Upsetting the Equilibrium
When you think of the word church, what comes to mind? What is the church? Many might say, where two or more believers are gathered, then that’s the church, right? I’ve even heard an analogy that the church is like a boat; a great ship. Well what happens when that ship hits an iceberg? The Titanic was supposed to be the largest ship: a technological and engineering wonder. It’s at the bottom of the Atlantic. Was it designed to be a boat or scrap metal? The Titanic didn’t really live up to being a boat. So, about the church: when the church is beset by an iceberg (figuratively) does it cease being the church? Perhaps you think the church is at the bottom of the ocean. I know many who probably wish that were true. What we see in our text today is the definition, intention, mission, and example of what the church is supposed to be. So forget all you think you know about the church, or what you’ve experienced, and let’s dive into our text today. If you have your Bibles with you this morning, turn to Acts Chapter 2, beginning in verse 37 or it will be on the screen and lets read about the church:
37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 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.
The Word of God for the people of God: thanks be to God!
Analyzing the Discrepancy
Quick recap: Jesus has ascended to heaven, He promises an advocate, a helper, to His disciples, the Holy Spirit comes upon them and gives them power to proclaim the Gospel message to the world. And immediately, that’s what Peter does. He preaches the Gospel to a large group of people. In the proceeding verses, Peter has just given an account of the Gospel: he has told others about Jesus’ coming, His death and resurrection, and Jesus’ power to save them. When Peter finishes, then the people’s response is recorded in verse 37:
37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
At the end of our text last week, we saw that some in attendance at Pentecost couldn’t believe the signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit. They thought these people were drunk. So what does Peter do with these people: tells them why they aren’t drunk. Peter tells them the story of Jesus and His power to save. He tells them about the Gospel message, the Good News. Then, Luke records, that these people were cut to the heart. The people Peter is speaking to are Jewish people, they are Israelites, and when Peter finished telling the true story, these Jews realize their role in Jesus’ crucifixion and overcome with such a conviction of guilt, an emotional turmoil, that they are desperate to know what to do next. “Brothers, what should we do?” They understand their predicament of rejecting God’s messenger and now want to know the next step.
Thus, Peter tells them in verse 38:
38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The crowd is told to do two things: one in the heart and the other physically. First, they must repent. What Peter means by repent is this: they were going away from God and disobeying His commands. Now they need to respond to God’s saving work in their lives by showing sorrow for their deeds and turning (a complete 180) toward God and toward obedience. In their hearts they need to ask God for forgiveness of their past disobedience and vow to follow God’s commandments alone. That’s repentance.
The second thing they need to do is often associated with repentance: it’s the physical sign of repentance and acceptance of God’s grace in their life. That’s baptism. There’s a reason why baptism isn’t first. Water, the act of baptism, doesn’t save you. God saves by our turning away from sin and following Him. Baptism, then, is the outward sign of the repentance and turning to God that first happened in the heart. These people, Peter says, need to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ because it is by His work and by His death and His resurrection that they will be saved.
This saving work, this promise of salvation, is not just for them in verses 39 through 41 but is for:
39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
All people are welcome to receive grace and mercy by repenting of their sins and being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. All people. And Peter begs them to save themselves from the current generation: the generation of people who are corrupted and evil and wicked. Save themselves by believing in Jesus, repenting of their sins, and being baptized. What happens? Luke records that about 3,000 people were baptized that day.
So that’s how people become a part of the church: believe in Jesus, repent of sins, and be baptized. All are welcome. But, that doesn’t answer what is the church? We find that in the next few verse; verse 42. This is the church, ready?
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
First, Luke here makes a distinction between what is said to those outside of the church and those within the ongoing life of the church. The church is partly the attempt of the church to reflect upon the applications of the gospel so that the church might continue to be faithful to its calling. The primary role of the church is to study and learn about the Word of God, which the believers are doing here. Where today we blur the lines of teaching and preaching, Luke records they are distinctly separate from the Acts church: teaching was for those who were following Jesus and preaching was for those yet to believe.
Second, the church is fellowship. At Pentecost a unified body of believers was formed. This fellowship goes beyond the bounds of conventional friendship. It’s familial. It is a community that lays hands on one another in difficult season. It rejoices in good times. It is the children of God realizing they are part of one family, brothers and sisters together, equally yoked to follow and obey the mission and commandments of the Spirit of God together.
Third, Luke says the church engages in “the breaking of bread.” The fellowship at the table is another tangible, visible expression of the work of the Spirit among community. Eating together is a mark of unity, togetherness, and deep friendship; a visible sign that social barriers, which once plagued these people, have broken down. Often, people take this to mean just the Lord’s Supper, but Luke records here that every meal for the church is a partial fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that His followers would eat and drink at His table in the future kingdom.
Finally, the church engages in prayers together. The people still were devoutly Jewish. They did not cease the Jewish hours of prayer for daily devotions nor did they stop going to the temple. They did these things together and continued to devote themselves continually in prayer.
Disclosing the Clue to Resolution
Now, if Acts were written from today’s point of view, we might expect all of the uproar of Pentecost, Peter’s moving sermon, and the crowd’s eager response to be the end of the story. Contemporary “religious” life is plagued by moments of enthusiasm, periodic outbursts, and superficial worship. In fact our culture sees, “enthusiastic” (which literally means filled with God) as a virtual synonym for a short-term high that does not take root in long-term commitment. So we become suspicious of religious emotion, suspecting that all of this charismatic-ness will amount to little. We have seen revivals and outbursts come and go.
