(Acts 2: 37-47)
This morning on Rally Day we kick off a new sermon series, Seeds to Branches, our stewardship theme for the year. Our sermons during this series pull from the five principles laid out in Robert Schnase’s book “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.” Each week we will look at one of these principles and how it calls us to be the church today, how it invites us into deeper discipleship as a congregation. Each of these principles is based on a certain scripture passage so we will preach from the scripture while keeping in mind these 5 principles. This week we look at the principle, “Intentional Faith Development”
Our scripture reading comes from the second chapter of Acts 2:37-47. This passage appars following the Pentecost moment, when the Holy Spirit descends among the disciples of Jesus. Peter begins preaching a sermon to the crowds who have been gathered. Our scripture reading describes the moments immediately following Peter’s sermon in verse 37. Listen now for God’s word to us this morning:
The word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
Will you pray with me? Holy God, be with us, sit with us, move among us, fill our ears with whispers of your love, fill our hearts with discernment and inspire us to learn from you, to wrestle with you, help us to come to know you better. Allow these words to come fresh and new to deliver good news, to inspire action, and to encourage love. And finally, God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
It’s every preachers dream – your sermon is so good that at the end three thousand people convert and then to make it even better, the congregation asks “what should we do now?” How do we respond to this amazing good news which we have just heard?
Similarly, I believe, most sermon hearers hope to have the same experience these first apostles had. As the scripture tells us “they were cut to the heart.” They had an overwhelming feeling of trust and certainty that what they heard was amazing and good and they believed with confidence. If only we could all so easily believe, wouldn’t that be nice.
And then we hear about this church they formed, and wonder, “how can we be like that!?” The church described in verse 43-47 is the kind of church we talk about, the kind of church that amazes people. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds[j] to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home[k] and ate their food with glad and generous[l] hearts, 47 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.” Now, doesn’t that sound wonderful?
But for most of us in mainline churches, or really any church in the 21st century, it just isn’t that simple. Belief and faith take time and cultivation, sermons don’t convert people by the thousands, or even hundreds or tens, churches struggle to “be the church.” Nonetheless, we continue to gather together as God’s community of people.
And, while we could probably dwell on how good it would be if the church looked like that now, that won’t offer us much hope for how we can be the church today. This passage does however give us a bit of a road map of how to develop the seeds or roots of a faithful church.
Verse 42 lists four activities or practices that the early church engaged in which nurtured its development and allowed it to become the community of faith that this passage speaks of in verses 43-47.
The kind of community that is markedly Christian, one that is undeniably different from the kinds of communities we can find in other parts of the world – neighborhood groups, or sports teams, or even civic groups, no this community was markedly Christian, notably different from these other groups because of how set apart from the world it was, how counter cultural it was. That unique community is cultivated and developed and nurtured through the practice of these marks of the church:
First, that they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, second, to fellowship, third to the breaking of bread, and fourth to prayer.
These four practices came to be known as “marks” or “notes” of the church. These are the characteristics that allow this gathering of people to be a church, not simply a group of people gathered together.
They devote themselves to reading the writings of those who have come before, those who have witnessed Jesus. For us today, that would be reading the scripture continuously. We are called here in this passage to dwell in the scripture – to ask questions of it, to read it, to let it pour over us.
And to the fellowship of fellow Christians. They devote themselves to spending time together, to learning about each other, caring for each other, growing together.
And the breaking of bread – sharing meals together. This here probably literally means eating together, not necessarily the sacramental reference to the Lord’s supper. What’s important here is that they share with one another their time, their meals, their nourishment .
And finally, prayers. They pray together – we may not know what these prayers were, they may have been the benedictions or the Lords’s prayer or the Psalms. Its not clear what prayers they pray but its not the point, the point is that they take time together as a community to open themselves to God and to receive the Holy Spirit through the prayers they pray.
These marks or notes of the church, these four practices, are roots that we can intentionally build to help us strengthen or grow and wrestle with our faith. Gary Hansen says “God’s grace causes growth but these are ways of nourishing the plant” God will do the work of building our faith, we are to do the work of creating the spaces for the Spirit to pour into our lives, of cultivating time and places that we can rely on when our faith is shaky and life is demanding or challenging.
