This sermon is part of the sermon series "Acts: The Rest of the Story". See series.
D. L. Moody was visiting a prominent Chicago citizen when the idea of church membership and involvement came up.
"I believe I can be just as good a Christian outside the church as I can be inside it," the man said.
Moody said nothing. Instead, he moved to the fireplace, blazing against the winter outside, removed one burning coal, and placed it on the hearth.
The two men sat together and watched the ember die out.
"I see," the other man said.
I wonder how many Christians have launched out from the church for what they thought were good reasons, only to find that what they were looking for could only be found where they left. So many people who claim to follow Christ live separately from the church. Some people avoid or leave the church due to the amount of hypocrisy they sense there. It's true the church has always had its share of racism and immorality and greed and every other sin in the book. Some have even been personally burned or betrayed by a church experience or leader. So they stay away. For others the problem is not hypocrisy; it's boredom. Who wants to sit for 40 minutes and listen to a lecture about a book written several thousand years ago? They become wearied by the unvarying routine: week after week they face the same crowded parking lot, sing the same songs, hear the same announcements, and see the same faces.
The question is, how could something that strikes some as riddled with hypocrisy and others as boring, be absolutely essential for our spiritual survival? Part of the problem is that we misunderstand the nature of the church, and our language is a dead give away. We talk about "going to church" the same way we talk about "going to the market" or "going to the mall." We think of the church as a place we visit—and leave—rather than a reality that we live every day.
The early Christians, however, didn't talk about going to church; they talked about being the church. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Acts 2:42-47. Acts 2:41 records that after Peter's sermon at Pentecost, "there were added about 3,000 souls." That's an amazing harvest! But what we need to realize is that conversion was not the end of the story. It was only the beginning. In the very next verse Luke writes, "They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." That is, those who had just experienced salvation didn't simply "go to church." They lived in continual devotion to certain things. Instead of being a weekly snack to boost their spiritual energy, fellowship with believers was an intravenous flow of spiritual life. By getting saved, they were automatically plugged into the body of Christ.
Luke mentions four characteristics of the church in verse 42 and then elaborates each of them in verses 43-47. These characteristics indicate that the church is not something we do or visit, but rather something we live.
The early church was a learning church.
The first characteristic we notice is that the early church was a learning church. Luke says they were devoted to the apostles' teaching. You might say the Holy Spirit opened a school in Jerusalem that day. Its teachers were the apostles who were eyewitnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Its students were these 3,000 kindergartners who had just been enrolled!
It might have been tempting for these early believers to look back to Pentecost and recall the way the Holy Spirit had worked in such dramatic ways, and think, We don't need to learn. We just need more of the Spirit. Why do we need the apostles when we have the Spirit to teach us? Interestingly, when Luke says the Holy Spirit came to dwell in these 3,000, he says nothing about wind or fire or tongues; he says they became learners. They sat at the apostles' feet, hungry for instruction. When the Spirit of God invades our lives, that's what he does: he makes us hungry for God's truth.
Notice, too, that the teaching authority of the apostles was authenticated by many miracles (Acts 2:43). The believers were in awe because of the miracles that the apostles performed, and that caused them to be even more devoted to the apostles' teaching. If you saw me heal a blind man this morning, you would probably listen to what I had to say. Miracles were prevalent during the early years of the church, because God designed them to authenticate the apostles' teaching. Today we have the apostles' teaching in the New Testament. So when we study the Scriptures here and at home with an eye toward obeying them, we're devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching.
The early church was a loving church.
The next thing we see about the early church is that it was a loving church. Luke says the believers were devoted to fellowship. That word has become overused in Christian circles; we use it so much we hardly remember what it means. The original Greek word for fellowship was koinonia, which meant "to hold something in common" or "to share something."
As believers, there are things we share in. First John 1:3 reads, "Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." The most precious thing we share in together is our connection with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we share together in him, all other differences ought to melt away. That's why the church was the first institution in history to bring together Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and freemen. In the same way, today's church ought to include rich and poor, white collar and blue collar, healthy and unhealthy, young and old, black and white, and everyone else.
Church ought to look like the Department of Motor Vehicles. At the DMV you are immediately confronted with an immense cross section of people. Where else can you go and find the owner of a brand new Mercedes renewing his registration alongside a disheveled person who hasn't used deodorant for a week? This sort of fellowship can be uncomfortable at first, but when people with every reason to divide end up loving one another, you can be certain something powerful is at work.
We share in something, but we also share out something. In verses 44 and 45, Luke describes how the believers sold their property and possessions and used the proceeds to help those in need. Some Christians have said that this practice was an early form of communism, and that we should enforce the same lifestyle within the church today. Is that true? Should we follow their example?
