The community which transforms - the church - Acts 2:42-47

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 28th June 2009.

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There are certain words that when said make a person feel very, very afraid. I’m married to a teacher so I know the word that makes teachers sweat and lose sleep. Do you what it is? It’s the word Ofsted.

Some time ago now Vicky and I were visiting a church when we were on holiday. It wasn’t a very enjoyable experience at all. There were many low points but the worst moment was when someone eventually spoke to us and asked if we were around on Friday. When we said no he walked away. I think there was a special welcome meal that day.

This experience got me thinking about spiritual Ofsteds. How would churches do? How would we do at St John’s? Before we relax in our pews and rest easy because there is no such organization as Ofspirit we need to remember that there are many places in the New Testament which allow churches to evaluate how they are getting on.

The most famous example is found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. What happens in those chapters? What we see is Jesus Ofsteding seven churches in what we call modern day Turkey. He observes their behaviour, writes up his report and tells them how to change their behaviour in order to meet his standards.

Another part of the Bible that will allow us to evaluate the health of our church and the health of our individual Christian life is where we find ourselves tonight, at the end of Acts chapter 2.

The story so far. The risen Jesus has ascended to heaven and has left his disciples to spread the good news about his identity and mission around the world. He has promised them that it would spread from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. However, before they start preaching he has told them to wait. Wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit and he will empower Jesus’ people for the greatest mission this world has ever seen.

That’s what happens in Acts chapter 2. The Spirit descends and Peter preaches a sermon that explains why the Spirit has descended. If you read the sermon you’ll discover it’s all about Jesus.

Towards the end of the chapter we discover how people responded to his message. Look at what we’re told in verse 41. “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” These people joined the first group of Christians. The numbers grew from 120 to over 3000.

What was it like to be a Christian in the early church? This is what Luke tells us in verses 42 to 47.

“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.  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.  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.”

The key verse for us in verse 42. In verses 43 to 47 we are given examples of how the early church lived out the priorities mentioned in verse 42. There are four priorities mentioned.

Another way of understanding them is to view them as four Ofsted categories. How should we evaluate the spiritual health of a local church? The number of meeting? By the standard of its car park? The standard of the cars in the car park? It’s not about which categories we could use but which ones we should use. There is no point getting an outstanding on things God doesn’t think are important.

1.    They were devoted to the apostles’ teaching
2.    They were devoted to the fellowship
3.    They were devoted to the breaking of bread
4.    They were devoted to the prayers

First of all, this church were devoted to the apostles’ teaching.

Who were the apostles? Some of you will know and some won’t have a clue. If you didn’t know how would you find out? You could ask someone. If they were wise they wouldn’t simply tell you they would show you where in the bible to find the answer.In our case the answer is merely a page away. Flick back a page and look at how Luke begins his book.

“In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.  3 After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.”

The word ‘apostle’ means a sent one. Someone who was sent with your authority. Acts chapter 1 has a special focus on these chosen men called apostles. You’ll learn more about them as you read the chapter. Let me highlight a few important details.

In verse 13 we are told their names. There were 11 of them. Originally there were 12 but Judas betrayed the Messiah. This was not unexpected. Peter says even this betrayal was predicted. However, Judas needs replacing.

Who could be an apostle? Look at what Peter says in verse 21. “It is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.’ So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.’ Then they cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias: so he was added to the eleven apostles.”

An apostle was a man chosen by Jesus who had been a witness from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and had witnessed the resurrection. The apostles were responsible for correctly passing on the message of the Christian faith. They had the right understanding.

The unique position of an apostle explains why the early church described in Acts experienced so many miracles. Look at what we read in 2:43, “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.” This makes sense because of their special responsibilities. Jesus had his ministry accredited by miracles (Acts 2:22) and so do his chosen apostles. They do not simply have one opinion among many. They understand the authentic Christian message. These were the original teachers of the church. Because of their unique position the other Christian devoted themselves to what they said. This meant that they were specifically devoted to the teaching given by these 12 men who had been appointed by Jesus.

What does this mean for us today? At this point I need to take a gigantic short cut. I don’t have time to show you my working. Do come and ask me later. For us it means being devoted to the teaching preserved in the Bible.

What do we have in the Bible? The Old Testament, the life and teaching of Jesus and the message of the Jewish apostles and Paul the Gentile apostle.

How are we doing? Are we devoted to the teaching of the Bible?

What is your attitude to the Bible? Do you love hearing these words?

