The Church on This Side of Heaven

The Church on This Side of Heaven

            There is not a pastor in the world who does not hear the passage we just read with awe and envy.  Peter preaches his Pentecost sermon and the immediate response was not "Nice sermon, pastor", a handshake on the way out the door and no other impact on a life.  Instead, people asked "What should we do?"  When Peter said, "Repent and be baptized", they actually did it.  Luke tells us three thousand people were baptized that day, possibly a bit of an exaggeration, but what is without question is that on that Pentecost, lives were changed forever as people heard the good news about Jesus the Messiah for the first time, and a new community of faith was born, a community that was to become the Christian church.

            But what really makes us jealous is the description of the church that follows: "signs and wonders" everywhere, a generosity of heart that meant that people were willing to sell "everything they had" and hold everything in common, so that no one in the community was in want, a fellowship that included meeting to worship at the temple, but also continued into their homes, sharing meals and fellowship, and the attitude throughout the community of "glad and generous hearts", constantly praising God.  Now, if you continue to read in Acts, you do find out that if this ideal condition ever existed in the church, it didn't last for long.  In the next couple of chapters, you hear about a division between Greek-speakers and Aramaic-speakers in the church and a couple who got in a lot of trouble for trying to hoard.  But still - this is a picture of the best possible church on this side of heaven.

            At the center of this church are four spiritual practices.  Luke tells us in Acts 2:42 that "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers". 

            In recent years, mainline churches have been taking a good, hard look at themselves as congregations dwindled and new generations have been less active than their parents were.  At the heart of the conversation has been the question, "What makes a vital congregation?"  One of the voices at the center of that conversation has been Diana Butler Bass, who did extensive research in churches to answer that question.  The answer she came up with was "Congregations that intentionally engage Christian practices are congregations that experience new vitality."  That sentence includes three components: intentionality, practice and vitality.  She goes on to say that "intentionality involves choice and taking responsibility for individual and communal spirituality; that practice is not a program, rather it is a meaningful way of life; and that vitality cannot be measured in numbers, as it means spiritual health and maturity.  A vital congregation is one where the whole community - including the pastor - are growing members of an organic community of practice."

            Now, there are all kinds of lists out there about exactly what spiritual practices we should be intentionally engaging in, but I think the four named in Acts 2:42 are as good as any: teaching and learning; fellowship; breaking the bread; and regular prayer. Let's take a look at what they might mean for us.

            Teaching and learning: It's interesting to note that this is the first thing mentioned on the list, but think about where the Acts church was at this point.  They had just had that "mountaintop" Pentecostal experience.  They were on a spiritual high, but they had no foundation on which to build their faith.  Without a firm foundation in teaching, in time the Pentecost experience would fade away and they would go back to their old lives.  The teaching was key in keeping them engaged and keeping them growing.  For those of us inside the church, this is important.  We are recognizing our high school graduates today.  Sometimes we act as if high school graduation was the end of our learning.  In the church, we act as if confirmation was the end of our growing in faith. Yet most of us here know it is just the beginning.  What are we doing to keep ourselves growing and learning?  Each week we gather for worship, and you get to listen to me preach.  That's a good start.  But what else is there?

            That question is even more important for our kids or for people who might walk in the door of the church for the first time, people who might not know the stories of the bible or the traditions of our faith or the practice of our lives.  How are we intentionally engaging in that teaching? If formal classes are challenging, how else might we do that teaching and learning?

            Fellowship is the next practice on the list.  My first thought was to note with some surprise that coffee hour goes back to those days right after Pentecost.  But let's not take that note lightly.  While it looks like what we share at coffee hour is a cup of coffee and some snacks, what we really share is much more. At its best, it's at coffee hour that we share the stories of our lives and go deeper into our mutual joys and concerns than we can during worship.  It's around those tables that the informal work of the church is done, and our relationships with one another grow stronger.  But I think fellowship is more than just coffeehour.  It includes the care the community offers to its members, reaching out to them in love when they are in need, whether those needs are physical or spiritual.  Then it reaches out beyond the people we have always known, to include those who are new to the community, who may come from a different place and might not know us or the traditions we value.  How do we welcome them?  How do we learn about God from them?  To whom is God inviting us to offer not only hospitality, but true fellowship?  How can we practice that?

            "They devoted themselves to the prayers."  Because of the phrasing of that statement, most commentators think that means they followed the prayer practice of observant Jews, pausing in their day to pray at morning, midday and evening, going to the temple or synagogue if they could, but if not, pausing to recite prayers in the midst of their daily lives.  The power of this practice does have something to do with what prayer can effect and what God can do through prayer, but I think it has more to do with what the act of regular prayer does to us.  When we pause in the middle of life and turn toward God, that refocuses us.  It turns us away from our own interests and concerns to God's interests and concerns.  It moves us out of our rut and opens us to what God may be doing.  It sensitizes us to the work of God's Spirit in us and around us.  It may be true that prayer changes the world.  I know it is true that regular practice of prayer changes us.  I don't think it's any coincidence that when we started to pray for our church, we began to see new, positive change.  How can we deepen our practice of prayer?  How can we make it a regular part of our lives?

            I took the practices from Acts slightly out of order because in just a few minutes we will engage in the breaking of the bread and I really want to draw your attention to this table.  Here in Acts, we hear that the table of the Lord has been at the center of the community of Christ since the very beginning.  For thousands of years, we have gathered here and heard the same words:" This is my body, this is my blood." Together, we have shared the bread and the cup. It is in this practice that our community is formed.  I have seen miracles of reconciliation happen at Christ's table.  It is at this table that we are joined not only to Jesus Christ, but to one another.  The practice of this sacrament sets us apart and joins us together as the body of Christ.

            It would be easy for each of these practices to become just one more thing on the spiritual to-do list, to be checked off when accomplished, but with no real growth, if it weren't for one thing.  Luke notes that they did all this 'with glad and generous hearts".  And those hearts are at the root of all this practice.  When you know Jesus, when you have responded to his word of grace, when God's Spirit is at work in you, then all these practices aren't just one more duty.  They are an intentional but natural outgrowth of what God is already doing among us.  So let us respond with joy to God's grace in Jesus Christ, and let God's Spirit be at work among us in new ways.  Amen.



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