Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 3, 2020
Acts 2:42-47 Commentary
We are in our fourth Sunday of reflections on Easter, using the book of Acts as our guide. We began on Easter in Acts 10, where we saw the world-changing significance of Christ’s Resurrection in Peter’s startling realization that God includes people from every nation in his covenantal embrace. Then we backed up to Peter’s Pentecost sermon, which reminds us of three things: the Easter message at the heart of the Christian faith, the Easter response we ought to expect as the result of preaching the Risen Christ, and now the Easter community that is created when people respond in faith to the preaching of the Risen Christ.
In these few verses we learn that the church is not an afterthought or an option. It is the natural and necessary result of the outpouring of the Spirit, the preaching of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the change of mind that brought people to Christ. When 3000 people are added to the 120 followers of Christ, they immediately “devoted themselves” to the church. Conversion to Christ naturally and necessarily led to commitment to church—not to a building, of course, but to the four things that constituted the heart of that saved community.
This Easter community warrants careful attention in this age of “spiritual but not religious” and “nones,” where church is not only optional for true believers, but even an obstacle for non-believers. Acts 2 reminds us that in the beginning (and so it should be to the end), the church was not a human invention, something dreamed up by the apostles to enforce rules, hammer home religious dogma, and pile responsibilities on already overtaxed lives.
The church is God’s plan for all his children. The language in our text seems to be intentionally inclusive and all embracing. Note the universals that fill this text—“everyone,” “all,” “everything,” “anyone,” “every,” “daily.” There were no barriers, no red and blue, no half commitments (though that would come all too soon in Acts 5 and 6). Everyone was all in. An unchurched Christian was an oxymoron. No one had to tell these first believers to go to church, to join church, to be church. It was the most natural, joyful thing they could do.
Thus, if church is not a source of joy today, something has gone very wrong. And, of course, something has gone wrong. When I preached on this text years ago, I entitled the sermon, “Re-discovering the Joy of Church.” For some of my church that title sounded like an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp, open secret, living dead, joy of church. Though America is a heavily churched country, many people would not associate the church with joy.
Even those who go to church with some regularity aren’t always filled with joy by their church experience. An article in USA Today entitled, “Dissatisfaction, Yearning Make Churchgoers Switch,” talked about all the reasons people change churches: they become disenchanted with the pastor or the church; their needs aren’t being met; something changed about the church; they felt out of place; they couldn’t agree with church teachings. They couldn’t find joy in church anymore, so they left.
A careful study of this text may help us find the missing joy of church. The very first sentence in the description of the early church identifies four practices that brought them joy. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to the fellowship, and to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” They got their joy from Jesus, but they expressed their joy and they experienced their joy as they did those four things. More than likely, if we’re missing joy in church, it’s because one of these four things is missing from our church or our lives.
They had joy in church because they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching. What did the apostles teach? Well, look at what Peter taught in his Pentecost sermon. He taught Jesus—who he was, what he did, what it means, how he was the great and final revelation of God and God’s will and God’s salvation. When Jesus left this earth, he said to the apostles, “Go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them all that I have commanded you.” That’s what they were doing in those days after Pentecost, and it brought great joy.
Of course, it would and it does. In a world filled with confusion about how to live and how to be saved, about the meaning of life and the nature of ultimate reality, what an incredible gift it is to have God’s clear authoritative word for your life. In a world full of bad news and hopeless situations, what a gift it is to have the Good News of great joy which is for all the people. No wonder these first believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. It was simply the best thing they had ever heard, and they couldn’t get enough of it. If there isn’t joy in the church today, maybe it’s because we preachers aren’t teaching what the apostles did or because you listeners aren’t devoted to it anymore.
Second, they devoted themselves to the fellowship. The word there is koinonia, which is the kind of intimate fellowship you find in a marriage. It is fellowship with a purpose– not simply enjoying each other’s company over coffee, but a shared commitment to an important task, the task of loving each other sacrificially. We see that demonstrated in the communism of the early church. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, their real estate and cars and laptops, they gave to anyone as they had need.”
You can call that communism to get your congregants’ attention. But it wasn’t really communism, because that is an economic and political theory that has historically been godless. This wasn’t communism; it was koinonia, community centered on God in Christ and filled with a love so deep that people were willing to sacrifice their own stuff to make sure that no one in church had an unmet need.
