Acts 2:42-47 – The Community of the Redeemed

Welcome, friends! I hope you sense the great communion of all the saints past and present during this unique time. Simply click the video below, and let us worship God together with glad and sincere hearts.

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The Community of the Redeemed

Devoted to Fellowship

It seems everyone has their own ideas about church – what it is and what it should be – whether one needs to be part of a local congregation, or not. No matter the view, we all intuitively know that:

We are created and hardwired for community.

The book of Acts in the New Testament of the Bible presents Christian community as the primary means of becoming spiritually formed (Acts 2:42-47). And that community dynamic revolves around Jesus Christ. From a biblical perspective, Christians are not just any old community and not just some random benevolent organization. Christians together are the Church. They are the Community of the Redeemed, purchased from the slave market of sin with the blood of Christ, and devoted to knowing Jesus and making him known.

The early church possessed a group dynamic second to none. To be sure, they had their issues (e.g. antagonisms between Jews and Greeks, and bogus converts attracted by the power). Yet, problems are to be expected because the Light is always going to attract some bugs.

The early church consisted of new converts, having responded to the Apostle Peter’s preaching about Jesus. The transformation of these early followers of Jesus is nothing less than amazing. Many of these very same people had applauded the murder of Jesus. However, after Christ’s ascension, the people realized they were complicit in the death of Jesus and were cut to the heart and changed their minds. In a mass conversion, thousands embraced the grace of God in Christ. They quickly became a group of Christians:

Committed to learning more and more about Jesus; sharing their burdens and blessings together; enjoying communion and eating together; praying with and for each other, confessing sin and seeing new life and fresh spiritual health come in amazing ways.

Two major commitments of the new believers were the basis of the church: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship. Within that close fellowship were firm undertakings to eat and pray together. It is no wonder this curious bunch of people became noticed. After all, sharing food and providing prayer are compassionate activities. In a world starved for basic human kindness, the believers’ attention to the feelings and needs of others must have been a respite to the people around them.

Devoted to One Another

The Christians were hungry for instruction. They craved teaching and fellowship so much that they met every day. They gathered in the Jewish temple, and in homes. That reality of the church so long ago is a clue for the modern church that both large group meetings and small group gatherings are paramount for healthy spiritual growth and development. The gatherings of the early Christians were characterized by a deep engagement of Scripture with one another and of heartfelt participation in fellowship.

Mutual learning and sharing are for everyone – not just for a select few, or for extroverts.

That is why throughout the New Testament the metaphors used to describe the Church emphasize its communal nature. Church as the Body of Christ (biological metaphor), the Temple of God (building metaphor), and as the army of the Lord (battle metaphor) are all images that emphasize the redeemed community’s vital need to work, worship, and have a wide reach together. Indeed, true discipleship happens because of life together.

Metaphors are important; they pack meaning to ideas. So, it is important to be aware of church metaphors which emphasize only the individual and ignore the community. For example, imagining the church as a gas station where you fill up your spiritual gas tank when you’re running low neglects the community. Get a good sermon and some energizing worship and hopefully you will make it through the week to another service without running out of gas. For other folks, the church is imagined as a movie theatre – which disregards our contribution to community. The emphasis is on a place that offers an hour of escape, and leaving your problems at the door, with the goal of coming out of church feeling better than when you came in. Or some might imagine the church as a pharmacy – a place where you can fill a prescription which will deal with your pain in a slip-in and slip-out sort of way. Others might opt for imagining the church as a big box retailer – a place that “offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family,” along with a marketing model of evangelism: “Come to our church; we offer great service and great programs at a great low price.”

Please, don’t hear what I’m not saying. The church, without question, ought to serve and meet individual needs. And there are times and seasons of life when all an individual can do is consider their own spiritual and emotional health. The problem arises when we only ever function as independent persons who have no intention of being interdependent with others through living the Christian life together. The early church was faithful to learning the Word of God together. They committed themselves to fellowship with one another. They practiced hospitality. The new Christians prayed with each other every day.

The early church’s teachable spirit along with an emphasis on fellowship brought amazing results. Everyone was filled with awe of God. Everyone saw and experienced miraculous events. Everyone looked out for the common good of all. Everyone was glad and content with their simplicity of life. Everyone praised God. Everyone enjoyed the favor of the non-Christians around them. And, all this behavior brought numerous people to faith. This was a group who demonstrated deliverance from empty lives and presented an alternative way to live – a life filled with receiving grace and giving grace to others.

