37Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
In today’s scripture reading, the Apostle Peter preaches a three minute sermon, and the church–the real “First Church” which is the subject of our sermon series this month–goes from 120 members to 3,000 all in one day. If that’s not an argument for shorter sermons, I don’t know what is!
I’m also reminded of the story about the three local churches–Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian–who worked together to sponsor a community- wide revival. After the revival had concluded, the three pastors were discussing the results with one another. The Methodist minister said, “The revival worked out great for us. We gained 4 new members, Hallelujah!” The Baptist preacher said, “Amen, brother, but we did better than that. We gained 6 new members, Praise the Lord!” The Presbyterian pastor said, “Well, we did even better than that! Thanks be to God, we finally got rid of our 10 biggest troublemakers!”
It’s a fun joke, but there’s also a bit of sad truth to it–in many churches, evangelism and “church growth” are all about shuffling around members from one church to another…meanwhile, the total number of church members in our country and in our city continues to decline.
And so we read scripture passages like today’s, we see a growing, thriving church back in the first century, and we say, “Wow, that’s amazing!” We read how they all took care of each other, financially and materially. We read how glad and generous they were, and how everyone loved them–they had the goodwill of all people. And we ask ourselves how can we be *that* kind of church? How can we be that kind of people?
Well. I’m so glad you asked.
I think it’s easy with passages like this one to see the big things, like 3,000 people, amazing wonders and signs, and radical acts of generosity. But it’s also easy to miss the little, but important things that created that kind of environment. That’s what I want to focus on today.
Right before today’s scripture passage, Peter preaches a sermon. It’s tempting (especially for a preacher) to think that the sermon was what did the trick. But as I said earlier, it was just three minutes long. Peter quotes a few passages from the Old Testament, tells them about the death and resurrection of Jesus, and… that’s pretty much it. It’s a message you’ve heard many times, and one I imagine most people in our community (believers and non-believers alike) are pretty well acquainted with. No, I don’t think it was the sermon, and in any case, that’s not today’s focus.
Our passage begins with the response of the crowd, which, for whatever reason (let’s just call it the movement of the Spirit) is “cut to the heart.” Listen to their response, the first words out of their mouths: They “said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?'”
What should we DO? Interestingly, they don’t ask, “what should we BELIEVE?” Somehow, 2,000 years later, we have made belief, and not action, the primary criteria for acceptance into the church community. You want to be a Christian? Ok, first you have to believe what we believe, affirm our doctrines and creeds, accept our own distinctive explanation of what the Bible *really* means, and then…you can belong to our community.
Peter and the apostles don’t seem to be too worried about uniformity of belief. Most of the doctrines and creeds of the church won’t even be formulated for another few hundred years, and as we’ll see later in Acts, even Jesus’ earliest followers didn’t always agree on who he was and what they were all supposed to believe about him.
Instead, the crowd asks what they should DO, and Peter simply tells them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven.”
Repenting is something inward, something invisible between just you and God. Baptism is something outward, visible, something the community can see and remember. Sometimes, as was likely the case with all the adults that day, the repentance or inward change comes before the outward sign of baptism. But later, Peter says that this “promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away.” Sometimes the outward sign of baptism comes first, when we are only infants and before we have the ability to even understand it, while the inward change, the repentance comes years afterwards when we are older. In any case, both pieces are essential to forming a cohesive community, but they are also only the beginning. I know plenty of people who have been baptized, and had profound spiritual experiences later in life…but then slip back into the mundane routines of a meaningless life.
That’s why I think verse 42 is the pivotal moment, and perhaps the most important verse in the entire book of Acts. After 3,000 people repent and are baptized, we read that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Everything that happens in the next paragraph, all the signs and wonders and miracles, all the giving, sharing, serving and generosity, and all the continued growth, hinge on this one verse.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
This is what I call the three-legged stool upon which a faith community is built. Think of a three-legged stool. If you take away any one of the legs, even with the other two intact, the stool cannot stand. Without all three things, the church is not the church. And unless we, as individuals, are engaged in all three things, we’re depriving ourselves of the fullness of Christian community.
The first leg of the stool is education. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. Now, I’ve spent a lot of time (most of my life) thinking about education. I have a Master’s degree in education. Before I was a Pastor, I was a high school teacher. And now that I’m a Pastor, I still consider myself first and foremost, a teacher. All this is to say that I know the value of education, of good teaching. A good teacher does NOT tell you what to believe, what to think, or what is true. A good teacher helps you to explore and discover these things for yourself, giving guidance and direction where needed. And a good student pursues all of these things, not just for a season, but for a lifetime.