They were devoted to this kind of self-sacrificing fellowship, and it brought great joy to those who gave and to those who received. In a world full of callousness and compassion fatigue, where everyone is watching out for themselves, it is a rare and joyful thing when people actually watch out for each other. If there isn’t joy in the church today, perhaps it’s because we have lost this kind of warm hearted, open handed fellowship. To the degree that we express and experience this kind of love, we will have joy in church.
Third, they devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. Nearly all scholars think that this is a reference to celebrating the Lord’s Supper. They didn’t just do it once in a while. Remembering Jesus’ death was so central to their lives that they did it all the time. But the breaking of bread meant more than that, because verse 46 says that “they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”
They didn’t just meet together in large gatherings for worship; they also had small group meetings in homes. And eating together was a key part of that, because sharing a meal creates a bond, moves us toward reconciliation, even anticipates the heavenly banquet when we shall all eat and drink with Jesus. The recent popularity of small groups isn’t some new-fangled fad; it’s a return to the early church. If there isn’t joy in church today, maybe it’s because we’ve forgotten the centrality of eating together in the Lord’s Supper and in small groups.
Finally, they devoted themselves to prayer, and to worship. “Every day they continued together in the temple courts,” joining in the normal times of prayer in the Temple. Every day they worshipped God in prayer and praise. Further, says verse 43, God was obviously working in their midst. “Everyone was filled with awe and many signs and wonders were done by the apostles.” Not only did they hear the Word of God every day, but they saw the hand of God regularly.
That created this sense of awe and wonder and mystery and reverence and transcendence. They weren’t just going through religious motions; they were in touch with God in worship and God touched them. If there isn’t joy in church, perhaps it’s because we aren’t devoted to reaching up to God in worship and expecting him to reach down to us in wondrous ways.
I encourage you to end your message with a word to the members of your church and another word to those who don’t attend church. Encourage your members by thanking them for their devotion to these four things. “There is a lot of joy in our church and it’s because so many of us know the joy of being saved by Jesus and we express that joy by our devotion to these things.” Where a church lacks joy, each of us must ask, “Am I devoted to all four?” To the degree that we aren’t, our joy will be diminished and so will the joy of the whole church.
End with a word to the non-churchgoers who will access your message on-line or who will receive a copy of it from one of your members. That word is this. “Come home.” I will never forget what my grandson, Owen, said when he moved into a nice new home. He was just two and he had lived his whole life in a cute little house, but now he had this bigger new home. He played happily in the new house that first day after they moved. But then at the end of the day, he said, “I want to go home now.” His mom said, “We are home, honey. This is our new home.” No,” said Owen, “I want to go to my real home.” Invite all God’s children to their real home, to God through Jesus, and to the one place in all the earth they can be sure to find him, the company of those devoted to the joyful disciplines of the early church.
There was an article in the New York Times a while back about all the tall steeple, white clapboard churches on the windswept prairies of North Dakota. They are closing down by the hundreds because their members are moving away from their farms and small towns. David Haslekaas, a 34 year old Norwegian farmer, bought his old church just to keep it open. He explained his rationale. “I remember my parents’ words to me when I was a young boy and I would go out to play in the fields. They told me, ‘If you get lost in the tall wheat and you can’t see where home is, look for the church.’” Go to it, and it will help you find your way home to the joy of the Lord.
The church has been disappointing people for centuries now, and we ought to frankly admit that. Perhaps we need to do what a tiny group of Christians did during the wildest party time of the year at the very secular Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Donald Miller tells the true story in his book, Blue Like Jazz. Miller and his friends built a confessional booth right in the middle of the campus so their atheistic classmates could sit down and listen to these Christians confess the sins of the church to them.
Their first customer was Jake, a young man with a postmodern smirk. He could not believe that these Christians were going to confess to him. “Confess what?” he asked. “Everything,” replied Miller. “Explain.” “There’s a lot, but I will keep it short,” began Miller. “Jesus said to feed the poor and heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened…. Jesus said not to mix spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that and it got in the way of the central message of Christ.” And he went on to the Crusades, and slavery, and treatment of the Indians. “It’s all right, man,” said Jake, very tenderly, his eyes watering. “I forgive you.” By the time the party was over, these Christians had confessed the sins of the church to dozens of people, and out of that came four Bible studies, ongoing relationships, and a number of conversions.
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