Sunday, May 25, 2008

When Church is at Its Best (Acts 2.42-47)

May 25, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Last week we talked about covenant community, that is, about the promised family we have in the Church. Today we pick up where we left off, in Acts 2:42, and continue reading about that earliest church community. While no community is perfect in this world, there was a quality to the church described in Acts 2 that is appealing.

So, using the snapshot of that early church as an example of what church can look like, I want to talk to you about what it looks like when church is at its best. My hope is that God is molding us into the church family He wants us to be.

Recap (v. 42)

Briefly, let me remind you of the activity of the church family in Acts 2. This is where we ended last week. These early believers were continually devoting themselves. Their faith didn’t stop developing after that Pentecost decision, but continued to grow in faithfulness, obedience, and commitment. We looked at four ways – “core exercises” if you will – that their devotion or commitment was expressed and strengthened.

They were continually devoting themselves to God’s Word – the scriptures and Apostles’ teaching which became our New Testament. They were continually devoting themselves to fellowship, which we noted was less about eating together than about being church family to one another, with all that implies. They were continually devoting themselves to the breaking of the bread, including eating together, but more importantly sharing communion together with its remembrance of, celebration of, and hope in Jesus’ saving death. And they were continually devoting themselves to prayer, communicating with God in praise, thanksgiving, intercession, and confession.

One of the significant signs of God’s Spirit at work in the church are these ongoing expressions of faith and growth. But if we stopped at verse 42, we could be left with the impression that healthy faith and a healthy church is mostly about our efforts and spiritual exercise. But there is more and it is essential for understanding what church looks like – and what we look like – when we are really at our best as God’s family of faith.

In Awe of Whose Church? (v. 43)

The passage continues in verse 43 to say that “everyone kept feeling a sense of awe.” The word ‘awe,’ which can also be translated, ‘fear,’ is not a reaction to the radical commitment of the new believers, but to the presence of God and the Holy Spirit in their midst! Yes, there is specific mention of “many wonders and signs” that were taking place through the Apostles, but again, the awe was not because of them as impressive human leaders, but at the power of the Holy Spirit showing up through them.

All this is to say that the awe that everyone was feeling was not because of the human factor. They were not in awe of the church, but of whose church it was. They were in awe of God and all He was doing. They were in awe of God’s power, God’s mercy and love shown through Jesus, God’s presence demonstrated through the Holy Spirit. They were in awe of their new Savior and the way God was moving all around them.

This is an essential quality of church at its best – recognizing whose church it is. There is so much I love about Good Shepherd, indeed many qualities described here in Acts 2. You love God’s Word, you excel at fellowship – in both the eating together and the intense caring for one another sense. I love the worship; I love the people; I love the freedom to follow God’s leading. But we must never, ever lose a sense of awe over who God is, what He has done, and what He is still doing.

Part of not losing that sense of awe is keeping our eyes and ears open to that last part – what God is still doing. The Gospel doesn’t stop at the cross or on Easter morning. That is the whole story of Acts and Pentecost, that God is moving out into the world through the presence of His Holy Spirit.

Where are these wonders and signs? I mean, I haven’t healed anyone or done any miracles, have I? One of the great sources of these stories are your stories. That is why I encourage you to tell your stories to each other. Do you remember Bettye’s video testimony from a few weeks ago? Do you remember Marcie’s story from the Voice? What about John’s from several newsletter’s ago? Do you remember Jason’s baptism and know what God has brought him through to come to that point? Have you seen how God has been present in the lives of our brothers and sisters who have lost a loved one? Or during the last days of life? Or in the first days of new life? Did you hear the story of what has happened in the lives of the confirmation students? What has God done in your life?

In all these places and more there is healing, deep repentance and forgiveness, new life, a new start, surprising mercies, overwhelming grace, comfort in sorrow, and much more. Can you not see or perceive it? God is still at work – and God is awesome! Really, that’s where our English fails us, for “some awe” isn’t right – we should be “full of awe” – that’s what the early believers in Acts were experiencing! Church is at its best when we are in awe of whose church it is.

