Those of you who have been part of our church family here for a little while will hopefully remember that, not too long ago, we went through a chunk of the book of Acts in our Midweek Group Bible studies.
Now I don't know about you, but some of the things I loved most about that part of Acts were the pictures we had painted for us of the life of the early church, such as the one that has just been read. These snippets were interwoven into the wider description of the spread of the gospel and the beginning of Jesus' heavenly ministry, and they serve to display the impact that the amazing, life-changing news of Jesus was having on everyday lives.
These accounts are windows into the lives of these new Christians, and they give us a chance to look at our own church, and our individual roles within it, and to test whether we hold on to the truth of how God wants his church to look, or whether we are not quite hitting the mark.
'S-word' Till I Die
Now, this is a bit of a risk, but I'm going to go for it. If you are a Netflix subscriber you may have seen the documentary 'Sunderland 'til I die'. Can I say this is not a promotion for that programme and I'm sorry if some of you are offended by my use of the 'S' word. But please bear with me.
'Sunderland Till I Die', could easily have been called 'Newcastle Till I Die', because it tracks the impact of a football club on the lives of its many supporters and, in fact, the city of Sunderland itself. And a large part of how it does this is by focussing in on, well, just that - the lives of the supporters. I have to admit I haven't seen it, but even the trailer gives you an insight into the blood, sweat and, for the most part, tears as Sunderland go through an absolutely horrific season to eventually suffer relegation for the second time in two years. And through it all you see the agony, the passion, the anger and the commitment of the fans. You even meet Niall, the firstborn son of a fan who was named after his father's favourite ever Sunderland player.
Now, most of us can know something about a football club. You can look at the league table and see where it's sitting. You can know who the team's most important players are. But you can gain a far, far deeper knowledge of a club when you see the way it affects the people who, well, believe in it.
The Early Church
In our passage this morning, the writer is focussing on the lives of a group of believers. But who were they and what is it they believe in?
Well to answer that we need to go back a few verses.
In Acts 1.1 Luke, who has also written a gospel account of Jesus, introduces his follow-up like this;
"In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen."
And, verse 4,
"And while staying with them he [Jesus] ordered them [the apostles] not to depart for Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, 'you heard from me; for John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."'
Imagine you're a bystander in Jerusalem.
This group of guys who followed the, now dead, Jesus are known to be staying in a house just across the street. And the residents of Jerusalem who know them potentially view them with a mix of curiosity and sympathy. After all, these men had spent the best part of three years following around a man who claimed to be the Son of God, but who was eventually nailed to a cross and left to die.
But all of a sudden you hear strange noises from the house. They're speaking, but it's completely unintelligible. You've no idea what they're on about. 'They're drunk', says the person next to you. Makes sense, I suppose, drowning their sorrows.
But being a major city, Jerusalem has within its walls people from all over, and someone from what is now Iran steps forward and says, 'I hear my own language being spoken among these men' Then someone from Cappadocia, now Turkey, says the same thing. Egyptians, Libyans - people from a whole range of places - agree that they hear these fishermen and tax collectors speaking their own languages. And they're amazed!
Then the apostle Peter stands up in front of, what is now quite a crowd, and explains that no, these men are not drunk, but rather they have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit from none other than the same Jesus Christ who not long before had been put to death by the chief priests and the people, but who now reigns in heaven. Verse 37,
"Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?' And Peter said to them, 'Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sin, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.'"
And we're told that as a result, three thousand people did just that. They believed Peter's message, were baptised and became followers of Jesus.
This is who our group of believers are. The early church is made up of men and women in Jerusalem who have seen the power of the living Lord Jesus, who have said sorry for their rejection of him, and who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
These people believe in and trust Jesus Christ, and that belief goes on to impact every area of their lives. And this morning we're going to look at three ways this happens.
Devoted To Learning
Firstly, the early church, 'devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching', verse 42. They devoted themselves to teaching. The early church was a learning church.
This is a church that has been stirred up by the Holy Spirit. This did not come, however, at the expense of receiving clear teaching about the life and death of Jesus and all that it meant.
After all the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth.
Our perception or idea of being filled by the Spirit might be one of an altogether more exciting experience than the thought of the disciplined, potentially drab practice of opening our Bibles every day, but that is certainly not the case. Both are life-changing. Both are the result of repentance and faith in the saving work of Jesus.
It's in our Bibles that we have God revealed to us, chiefly through his Son, but also through all his acts in history. How can we really know God if we ignore his revelation of himself?
The early church recognised the authority of the apostles to teach because the apostles had a particularly special role. They had been specifically chosen by Jesus to tell a needy world their testimony of all that they had seen and heard, and to explain why he was so significant.
He told them,
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."
And we see the authority of the apostles authenticated by God in the very next verse,
"and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles".
Just as Jesus supported his outrageous claims with awe-inspiring works, the apostles have been given power from God to support their message.
What does this mean for us though? After all, we don't have apostles. By the grace of God we have Ken and Ben and others who regularly stand here at the front and preach, but where does their authority come from? Well, from right here.
We have the apostles' teaching in our Bibles. Does our attitude to it compare at all to this church in Jerusalem? Are we willing to devote ourselves to having God's word opened up to us each week here at St Joseph's? And each day in our own homes?
Our lives are full of things demanding our attention. The football club you support - just like Niall's father. Your job. Your attempts to find a job. Hobbies. Friends. Family. All things that in their own right are good things, but that demand our focus, our energy, our devotion.
