Oct 25, 2010

sermon draft: the beginning of the Church; radical Jesus community

picture of a model of the 2nd temple in Jerusalem, courtesy of Wikipedia

(From the NET Bible):
Acts 2:42 They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 2:43 Reverential awe came over everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles. 2:44 All who believed were together and held everything in common, 2:45 and they began selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need. 2:46 Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts, 2:47 praising God and having the good will of all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved.


If you know much about the book of Acts, you may have noticed that today’s passage gives an account directly following the event of Pentecost, in Jerusalem. I wonder though, does anyone know what the original Jewish festival was about? Why were people celebrating it and why was it called ‘Pentecost’, for instance?


It celebrated the giving of the law on Mt Sinai, after Israel’s central event figuring and prefiguring salvation – the Exodus from Egypt. God had saved his people from slavery in Egypt, the time partly covered in the movies “Joseph, Prince of Dreams” and “Moses, Prince of Egypt”. This was celebrated yearly at the time of the Passover. And then, after Egypt, God gave a framework for his community; the law, including the 10 commandments. The feast of the law, or the feast of weeks as it came 7 weeks after Passover, was the feast of Pentecost.

Jesus was crucified at the time of the Passover festival, we find in all 4 gospels – and in the light of this new, final salvation event, God creates a new community, at the feast of Pentecost. It’s over simplifying it, but we could say that while the old community of Israel was centred on the Law of God – the new Israel, was a community of the love of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

The new community is the Church, a vibrant, attractive, missional community. Let’s look at what this passage says about what it means to be a part of this community.

I’m fairly convinced that the Church is worth being committed to. Christian community is worth my time, worth our time. The early Church agreed; we see in our passage in Acts that they met every day, fellowshipping together, praying, eating together and devoting themselves to the doctrine, the teaching of the apostles.

But the modern world disagrees with me; if you agree with me about the importance of Christian community, it probably disagrees with you too, tho perhaps in different ways. Many of you have been around longer than me, so you know what it’s like. Sometimes it disagrees emphatically, but generally apathetically; sometimes I’d also say just pathetically. What we don’t see so much in the modern world is what we read about in this passage in Acts. A little while after Jesus’ death and resurrection the number of people identifying themselves as following Jesus in community in Jerusalem had just grown from 120 to 3000plus people and it was still growing. People joined up on a daily basis.
In New Zealand, how many churches could claim this? None, let us be honest. Now some tell us that in fact we see a trend towards disbelief that can only continue; we see atheists loud and proud, in certain areas anyway, including some populist billboards. Atheists are a real phenomenon and I think most of the church has ignored them for too long. It seems to me that we see people asking questions that have already been answered (to some extent) by the Church, but they don’t know it because the Church is not, unlike the Church of Acts, saying anything in public. We see other religions increasingly prominently in our country as well – if we cede the public sphere further in favour of some kind of privatised religion, we will probably see people converting to these other religions because they claim to offer something the secular world does not. I think we’ve seen this for quite a while in things like the popularity of psychics, crystals, horoscopes and other New Age phenomena. But all of this is not the whole story; the extent to which Christian faith is widespread and maybe even growing, under the secular and pluralist surface continues to amaze me sometimes – I could give various examples. It’s not all bad news for the Church, by any means.

We do have a Church in New Zealand and we will for many years to come, of some sort. Yet frankly what I think we, the reasonably affluent western Church of middle class suburbia, lack in comparison to Acts is the devotion in this passage. If we were actually committed to living out the things in this passage, we would be more visible. Devotion in combination with sound understanding is a powerful mix. On a related note, I love vocal atheists, for instance I really like billboards which try to be clever about religion; and one of the reasons is that they help to clarify things, including, by the way, how dull the ‘New Atheist’ movement really is. The masses in New Zealand float around the middle somewhere, interested in Jesus but not too close to the Church, pulled in one direction or another by popular culture and if the Church’s doors are open, maybe God will yet pull many more in.

Ok, so I’m advocating devotion, but devotion to what? Clearly devotion to God is important for a people claiming to be God’s people; a Church, but this should have practical, visible outworkings and we need devotion to living these out. I can’t tell you what commitment to Jesus should look like for you. I can tell you something about what it looked like in the early church and some of the consequences the world saw of that commitment. I’m told it’s traditional to have three main points in a sermon, so here’s an attempt:

*Firstly it’s commitment to the teachings of the apostles – those who had been with Jesus and were sent out as teachers.
*Secondly these people are committed to fellowship and hospitality; to each other and building up the community
*Thirdly, commitment to prayer.

The rest of what we see happening follows from these. I’ll let you think about some of those details and I’ll focus on the three points.

But first, note that these weren’t self-initiated. This community wasn’t a nice idea a few people had – it only existed in response to what God had done and particularly it was in response to a single sermon which the apostle Peter had preached at the time of Pentecost.

So, a quick look at the first point of commitment; the teachings of the apostles:
Peter was a rock on which the Church was built – the way he built up the church was through preaching through key passages of hope in the Old Testament, relating them to Jesus. Public proclamation of God’s word to a receptive audience bore fruit. This was what I was trying to get at earlier – the Church was visible as a community, it made sure the truth about God was heard – this is still important today. This fruit was developed through further study of the word and the apostles’ teachings, inspired by the Holy Spirit, which we have collected in the New Testament.

Secondly, the early Church was committed to radical hospitality. The Greco-Roman world saw the way that these people treated each other and it showed up as different. The same opportunity exists in today’s individualistic society. Many people want to be able to rely on the state, I suspect because they don’t trust their family, neighbours and community to be reliable. The Church can offer a different kind of hospitality and generosity; I hope that this stands out. The early Church realised that their resources were not their own; they sold them as resources were needed by the community. Not for the sake of some communist or communitarian ideal but because of need and the simple realisation that assets are generally not given to you by God to be sat on. By common consent, these people lived sacrificially.

The Jesus community straight after Pentecost, which had just seen 3000 people added to their numbers could easily have been self-satisfied or triumphalist about their situation. Instead, they committed to prayer as a community. How much more is this necessary in situations like ours today?

Devotion is hard work and it hurts. It’s not the same thing as hype. I’ve seen Christian hype, you probably have too; and I’ve seen it fail - but I’ve also seen the real effects that people genuinely excited for Jesus can have. So there’s a balance there I guess. If there’s one thing the early Church in this passage models that the Church could do with more of, it’s commitment. Not commitment to structures or buildings, but to the unchanging sound truth of the apostles’ teaching, to a way of living that is painful; costly and joyful – and to prayer, which binds it all together.

The challenge I see in this passage is to ask: am I committed to working out my commitment in these three ways? I think so. If we want to see salvation come to people around us, these things are worth working on, in God’s community.

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