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Marks of Vitality: Lifelong Discipleship

Marks of Vitality   •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  22:57
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The life of the early church was filled with simple practices that formed them, together, unto the way of Jesus in their new community. We are invited to the same life of discipleship, praying, breaking bread, sharing in common, and caring for those in need.

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42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Life among the Believers

43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Alright, quick show of hands: Who here has got life all figured out?
Ok, too big a question: How about this…no need to raise your hands on this one…but who here has washed their hands this morning?
Ok, hold that mental image of your hand raised, because I’m going to make you a little uncomfortable…Who has eaten a meal this morning, who has used the facilities, who has touched a doorknob, who has sneezed?
Ew. Hope you all washed your hands.
I most certainly am not intending to make light of a very serious issue we face in our world right now. We are all susceptible to disease and sickness. And hand washing should absolutely be of highest priority, especially as our world teeters on a global pandemic with Coronavirus.
Hand-washing is an issue of discipline. I’m very proud, my 5 year old son Asher is pretty good at washing his hands, on his own, without direction, these days. He knows how to get the water to a good temperature, loves lathering his hands up with soup (probably too much soup most of the time…but better to ere that way), rinsing well and good at drying his hands.
But he had to be formed, trained, taught, to do this. He had to be reminded (has to be reminded, still sometimes) why it is important.
I asked you first if you’ve got it all figured out: Hopefully you know you don’t. I’ll link this to hand washing because we are all still figuring it out — we need to be reminded, we need to be mentally present to the task…we need to wash our hands and sometimes, we forget. This is the work of lifelong discipleship — to again and again and again be trained and retrained in a way that forms our life. Its as simple as hand washing.
Practices of the Faith
As we start off our series looking at the Marks of Vitality that are seen in Vital Congregations, we look first today at Lifelong Discipleship Formation. Simply put, Life Long Discipleship formation is the active engagement in the ways of the faith that deepen and grow over a lifetime. It is something from birth to grave, the slow and steady journey of learning and relearning and practicing and repracticing the ways of Jesus, in community with others doing that work as well.
As we explore this morning’s text, I want you to be thinking about ways you see this kind of formation happening around you. Ways that you engage in practices of the faith personally and in community. And ask these questions:
Where do you see this happening in our congregation?
Where do we have strengths in lifelong discipleship around St. James?
And where do we have opportunities to grow?
This morning’s reading comes at the tail end of Acts 2 and is part of describing the newly oriented community of Jesus followers, establishing themselves in the aftermath of Jesus’ departure. This was a time of great change for the apostles and followers of Jesus’ way, a crucial time to be discipled and set up as a community of formation for their work in the world.
So, what did they do? We hear an interesting mirroring in this text, firs a description in Vs. 42 and then reiteration and expansion in the subsequent verses.
Text
In 42, we hear they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching…and in vs. 43, we hear that the apostles are performing signs and wonders. So, the people were in awe and devoted themselves to studying what was happening, learning among the apostles, those who had seen Jesus.
Let’s go on. In 42, we hear they fellowshipped with one another and apostles. In 44 and 45, we hear that fellowship involved being together and sharing all they had in common, selling their possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. Their fellowship wasn’t simply a practice of gathering, it was more radical than that — it was participating in a common life where goods were shared, needs were met, not just hospitality was extended, but loving care for the poor or the needy among them. They were greater than the sum of their parts — their sharing in fellowship made their community strong, able to support in times of struggle.
And again, we move on. In vs 42, they devoted themselves to the breaking of bread…in 46 we hear they spent time in worship at the temple and time eating together in their homes. The shared spaces, both public and private, became places where they practiced the holy meal Jesus had taught them about. And it wasn’t just that they had communion every time they gathered — their eating and worshipping together was communion…it was a collective act of sharing the most basic thing with each other…a meal, connecting and sharing food with “glad and generous hearts.”
Finally, vs 42 is mirrored once more in vs. 47. We hear they devoted themselves to the prayers. This is most likely a nod to the daily cycle of prayers that the Hebrew people had participated in for generations as a part of the rhythm of their life. No shocker here that they keep it up, but the exciting thing is that it becomes a time of praise and sharing in goodwill as they have this newly oriented life together. Their devotion to the prayers seems to be deepening and God is growing their community in ways that cause them to praise God and be excited about blessing each other. The old prayers seem to have taken on new life.
