Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
Something extraordinary happened 2000 years ago that led to the creation of a community of people unlike any other community the world had ever seen.
It happened like this.
The God who made the world loved the world. God loved the world because love is what God does. Love is what God is. You see, God, who is one God, is also three persons. There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That means that the one God is, in essence, a community, a loving, self-giving, deeply united community. One God, known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The point is that God, who is by nature love, cannot help but love the world he made. Even when the world did not love God in return, that did not stop God from loving the world. In fact, when the time was right, God the Son did the unthinkable. God the Son left heaven on a rescue mission and came to earth. When we ran from God, God came after us. And when God came he came as one of us, born a fragile, helpless baby.
Eventually God the Son, who took the name Jesus, grew to become a man, a man who looked just like other men. He looked like us, but he didn’t act like us. He said things that nobody had ever said before and said them with unmatched authority. He did things nobody had ever done before, healing the sick, walking on water, raising dead people to life.
Since all this happened right out in the open it caused quite a stir, which was a problem because some people didn’t want things stirred up. Some people tried to shut Jesus up, which wasn’t easy. In fact, the only way they could shut him in the end up was to kill him, which is what they did. One Friday morning they nailed God the Son to a wooden cross on which he died six hours later. When Jesus’ lifeless body was sealed in the tomb that evening, his enemies assumed they had foiled his plans. What they didn’t realize was that things were going exactly according to Jesus’ plans. All along it had been God’s plan to take upon himself the suffering and death which had become the destiny of the rebellious world he loved.
This leads to a mystery I will never understand. Even though God apparently can die, God can’t stay dead. The grave could not hold God the Son captive for long. Three days later, Jesus was raised to life. Sin was overcome at the cross; death was overcome at the empty tomb, and in the end life had the final word. And what happened in that tomb that Sunday morning was just the beginning, for it was God’s plan to bring all dead things back to life, to make all wrongs right again, to heal everything that human sin had made sick.
At that time there was a small community of men and women who had been friends with God the Son. After he rose, Jesus appeared to these friends, face to face, proving to them he wasn’t a ghost by showing them he was real, the most real thing in the world. Well, as you can imagine they were in shock. Their hearts were full of joy and fear, all at the same time. They didn’t understand what was happening. So for a few days Jesus hung around to explain things. He assured them they had no reason to be afraid. He guaranteed them that everything was happening right on schedule, that God was now carrying out his plans to rescue the world he loved. He told them that they were simply the first witnesses to these things and that soon they would be sent out to share this good news with anybody and everybody who would listen.
After a short time the God the Son left and went back to heaven. Before he left, however, he promised that God the Spirit would soon return in his place. Sure enough, not long after, during a big religious feast called Pentecost, God the Spirit descended from heaven and found this small community of men and women waiting in Jerusalem. God the Spirit found them and, in a way I will never understand, filled them up. God the Spirit made a home with and in this community of Jesus’ friends. The risen Christ was now present, by the Spirit, with these people who believed that Jesus was who he said he was, these people who were willing to follow Jesus wherever he went. As a result, empowered by the Spirit this small group of ordinary men and women began to say and do exactly the sorts of astounding things Jesus had said and done when he was with them before. And this was possible for Jesus was, by the Spirit, now with them again. Before long, others saw what was happening and came to join them. All sorts of people were drawn to this community, recognizing that this was, as I said before, a community unlike any other the world had ever seen.
In those days there was a man named Luke who was a member of this first community which came to be known as the church. Before he died he wrote down an account of what he witnessed. In one of his writings, a New Testament book now called Acts, he left us the following description of this astounding community which had been filled up by God the Spirit. Listen to what he wrote.
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day 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, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, NRSV)
I have read Luke’s description here hundreds of times. I’ve preached and taught from this passage more times than I can remember. And yet as I reflected on it this week I came to understand something here I have never understood before.
