23.6.13 – Community Worth Striving For – Peter Cheyne

There was  story in the news recently about a coroner recommending that rest home contact their residents who are in independent flats weekly because one such resident had died and not been discovered for, I forget how long but it might have been a fortnight. The response of the rest homes was that people had told them they didn’t want to be contacted, so they wouldn’t do it.

Periodically we do hear of people who have died and not been discovered for a long time. The saddest part of those stories perhaps is that those people have no one who contacts them including, presumably, no family who contact them with any frequency. Rest homes are small communities. People live in close proximity within the one complex. People in flats live side-by-side with other flats. And yet people can still die and not be missed.

It is sometimes said that community (togetherness) has broken down in our world. Maybe that provides an opportunity for the church. In a world that has forgotten community, maybe we can offer it.

We used the reading from Acts 2 only a few weeks ago but I want to use it again because it is one of the key passages about community, or fellowship, within a church.

I suspect that some of us have questions about the practicality of what we see in this passage. We doubt whether such communal life is really possible. We question whether God is really asking this of us. Is this possible in our day and age? Does God really expect this of us?

In any case, people will say, this ideal proved unsustainable in the early church. By Acts 6 they were complaining about inequalities in the distribution of food. You see it is just not practical. Even the early church couldn’t make it work.

It is true that there were complaints in Acts 6 but what did the church do about that? Did they abandon this experiment because it was unworkable? No, they worked it through because they wanted to maintain the quality of community that they were experiencing. They didn’t abandon community; they enhanced it.

I believe that the early church modelled what Jesus had taught. This is Christianity in action. This is what God wants His church to be like. It is true that we live in a fallen world and, yes, over time, Christian community gets undermined by human sinfulness but that is not a reason to abandon what God wants. It is reason to work even harder at it. We have to counter the impact of selfishness and jealousy. It is reason to seek God even more because it is only in His strength that we can embody His ideal. But we should never simply give up. This is part of our living in obedience to what Jesus commanded.

Recently, I have commented a couple of time on the friendliness and caring of this church. This church models community but we can still look at this vision of what God plans. Churches that takes community seriously are always keen to do even better. So, I will periodically ask “What about us?”

What can we learn from this NT example?

They were devoted to… Who is “they”? Who is it referring to? The preceding sentence says that 3000 were added to their number that day. It would seem that they, the new converts, were devoted to the things we are about to look at. But obviously the church was providing the context. The church involved them in community where these things were happening.

“Devoted” implies that they were focused and committed. It wasn’t casual; an option for some of them. No, no, no. They were committed to these things and it seems clear, they were enjoying them.

They were devoted to four things: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.

There was teaching. The teaching of the apostles was of huge importance because they had walked with Jesus and had absorbed His teaching. In the Great Commission, Jesus had told them to teach converts to obey everything He had commanded. So that is exactly what they did.

For us, the teaching of the apostles is preserved in the scriptures so the equivalent thing is a passion to know God’s ways as revealed in the scriptures. That will mean personal Bible study but even more important is Bible study with others so that there is learning from others’ insights. Christians have a hunger to get into the word and to hear good Bible teaching because they want to know God better.

The second thing the new Christians were devoted to was the fellowship. You probably know the Greek word used here for “fellowship”. It is koinonia. It means community, fellowship, togetherness. The basic idea is sharing.

One of the very unbiblical aspects of western culture is individualism: I can function by myself; I can believe and do what I want to. It elevates the individual over the group. It is not about us; it is about me. The biblical view is the opposite: it is not about me; It is about us as a community.

This is one of the places we see that. The new converts were devoted to being part of the church community and living life in the context of that community. They didn’t understand Christianity to be just about me and God. They understood it to be about us together as God’s people. Individualism is strong in our culture but we are called to be counter-cultural – to demonstrate a devotion to community. WAU?

Thirdly, they were devoted to the breaking of bread. It is not clear whether that means having meals together in their homes or church fellowship meals together or whether it actually means Communion. Scholars disagree on this but it is possible that they had fellowship meals (maybe pot-luck meals) that included sharing Communion. The fellowship included eating together and worshipping together, remembering Jesus together and together anticipating His coming. What about us?

They were also devoted to prayer. We have talked about prayer. We all know what prayer is. The point here is therefore simply to note the devotion to prayer as a major part of the life of the church.