If in your spiritual life, you are not actively studying the great sacred texts that are part of our heritage (namely the Bible, but there are others as well), if you are not actively studying the world God created and the people who inhabit it, and if you are not connecting these things together…then in your individual spiritual life, you probably aren’t growing much. Likewise, if we as a church are not studying these things together, exploring together, and learning together, then we as a church probably aren’t growing together much, either. And while I hope my sermons are helpful and educational, a twenty minute sermon once a week isn’t enough.
If you have children, and you want them to be lifelong learners, especially lifelong spiritual learners, the best way to teach them that habit is by your own example. That’s why we have Sunday school classes for children AND adults, and seasonal Bible studies, and Wednesday night study groups. And I’d love to see even more opportunities like that spring up…so if you have something to teach us, then teach. All of us still have a lot to learn.
The second leg of the stool is fellowship. They devoted themselves to fellowship. The Greek word here is κοινωνία, which is a powerful concept in Greek and Roman culture: A community of equals, built on personal relationships. κοινωνία also means common, and in Jewish culture was the word that meant the opposite of sacred. In other words, we need to get to know each other outside of our sacred spaces. When’s the last time you invited someone from church to your home? We read in verse 46 that the early church broke bread from “home to home” and “ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” Incidentally, if you have your calendars handy, you are all invited to the Locke family home next month on Sunday afternoon, May 22nd.
Sometimes, as a church, we do things together just for fun, like go to baseball games, or to the movies, or UTEP operas. Our primary fellowship time is Wednesday nights, when (weather permitting) we grill outdoors, while the kids play, and basically just enjoy each others’ company. So if you come to Worship and Sunday School faithfully every Sunday morning, but leave right after the benediction, without taking the time to get to know the community… be careful, you might be sitting on a two-legged stool. And if we, as a church, don’t make space for fun, for fellowship, for non-sacred time building relationships with each other, then we aren’t being the church.
The third and last leg of the stool is worship. They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers. This is not just any bread-breaking, but “the” breaking of bread, or observance of the Lord’s supper, the earliest ritual in the church. And these are not just any prayers, but “the prayers,” most likely a set of liturgical, communal prayers, like the Lord’s prayer. In other words, this is worship. We do this every Sunday morning, but notice that in the “first church,” they did it every day. Verse 46: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple.” It’s no accident that one verse later we see the same wording, “And day by day the Lord added to their number…” If we want to grow more (as a church or as individuals), we need to worship more.
Worship puts us in a different frame of mind–it’s where heaven and earth touch on another, where human and divine meet for just a little while, and where we allow the sacred to come into our lives. Why wouldn’t we want just a little bit more of that? I suspect the answer is, “Because I’m too busy.” I’ve seen what “too busy” does to a person over the course of a lifetime. But the solution to “too busy” isn’t getting more things done, more quickly. The solution is letting things go, making room in your life for what’s truly important. Making space in your life for peace, for contemplation, for prayer, for music, for worship, for God.
One more thing, and I’ll close: It’s not another leg of the stool, since we already have three, but you might think of it as the round seat at the top that holds the three legs together. They *devoted* themselves to all three things: To the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, and to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Devoted. In Greek, it’s προσκαρτερέω (proskartereo). Strong’s dictionary defines it as “to continue to do something with intense effort, despite difficulty, to keep on, to persist in. Devotion is discipline. Devotion is consistency. Not something we do just when we can squeeze it in, or just when we feel like it.
Imagine if you only exercised twice a year. Would it do any good? Imagine if you only ate food once a week. Imagine if you were going to school but only showed up to class when something interesting happened. Imagine painting a picture, or writing a novel, or composing a piece of music, but just giving up when you get stuck, or when things don’t work out the way you planned. Imagine getting married, and hearing your beloved say, “I mostly take you, to have and to hold sometimes, for better, but not for worse, for richer, but not for poorer, in health but not sickness, until I get bored.”
The best things we can accomplish in life, the very best things we can do and be, for ourselves and for each other, all require devotion. The people of the “First Church” knew this, and so what did they do? They devoted themselves to all the right things. May the people of the First Presbyterian Church do likewise, “with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”