A model for the church?

Acts 2:42-47

What would we do if 3000 people got converted one day? If you turned up to church and there was a queue of 3000 to get in? That was the amazing thing that happened on the Day of Pentecost shortly after the first Easter. Jesus had promised the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit came in power. Crowds gathered, Peter explained what was going on, and as it says in v. 41 of Acts Chapter 2: ‘Those who welcomed his message were baptised and that day about three thousand persons were added.’

3000 new Christians, all in one day, in small city: Jerusalem. It must have been astonishing, the most incredible thing to be part of – I doubt if anyone got any sleep that night they would have been totally buzzing! Or perhaps they did sleep from exhaustion. After all, if 12 apostles are baptising 3000 people, that’s 250 each. And if it takes a minute to baptise each one, then that works out at four hours solid!

Maybe the whole group of disciples, which Luke describes in Acts 1:15 as 120 strong, played a part. Even so, as a pastor you’d want to take everyone’s names and addresses to keep in touch – imagine doing that before the days of handheld devices. And as I think about the Hullavington reordering I wonder where they would all meet? Thank God for the temple courts and a warm climate! It would be the most glorious, chaotic unprepared challenge – providing teaching and pastoral care to all those brand new believers. But how wonderful!

Even 1% of that number would be remarkable if it happened here. 30 newcomers would double the size of the congregation. How would we help them settle in? We might need new children’s groups, it might give the chance to start a band. If something on that scale happened, it would be the most important thing all year, surely it would be the highest priority for the church’s life. Pray for such things!

So as we look forward to starting our Alpha course on May 11th, what happens if through that three people come to faith? What do we do to help those new to Christianity? And to help ourselves grow?

In Acts 2:42 St Luke describes the key practices of Christian discipleship, and in verses 43-47 he expands upon them. These are the things the early church focussed on to support each other in following Jesus. The disciplines we need today if we are to be strong and effective in Christ’s service.

Firstly, they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching. Presumably this meant hearing the stories and sayings of Jesus, learning the explanation of what God had done through Christ. And putting it into practice – verse 43 describes the signs and wonders done by the apostles showing that the Kingdom of God is at hand. For us, the apostles’ teaching has become the New Testament and it’s important that we read and reflect on it regularly.

Secondly, they gave time to fellowship. Fellowship is a bit of a jargon word but it basically means meeting together, talking about what’s going on in your life and particularly your faith, praying and encouraging one another. It’s one of the most important things in strengthening our faith. If you just turn up to church once a week, it’s like learning to drive through a weekly lesson. But if you have fellowship it’s like getting real driving practice in through the week.

Today, you can find fellowship in a structured way like through a housegroup, Lent lunch and the Mothers’ Union. Or it can be informal – Chantal has a prayer partner she meets over coffee from time to time for a chat and to pray for one another. I’d really encourage you to think about how you could do this because when you look at different churches you usually find that the places where people are enjoying their faith, the places with a sense of vibrancy, are where those people have a way of meeting up midweek.

It can also build incredibly deep community. I know of someone who a few years ago needed to exchange contracts on a house. They had the money, but not in the right place, and a bridging loan couldn’t be done in time. So they sent out a message and within a day had been lent tens of thousands by friends. It’s a modern example of v 44 – they were together and had all things in common.

Thirdly, the believers joined in breaking bread together. This may well refer to the Eucharist, which in those days was part of a shared meal. Verse 46 describes them sharing meals at home with gratitude – I always think it’s such a blessing when the church comes together to eat.

Last of all, Luke mentions the prayers. This probably means worship, the praising God of v.47. Perhaps it also includes coming together specifically to pray. Holding a prayer meeting for our world, the churches’ work, the people we know. If I’m honest, I think this is one area I’d really like to improve in the Gauzebrook Group. We do have prayer meetings – Pause and Pray, Saturday mornings at Sherston – but are they at the wrong time or wrong place? Or is there a particular style that would help people take part? I’d love to know because prayer is so important. We’re having a 24 hours of prayer on May 26th based in Norton – I’m hoping that can be the beginning of a prayer renewal across our area.

The apostles teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers. These are the bread and butter of the Christian life, our regular balanced diet. And they make all the difference. Over twenty years I’ve seen people come to faith who’ve grown and grown, who’ve blessed those around them and had a real influence for good. I’ve also seen people make an initial profession of faith and seem keen for a while, but then you see them less and less and their commitment fades.

I think there are two key differences between those who grow and those who fade. Number one is the midweek commitment – do they get support in a group? Number two is ministry – do they get stuck in? It’s fine being a passenger on a cruise ship, but I don’t think you’d want to live that way. Often those who drift away from the church have only ever received and not been given the chance to give something back. Having a ministry of your own helps you grow. Having an area of responsibility, whether that’s doing a reading or being a churchwarden, means you have to step out in faith, you find that God is trustworthy and he equips you with what you need. Having some form of service is a great way to grow in faith.