How would we show that we are devoted to these words?

•    Read it on our own.

•    Listen attentively as it is taught.

How are we listening? Read ‘Listen Up’. You may be someone with a keen desire to listen but who finds it difficult. Read the book.

This is simply the first criteria. What about the second one?

Secondly, this church were devoted to each other.

Or as verse 42 puts it, they were devoted to the fellowship. Please notice what it says. It doesn’t say they were devoted to fellowship but to the fellowship. And that is another way of saying that these early Christians were devoted to each other.

In verses 44 and 45 we are given one specific example of how these Christians showed their devotion to each other. Have a look at it. Verse 44, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”

This doesn’t mean everyone handed over their possessions to the community leaders. This was Christian generosity. They knew that when they committed themselves to Jesus they also committed themselves to Jesus’ people. They were part of a new spiritual family.

What might this mean for us? It is fundamentally about attitude. The action will be different depending on what we are doing at the moment.

Get involved in people’s life and see what happens. You might discover illness or maybe real financial need.

•    Suppose you don’t meet with God’s people every week. How might you be more devoted to the fellowship? Plan to come every week. How can you be devoted to the fellowship if you never meet with God’s people?
•    If you come every week what about joining a smaller group?
•    If you are in a smaller group why not get to know your small group members better?

Who knows what will happen when we start to live out this attitude more and more?

Why be so devoted to each other? The church was called the fellowship. This is a business word. We are partners together in God’s great enterprise. People throw their hear and soul into keeping the business going. Let’s see the church for what it is. The fellowship to achieve a task.

Lord of the Rings. The first of the trilogy is called ‘The Fellowship of the Ring.’ They need to be devoted to each other or the mission will fail.

Thirdly, this church were devoted to the breaking of bread.

This is most likely a reference to remembering Jesus’ death on the cross. The phrase can simply mean eating together but after the Last Supper breaking bread takes on a new significance.

The way they practiced communion was different from the way we do it. As verse 46 says they broke bread in each other’s homes. Communion was celebrated during a meal in a believers’ home.

They took celebrating the Lord Jesus’ death very seriously.

We are on a pilgrimage. God gives us various means to keep us faithful and healthy on our way. Lord’s Supper. Four aspects. It helps us look back, look up, look around and look forward (death for sins means a future in heaven).

How devoted are we to the breaking of bread?

Fourthly, this church were devoted to the prayers.

In the church Bibles the phrase in the original has been translated as prayer. This would mean that the first Christians were devoted to prayer in general without specifying what type of prayer they were devoted to. However, the original phrase should be translated, as it is in the ESV, as the prayers. These early Christians were devoted to the prayers.

What does this mean? They had times when the church met together to pray and they were devoted to these times.

Different churches organize their times of corporate prayer differently but I’m convinced that one of the signs of a healthy church is when its members are devoted to these times of corporate prayer, not just individual prayer.

What does this mean for us?

•    The weekly intercessions.

Do make sure you don’t tune out but pray with God’s people. We are being led in corporate prayer.

•    The central prayer meeting.

How devoted are we to the central prayer meeting? The reality is that most of us. Why not?

I’m not speaking to those of us who cannot come but would like to come. Perhaps illness or children. I’m trying to start a discussion tonight that I hope will lead to many more of us gathering together to pray. Let me try and anticipate a few reasons people might give for not coming.

•    Do we see it as our responsibility? It’s for others. No it’s for everyone. Young or old. Let’s get together and pray together.
•    Too many meetings? Commit to Sunday and Wednesday. These are your priorities.
•    I would feel uncomfortable praying.
o    Come and learn
•    At first you don’t have to say anything you can come and say your amens.
•    I feel tired. I just want to chill out. I don’t deny life is busy. But when you reflect on your life lived what would you rather have done? Slobed on the sofa watching telly or praying that God’s kingdom will grow?
o    Corporate prayer is energizing and good for our own prayer lives.

I want to start a discussion. Why not have one at home groups?

If you used to go and stopped coming then come back and pray.

It is our responsibility. It is our privilege. It is one of the signs of a healthy church. Let’s do it.

I want to end by showing you the end of verse 47. “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

We cannot automatically say if we do this then this will result. Notice who adds to the number. It is the Lord.

But what an attractive community of people this is? We are learning, we are loving, we are celebrating and we are praying.

Let’s thank God for what he is already doing and let’s hear what he has said tonight and change as a response.

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