In fact, when you see modern congregations, many with hectic activities, it seems that socialization is being substituted for some of the items on this list. Warm-hearted busyness is being offered in lieu of Spirit-empowered community. Instead, the church has taken this list of activities to be a primitive order of worship from which to construct Sunday service. We must have fellowship through worship and the meet and greet, sermon for the teaching, communion to break bread together, and prayer scattered around here and there.
Luke here is not giving us an order to consume the church’s time, but a summary of what the church is supposed to look like. The next four verses give us evidence of this:
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,
Because of the teaching and preaching by the Apostles, many signs and wonders were being done. I’d say 3000 people baptized in one day is a wonder and sign of the Spirit at work. Those together were not separated by class or status but had all things in common, like a family would. They were so in tune with one another in fellowship, those who could would sell their possessions and goods so that those who had not could be without need. Each day, they spent much time together in the temple, where they would prayer and have devotion together. Each day they ate in their homes and ate with glad and generous hearts. This is the church.
Experiencing the Gospel
Here’s the amazing thing Luke records here:
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.
Each day, someone came to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus. Each day, one small community of believers had a massive impact on those around them; enough that new people came to know Christ and follow Him every day. That’s amazing.
Here’s why this happened. First, the Spirit of God was upon them in their effort. They spoke and proclaimed the Gospel boldly because they knew the Spirit was with them. But, as I’m sure some of you know, words alone don’t always convince people they need Jesus.
No, what convinced them was the church being the church. They saw people devoting themselves daily to what they preached. They witnessed the people being together, praying continually, and being family. They saw a people who gave of themselves generously and often; so that no one had need. They witnessed people who had nothing suddenly embraced by a community who saw them as equals and gave to them so they wouldn’t have need. The reason why people were turning to Jesus daily is because God’s people, the body of Christ, the church, was speaking like Jesus, teaching like Jesus, living like Jesus, and loving like Jesus. They were the embodiment of Jesus on Earth and that is what the church is meant to be.
Anticipating the Consequences
The reason why people turn away from Jesus and who refuse to be part of the church is because God’s people, the Body of Christ, the church, stopped speaking like Jesus, teaching like Jesus, living like Jesus, and loving like Jesus. Or even worse, they continued to teach and preach as thought they followed Jesus, but no longer lived or loved like Him. The world looks at the church now and sees hypocrites: a people who are full of themselves and not full of God.
The church has become a shell of what it once was. We now try to pack devotion to teaching and learning about the Word of God, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers into a couple of hours or less each week. I remember growing up and Wednesdays were as sacred as Sundays. You didn’t plan anything, sports or otherwise, on a Wednesday night. But, it only took a few hundred years to whittle down from each day to Wednesdays and Sundays and in my lifetime from two days to barely one day.
As the world gets busier, being the church becomes less a priority. And that is why we’ve seen such a shift away from being together. We will see what happens on the other side of quarantine, but long before the coronavirus people have stopped being together as one church.
The reason why I considered the congregation in which I grew up family was because I saw them about as much as my family. We had dinner or lunch or prayer time or Bible study with different families multiple days a week. There were some weeks we met with other people daily. We had food every Sunday after service. Now the church had other issues, mainly who was teaching and what was being taught, but in terms of fellowship, prayer, and breaking of bread it was the picture of the church in Acts.
Here’s the cautionary tale: this church I grew up in that had three out of the four aspects of the church still failed, split apart, and is no longer a congregation today because it was missing one of the essential pillars of the church. A congregation may have great preaching, but never meets. That’s a problem. A congregation may be the most like family, or may be mostly family, but if they don’t pray together or have sound teaching that’s also a problem. The church is: teaching and devoted to the Word of God, the church is a fellowship of united people, the church breaks bread together regularly, and the church is continually devoted to prayer. It needs every piece to work.
When you look at the church now, critics and Christians alike may say it’s failing. Like a boat it’s sinking. It’s split and going nose up like the Titanic. Yet, here is the thing that we must realize and that which critics and the like don’t understand: the church is unstoppable because God is unstoppable. This isn’t some paramilitary organization. It’s not only a non-profit. It isn’t a club or shop, business or corporation, it is a people. Specifically, it is the people of God. And the God of the universe, the God who made the heavens and the earth, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the God who sent His Spirit to be a helper, our all-powerful, everlasting, unstoppable God is the leader of the church of His people and it will not be stopped. No iceberg can bring it down, no people can bring it down, doubt and speculation won’t deter it, attacks from outside and inside won’t stop it. The church of God is everlasting.
Yet, it is up to the church, the Body of Christ, to look like we belong to God. The reason our effectiveness has waned is because we, the church, have stopped looking and acting and speaking like we belong to God. I’ve heard many “Christians” say I have church on my own in the wilderness. No, you don’t. You may be worshipping, and that’s great, but you aren’t being a part of the church. Others have said, I’ve been hurt by the church. No, you’ve been hurt by people of the church, which is still terrible, but not the church as God ordained.
When my church split as a freshman in high school, I blamed God: it was His fault that His church went under. Until I understood that the church is people. And people mess up. People fail. People choose to be unloving and follow their own path instead of God’s. The real church, the people of God as it’s intended to be, is the picture Luke gives us today. Miracles and wonders being done, everyone having everything in common, no one in need, people giving of themselves sacrificially to see that happen, and being together, eating together, and worshipping together day after day.
When that happens, when the church stops looking like humanity and look and loves like Jesus, then people are added to it daily. When the people of God, the church, act like the people of God, it is miraculously compelling. So, I ask the people watching to search you hearts. How are you being the church this week? I know it’s increasingly difficult in our current circumstances, and we as a leadership team have been struggling to answer this question in our time, but how can you be more like Jesus and act more like a member of God’s holy church this week?
If you are new to watching us this morning, (Gospel presentation)