The answer is "yes" and "no." Jesus and the apostles never directly forbade private ownership. In fact, they assumed it. Right here in Acts, we see the church meeting in private homes, which we can assume were still owned by the individual believers. Furthermore, it's clear in Acts that giving up one's possessions was a voluntary activity. In Acts 5:4, when Peter confronts Ananias and Sapphira, who pretended to give away all the proceeds of their land, he said, "Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal?"
Having said that, the answer is also "yes." When the Spirit of God enters a person's life, this sort of sacrificial giving is often the result. All of a sudden, you realize money and possessions don't define you. You want to respond to those in need. We mustn't evade the challenge of these verses. In 1 John 3:17, the apostle John wrote, "Whoever has the world's goods and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (1 John 3:17) That verse is particularly troubling, as we live in a world in which there are so many people in need.
This is something for us to think about as we do our Christmas shopping. Some of us will spend more at Christmas than we gave to those in need the entire year. I think Jesus would participate in giving and receiving gifts; it's normal and healthy for people who love each other to express that by giving and receiving gifts. But we must not let that expression become a pretext for greed and materialism. Every year new stuff comes out with better technology—computers, plasma TVs, iPods, cell phones, video consoles, Blackberrys, electric shavers. We're made to feel as if we're missing out if we don't have the latest gadget. Why not use the money you were going to spend on an upgrade to sponsor a child through World Vision this year?
The early church was a worshiping church.
The third thing we see is that the early church was a worshiping church. They were devoted to the breaking of bread and prayer. "The breaking of bread" refers to what we call Communion or the Lord's Supper, which they celebrated in the context of a meal called a love feast. When Luke mentions prayer (literally "the prayers"), he doesn't have private prayer in mind, but rather corporate prayer—the prayers of God's people together. Communion and prayer defined their worship.
The early church still met in the temple and its courtyard. Acts 3:1 describes how "Peter and John were going up to the temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer." In other words, they continued to attend the formal worship services in the Jewish temple, consisting of sacrifices, prayers, and blessings offered by the priests. But they also participated in informal meetings that took place in homes.
They didn't go to church; they lived it. They did these things "day by day." It was part of their everyday lives. There is nothing like being in a home with other believers and having a meal together—laughing, praying, crying, talking, sharing. You begin to see people in a new light, because such intimacy creates vulnerability. If this kind of fellowship is not a part of your church experience, you're missing out. If all you do is come to church but you're not meeting with a small group in a home, your church experience is like being a couple who gets married but never moves in together! You're missing out on good stuff!
The early church was a growing church.
The fourth characteristic of the early church appears in 2:47: they were a growing church.
Why does a church grow? Luke gives us part of the answer: a church grows by having favor with all the people. These early believers were still rubbing shoulders with people in their community. They didn't sever all relationships with unbelievers. Instead, they tried to meet needs outside of the church fellowship as well as within it.
One of the things we've tried to do at this church is let our community know we support them and express that support in practical ways. We open this building up all the time to the community and get involved with the Chamber of Commerce. We try to be sensitive to our neighbors concerning parking and noise. We try to operate with integrity in how we handle our finances. But we could do more. That's part of being a growing church.
But there is also something else at work. Luke is very careful to acknowledge, "the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved." Ultimately, it's the Lord's job to save people, and he's at work among us to do exactly that. In fact, he often does so in ways we don't expect.
Last Sunday, a young man approached me after our evening service. He asked me to explain more fully what an invitation to receive Christ is all about. I had had a long day, and the last thing I wanted was to get into a long conversation with a stranger, but something told me this guy was sincere. The more we talked, the more I realized he actually had received salvation that night. We had a great time talking about ways for him to begin to grow in his faith. The Lord did that. It was his work. It's not all up to us. He's always at work before we are.
Don't go to church! Live the church. Be the church.
In Philip Yancey's Church: Why Bother?, Yancey explains that after years of cynicism about the church, he realized the key was not finding the right church, but rather understanding the church properly. He learned to look inward, look around, look upward, and look outward. This advice is a great summary of this passage.
When we're devoted to the apostles' teaching, we look inward. We come to grips with what God is saying to us through his word by recognizing our need for grace and his willingness to provide it. We express our devotion to fellowship by looking outward. We also see people in need and commit to meet that need. We express our devotion to worship by looking upward through the breaking of bread and prayer in both formal and informal settings. Church is not a spectator sport where we sit back and rate the performance of those on the stage. Finally, looking outward, we see the Lord at work in people's hearts to draw them to salvation. We gladly participate in God's work, and we rejoice as he adds to our number day by day those who are being saved.
Mark Mitchell is the lead pastor of Central Peninsula Church in Foster City, California.