So are you getting that midweek connection? Do you have some form of service? And if not, how might that happen?

For as v47 shows, these are the things that lead to growth. When we as individuals grow, then the church does too, because that kind of Christian life is attractive.

Of course, the Early Church had one huge advantage. It was new! Imagine if nobody in England had heard of Jesus! You wouldn’t meet those who say ‘Oh, I’ve heard it all before. Had it drummed into me at school’ Imagine if Christianity was a new exotic faith, not seen as part of the past. It wouldn’t then be cool to rebel against Christianity, because it wouldn’t be part of the Establishment. And that is what the Christian faith is like in places like Nepal.

Familiarity breed contempt. So perhaps the answer for Christians in the West is to be less familiar. More radical. More distinctive. After all, if we lived like the Christians in Acts chapter 2, people would certainly notice. They might not like it, they might call it a cult. But it couldn’t be ignored.

There is however an elephant in the room. An enormous grey-trunked beastie which we can’t ignore any longer. I’m going to name that pachyderm and hope that by naming it we can tackle it.

‘Could life really go on like that?’ I wonder if you’re like me – whenever I read this passage I think ‘yes, but…’ Surely if they sold all their goods and share the proceeds, eventually they’d have no goods left? And if day by day they spent much time in the temple, well I guess that the washing pile could be left to build up – but if you want to eat the sowing and reaping must be done. You can sustain a heightened tempo for a while, but the leaky downpipe won’t fix itself. Surely also human nature will intervene? People fall out? The momentum slow? Is this just Luke’s ideal view of the church, not reality?

I think there are three possible responses. I want to challenge the assumption that these things can’t be sustained. There are signs and wonders today. Yes, there was persecution, but the courage of the Early Church meant that in Acts 4:3 they grew to 5000 members. Yes, there were fallings out, but the way they resolved conflict in appointing the first deacons was a huge witness and another point of growth. Yes, they did sell and share, but like a good overseas aid budget, if that money was invested in people they could become economically self-sufficient. So think twice before dismissing this passage as ‘just for those days’.

And when I think like that I also have to look at my priorities. Why is it not possible to meet regularly for prayer? Because there are so many other things to do? Why not rather put in prayer as my first commitment and fit in the meetings around it? If coming to worship is difficult, is it because I’m trying to have everything in my life?

I also want to recognise that there are seasons in a church’s life. It’s like the farming year – there are times when the plants grow and just need the occasional spray. There are other times when the combines are out harvesting by headlight at 3 am.

 (In Sherston it feels as if we’ve done a lot of ploughing, a lot of patient sowing and now we’re in May, seeing the young plants grow. In Hullavington it’s like we’re digging up the whole farm to put in field drains – it’s busy, intense and we need to look out for one another)

So I don’t believe that this passage is just for back then. I don’t believe it’s an impossibly idealistic vision, or a template than we can never even come close to. It’s there to challenge us, to set out what could be, the blessings that can be attained, something to which we can aspire – a living model for the church. Amen.

 

 

 

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One of the things I love doing in the Summer is building a dam. A holiday isn’t complete unless we’ve been to a sandy beach, found a little stream and built a dam across it enclosing a massive pool which you can then breach creating a wave of water rushing down the beach. It’s great because I can spend the whole afternoon dam-building and still say ‘Look, it’s for the children, honest.’

I soon found out that if you’re building dams you have to work with the natural features of the beach. Use the natural contours to shape your pool, build where the rocks are already restricting the flow. See where the water wants to run and work with it.

Working with God’s Kingdom is like working with water. Like the stream on the beach, the Holy Spirit is already flowing. God was active long before you or I arrived. We don’t do well if we then start building somewhere completely different! If we dig where the Spirit isn’t, if we try and channel God into our plans, little happens. Often the first step in our task if we want to grow the Kingdom of God is to listen, observe and see what God is doing. If our church wants to serve God well we need to ask: What is God calling us to do? Where does he want us to join in? For the church doesn’t take God into the rest of the world – it is his world and he is there already.

The people that we meet will have all sorts of experiences, sometimes quite profound. There will be beliefs they have been taught about God, some will be helpful, others not. So when we speak to someone about faith, they are not a blank sheet on which we write the gospel message. They already have their own views, own spirituality. There may be places where God is active in their lives, even if unrecognised.

Our task is to be open and sensitive. Listening and responding in Christ’s loving wisdom to what we hear. We see a lovely example of this in today’s story of Philip and the Ethiopian. Acts 8v26-end

If everything was going well for you in your job, if you were overcoming challenges, recruiting people, meeting success everywhere how would you feel about being posted to the middle of nowhere to start again from scratch?

That’s what happened to Philip. In v.5 Philip went to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, many miracles were done, evil was overcome. It was great.

And then in v26 the angel of the Lord appears to Philip and tells him to leave this wonderful successful ministry, walk 66 miles across the hills, not stopping at Jerusalem, down to the wilderness road that goes towards Gaza. And then when he sees a chariot God tells him to run, in the heat of the desert, and catch up with a trotting horse!

