The Early Church All Over Again – Life Together

Steve Lindsley
(Acts 2: 42-47)

The church is/has been changing.  From May 20 through June, Steve and Grace are looking at the book of Acts and the early church to discern things the church today can learn from the church back then.  Join us on the journey!

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You may recall that last week I began my sermon by asking of you a question: and that was do you remember that moment when you chose to be part of this church?  We went on a bit of a journey in that sermon, as sermons tend to do, and we ended up that, truth be told, it is church – or more precisely God – who chooses us.  The wind blows where it chooses, right?  Thanks be to God.

So I want to begin the sermon today with another question – actually, more of a hypothetical.  So imagine this with me: imagine you’re on an elevator and you start a quick conversation with the person standing next to you. Somehow (how is not important) somehow it comes up that you go to church. You’re almost to your floor when the person asks, “So what is it that you do in church anyway?” 

Now there’s no time for long, drawn-out answers.  The door’s about to open.  You’ve got to be concise, just a sentence or two.  Your aptly-titled “elevator speech.”  How do you answer their question in an economy of words?  How do you describe what you “do” at church?

I mean, do you talk about programs and activities that keep you showing up on Sunday mornings and throughout the week?  Do you talk about the building, how you help take care of facilities and grounds?  Do you talk about worship, what that looks like, what it feels like?  Or do you talk about something else entirely?  And remember – the door’s about to open.

How does one describe what we do at church?

Hold on to that thought, if you would, as we turn to our scripture today, the finishing touches of the second chapter of Acts.  Peter just wrapped up his sermon and all heaven broke loose.  I mean, there’s no other way to put it, is there?  So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.  Three thousand.  In a day.  Someone sign this guy up for Gilchrist Sunday or something!

All kidding aside, we know it wasn’t just the sermon.  It’s never just the sermon.  It’s God, really; and how God works in the world, in the community of believers.  It’s the Spirit – this terrifying, unruly, out of control and totally awesome Spirit, as we said last week – who is doing something new.  And that “something new” was to form a community, a gathering of those whom the Spirit touched – either by a mighty wind or a tongue of fire or a fiery sermon – those who felt called to be led together in common life, to share their life with others who also felt that calling.  The kind of community that would later be known as “church.”

And we are told what they did in this Spirit-filled community the day the 3000 came on board, and the days that followed; what they committed to doing with each other.  Verse 42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.  In other words, four things defined who they were:

They learned together.

They ate together.

They prayed together.

They had fellowship together

Learn, eat, pray, fellowship.  If those early Jesus-followers had to have their own elevator speech ready should someone ask them what they were doing, this would’ve been it.  Learn, eat, pray, fellowship.  For them, that was being church.

They learned together.  They recognized that there was a whole lot about God and Jesus and this Spirit business they did not understand.  So they made a commitment to learn together – by “devoting themselves to the apostles’ teachings.”  Thoughts, dreams about God, Jesus, and this community of which they were part.  They learned, and here’s the important part: they did it together.

They ate together.  It’s more than simply consuming food in the presence of other people.  You ever heard the story about this guy who went to a potluck dinner by himself?  The host asked everyone before the meal to stand and say who they were and who they came with.  When his turn came around, he stood to introduce himself and said, “Hey everyone, my name is Bob, and I came with the ice cream!”[1]

In the early church, they shared meals with each other.  Verse 46 spells it out: “They “broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”  Glad and generous hearts – I like the way the writer of Acts throws that in.  It’s that sacred, holy ground kind of eating together, you know?   It’s more than consuming food in the presence of others people.  It’s church.

They prayed together.  Specifically it says, “the prayers;” which kind of gives you the sense that they were particular words, almost liturgical, even.  They prayed together.  Prayers that reminded those praying how they belonged to a family of faith who celebrated with them in the good times and stood by them in the bad.  They prayed, and they did it together.

So they learned together.  They ate together.  They prayed together.  And they had fellowship together.  Fellowship.  Lloyd John Ogilvie, former US Senate chaplain and a Presbyterian minister, once told the story about a foreign exchange student learning the English language. When he came upon the word “fellowship,” he said, “I understand that one. It means fellows in the same ship.”

Not the technical definition, but not far off, is it?  The Greek word here is koinonia.  In my former church, when they chose years before my time to take their Fellowship Hall, which shared a wall with the sanctuary, and convert it to expanded worship space, they appropriately named that new space the “Koinonia Room.”  Both a nod to what it once had been, as well as what it was becoming.