There is a freedom in this text, a freedom of a people who have found a new way of life together.
Context
It is important to acknowledge that this new freedom is juxtaposed against a world that was most certainly harsh for this new church. Even though Jesus had died and resurrected and set them free from the powers of death…they still lived under Roman occupation and they still were a minority religious sect in midst of Jewish culture. This was not a safe time for the new believers.
So because of this, I find it all the more powerful that what they do is carry out simple practices of the faith…simple ways of being formed more fully into the people of Jesus…in the face of impending persecution, minority status, big government controlling their society. The practices of the faith are lived in protest (subtle though it may be) of the empire and powers of the world.
I want to make a leap to our context, now, because we need to realize we are invited to live out the practices of the faith in similar protest of the powers and principalities.
To devote ourselves to the teachings of Jesus, to radical loving fellowship, to eating together and celebrating a holy meal, to praying and praising God — these are countercultural practices. They encourage us to be trained up, discipled, in a very different way than the powers of the world would have us be.
Just consider it for a second: just like the new church believers were living in quiet protest of a world dominated by the powerful, so we live in quiet protest of a world gone made with fear and division, anxiety and callousness. The practices of our faith, as we would also call discipleship, invite us day after day, for our whole lifetime, to let down our guards, to be vulnerable and receive love. While we are told to protect ourselves by a world filled with fear, we, instead, come to a table together and proclaim the love and mercy of a humble servant, Jesus, as our Lord and Savior. This is discipleship that changes everything — it reorients us so that the struggles of our world do not have the final word, but rather slip away in light of our focus on caring for one another and our focus on the One who cares for us, the Christ. This is good news. This is the stuff that saves people from despair.
Hand washing as an act of spiritual formation…and resistance to the powers and principalities.
Along with the practices we hear the disciples participating in, this morning I want to argue for hand-washing as a spiritual practice and as an act of resistance to the powers and principalities of the world.
Right now, in our world, washing our hands is a pretty important topic. It matters. It matters not only for self-preservation and general hygiene, but it matters to the people we come in contact with. I might be a pretty healthy 37 year old guy, but what about vulnerable people I come in contact with each day, children, older folks, people with compromised immune systems? It is an act of spiritual care that I wash my hands. It is my spiritual formation to wash my hands, in that each time, I am invited to consider and pray for all who I will come in contact with, each hand I will shake.
Hand washing is an act of resistance, as well. Because it defies the fears we face in the world. When you wash your hands you can come closer to others in relationship and care. This is something completely opposed to the fear and division that we hear about in the news and in our public discourse these days. The powers and principalities say: Fear, separate, take your toys and go home, don’t touch me, unclean, stay way and stay off my lawn.
To wash your hands is to engage in a practice that defies this fear. It is like the disciples defying the powers of the empire by proclaiming a Lord who is not Caesar, a new law that is not the Temple law. It is defiance and resistance, knowing there is a more excellent, loving, connected way that is found in Christ.
You didn’t know I could get this worked up about hand-washing, did you? Friends, it is just an example. The practices of our faith, the ways we engage each and every act of our lives, our lifelong discipleship — it is all an opportunity to be formed in a new way of life that proclaims freedom for the captives, healing for the hurting, a table for the hungry, and defiance against all powers that would seek to oppress and destroy. This is lifelong discipleship.
Lifelong discipleship is not some program that makes sure we have something to offer in the church for every stage of life or a commitment to a Bible reading plan that you abandon after a couple of weeks. Lifelong discipleship can include these kinds of things, but at its core, lifelong discipleship is about being changed, molded, formed all through our days to be more like Jesus, less like the powers of fear, more loving, less anxious, less distracted, more whole.
Brother Lawrence, humble monk, and the Practice of the Presence of God
Brother Lawrence was a humble, French Carmelite monk who lived in the 17th century. He has a famous little book called “The Practice of the Presence of God.” His goal was to, with every moment of his day, every breath, every act, practice acknowledging God’s presence. Washing dishes, eating meals, walking, working…each was a moment to be mindful and aware that God was with him.
This is lifelong discipleship. In the washing of hands, in the breaking of bread, in the fellowship. It is a long, slow, steady practice of the presence of God.
So where do you see this? And where do we thrive in this? And where can we grow together, deepening this mark of vitality together?
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