Stained Glass Window

To have that kind of group dynamic, the path the church took was a dedication to Holy Scripture and Christian community every day! Indeed, for healthy churches everywhere, and in all times, congregations continually exhibited courage and vulnerability. The word “fellowship” in Scripture (κοινωνία – pronounced “coin-o-nee-a”) literally means to be “yoked together.” Just as two oxen in a yoke must work together and plod forward being mindful of each other’s steps, so Christians have the invitation to yoke with Jesus and learn from him. Gentleness and humility are sorely needed in this polarized and often petty world we live in. So, the loving participation of fellowship is more than important and influential – it is vital and urgent.

The earliest Christians are portrayed as a group of people who intensely desired the apostles’ teaching and could not get enough of sharing life together as followers of Jesus. They were such curious learners and had such a depth of love and concern for one another that the poor among them knew no shame, and the rich knew no pride. It was a community where the uneducated felt open and free to discover more about Jesus, and the leadership graciously and humbly gave instruction that they had gained from being with Christ.

The type of community life which the early church had might seem to be an ideal which is not possible today. I wholeheartedly disagree. Because I myself have experienced such a group dynamic in my own life. In my college days there were dozens of us who became Christians in a short period of time, much like in the book of Acts. We were a rag-tag group of new believers who deeply hungered for spiritual food and craved the fellowship of one another. We met every day in dorm rooms and cafeterias, at the student union and in the library, and even sometimes in off-campus bars.

Everything we had we shared with each other – both our possessions as well as our hearts and lives.

And there was a solid two year stretch in which the Lord added to our numbers daily those who were being saved. We were attached to our Bibles as if they were a fifth appendage on our bodies. There was no separating us from each other. We needed one another’s Christian fellowship and spiritual support every day. In fact, we needed one another so much that we all ended up marrying each other so that the fellowship did not end.

Oh, my friends, how much we need one another! How much this old fallen world needs a yoke that is gentle, kind, gracious, and loving! Christian disciples are formed and shaped in the context of community. The collective conversations of our experiences and insights; the use of our hands and feet to work together; and, the sharing of our resources and of our time are all necessary for becoming spiritually mature in Christ and blessing the world. Confidence is gained through practice, and the spiritual practice of community is what’s needed.

May the group dynamic and the results of those earliest believers so long ago be our communal experience, as well, as we devote ourselves to the teaching and to the fellowship.

What Will It Take to Change the World?

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Recently, I stood among a gathered group of people, most of whom I did not know.  I was there for a memorial service.  A few short months ago, a fellow colleague received the kind of news that no one wants to hear.  In a matter of weeks, she was gone.  Not every funeral I attend (or even officiate) is beautiful.  This one was.  And I’ll state from the outset why I believe it was: the collective experience of both joy and sorrow.

I walked away from my friend’s remembrance with a clear conviction – one that had been percolating and forming within me for quite some time.  This conviction might seem exaggerated, yet it by no means is meant to be.  It’s just what I have come to believe about the universal human experience.  It comes from the confidence and experience of a lifetime of observation and ministry.  It is neither merely a heartfelt sentiment nor a passing feeling.  No, it really is a conviction, a firm principle or persuasion.  It is this:

Crying with strangers in person has the power to change the world.

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I think I’ve always known this.  It just crystallized for me through this experience.  After all, I have watched with awe the privilege I have to walk into a dying patient’s room, full of tearful family, and enter with them into their pain.  The sharing of stories is powerful, eliciting both great joy, reminiscent laughter, and profound gratitude; as well as tremendous sorrow, grinding grief, and sad lament.  Tears and celebration mix in a sacred alchemy producing a kind of care which transcends description.

It’s one thing to observe other’s joy and sorrow on the news, or even from afar.  It is altogether a different reality to participate up close and personal.  It’s something akin to watching a travel documentary on Yellowstone Park versus visiting the place in person; there’s just no comparison.  Shared human experiences of grief will nearly always translate into new and emerging capacities for empathy.  And where empathy exists, there is hope for all humanity.  Being with another person or group of people in their suffering creates a Grinch-like transformation in which our hearts suddenly enlarge.  A single tear from a singular small little Who in Whoville had the power to penetrate years of hardness of heart and change what everyone thought was a shriveled soul full of garlic and gunk.