The mark of a Holy Spirit-fuelled Christian that we see here in Acts is not devotion to any of these things, but to the apostles' teaching.
Because God knows we need it. He points us to it through the work of the Holy Spirit. Open a paper. Go on a news website. Go on Twitter. Within minutes you can find a whole host of issues, statements and opinions to which we can give a Christian response. But how can we faithfully fulfil our responsibility to engage with the world on these issues if we're not searching the Scriptures for God's answers?
Developing a trust in Jesus in all areas of private and public life is part of growing in our faith. And there's a plethora of resources out there to help us devote ourselves to learning from God's word.
Quiet time notes, sermons that you can listen to, podcasts, commentaries, Christian books. OK, they're not essential, but shouldn't we be taking advantage of the work and wisdom of so many others that God has gifted?
We should be devoted to God's teaching.
So, the early church was devoted to the apostles' teaching.
Devoted to Each Other
Secondly, we see that they devoted themselves, 'to the fellowship', to each other.
Devoted to each other. What does fellowship within the church mean for you?
Is it the time we spend in the service, like we are now, alongside each other sharing our common faith. Or maybe it's the time beforehand and afterwards when we share a cup of tea or coffee and discuss how each of our weeks have been? Catching up on each other's lives - our joys, our sorrows, our stresses and our encouragements. It might be sharing your home, having lunch and dinner together. Opening the Bible with each other.
Or maybe you're tempted to think, 'I'm happy with Christianity, but does it have to come with all these Christians?' You might prefer to go it alone in your faith and actually, your experience of church is not a good one, so you've found yourself dipping in and out.
What does fellowship within the church look like to these believers in Acts?
"And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."
And verse 44,
"All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts."
As a Christian our identity is 'in Christ', but we're not the only ones there. Today, those who identify as 'in Christ' number around two billion across the world. Now we can't be called to an intimate friendship and fellowship with all of them, but we are called to an intimate friendship and fellowship with some of them.
As humans, we are relational in the same way that our God is relational! Does the extent of the relationship between the Father and the Son extend only as far as discussing the weather over a drink and a biscuit?!
Look around you and you will see the local church. A very, very small snapshot of the global body of Christ, but a hugely significant one. I read somewhere that, "The local church is not spoken of in the New Testament as part of the universal church, but as the full expression of the universal church in a particular place".
What is our view of fellow believers? How do we interact with them? How do we care for them? Are we as committed to the body of Christ as we are to Christ?
That commitment is a challenge. The response of these believers when they saw need was to ask, 'How can I help?' or, 'What can I share?'
Where does our church family lie in our list of priorities as it struggles for air-time against those things in our lives that we've already mentioned?
What we read in these verses can be uncomfortable for us, or for me at least. They were selling their possessions and belongings, all those things they'd worked so hard for, all those things they deserved, and they were giving the money to the poor.
Not all of us will be called to a life of such voluntary, joyful, poverty, but you might be. Even if this isn't your calling we are all called to be generous. How can we profess our faith of love when so many of those in Christ with us, struggle to even feed themselves?
We should be meeting those physical needs. And we should be meeting spiritual needs.
You may or may not be a people person. But fellowship involves both the opportunity to be encouraged and the responsibility to encourage.
C.S. Lewis says this about all people, including those in the church, and every time I read it I'm ashamed at how briefly I consider the spiritual wellbeing of my brothers and sisters in Christ. He says;
"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours the life of a gnat. But it is the immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendours."
When thought of like that it's no surprise that this early church was devoted to the fellowship.
So they were devoted to the apostles teaching and they were devoted to the fellowship.
Lastly, they were devoted to God.
Devoted To God
Verse 42 again,
"And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."
Devoted to God appears an obvious thing to say at this point. After all isn't that implied in both their devotion to teaching and to the fellowship? Well yes, but their devotion to God, and particularly their reliance on him for all things, is explicitly mentioned here.
The breaking of bread appears to exist alongside breaking bread in their homes and sharing food with one another to be a direct reference to the Lord's Supper. An act of remembering all that has been done for them in Christ. A reminder that the gift of the Holy Spirit and the community of believers they are now in, is the direct result of Jesus' saving work on their behalf.
And their reliance on what Jesus has done in the past comes with a reliance on Jesus in the present, for they are praying!
They were devoted to praying. That's convicting isn't it? Am I devoted to praying? Or do I find talking to God, dare I say it, boring? Do I doubt the effectiveness of prayer?
This church in Jerusalem didn't. They prayed for, and in response to, all things and as a result they have become a template for us all in the way they live out their faith.
That's why here at St Joseph's we pray. For our church. For our city, for our world. For each other. When we sing. When we hear God's word. We pray because we depend on God for all things. And you don't need that to be led from the front. We can pray for each other. As we talk at the back afterwards, we can be praying for each other. Depending on God in all circumstances and trusting in him to act, just like this early church!
And we have regular communion services because we must remember that all of this - the fellowship, the good news and the Holy Spirit working in us - comes as a result of Jesus' death on the cross.
So, as we see the church take off this morning in this passage in Acts, we should ask ourselves how far have we come?
What would a member of this church think if they walked through the doors of St Joseph's this morning? Would they see devotion to God's word, devotion to each other, devotion to God?
Let's be praying to the risen Lord Jesus that we would be a church where they would see all that and more.