Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Methodist Way: What is the Church? - Acts 2:1-4 and Acts 2:41-47

This week we are beginning a new preaching series on the Methodist Way. The Methodist Way are the five historical practices of Methodism found in fruitful and growing congregations – Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Discipleship, Salty Service, and Extravagant Generosity. However, before we get to those five practices I want us to spend our time together this week gaining a better understanding of what we are to be as a church, specifically the practices of the early church that made those people so vibrant and excited about their faith.

When my wife Debbie and I lived in Fort Myers, we used to go often and visit with the Evans family. When we first moved there, Bill and Ima Lee Evans were still able to make it to worship. They’d been part of that congregation almost since the beginning, fifty years before, and they knew everyone. Together they had served on just about every committee and held just about every leadership position imaginable. We’d probably been there about a year when their health declined to the point that they could no longer drive and make it to church on Sundays. That was heartbreaking for them. For some people, that would have been the end of their involvement in the church, other than an occasional visit by a church member or reading the monthly newsletter. But not for Ima Lee. She was the one who came up with the idea for us to send the bulletin out to the shut-ins, so she could follow along. And when we would go to visit with her, she always knew exactly what was going on in the church, even down to the sick people and other shut-ins that my wife had visited with that day. That’s because Ima Lee’s telephone became her connection to her church. She spent most of the day on the phone going through the church directory and calling various church members, checking in with them and praying for them. She kept up that ministry even after we moved, even after the death of her husband – right up until the day she died.

Right next door to Ima Lee’s house was a house with a lot of property where they raised bees. I learned a lot about bees from Ima Lee and her neighbor during my visits over the years. For instance, honeybees cannot live in isolation. You can keep honeybees (plural), but you can never ever keep just a single honeybee. If you isolate a honeybee, you can give it plenty of food and water and an environment with just the right temperature, but the bee will die within two to three days. There is something about the community of bees that keeps the honeybees alive. And I believe the same was true of the relationship between Ima Lee and her church. Without the fellowship of the connection, something important was missing from her life. And so she found a way to stay an active and vital member of the congregation even from her living room.

God wired us to be connected with others. After all, we are made in God’s image and God is a relational being – we note the expressions of Creator, Son and Spirit. And God made us specifically to be in relationship with Him. And as we come to faith, God calls us not just to Himself, but He also calls us to be part of a group where we can be in relationship with other believers and experience life together. A group where we can find the kind of support that we need in order to not just survive in our Christian journey, but to learn how to really thrive.

The early church really knew what it meant to experience life together and thrive. They had an excitement and an enthusiasm that was contagious. Acts 2:1-4 tells us about the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon believers who were gathered together. And these believers were empowered to speak in other languages so that everyone might hear and understand the good news about Jesus Christ. Simon Peter, the disciple who had denied Christ on the night before his death, was empowered to boldly speak a sermon about Jesus encouraging people to repent and be baptized. And on that one single day, from that one sermon, 3,000 stepped forward to make a commitment to Christ.

What happened after that? Well for many believers nowadays the story might end there. They get fired up from a revival or a retreat and get extremely enthusiastic about their faith for a while; then before long their enthusiasm subsides. But that’s not what happened to those first believers.

Those people went on to become part of the fellowship of the early church and they went out and set the world on fire for Jesus. In Acts 1:8, we find Jesus giving instructions before ascending up to heaven. And he tells the disciples, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end (uttermost part) of the earth.”

When you read the book of Acts, you see that’s exactly what happened. The first seven chapters of Acts are mainly about the church’s growth in the city of Jerusalem. The next five chapters concentrate on the spread of the church out from the city into the regions of Judea and Samaria. And the last sixteen chapters focus upon the spread of the church all around the Mediterranean Sea as the Apostle Paul traveled on his missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire, witnessing for Jesus.

The early church literally changed the course of human history – they changed their world. For me that brings up a couple of questions: Wouldn’t it be great to recapture their enthusiasm and energy today? What can we learn from them so that we might set our world on fire again for Jesus?

Our second Scripture lesson this morning from Acts 2, gives us a little insight into the early characteristics of the early church. I want us to look specifically at four things that I think contributed significantly to that church being able to change the world for Jesus. Things we need to focus upon as a church if we want to have the same kind of effect in our world today.

First, they had great fellowship. In Acts 2:42 and 46, we find that the early church was “devoted to fellowship and the breaking of bread” and that they “met together and broke bread in their homes and ate together.”

We usually associate the word “fellowship” with casual conversation, socializing, food and fun. But biblical fellowship is deeper. It’s about really about experiencing life together. It includes unselfish loving, honest sharing, practical serving, sacrificial giving, sympathetic comforting and all the other “one another” commands from the New Testament.

There’s a Greek word that sums up the essence of Biblical fellowship – that word is “koinonia.” The root idea of koinonia is sharing something in common. And that something in common is a commitment to Jesus Christ. After that, we should be as committed to one another as we are to Christ. When we have genuine koinonia, the church provides a safe place for persons to be real and open with their lives, admit their struggles and sins and speak the truth in love to one another without fear of rejection, judgment or condemnation.

Have you ever seen one of those yellow “Safe Place” signs on businesses like McDonald’s? Those signs on a building mean that business is a safe place for kids and teenagers who are experiencing problems and abuse or who have run away from home. When you think about it, the church was intended to be a safe place for all people. God wants us to have the same kind of attitude that those signs represent to kids, “You’re in good hands here! Come on in! This is a place of grace and caring!”1

Not only was the early church good at fellowship, but the teaching ministry of the early church was very important. In Acts 2:42 and 46, we find that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” and that “each day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.”