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If I need to say this a different way, I’ll do it: The spiritual and emotional heart of a human being is able to shrink or expand.  It shrinks from spending far too much time alone and/or holding others at bay, at arms-length, while playing the armchair critic to those whom are out rubbing shoulders with real flesh and blood people.  Conversely, the heart can grow and expand.  The Grinch never went back to his isolation.  Instead, he did what Whoville thought was the unbelievable: The Grinch fully participated in the joy of the community, up close and personal.  It was full-bore holding of hands, singing, and eating – which illustrates a conviction I’ve held for a long time:

Hospitality, that is, showing love to outright strangers through celebration and participation with food and drink has the power to change the world.

And if I need to be demonstrative, I will: Hospitality cannot happen from afar; sitting around the table with strangers and interacting with them is needed; it alters our perspectives so that we live our shared humanity.  It is rather difficult to hate someone when you get to know them and discover their loves and joys, hurts and wounds.

This all leads toward asking one of the most fundamental and basic biblical questions that must be asked by every generation and considered by everyone who respects God and/or the Christian Scriptures:

Am I able to see the image of God in someone very different from myself?

The Christian doesn’t have to go very far to answer this one, at least from an objective cerebral perspective.  Jesus saw the humanity in everyone he encountered, from Jew to Gentile, from sinner to saint.  In fact, Jesus saw this image so deeply within another that he sat around the table and ate with people whom others saw as not worthy to eat with.  Jesus’ willingness to participate in the hospitality of strangers was downright scandalous.  It isn’t a stretch to say that it got him killed.

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What’s more, Jesus wept.  He cried in public with strangers.  For followers of Christ who seek to emulate him in his practical ministry, that point ought to be noticed.  After all, we choose to remember and participate in the life of Christ through the elements of bread and wine at the Table.  God’s radical hospitality toward us is truly meant to translate to an open heart toward those who look and act differently than me.

Public policy and even public theology are necessary and important.  Yet, unless policies and theologies and philosophies are buttressed with a foundation of basic human respect and dignity that has been borne of lived experience with strangers, those policies, philosophies, and even theologies have the power to denigrate and destroy rather than build-up and support.

The great fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, a female devotee of Christ and an influential theologian in her own right among a world of men who tended to see the image of God in women as flawed, understood what it would take to reawaken image-bearing humanity.  She stated, “All that is contrary to peace and love — is in us and not in God. God’s saving work in Jesus of Nazareth and in the gift of God’s spirit, is to slake [lessen] our wrath in the power of his merciful and compassionate love.”

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The Apostle John put it this way: “We love because he [Christ] first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

Don’t think for a minute that crying with strangers is an easy thing for me.  Truth is, crying is not something I typically do, or even like to do.  Yet, constrained by the love of God in Christ, and putting myself in a position to feel with the emotions of others in front of me, I have come to allow and embrace those tears.

We now know that the act of crying produces endorphins which is the body’s way of bringing emotional comfort.  When we apply that understanding to a collective group of people sharing tears together, we end up with a communal sense of solidarity and succor.

Yes, collective experiences of emotion have the power to change the world.  Yet, this occurs only if we show up.  Perhaps this is the reason for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation: Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us, the One who is present.  He showed up, and salvation happened.

Hebrews 10:19-25

            Discouragement can easily settle into the bones when we are not thriving in some way.  The church rests upon three indispensable elements that must be present for every believer in Jesus to thrive as citizens of God’s kingdom:  faith, hope, and love.  “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith… Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering… And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”  Just as a three-legged stool cannot stand on only one or even two legs, so our personal and corporate Christianity will not stand unless faith, hope, and love all exist side by side.
 
            Furthermore, these three vital elements must be based in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and not within our own soul’s fortifications, or lack thereof.  The basis of our confidence in living the Christian life is through the blood of Jesus, that he has taken care of the sin issue once for all through his death.  This is all activated in a practical way through meeting together and encouraging one another as the Body of Christ.
 
            The irony of the Christian life is that in losing our lives we find them; in being last we become first; in emptying ourselves as servants of others we are full.  It is people who attempt gain for themselves that miss faith in Christ; who always have to be right that ultimately lose hope; who seek to be served and thus never know real love.  Let us develop and maintain habits of faith, hope, and love – accessed fully through participation in meeting together as believers in Jesus.
 

 

            Gracious Lord Jesus, you have gone before us and secured deliverance from sin through your death on a cross.  My trust is in you, my hope is in your promised return, and my love belongs to you and your people, now and forever.  Amen.