would have included making the sacrifices found in the Judaism of that time), but went deeper into their faith in home fellowships, where they ate together and broke bread. One result of their radical and open discipleship was that new believers kept joining them on a daily basis.

Now I want to look more deeply at the four “devotions” of verse 42.

Devoted To
1. They listened to and followed the apostles’ teaching.
What was the apostles’ teaching? Remember that this summary comes about two months after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The apostles, then, would be the 12 named in Acts 1—the original 11 plus Matthias. They were chosen specifically because they were witnesses to the whole of Jesus’ ministry (Acts 1: 21f). So “the apostles’ teaching” would be their memories of all that Jesus said and did. This teaching probably formed the core of what have become our four gospels. The rest of the NT (Acts to Revelation) grew out of reflection on this original teaching. So we do the same today by devoting ourselves also to the Scriptures, which bring us to Jesus.

Reviewing the way that the NT grew out of the apostles’ teaching reminds us of the basic way that we read Scripture. In Luke 24 Jesus opened the Scriptures to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, showing them from the Scriptures that the Messiah had to “suffer these things” [the crucifixion] before he entered into his glory. That conversation led to an extensive re-interpretation of their Scriptures (our Old Testament), read through the person of Jesus. The NT grew out of these conversations, which included this summary in Acts 2.

We have said a number of times that we read the Old Testament through the New Testament, and that we interpret both through the person of Jesus Christ. You see that basic pattern established here already in Luke 24 and Acts 2.

I like the way that some liturgical churches use the lectionary. They read three Scriptures each Sunday. First there is the OT, with the reader stating “The Word of the Lord” at the close of the reading, and the congregation responding, “Thanks be to God.” Later in the service, there is the NT reading, with the same formula. Then, just before the sermon, the reader calls on the congregation to stand for the gospel reading, holding the Bible aloft to exalt the gospel just before reading it. The whole process reminds us of how we read the Bible. Even if we don’t follow that style of lectionary readings, we do use the principles behind it.
A brief excursus: This example from liturgical traditions serves as a reminder that the principles that we think of as uniquely Anabaptist belong in fact to the church as a whole. John Wesley, for example, was clear that we read the Old through the New, and the whole through the life and ministry of Jesus. This is indeed an Anabaptist distinctive, but not uniquely ours.

2. They practiced “fellowship”.
We will spend more time on this point in a couple of weeks. For today it is enough to observe that the first church was radically oriented to Jesus, and thus also to each other. They took Jesus’ words seriously—that we love God and we love each other equally. As John puts it in his letters, our love for God is expressed in our love for each other. Among the many commands we find in the letters of the NT, the command to love each other (stated in one way or another) is the most common by far.

Francis Schaeffer has a little booklet titled The Mark of the Christian, in which he argues two things: 1) Based on John 13: 34-35 (I give you a new command—to love each other), Schaeffer states that failure to love each other denies our identity as Christians. We say to the world, “We are not followers of Jesus.” 2) Based on John 17: 20-26 (Jesus’ prayer for those who will believe through his disciples, that they may be one as Jesus is one with the Father), he adds that failure to love each other testifies to the world that God does not exist and that the Father did not send the Son into the world. “Community is the centre of our lives,” says Becker. Indeed!

3. They broke bread regularly.
This is a practice that we have lost in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. I am not sure just why, but possibly because we saw the extent to which the church had become corrupt. The Church that the first Anabaptists knew had made the Mass the centre of daily worship services, and they rejected all that the established church stood for. So we have come to celebrate communion [the breaking of bread] two to four times a year.
Excursus: Some argue that the breaking of bread refers to a common meal rather than to communion. That is, I believe, correct; but it closed with communion, patterned after the Last Supper. This chapter comes only two chapters after Luke 24, in Luke’s two-volume work. It describes the pattern that was established in the first year of the new church’s life. I can’t imagine that they did not intentionally model their meetings on their memory of the last meal they had with Jesus.

I don’t think that this passage calls us back to daily celebration of the Lord’s Table, but it does call us back to remembering and living Christ’s death and resurrection regularly. A basic point of “breaking bread” is to know Christ. As Luke says of the two disciples in Luke 24, they recognized Jesus when he blessed the bread and broke it. We know Jesus in blessing the bread and the cup and taking communion.

This point reminds us that our Anabaptist commitment to activism—to an active discipleship—must be grounded in daily communion with God. We walk with Jesus (discipleship) because we are in close relationship with God. The fourth point reinforces this emphasis on knowing God.

4. They spent a lot of time in prayer.
Someone has said that nothing important happens in the book of Acts (and in Luke’s gospel) without the Holy Spirit and prayer. At the beginning of this chapter the Holy Spirit falls on the gathered disciples as they are praying. Repeatedly throughout the book they gather to pray, and God acts as they pray. This truth is bound together with the emphasis above on regular communion. Here we find the source of our desire and ability to walk faithfully as disciples of Jesus.

What Does This Look Like Today?
I am not certain what this kind of church would look like today. I suspect that almost any church around us could look like this. These four points are not so much a blueprint as they are a set of principles that should be found in our church life, whatever our precise structures. We are people who study Scripture deeply. We are people who live out what we find as we study Scripture. We are people who pray together as we study and as we live our lives. We are people who are grounded in God’s love and show that love to everyone around us. We are people who make God’s reign visible in our lives, so that we live against the grain of our society.

To put it another way, we are called to be an Acts 2 church. An Anglican church, with its Bishop-led and diocesan structure, can be an Acts 2 church. A Pentecostal church, with its emphasis on speaking in tongues, can be an Acts 2 church. A Russian orthodox church, with no pews so that no one sits down in God’s presence, can be an Acts 2 church. That is what God wants us also to be.

We are part of the Mennonite family, with our own history and our own patterns and structures. These are important, and we do not set them aside lightly. We embrace our church history and traditions as we go into the future. But within the way we do things, we remain a people centred on the life and ministry of Jesus. That is how we become like the first church of Jerusalem. That is what God calls us to do as God’s people today.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
14 May 2017
Text, Acts 2: 42-47
The Fellowship of the Believers
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.

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