The new believers regularly gathered together. They would sing hymns of praise to God for all their many blessings. And they would listen to the apostles teach. The apostles had been with Jesus. It was important for this new church community to learn about Jesus. After all, he was the source of their love, of their life. Their hunger for first-hand knowledge about him was insatiable. They wanted to learn all they could.

Why are you here today? Was there a longing in your heart for the chance to praise God and worship Him? Did you come hungering and thirsting for more knowledge and understanding of Jesus? I hope so. Henry Ward Beecher once said, “The church is not a gallery for the exhibition of eminent Christians, but a school for the education of imperfect ones.”2 We need the opportunity to worship together, and the chances to learn more from Scripture here and in Sunday school and Bible study.

Scripture is the point of reference for the church. We don’t have the privilege of listening to the disciples teach in the flesh, as the early church did, but we can hear them teach as we listen to the Word of God being read. As we listen we, too, will be touched with the love of Jesus. We need to take worship and the teaching ministry of the church seriously.

Besides fellowship and study and worship, the early church was also a praying church. In Acts 2:42 and 47, we find that the early church “devoted themselves… to prayer” and spent time also “praising God.”

The early church thanked God daily for all their many blessings and for the opportunity for fellowship and learning together. They spent much time in prayer. They recognized that theirs was not simply a human enterprise. Prayer is our lifeline as believers. Through prayer, we can communicate with God whenever we want, from wherever we are. We can call on God as many times a day as we would like. And the truly amazing thing about prayer is that God gives us the promise that whenever we turn to Him in prayer, He is faithful to hear us, to really listen to us and to answer our prayers (although it may not always be yes).

We need to spend time in prayer, on our own and together as a group - especially if we want to change the world. Dr. A. T. Pierson once said, “There has never been a spiritual awakening in any country or locality that did not begin in united prayer.”3

Think of what could happen in everyone in the church agreed to pray daily for our church family and its ministries! No matter how much activity we carry on through the church in Jesus’ name, we will never be what God has called us to be, until we are united in prayer.

In addition to fellowship and study and worship and prayer, the early church was also a church that reached out and knew how to share – not just within the church, but outside as well. In Acts 2:44-45 (and 47b), we find that in the early church, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need… And the Lord added daily to their number, those that were being saved.”

This was a group of people who thrived because they knew how to share. Sometimes I believe we misinterpret this passage – we assume that it was some sort of commune where no one claimed any possessions for themselves. But that’s never explicitly stated here. What we see is really a group of people who were focused not on themselves and gathering more possessions, but rather focused upon what their possessions could do to help other people. And they didn’t just reach out to those within their own fellowship, but rather “gave to anyone who had need.” A “What’s mine, is yours” kind of attitude. Over the past several years we have seen a tremendous outpouring of support in this country and around the world to aid the victims of terrorist attacks as well as those affected by natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis. Many churches, ourselves included, collected special offerings to help persons who lost their homes and all their belongings. Others sent supplies, building materials, food and clothing. When we give of ourselves to others in need we receive blessings we never expected. The saddest people in this world are people who never discover the joy of giving. The church thrives when it knows how to share and reach out to help others.

What an example for us to live up to, this early church that changed the world. A church with great fellowship, devoted to study and worship, spending much time in prayer and reaching out to others. How in the world can we ever hope to come close to their example and results? I believe that we have the same opportunity as the early church did to set the world on fire for Jesus and change our world. That’s because I believe that we have access to the same power source that the early church did.

Think again of what we’ve learned about the early church from the book of Acts this morning. The description of the characteristics of the early church comes towards the end of chapter 2. It’s a direct result of something that happens earlier in chapter 2 – the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Certainly non-Christians can have great fellowship and study together and reach out to others. But those characteristics alone would not have been enough for the early believers to change the world. They needed a source of power and strength far beyond their own. Jesus told his disciples before he went back up to heaven that “they would receive POWER when the Holy Spirit” came upon them. Everything the early church was able to do together, everything that those early believers were able to achieve, was through their reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit. They were plugged into the right power source.

If we want to be as effective as the early church was in reaching out and changing their world, if we want to have the joy and the energy and the enthusiasm of those early believers, we need to be filled with God’s Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes to dwell in believers after they have accepted Christ as their Savior. But we also have to open ourselves up to the working of the Holy Spirit - we need to pray and ask for God to pour out the Spirit upon us and fill our hearts and minds.

No other power source will work for what we hope to accomplish. To become the church that God intends for us to be in the world, we must receive the POWER of the Holy Spirit in our life.

Change The World. As a church this can either be seen as a daunting task or an amazing challenge and privilege. The early church as recorded in Acts 2 responded to the power of the Holy Spirit with great fellowship, devoting themselves to study and worship, spending much time in prayer and reaching out to others around them. As we attempt to follow their example, may we be empowered to build deep relationships with one another and make this a safe place for all people. May we hunger and thirst after more knowledge of God in our times of worship and Bible study. May we unite our hearts together as one in prayer for each other and the ministries of our church. May we be unselfish in our sharing with those who have need. May God see the intent of our hearts and bless our efforts. And all of God’s people said – AMEN.

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