About a year ago we took five Monday nights to look at some foundational things for Christians, and we called it “Practical Spirituality.” We’re going to fire that up again and continue on down that road for a little this Spring, and we began last night by looking at one of the most normal activities for Christians: going to church.
As I mentioned last night, these studies are definitely cumulative, and they especially build on the first two. You can’t really live the Christian life if you haven’t began down the road of living by his commands, including repenting of sin, and if you haven’t received the new spiritual life that the Holy Spirit brings to those who believe. The first two studies in this series lay these things out in detail. So, if you weren’t here last year and you’d like to get caught up, we’ve posted the audio of all five over at the audio page (and here, in this post).
(These are mp3 files. If you’re on a non-mobile platform, right click to download, and select “Save Target As” or the equivalent…)
Here are the notes form last night’s study:
How to go to church. Acts 2:42-47 (Also read 2:36-41)
1. Devote yourself to being part of it. (Acts 2:42 “They Devoted Themselves.”) This word means “persistence or perseverance in something.” (same word as in v.46.) Go with commitment. Athletes commit to working out. Musicians commit to playing shows. Christians commit to church.
2. Go to learn. (“the Apostles’ doctrine”)
The first Christians devoted themselves to learning—“What was true, and what to do.” They learned from the men whom Jesus himself had authorized and commissioned to teach—their job was teach people what was true about him, and to teach people to do what he had taught people to do. (see Matthew 28:20)
To be a Christian in 2017 is to have a fundamental shift take place in your mind, and it takes place in the area of how you think about truth. I don’t think this is to dramatic to say…Christians are people who have been confronted by the inescapable reality that there is one true truth about the world, that it exists, and that it’s knowable. In fact, Christians are people who’ve come to realize not just that we can find truth if we want to, but that truth has been revealed in such a way that, as men and women, we’re under an obligation to find truth. It’s not just out there, it’s right here, it’s come down to us, and it’s not just here as a matter of personal preference, but as something we need to find. So this new awareness of knowable truth which we must care about knowing creates a hunger to go to the places where the source of truth is being heard. God’s written word is that source of truth, and that includes what he revealed to the apostles (the same men who were teaching those first Christians). So we can’t go to hear Peter teach, but we can go read what he wrote, and we can hear his teaching that way. In other words, followers of Jesus today learn to devote themselves to the Apostles’ teaching in the same way as the first Christians.
This points out another major mind shift that takes place for followers of Jesus. One of the things that happens in our minds when we don’t believe in knowable truth is that we stop believing that there’s any real authority in the world. Everyone’s their own authority, and they decide what’s right and wrong for them. That’s so ingrained in us today that when I say it, we’re basically all sitting here thinking “yep.” Probably some of us here tonight actually feel way more at home with that kind of statement than a statement like, “God’s word is our unquestioned authority.” You know, cause we’re Americans. We don’t do “unquestioned authority.” But Christians do. Christians devote themselves to knowing and obeying this authority. And this is super important—the authority is not the authority of the church, but the authority of God’s word. But here’s another super important thing—Christians go to church to hear that word of God taught by…wait for it… humans—men who’s calling and gifting it is to read and explain what the Apostles and Prophets taught. (Ephesians 4:11-15 says that explicitly.) So a follower of Jesus doesn’t say, “I don’t need humans, I have God”—they say, “where are Christians getting together to hear men God has gifted explain what the Apostles taught. (see, for instance Hebrews 10:24-25.)
So we go to church to learn, and ultimately, to be under the authority of God’s word so that it shapes our thinking, our daily living, and the course of our lives.
3. Go to enjoy a shared life. (“fellowship”)
This word means “sharing” in its most basic form. Believers are people who have been “brought into existence by a shared experience with the Holy Spirit.” In other words, when you become a follower of Jesus, you receive new spiritual life from the fact that the Holy Spirit comes to live in you and give you new life, and then you realize that this experience is shared by all followers of Jesus, and that it’s the same Spirit of God who gives us all life. The One who’s living in me is the same one who’s living in my brother and sister in Christ. So He creates a new unity between us that nothing else compares to.
Christians join church to actually experience this unity. They devote themselves to sharing life with the people of God. That’s Sunday morning, but obviously it takes us way beyond a meeting on a Sunday morning, too. A follower of Jesus goes to church as part of a whole life of being enmeshed in the life of “the body of Christ.” That’s one of the Apostles’ favorite names for the church. And, if you are a Christian, you are part of the body of Christ—so devote yourself to experiencing, building up, and receiving from the community of Christians you’re a part of.
