Reflection: What does ‘church’ look like?

Reflection for Western Heights
3rd of May, 2020

Acts 2:42-47

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Today, for the fourth Sunday in a row, we are celebrating Easter and the joy of resurrection. It takes us fifty days to truly celebrate God’s defeat of darkness and death, the victory of love and light and life. Easter is ten days longer than Lent; forty days of thoughtful preparation lead to fifty days of celebration.

This celebration, this ultimate victory of life over death, has implications for the way that we as Christians live our lives. Today we have a tiny snippet from the Book of Acts, one of Luke’s summary passages. It comes after he tells us about Peter’s preaching to the questioning crowds at Pentecost, when Peter told them that Jesus, whom they had crucified, was their Messiah and Lord. Peter was obviously an amazing and spirit-filled preacher, because the crowd immediately responded by asking ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter told them to repent and be baptised, which they did. Then we come to the part of the story that we read today, the description of how these newly baptised Christians lived out their baptism. Luke reminds us here that Christianity is a matter of doing as much as it is of believing. Christians believe that God raised Jesus from death, and in everything we do we live out our response to that belief.

I mentioned the first part of the description of this new Christian life a couple of weeks’ ago, when we heard the story of the two disciples who encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Then I said that Jesus reveals himself to these disciples, and they journey from despair to recognition, through what Luke’s readers and we ourselves can recognise is a standard church service. In today’s passage we again see that ‘standard church service’: the new Christians ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’. They did what we do when we come to church on Sunday. We learn about our faith through an encounter with the Scriptures, ‘the apostles’ teaching’; we become a community that supports and encourages each other in ‘fellowship’; we celebrate the Eucharist together, ‘the breaking of bread’; and we pray, we devote ourselves to ‘the prayers,’ including the prayer that Jesus taught us. When we gather together to learn from the Scriptures, when we have fellowship in community, when we celebrate communion, and when we pray together, we are part of a tradition that started with that first generation of Christians and has continued for almost 2000 years. We become the body of Christ.

When the disciples do all these things thousands become Christian: ‘day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved’. Luke began the Book of Acts telling us that Jesus’ followers numbered about 120 people; after Peter preaches three thousand more join them. They almost instantly become a mega-church, although since they are still spending time in the Temple it seems that the followers of Jesus don’t yet form a separate church; they are still a movement within Judaism. Most Christian leaders, certainly any Uniting Church leader, are going to read of this phenomenal growth with envy. We live in a country, a time, and a denomination when the church is shrinking rather than growing, as the faithful church members of the what demographers call ‘the Lucky Generation’ (the generation before the Baby Boomers) die. But we shouldn’t be berating ourselves for shrinking congregations. Nor should we idealise the church in the Book of Acts. We shouldn’t focus on the numbers, on all those being added. Instead, focus on what they were doing.

We can find in this very short description of the practices of Jesus’ earliest followers categories by which we can examine ourselves as a worshipping congregation. Are we a community that learns from the Apostles, shares fellowship, breaks bread together; and prays? Are we nourished by the Scriptures? Do we read them, study them, hear them read and preached on? Are newcomers welcome among us; are existing members supported? Are strangers encouraged to join in; are the sick and housebound still connected to the rest of the community? Are we fed by the Eucharist? Is everyone welcome at the table at which Jesus is the Host? Do we make sure that those who can no longer come to church (which at the moment is all of us!) are still able to share the bread and drink the wine? Do we pray, for each other and for the world? Are there ways that those who want to learn more about prayer can be taught? Do people feel able to ask for prayer, or to offer it? I only had a little time with you before COVID19 locked us all down, but I got the sense that the congregation’s small groups, as well as the worship services, did offer many of these things. I know that members of LAT have been working hard to ensure that pastoral care, ‘fellowship,’ is still offered throughout the congregation while we are physically separated; and my main job has been to provide ‘the apostles teaching,’ ‘the prayers,’ and an attempt at the ‘breaking of the bread’. These are things that all of us can do; we can pray for and with each other, and offer the ‘fellowship’ of a phone call or an email or even the extremely old-fashioned card in the letterbox. Even while locked down, we can follow the example of these very early Christians.

I’ve said that this passage, like Jesus’ encounter with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, describes a standard church service. But it is important to recognise that what the church does, what makes us the Body of Christ, isn’t limited to worshipping together. The next part of the description of the life of the early church is the often-quoted: ‘all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.’ This is one way in which the fellowship that Luke mentions was created. For the new disciples, becoming a Christian had an immediate economic affect. The rich became less rich; the poor became less poor; everyone had enough.

Luke is, of course, exaggerating a little in this description of the practice of the early church. As we read the Book of Acts, we find that there were members of the church who obviously hadn’t sold all their possessions, who had goods and lands and used them to support wandering apostles like Paul. Not everyone was living a life of holy and possession-free poverty. But there does seem to have been a sense that wealth was there to be shared with the Christian community. A generation or two after the events described by Luke, the theologian Justin Martyr wrote about Christian community: ‘We who once took most pleasure in accumulating wealth and property now share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with men of different tribes because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them and pray for our enemies.’ And the theologian Tertullian wrote about the Christian’s well-known and well-deserved reputation for generosity ‘Our care for the derelict and our active love have become our distinctive sign before the enemy … See, they say, how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other.’

The early church was a community. The first Christians didn’t just gather together on Sundays to worship, they shared their lives and their goods on the other six days of the week. They knew that devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles was more than a matter of believing that Jesus had been raised from the dead; it also involved living out of that belief. Being Christian involved actively following in the footsteps of Christ: spiritually, emotionally, and even economically. This sense of community is our Christian heritage. We, too, are part of the tradition that Luke says led to Christians ‘having the goodwill of all the people’. Read the wrong way, that could be as heavy a burden on our shoulders as the description of thousands joining the church after a single sermon! We live in a very different time and place. But, again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things for us to learn from Luke’s summary.

Christianity is not meant to be about financial guilt trips. I cringed this week reading about some evangelical churches in the USA who were asking their members to tithe their federal stimulus cheques. We shouldn’t read this description about the early church and berate ourselves for not following its example. But, as with those four elements of the ‘standard church service,’ we can use this description to examine our own practices. Do we use our money in such a way that it leads to the life in abundance that Jesus came to bring, for us and for others? Do we give money to causes that bring health and hope to people in need? Do we buy things that have been produced in fair and sustainable ways? Do the many, many people involved in getting food to our tables receive a living wage? And do we know how to find out the answers to these questions?

The members of the early church, in their community and caring, with gladness and generosity, were living the lives of abundance that Jesus came to bring us. If we listen to the description of the early Church and feel guilty that our church doesn’t welcome thousands of new believers, that we are not living as they did, we miss the point. They were able to share everything with each other because of the joy they felt in their new life. Jesus came to bring us that joy. This is what we are invited to celebrate today and every day that we gather together. Today, as always, let us rejoice with glad and generous hearts, praising God, because God loves us and came to us in Christ. Amen.

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