“What is the Church?”

The following sermon is based on Acts 2:42-47 and argues that the church is not a structure, but a community of people, committed to Christ and one another.  It was delievered on June 10, 2012 on the occasion of receiving new members.

Is the church a building; a structure of stone and metal?  Or is it something greater?  We need each other because life is not easy.  We are people, dependent on relationships.  Because God is relational, He has graciously given us something called the church, to support us and assist us in our spiritual journey.  Christianity is not an individual enterprise; not to be gone at alone; not a self help plan, but community-intentional.

The church has always been a vital part of my spiritual experience.  I grew up as a part of the First Christian Church of Nevada, MO.  My mother would knock on my bedroom door on Sunday morning, to wake me in order to get ready for worship.  I routinely said that I was “going to church.”  I fell prey to the idea that the church was a brick building with a large steeple on the corner of Washington and Austin.  But a structure is not what the church is at all.  Church is a people.  A body of baptized believers who love each other.  This morning, I want us to consider the health of the ancient church; and consider how we might emulate the things that made up the gathering of Christians so long ago.  Consider that…

THE EARLY CHURCH HAD A DYNAMIC FELLOWSHIP BASED UPON GOD’S WORD AND GOD’S LOVE, ONE FOR ANOTHER.

Our text functions as a commentary of church life after Pentecost.  It answers the question: “What did Christians do after the 3,000 came to faith?  Acts 2:42 tells us: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43 Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.”  Here we have the practice of the early church.  Their doctrine was rooted in apostolic teaching.  The church, according to Paul, was built: “…on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, (Ephesians 2:20).”

The Christian faith is not a smorgasbord of whatever philosophy you want to acquiesce.  Rather it is the historic Christian faith, handed down these last 21 centuries to form a people after God’s own heart.  You will notice that our new members will affirmatively respond to the question printed on your bulletin insert: “Do you confess your faith in the Triune God as Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and in the Holy Spirit as Sustainer?  Do you take for your rule of life the words of our Lord found in Luke 10:27: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… and to love your neighbor as yourself.”  This means that you are giving yourself to something and someone outside of yourselves.

I was talking with a minister from the Lancaster area recently.  His church recites the Apostles’ Creed each Sunday.  The reason he gave was interesting, I thought.  He said: “We do so because we do not feel the right to make up our own theology.  The Christian faith is something that is handed-down from generation to generation of Christians.”  Afterwards, I thought: “How true.”  And yet, in our postmodern culture, god means anything and theology seems to be one of those creative interests, in which many believe what they want to accommodate their lives.  But the Christian faith is something given to us that we embrace.

They also fellowshipped around a meal, uniquely around the Lord’s Supper.  There’s something connective about food.  The early Christians ate together frequently and celebrated communion as part of the Love Feast.  There’s something about breaking bread that brings people on equal footing, causing them to be open to one another.

And they devoted themselves to prayer.  I heard it once said that prayer is the machine room of the church.  Our church is only as successful as God allows it to be.  If we don’t need God, then let us stop praying!  Prayer is verbal dependence upon God.  We have a prayer meeting on Wednesday nights in our chapel.  We usually begin with a song or two.  Then share requests.  Afterwards we pray for about a half an hour.  Then, we open up God’s word and share- usually in anticipation for Sunday morning.  Because of other conflicts, I’ve not been able to attend the prayer meeting the last two weeks.   I miss it.  And that’s how it should be.  I should miss the prayer meeting with my fellow Christian friends.

C.H. Spurgeon was showing some visitors over the Tabernacle (London). After taking them to the main part of the building, he said, “Come, and I’ll show you the heating apparatus.” Imagine their surprise, when he took them to a room where four hundred were gathered in a prayer meeting. The church with warmth of spirit must have the warmth-producing prayer meeting.[1]

What’s more is that God was doing special things as His word was being spread.  Signs and wonders refer to the miracles God allowed the apostles to perform in order to invoke belief.  God continues to do mighty things in the lives of His people.  Some get healed from cancer.  Others don’t.  Some are miraculously protected.  Others aren’t.  God knows and does all things according to His pleasure.  But the signs and wonders spoken of refer to unique miracles.

Finally, they held all things in common.  In other words, such love and consideration pervaded the church in Jerusalem that no Christian went without.  All needs were met.  No one was hungry.  All had clothing.  Everyone was cared for.  This was a communal aspect. I wonder how we might care for the underprivileged in our midst, in our area?  Could we gather items that we no longer use and have a “care and share”?  What ways might we assist those less fortunate?  I would welcome your suggestions.

In our age where privacy is a premium, how can we show this type of concern for each other?  What would Acts 2:42-47 look like in 2012?  It is a shame when church health is jeopardized with conflict or infighting.  Leaving a church should only be for two reasons: when leadership compromises doctrinal or moral integrity.  Yet people leave for all kinds of reasons: when their business did not get a bid or the minister is boring, or the music is not to my preference.  I wonder what God thinks at such things.

Personalities have not changed all that much.  I am quite sure that amongst the followers of Christ, some were more difficult than others.  But love involved a choice.  And it was fed from a love that they experienced from Christ.  They took seriously the words of Jesus found in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”  We as a congregation, “…promise to walk with you in Christian love and sympathy, and to promote, as far as in us lies, your growth in the Christian faith.”

Just this weekend, I was talking to one of my neighbors who happens to be Roman Catholic.  We were discussing the difficulties his parish is experiencing.  He said: “Church is not a building; the church is the community, the people.”  A recovery of community must happen, if the church is going to stay relevant.  The church a system of interdependent relationships where encouragement is given, sin is confessed, teaching is present and growth occurs, both spiritually and numerically.  Colossians 12 3:states that we are to: “…clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances we may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave us. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”  Dave Coryell, Director of Christian Endeavor states it this way: “God intends us to be part of a group of people that will worship Him together.  This is called a church.”[2]  We desperately need the teaching, learning, accountability, support and friendship that comes with the presence of the church in our lives.

These four elements constitute good health for the church: apostolic doctrine, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer.  Of these, the late Donald Barnhouse, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, wrote: “Keep those four factors alive in any church group and you have the makings of a healthy church.  Depart from any of those characteristics and you have an anemic, sick church, such as we see so much of today.”[3]

What is your attitude toward the church?  Is it just a place to satisfy your social needs?  Is it just a place that educates your faith?  Is it not both and even so much more?  Hopefully you realize that this is not ordinary organization.  No other organization that I know of has God’s commitment, as well as fosters our commitment to Him.  May we take notice of these four indicators and imitate the early church!


[1] Al Bryant in Encyclopedia of 15,000 Illustrations: Signs of the Times.

 

[2] Dave Coryell, I Accepted Christ!  Now What? (Ephrata, PA: Dave Coryell, 2001), 9.

[3] Donald Barnhouse, Acts: An Expositional Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 33.

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