Again, if we remember that this whole passage is infused with a sense of togetherness and community, we can assume that much of the prayer was also communal. Undoubtedly they prayed individually but much of their praying would have been corporate – in the temple, where we are told they met every day, and when they gathered together in their homes. There are several references to corporate prayer in these early chapters of Acts. Praying together is part of being a Christian community. What about us?

That verse (v.42) seems to be a description of the new life of the Pentecost converts and the way the church provided for them. This is church community. We could reflect on just those four things and what they say to us. But wait, there’s more! We then have a more general description of the life of the church.

Everyone was filled with awe. That possibly means people both within and without the church heard about the signs and wonders that were being done by the apostles.

Maybe it is a discussion that we need to leave for another time but do we expect God to do miraculous things in our midst. “Signs and wonders” suggests dramatic and visible things. It is more than God guiding us or comforting us – great as those things are. It is a continuation of what happened in Jesus’ ministry – people being healed and delivered of demons, raised from the dead and so on. We have descriptions of all of those things in Acts. There is no question about whether they happened then. The only question is whether we should expect them now.

For myself, I don’t see why not. I think God has promised to verify the preaching of His word with signs and wonders. The question might be whether we are bold enough to pray for such things.

Then we are told that the believers were together and had everything in common. It then says they sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. That tends to get our attention.

Sometimes people get agitated about this aspect but let’s note a couple of things. It doesn’t say that this was compulsory. In fact, when Peter addresses Ananias and Sapphira in chapter 5 he specifically says that they were not under any compulsion to sell their property. Likewise, it doesn’t say that people sold everything. There was still private possession of goods. What it does say is that people sold property and possessions to give to the poor.

If you think about it, that makes perfect sense in a Christian community. If people are fellowshipping together the rich become aware of the needs of the poor. Motivated by love, they seek to help and some are led by the Lord to sell something they have in order to help their brothers and sister. I see nothing strange in that. That is what I would expect in close loving fellowship. People who have help those who have not. Why? Because they have freely received God’s grace and they reflect that grace. Because they love their brothers and sisters and hate to see them suffer. Because they can; they have the means to do it. And because they know that those means actually belong to God anyway and are to be used as God directs. It seems to me, perfectly natural and the result, as we see in chapter 4, is that there were no longer any needy among them.

The willingness to give arises out of the closeness of their fellowship. Because they share life, they know when there is need and they are naturally drawn to help a brother or sister. What about us?

When I was training for ministry, in 1981, we had a weekend away up at Kurow. On the way back I rolled our car on the shingle road on the north side of the Waitaki and wrote it off. Two fellows student friends drove there from Dunedin to tow it back for us. One steered our car but with no windscreen it was a very cold trip for him. We then received two anonymous donations from other students. We have no idea who they were from. One was for $200 and the other for $1000. In those days, and for students, they were hugely generous gifts but we were community. Chris and I experienced community.

We are then told that they met every day in the temple courts. They worshipped together in the temple and they broke bread together in their homes. Church life included both the more formal temple worship and the less formal gathering together in their homes where they ate with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. Their homes were open to the community and they used them for celebration and rejoicing and praising God. What about us?

Notice how comprehensive this passage is. Church community included the temple and the home. It embraced older Christians and new converts, rich and poor. It included the spiritual: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, worship, prayer as well as the very practical: caring for the poor and sharing meals.

That communal living spoke volumes. They enjoyed the favour of all the people. People saw something very precious in this display of community and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Putting Jesus’ teaching into action –living out the values of the Kingdom of God – can have a powerful missional effect. People saw signs and wonders and they realised that God was real but this sort of community is also a sign and a wonder. Human beings don’t normally act like this. Human beings cannot live godly lives without God. This sort of community is also proof that God is real.

Yes, this is an ideal but it is an ideal that actually happened. It is possible. It is an ideal that we are called to. God wants His church to model His Kingdom before society just as much now as He did in the first century. This is not natural. The natural thing is for relationships to break down and for people to get their noses out of joint. This is supernatural. We cannot live supernaturally in our own power. But the God who enabled this for these first Christians can empower us for Christian community too. The God who poured His Holy Spirit out at Pentecost has promised that that gift is for all generations.

Let’s aspire to something great. Let’s aspire to something godly. Let’s model Kingdom community and watch as God adds to our numbers those who are being saved.

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