One of the things Steve and I talked about this week in our weekly sermon conversations, was the word that is so key here – the word “intentional.” It’s a word that challenges us but its also incredibly true and necessary. The apostles in Acts 2 and the principles of the book ask us to intentionally devote ourselves to practices of building faithfulness.
This Sunday is Rally Day, which is one way of saying “let’s all come back to church now.” On rally day we encourage everyone to come to Sunday School classes, to participate in upcoming mission endeavors, and so on.
So let me do just that, encourage you to cultivate your faith, to start by adding one of these offerings to your weekly practice. One of our new Sunday school classes, one of our new mission endeavors, one of these things.
And let me challenge you too, if these aren’t hitting your needs to cultivate faith. If you need another way to talk about God, to join in prayer, to cultivate your faith – come and talk to me. I would love, love, love, love, to work with you to create something new. Something that allows us as a community to intentionally develop our faith, something that cultivates that sense of hope and joy that only faith and the grace of God can bring into our lives.
This may be a challenge when our faith is shaky or dubious, or when our time is constrained and overscheduled. But the imperative is clear – intentional. Intentional faith development.
Faith is challenging and funny like that, it takes cultivating, not waiting. Building a life of faith is seldom something that happens instantly. A life of faith needs to be practiced and there are many ways to practice it but it must be practiced, sought ought, and committed to.
Several months ago I preached a sermon following Easter about “doubting Thomas.” During that sermon, I asked you, the congregation, to take a few moments and write down on index cards your doubts about God or faith and then to send them back to me. The responses you sent were honest and beautiful, they struck at the doubts and feelings so many feel. Questions and doubts like:
Why does God continue to wait…seemingly unedingly?
Are all the stories in the Bible literally true?
Are prayers heard by God – does it just strengthen your relationship with God when you pray?
Why is it so hard to believe all of these crazy amazing things happened?
Building a practice of intentional faith development means inviting these doubts into the conversation. And more importantly, and much more challenging, it means building this practice even when our faith is challenged, when our faith is filled with more doubt than certainty.
For it is through these practices, these day in, day out, prayers and reading, conversation and scripture that we begin to cultivate a life of faith – the kind of life that brings us through times of deep despair, impossible questions of life, deep loneliness and despair – it is our practiced life of faith that allows us to make it through these things.
Faith is something that grows and moves, it is not something that we achieve or arrive at, it changes, it strengthens, it struggles. Its hard and messy and that’s why we practice it by reading scripture, by praying, and by sharing in community.
This imperative is hard, it asks us to fit into our schedule another thing, to struggle with doubts, to wrestle with faith.
But hard as it may be, know that as we create these spaces, cultivate this time, God meets us here. Our practice of faith becomes part of the rhythm of life, one that brings with it amazing love and joy in Christ. So we build this intentional life of faith not because we must but because in doing so we allow our lives to be tied up with God, to begin to live our lives differently because we are Christian, to experience God’s grace in the everyday practices of our life.
Henri Nouwen wrote “Christian community is the place where we keep the flame of hope alive among us…That is how we dare to say that God is a God of love when we see death and destruction and agony all around us. We say it together We affirm it in each other.”
Finally, let me close by sharing with you a token of wisdom my father shared with me for many years as a child: he writes: The words “Christian” and “Christianity” were not invented until sometime after people started following Christ. At first, Christianity was named by the little Greek word, “hodos,” h-o-d-o-s. Hodos means “the way” or “the road.” It was a good name. It captured the truth that following Jesus Christ is not an arrival, it’s a way; it’s a road. Most of us in the room are all on that road. Not one of us has arrived, not you, not me. Because the truth is this: the road itself is the teacher. You only learn the way when you walk the way.
The way may challenge us, stretch us, it will inevitably be hard to commit to, it will feel inconvenient. But the way, the road, the work of growing closer to God, of following Christ, of intentionally moving with our faith, it is worth it. Because along the way we meet Christ, we develop a language of love that changes how we know and live in the world and we find a sense of hope that affects the way we trust and believe. So yes, hard as it is, it is absolutely worth the commitment.
In the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.