Today’s lectionary readings seem to have little in common. Psalm 23 is probably the best known Psalm of all – The Lord is my shepherd, giving us a picture of finding rest, stillness and comfort with God at our side. On the other hand, the reading from Acts is a picture of the early church and seems to be one full of busyness and activity.
But there is something the readings have in common. They get us to think about what is most important to us. Who and what we place at the centre of our lives. Who and what we put our energy and focus into. They make us ask the question – what is at the centre? Who is at the centre in my life? And what is at the centre in our life, the life of our church?
We touched on both passages in our gathering on Sunday, and asked that first question in relation to the Psalm 23 reading, but now we focus on that second passage from Acts, to explore what is at the centre in our life as a church. To consider the things the early church devoted itself to, and see what was characteristic of the early church – a church that was called to grow as we are, and what we can learn from it.
In the weeks after Easter, the lectionary readings follow the book of Acts, but confusingly not in order! This reading occurs after the Pentecost account, which we have yet to come to. The readings in the next few weeks focus on the early church and paint a picture of what it was like. This short reading in Acts 2 packs in an awful lot! We also acknowledge that it is not an easy passage to consider in our current situation. One thing that comes out of it strongly is that sense of community, coming together – something we cannot do, physically at least. But we need to think about how we can be church, both in the here and now, and also consider how we will be church in the future.
This passage describes ten characteristics of the early church, ten characteristics of a growing church, and by considering them it will help us think how we continue to be a presence, a community of faith in a world that still needs to hear and see the good news lived out in word and deed.
1. A growing church is a learning church
Acts 2:42 tells us that they devoted themselves “to the apostles teaching.” The church committed itself to learning. In today’s world we are bombarded with information – someone once calculated that we hear and read more information in a week that someone in the medieval period would have had in a lifetime. But there is a difference between being given information, knowledge and learning. Learning is about growing, understanding, seeing new perspectives, deepening our appreciation of God and changing the way we live. What are doing to learn at this time? We were encouraged last month to look at the Spring Harvest material, which was free online. What are we reading at the moment? What are we listening and watching online? What learning are we sharing with one another?
2. A growing church is a church in fellowship
This is a hard one at the moment. But how are we connecting in and sharing in each other’s lives? Simeon and Esther, our children are part of St Helens youth brass band – like every other organisation at the moment, they have stopped meeting and playing together. But also like many thinking about how they continue to meet and share time together and last week we had an online quiz via Zoom which was a lot of fun and we learnt a lot about each other! What are you doing to make sure you are having fellowship and staying connected? And are you reaching out to those in our fellowship, especially those on their own to make sure they stay connected too?
3. A growing church regularly celebrates the ‘breaking of bread’
Again, this is a hard one for us at the moment. What is meant by ‘the breaking of bread’? Some commentators believe it refers to eating together, a meal the early church celebrated known as the Agape or Love Feast. Many believe it refers to the celebration of communion, the Last Supper. Why do we do it? In 1 Corinthians 11:26 Paul writes “as often as you eat and drink…you proclaim the Lords’ death until he comes.” This celebration is communal, but it is for a purpose, to remind ourselves of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the hope of his return. A growing church puts that message and that hope at the centre of its faith.
4. A growing church is a church of prayer
We don’t need to explain this one! It reminds us of our churches motto – Pray, Grow, Go and how prayer is the beginning of the Rule of Life as outlined by Bishop Paul. If you want a challenge, read through the whole of the book of Acts and note how many times prayer is mentioned!
5. A growing church is one where signs and wonders occur
Again, if you read through Acts, it is clear that the signs and wonders that were part of Jesus’ ministry on earth continued to occur in the early church, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Some argue that these signs and wonders were confined to that early time and not seen today. Others that the miraculous is still part of the church today. For me, I believe it is the latter, although I struggle to understand why at times God seems not to demonstrate his miraculous power, despite our prayers and petitions. But I cannot escape the sense that God’s miraculous power was something seen at times in the early church and we need to ask God to continue showing his power today.
6. A growing church is a church together
This passage in Acts describes a church that met together frequently, that held things together, and had one purpose, one mind. Again, this concept has caused a lot of debate! Some Christians see the answer in living in communes sharing everything together (maybe not a good idea at the moment). We will come on to the concept of sharing and generosity in a minute. The Greek word used here is ‘koina’ from where we get 'koinonia', fellowship. It means what we have in common. To me, it doesn’t mean that we all have to agree exactly on everything or there is only one way of being church, but rather on being clear about what we all share in common – what is the core of our faith? What is our shared purpose? Too often, the church as a whole can seem to the world to be a fractured communion where we spend too much time debating things of lesser importance, rather than proclaiming what we share in common. What do we have in common as our church? What demonstrates our togetherness?
7. A growing church is a generous church
The early church is characterised by its generosity – ensuring that anyone in need was looked after, with particular stories of generosity such as Barnabas in chapter 4. During our current crisis, I have been struck by stories – both of generosity, of people giving to help others (and stories of how stingy and self-centred some groups of people are!) People notice generosity. They notice when we look to other people’s needs. Are we looking for the need around us and responding?
8. A growing church is a praising church
Verse 47 tells us that the church praised God, and again reading through Acts, praise was central when the church came together. We all have different preferences around styles of worship but praise draws our focus to God, who he is, what he has done. Are you spending time now, simply focused on God and praising him for who he is?
9. A growing church is a simple church
A note of caution here about what I mean by simple – I don’t mean gullible or stupid!
Verse 46 tells us that the church had “sincere and glad hearts” but the word sincere ('apheles') may be better translated as simple. Some years ago, Richard Foster wrote a book called Freedom of Simplicity. (Go and read it!) In it, he challenges our approach to life – something which speaks to us now more than ever in a time where there is a danger to develop clever programmes or that things need to be complex to attract people. The counter to this is in ‘simplicity’ – this doesn’t mean boring. In a sense this time has forced many of us to think about the things in life, many of them considered simple maybe, that are most important to us.
10. A growing church is a church that is ‘highly regarded’
This might also seem counter to all that we think about church! Surely the world doesn’t regard the church highly. Probably not…at the moment. Throughout Acts though, it is clear that the church was well regarded by the wider people – for example 5:13 “the people held them in high esteem.” You’ll also note that it doesn’t mean people were necessarily willing to join! And I am well aware that in other places, indeed in the words of Jesus, he talked to his followers about how the world hated him and would hate his followers. But there is a sense that people saw the early church and regarded it well, even if they didn’t want to be part of it. They saw that it was real. They saw that it cared for each other. They saw that it practised what it preached. They saw it making a difference. How do people regard us today? What difference are we making during the current crisis? How can the church regain a sense of regard?
I want to end by going back to those questions: What is at the centre? Who is at the centre of your life? As a church, what is at the centre of our church life?
Acts 2 says the believers were “devoted” to these things that characterised them as an early church community. Some of these things we have to do differently, now and in the future – but are we nonetheless devoted to doing them, and devoted to being a community of faith in a world that needs the good news of Christ as much as it ever has?
May God be with us all during this time, and may the Spirit fill us and guide us in the way of the love of Christ. Amen.
Questions to Ponder
Read Acts 2 verses 42-47 again, slowly, focusing on each phrase at a time.
What do you think are the characteristics of the early church?
Are there any you would add to the list and why?
Are there any you disagree with?
Look up the following passages, all from Acts. How do they further help us understand the early church?
Acts 4:32-35; 5:12-16; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5 and 19:20.
Spend some time in prayer, praising God and asking him to help us as a church to grow.
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