In Response to Whose Church (v. 45)

Church is at its best when it is fully awed and aware of God’s presence in and through the church members. And what happens next in the passage gives another snapshot of what our “best” looks like. In response to this awe-inspiring God, the believers in Acts 2 began sharing “with all, as anyone might have need.” (v. 45) It’s easy to read this passage and get hung up on (or overwhelmed by) their selling of property and possessions, like some sort of grand communist experiment. But what was so notable about what was happening wasn’t the institution of a grand program of extreme giving to the church. Rather, what was notable was an extreme awareness of and response to the presence of God in their lives and church community.

Church is at its best when we are responding to the one whose church it is.

Today’s sermon is not about stewardship or giving to the church or making up the budget, but I must insert here that this verse, properly understood, is what we were after in a new approach to stewardship this year. Rather than press you to fund a budget or finance a set of ministries (and it’s so hard not to talk and think that way!), the Session and I tried to lift up before you the One whose church this is and ask you to respond to that amazing Savior and Lord. I still believe that is what it means for us to be at our best and that God will provide what we need when we need it.

In a nutshell, Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church is our family and a gift of God. We gather around and are sent out by an amazing, amazing God. Being church means living life together in response and obedience to that God.

Keep on Keeping On (v. 46-47)

Look, finally, at verses 46-47. Just as v. 42 described their continuing devotion, these verses describe more continuing – ongoing commitment to Christ. We’ve already seen that their continued devotion included the “core exercises” of scripture study, care in the church family, celebration of Christ’s saving work, and prayer. Here, another round of exercises are described, not as some sort of obligation of a Christian, but as signs of life.

What else were they doing habitually in this story of church at its best? They were continuing “with one mind in the temple.” This is not the time to explore the interesting generation that lived between the resurrection and the destruction of the Temple; rather, the point is that they kept worshiping God regularly in the large public context of the Temple. There is no great corresponding point with us for this unless it is regular worship and participation at church. But that’s a sign of life and health. Later in the New Testament, in Hebrews, believers are encouraged not to forsake gathering together in assembly. Church is at its best when we gather together; it is not an individual experience or experiment.

Second, they continued “breaking bread from house to house… taking their meals together…” In addition to the large public worship gatherings, they met in smaller groups for fellowship and worship. While this becomes an absolute necessity for larger churches that want to remain at their best, it is not unimportant even for a church of our size. Our various smaller groups are part of our continued experience of God among us: Primetimers, 20/30 vision, youth group, choir, worship team, FOCUS prayer group, Daisy troop, ladies night out, the softball team, and on and on. These are not just programs; they are expressions of our life together in Christ!

Third, look at the character of these gatherings. They were marked by “gladness and sincerity of heart” and by “praising God and having favor with all the people.” These descriptions reinforce what has already been said and cannot be manufactured – these believers were gathering and acting in response to who God was and what He had done through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Church is at its best when our lives are grounded and found in the character and actions of our great God.

Verse 47 ends with a note of what might be considered growth statistics… but that’s not what it is. This is a testimony of God’s work (not human work). It is not the goal of church, but the result of responding to the awesome God.

Our Best

So, how can we be our best? It’s such a hard thing to talk about or pursue without getting the whole thing turned around backwards. We can’t work from growth backwards to awe of God. We can’t work from meeting the budget backwards to worship. We can’t start with “having favor with all the people” and get back to the one whose church it is.

The key to being a church at its best is to focus on the God whose church this is. That is why, as interested as I am in being missional and outward focused, that worship is the necessary starting point. Without an awareness of who God is and what God is doing, all we have are some programs and expense items. Without an encounter with the God who has stepped among us in Christ, all we can do is try to ramp up our religious efforts. Without the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work in us and through us, we will wander off course. Church is at its best when God is at the center and we respond worshipfully, obediently and joyfully in running whole-heartedly wherever God leads us.

That’s why the very most important thing I could ever do for our life together is point to God through Jesus Christ and scripture and say to you, “This is your God.” Come, let’s serve Him together. Amen.

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