I’m struck by how amazingly open Philip must have been. Open to God guiding him in different ways. He recognised the nudging of the Spirit and responded obediently. Open to the possibility that he might be needed elsewhere. All the facts on the ground suggested he ought to stay in Samaria, but he was able to hear what God wanted. Open to sacrifice. Trusting God though he had no idea how it would turn out.

How do we trust God? Often we do that by straightforward Christian obedience. Most of the time the things God wants us to do are the obvious things right in front of our noses. Doing our work well, being loving to the people we meet, taking the opportunities to share our faith. All the guidance to do these essential things is in God’s word. But sometimes the Holy Spirit nudges us to do something particular.

It happened to me once when I was walking through the town and I felt God draw my attention to a particular house. I knew the people there had moved in recently and I thought perhaps I ought to knock on the door and say hello. But I was in a hurry so I didn’t.

Next time I went past, there was the nudge again. Ok God, I’ll do that, but I haven’t got the welcome leaflet on me at the moment. A week or so later, quite a strong feeling this time. So I plucked up my courage – you never know what people are going to be like – knocked on the door. A big guy answered it, seemed emotional – ah Vicar, you must have heard about my wife’s cancer. Glad you’re here. Do come in.

God knew Floris and her needs. He wanted to her to be supported. Sometimes you or I are part of someone else’s solution. If you sense that God is prodding you to do something, pray it over, and if you think it is God, you may not know why but pluck up your courage and act.

When Philip does so, the guy he meets is an Ethiopian. Obviously interested in the Jewish religion, perhaps even a convert, but Gentile background nonetheless. Perhaps Philip had been able to discern that God is widening out the good news to other nations – first including Jews, then Samaritans who were kind of heretical Jews, now a Gentile proselyte. But this man was also a eunuch. Someone who was banned by Old Testament law from worshipping in the temple. What can God do with him? Philip might well have thought.

I once said to a colleague: ‘Isn’t it good that Pete has started coming to Evensong’. ‘Naah,’ said the lay reader, ‘must be someone else. Pete’s lived in this village for 70 years, only ever come to church for a funeral.’ Next week he came up to me ‘God’s amazing. Pete was at Evensong!’ Pete was pretty amazing too – it’s not easy to change your habits when everyone in a small village knows who you are. Let’s not write people off, but give them the opportunity to find God.

Philip’s openness also comes through as he draws alongside the chariot. He doesn’t leap in with: ‘God’s told me to speak to you’. Instead he listens, hearing the Ethiopian read the prophet Isaiah. He then initiates conversation with a genuinely open question: ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’

We can only connect with people if we listen to them. So often Christian evangelism is full of its own ideas, so keen to tell everyone that it never takes the time to get to know them, or ask the questions which reveal what people really think. On the other hand Christians don’t genuinely respect people if we refuse to engage with their views, by avoiding discussion or saying ‘that’s fine if it works for you.’ Good listening means being able to respond, appropriately

One very important thing is to be aware of the subtext. For instance if someone says ‘if there’s a God how comes there’s so much suffering in the world?’ – is that a question to debate? It might be. Or are they asking because they’ve recently been through the mill? Rather than jump in with an answer, a different response might be ‘that’s a good question, can you tell me how it’s important to you?’

We can see that Philip has listened by his conversation. He starts where the man is. It’s an odd question – ‘is the writer of Isaiah talking about himself or someone else?’ Seems obvious it’s someone else, but Philip takes it seriously as an honest question. I’ve had all sorts of strange conversations with people about spiritual stuff they’ve read on the internet, aliens and what have you, and however daft you think the question is it’s important not to be dismissive.

But also to ground what we say by referring back to what God tells us in Scripture and speaking about Jesus. Scripture explains God’s purposes. Jesus provides the context that makes sense of faith. For instance someone who’s talking about ghosts may need to be reassured that whatever strange things happen, Jesus has power over evil and we can be at peace if we trust him.

The Ethiopian trusts God and decides to get baptised. It seems like this is the end of the story but of course it isn’t. I wonder what happened to that Ethiopian? Where did he go next? How did his faith grow? Was he the only Christian in his country? Did he share his new found faith? We just don’t know. But God does. God had a plan, and he knew when to bring someone else in, and when that person had done what he could.

God had led Philip to the Ethiopian, and now the Holy Spirit takes Philip away again. Philip has done his bit – and God will carry on whatever he’s doing. It’s like that with serving God – we’re called to play our part, and leave the rest with God. It’s not down to us whether someone responds to God – that’s between God and them. We’re not ultimately responsible – God is.

I find that incredibly liberating. It’s a great encouragement to join in God’s work. God is already active in people’s lives. He calls us to join him in what he’s doing. You and I have our bit to do – let us do it faithfully, open to God’s leading and rejoicing in the privilege he gives.