Koinonia.  You google the word “koinonia” and you’ll see that it get used for lots of different things – everything from a sustainable farm in Georgia to a student Bible study group at the University of Texas, to a retreat center in the Midwest, to a B-rate movie with actors I’ve never heard of.

The word koinonia means “relationship characterized by sharing in common fellowship, participation and giving so others can share the same generosity.”[2]  It’s more than just “hanging out” together.  It is intentional, and it is perpetual.   Koinonia fosters greater koinonia. It is, as noted German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once coined, “life together.”

That actually is the title of one of his more well-known books, a book about a community he helped to found in pre-Nazi Germany.  It was the mid 1930’s, and the drumbeat of the Third Reich was growing.  The German Church was in the process of being co-opted by Nazi influence, and Bonhoeffer had been asked by the renegade “Confessing Church” to create an underground seminary that would train a new generation of church leaders outside and against that perverted ideology.  They called it Finkenwalde (fink-in-val-duh), and it became a social experiment in intentional Christian community – koinonia fellowship – modeled on the Sermon on the Mount and the end of the second chapter of Acts.  Bonhoeffer’s book reads in many ways like a how-to manual.

Listen to what Bonhoeffer says about Christian community and koinonia fellowship – and remember that this community was called into being in dark times, as an antidote for the spreading sickness of heightened nationalism and xenophobia:

The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians.  It is the physical presence of other Christians that is our source of incomparable joy and strength. Christian community is not an idea we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.[3]

I don’t know about you, but when I think about that kind of koinonia fellowship – one where people learn together, break bread together, pray together and are in fellowship together; I think not only about what happened in the wake of Peter’s sermon and the tsunami of God’s Holy Spirit back then, but about what God very well might be doing in the church today, and what we in the church wind up “doing” because of it.

Now granted, this kind of community involves some work on our part.  Some culture change.  Think about how we tend to describe Trinity to people who ask: Oh, we’re in a mid-sized church on a large campus on Providence.  Around 500 members.  The church where Friday Night food trucks take place.  Our worship is traditional, we use the new hymnal, we have a great Sunday night youth group, we host Room In the Inn. 

Facility, membership size, location, programs, worship style – that’s how we typically respond.  But what if we changed the way we answer?  What if we described what we do in a whole different way?  We are Trinity Presbyterian Church of Charlotte.  We learn together, we break bread together, we pray together, and we have fellowship together.

I know it doesn’t address the specifics, but maybe – just maybe – it’s not always the specifics people are looking for.  They may be interested in knowing what we “do” in church, but I bet they’re more interested in knowing who we are.

They need church to be a place where they connect with people; where they don’t just show up but linger. They need church to be full of the kind of folks who genuinely care about them and make the effort to share their lives with them. All of it. The good and bad, the joyful and devastating, the big events and everyday things, all of it.

You remember the TV show Cheers and the theme song that accompanied it?  Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name / And they’re always glad you came.  It’s a little odd to think, perhaps, but could that not be the theme song for the church too?

That’s what they need.  And if we’re being honest, isn’t that what we all need?  Isn’t that what you and I are hungry for too?

Remember that hypothetical I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon? This past week I posed it to the Facebook community and asked them how they would describe what they “do” in church. Over 50 people responded.  No answer was alike, but all were perfect.  Here’s just a sampling of what some of them said, listen:

  • We are connected to God and to each other.
  • We worship God with people we love.
  • We work together to make the world a better place.
  • We get in touch with that which is larger than our own selves, and that which invites us to be closer to our true selves.
  • We seek community in the chaos of the world.
  • We celebrate and propagate love.
  • We lighten the load for fellow travelers

And one comment simply said, “Life together.”

Some years ago in some other place, a woman joined a church after two years of faithfully attending worship, singing in the choir and hardly missing a gathering of the women’s fellowship.  Most of the folks in the church thought she had already joined, actually.  But the pastor knew, because they had spoken, that the woman needed time, space to make the decision on her own when she was ready, because there had been a different church in her past who had not been “life together” with her, and those kind of wounds take time to heal.

What was it, the pastor finally asked, when she told him she was ready to join?  What was it that finally tipped the scales?  To which the woman smiled the smile of someone already held in holy embrace and replied, “Because you all loved me into it.” 

My friends, my fellows-in-the-same-ship, may we keep loving each other and others into life together as the church, relishing in God’s Holy Spirit, as it makes us and all things new. 

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1]-http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?keywords=potluck&Search=7&imageField.x=0&imageField.y=0, visited on 5.22.2018.
[2] Accordance Bible software
[3] Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.