They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day 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, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
The church fulfilled the promises of Christ in its creation. This was the thesis of what Luke hoped to prove in writing Acts. The lessons of Jesus that began in Luke are met with parallels in Acts that show how Jesus’ teachings and pronouncements about what the Kingdom would be like are reflected by the reality of assembled believers living and worshipping with one another. The abstract is made concrete, the spiritual is made to inhabit the enfleshed.
Today’s passage presents some of the most obvious connections between Jesus’ vision in the gospel and its completion in the work of his apostles. The people gather together for worship, they bring together what they have into a common pot, and all people are cared for within the community from this sharing with one another. Not only are needs met and community brought together, but the Church went out into the world around it and became known for the good works they did. They held the good will of, “All people,” and they prospered in community together. .
The fulfillment of their work was exemplified in the erasure of certain problems from their midst. The word, “poor,” so integral to Luke’s gospel, never appears in Acts. The idea being that the Church has provided the answer to poverty in the fellowship of believers. The realization of God’s kingdom is tied to the eradication of poverty, of class, and in their place the establishment of a new community. This community was led by the love of the Spirit, the love of Christ, and the kind providence of the Father. Community and mission were tied together inseparably. Later in Acts we even get to see how the Church reacted to problems, facing issues of corruption and neglect within their community. The Church was born, the Church grew, the Church sanctified itself to the service of God.
Many have wondered why this is not our present reality. Why is it that the Church has become a secondary concern in the lives of so many? I do not mean here any of the churches of this charge or the United Methodist Church alone, but the entire Universal Church. While the church still holds a great deal of influence, and Christians still include the privilege of at least a nominal majority in the Western World, it is clear that the Church today is not the Church we see in Acts Chapter 2.
Perhaps the most obvious difference in our two realities as worshipping congregations is that while the Acts Church grew, the Western Church is obviously shrinking. In the United States alone there has been a drop of twelve percent in people who identify as Christian. That translates to about 40 million people leaving the fold of the faith. Of the remaining Christians, seventy percent claim their faith is important to them, but only 45% attend church regularly. While Church attendance does not automatically determine the earnestness of a person’s faith, we have to wonder how a Christian exists outside of community. Church is after all called, “Ecclesia,” in scripture – an assembly of people.
At this point discussions of the state of the Church usually turn to finger-pointing. Political parties, philosophical movements, historical happenings, are all put forward as potential causes for our apparent decline. However, if we are honest with one another then I do not think we can place the blame too far afield. Especially when, no matter the demographics, the numbers I stated above remain fairly consistent. While there are variations in datapoints no single groups can be blamed. Politically the worship practices of Americans are consistent across parties, age groups fall mostly within historical ranges. We cannot blindly point fingers at large swathes of people because we have met the enemy and they are ourselves.
The Church in its purest form can never be called ineffectual. The Church is transcendent. It is the Spirit initiated gathering of believers for the purposes of friendship with God and love of neighbor. The Church is found wherever the Spirit is found, and where the Spirit is allowed to work freely it will work well. The problem emerges, as seems to be the problem in the West, is that we as Christians can easily try and push the Spirit away from us. We can reject our God-given mission and transform ourselves into something other than the Church. We can become a nominal social club sliding into obscurity.
It is only natural that we should experience such a slide in status. The Church from Constantine to Luther was unquestioned as a political entity as well as a faith community. When Luther jumpstarted the reformation, it was not long before infighting among different groups in the Church began to demystify the body of Christ. How could we call ourselves divinely anointed when we killed one another over how we celebrated communion? How could we claim to be holy servants of God when we were more concerned with taking power than serving one another?
It is not completely because of poor stewardship that the Church has arrived at its current state, but it is a part of the path we have taken. More than that, it is the part that we as the Church can affect. We decide whether we live into the mission the Spirit has placed in us or if we let ourselves get lost in our own pursuits and desires. The Spirit of God has not changed in the centuries that the Church has existed, so it must be something else. People have not changed just the means by which they act like people, so it must be something else. Yes, it seems that for the Church to reclaim the accidents of the Acts 2 Church it must also take on its substance. We have to push beyond looking Christian and actively become Christian. We must not settle for anything less than this.
When we look at the Church in Acts we see the Spirit manifest among them in specific ways. They form a community centered in the worship of God. They come together in small assemblies together and then together again in the Temple. They were known for their devotion in worship such that they were often spotted praying or singing hymns, not out of vain shows of faith, but authentic outpourings of love for God. The foundation of the Church was in worship, and it can be for us too. How often do we truly take moments to praise God? When we see the blossoming flower or feel secure in our homes? We can express our praise anytime, in any number of ways. Let us commit ourselves to such worship.
The Spirit also manifested in a community that cared for one another. As previously stated the community was so well taken care of that poverty fell out of the vocabulary of the Church in acts. What can we do for those we around us? There are plenty of contributing factors to poverty in the modern world, but we cannot deny that a lack of opportunity and community support contributes a great deal to it. There should be a commitment among the Church to help people find stability, both in our local community and abroad. As we have provocatively stated before, it is a shame that poverty exists anywhere in the proximity of churches.
Finally, the community of the faithful was defined by the breaking of bread. The communal meals they shared were more than just symbolic actions or simple meals together. They were experiences of God’s grace, retellings of God’s actions in the lives of the faithful. We too must join together as often as we can, if not in person than in other ways. We must share the abundance God has given us and tell stories of God’s saving work in our life. If we share together, then we have achieved community. If our resources, our stories, our pain all come together as one, then we have achieved the unity of the Acts church. Then, perhaps, we will see growth once again. Not just in numbers, for they are a side effect of something much more important. We will see growth in ourselves, in the community we are a part of, in our character, in our faith, and in our love. Then perhaps we will be as the Church of old once was, whether we be numerous grains of sand or only two or three gathered together. Then perhaps we will once again have the goodwill of all the people. – Amen.