If you look at verses 44 to 46, Luke tells us that one of the ways these first Christians practiced their fellowship was by sharing their things—and practically, it doesn’t say they abolished private property, but that they sold things they could to help people. They made sure everyone in the community was taken care of and had what they needed. And I said this back in January—The point is not that Christians have always lived like ideal communists, because historically they haven’t. The point is that in every place where Christians have gathered and truly been God’s church, their shared life in God found concrete expression in shared daily lives, and in shared mission, and in practically caring for each other. So we see in this passage that they also were in each other’s houses—there was real friendship, and there was this general since of unity, gladness and simplicity.
One other essential piece to this shared life, which isn’t brought out explicitly here, but is brought out in other place in the New Testament—is that… because this whole new shared life is made possible by the Holy Spirit, we also devote ourselves to Christian community in order to share the gifts the Holy Spirit has given us. Every follower of Christ is someone the Holy Spirit will work through to bless the community—and so each of us needs to actually be a part of the community to receive those blessings. I need to go and be part of things so that God can use me to bless the body of Christ, but I also need to go so that I can receive that blessing. If you’re not part of that dynamic, you’re missing out. (see Romans 12:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 for some in depth teaching on this subject)
4. Go to different types of gatherings, and keep Jesus in the center. (“the breaking of bread”).
Some people think this refers to what we call “communion” since it’s called the breaking of bread. Some people think this refers to the meals Christians were sharing (like in verse 46). I read two books talking about this passage and they both took different positions—but they both agreed that it was because of something unique about Christians—these early Christians celebrated communion as part of larger regular meals they shared together. So the point seems to be that, for the early Christians, they were doing big worship services with thousands of people in a public place, including meals and celebrating communion, and they were doing lots of less formal meetings and even hang outs, meeting and eating together in their homes. In other words, this was totally natural community (on one level) with the supernatural element of the Spirit of God with them, and so they did they unnatural spiritual thing of explicitly remembering Jesus in the exact way he told them to. They would take time when they were together to break some bread and share a cup to remember his death.
I bet this gave their hang outs and meal times a totally unique flavor. They couldn’t simply hang out like other people, because they were always letting it all be colored by Jesus’ sacrifice. And so it set them apart.
5. Go to seek God together in prayer. (“prayers”)
Jesus had specifically promised his followers that when they got together, after he was gone, he would be there with them in special way. And so a major thing Christians did together from the beginning was to get together to pray. Part of their gatherings was praying together. It’s what all the followers of Jesus were doing. And we have to believe this means they were praying together in the big gatherings in the Temple and in the small gatherings in their houses. Prayer was one of their major activities together.
So… how do you go to church? Devote yourself to it. Go to learn what is true, and what to do. Go to experience a shared life. Go to all different types of meetings. Keep Jesus in the center. And pray with each other.
A few observations about all this.
First, this presents a really different type of life than the one our culture is pushing. Everything in our day is built to fragment relationships, to break down family, to keep us from really knowing our neighbors. It’s all designed to isolate us in our houses and in front of our screens, so that we think about ourselves as individuals connected to a big mono-culture that is curated by the elite and transmitted through media and technology. So here are Christians, and we’re like, we’ve got this 2000 year old thing that people have done since before there was America or the internet—and it’s real human community with real commitment and real authority…and we’re going to feel it more and more I think, that this is really out of step with the way most people think. Their first go to is going to be like—that’s a cult. But we say—no, cults are based on lies, and operate by people controlling each other. The church is based on Truth, especially the historic resurrection of Jesus Christ, and is based on the authority of God’s word and the shared Spiritual life on followers of Jesus have.
Now, because truly living as the church is so counter-cultural, we all have a lot of unlearning to do—getting old assumptions about what life is out of our heads, and then replacing those ideas with God’s truth. If we just bring our cultural assumptions to church, at best we’ll get frustrated and feel like something’s wrong, and at worst, we’ll become people who mess with the church or even corrupt it. So Acts 2:42 provides a great road map for us as we follow Jesus in this way.
But there’s a really good flip side to the fact that this way of life is really different from what most people are used to. And it’s right there in verse 47. It seems like God wants us to see a connection between the community the Christians were experiencing and the growth of that community. Maybe what’s going on here is that, while there was pretty awesome spiritual power going down like you see in verse 43, and it made people kind of like, in awe of the church, there was also such an attractive thing about their practice of community, that people wanted to join it. And the fact that Christian community is looking more and more strange in our context is just an evidence that people don’t have it. More and more they don’t even have functioning nuclear families or neighborhoods, forget anything bigger than that. So yeah it’s strange to them, but they’re humans—which means God’s wired it into them to want community, and to feel lonely and meaningless when they don’t have it. When they see it in action—when they meet someone who invites them along and they get to taste it—some of our friends and neighbors are going to realize it’s what they’ve been looking for. And they’ll join. God will add them to the number—He’ll make them part of the family. Just like he did for us.
That was the focus of the last time we studied the church. We are separate from the world, different from the world, for the world. And for God, of course. Primarily for God. But when we do what we do for God, the world benefits, and he uses it for the world.