You see, in the past I had always assumed that Luke was describing here what the church once was so that we could have a vision of what the church might one day become. I believed Luke was showing us what the church looked like as a baby, before it grew up, became a teenager, and got into all sorts of trouble. You know how so many things start out fresh and pure but never stay that way for long? A new snowfall. A clean kitchen. A brand new pair of shoes. Luke, I assumed, was saying this is the case with the church. It may not be perfect now, but at least it started out that way.
The problem with this view is that if you read the rest of the New Testament, even a chapter or two later in Acts, you quickly see that the church, even in its infancy, was not pure. In fact, all the things which exist in the church today existed in the church back then: conflict, pettiness, gossip, selfishness, greed, deceit, racism, corrupt leadership, and so on.
So, you see, I no longer think that Luke is describing some flawless church of the past which is to be our ideal to strive for in the future. God is showing me my mistake. Yes, this beautiful picture is describing the church of the past and the church of the future, but I now see that it is also describing the church of the present. Luke, in other words, isn’t giving us an ideal here so much as he is giving us a reality. This is the church of today. This is, in fact, a picture of this church, of Faith Presbyterian Church. This is a picture of us.
At this point I need to pause and make a confession. I am afraid that as your pastor I have perhaps spent too much time over these past nine years dreaming of what this church could be and not near enough time celebrating and praising God for what this church has already, in Christ, become.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic work on the church called Life Together, writes these words which this week, as I read them once again, convicted me once again: “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.”
It’s not a bad thing to envision what this church could become. Spend a little time around here and you will see that there are many changes which are necessary, many improvements we could make in the way we live together. Our leadership, in fact, has been thinking very carefully recently about steps God is calling us to take towards a deeper and more faithful life together in Christ. It’s good and necessary that we grow and change.
That being said, however, we must never let the ideal of Faith Presbyterian Church overshadow the reality of Faith Presbyterian Church. Today, Jesus Christ is our foundation and that foundation can never be improved upon. Today our salvation is secured in the grace of Christ and there is nothing we can do to make that salvation more secure. Today the Spirit of God dwells within this community and binds us eternally as brothers and sisters and there is nothing we can do that will ever strengthen that bond.
Again, Bonhoeffer is helpful here. He writes, “Christian [community] is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”
You see, God is showing me that when Luke describes the church of 1st century Jerusalem, he is also describing the church of 21st century Sacramento. In the time I have left, I want to show you what I mean.
The distinguishing mark of the early church community was devotion. That’s how Luke begins, “They devoted themselves…” The Christian life wasn’t just a hobby for these people. No, their faith was central. Christ was central. They diligently pursued him in all of life. There were, I’m sure, some exceptions, some Christmas and Easter types back then just like there are today. Still, much of the community back then was wholly devoted to Christ, just like I believe many of you here at Faith are wholly devoted, seeking to give all of your lives to following Christ. For many of you, your faith is not just a Sunday morning routine. It is becoming, more and more so, an all-consuming way of life.
Specifically, the community of the church in Luke’s day was devoted to four things. As I reflected on these this past week I found myself so encouraged because I see the same devotion to these same four things here in this community.
First, Luke tells us that they were devoted to the apostle’s teaching. The church back then spent a great deal of time sitting at the feet of those men and women who had actually walked with Jesus and seen and heard, first hand, what he had done and said.
Now, we don’t have Peter, Matthew, John, Paul and the rest of the apostles with us here today. What we do have, however, is their teaching, delivered to us by the Spirit through the New Testament. And this church, just like the first church, is devoted to that teaching.
This month marks my 9 year anniversary here at Faith. Over that time there have been over 500 sermons preached from this pulpit. Every single one of those sermons has been rooted in the teachings of the apostles. And not once, over the course of all those Sundays, has any of you come to me and said, “Jeff, I think we’ve pretty much covered what’s in the Bible. It’s probably about time we move on to something else.” No, you are devoted to the Apostles’ teaching because you know, like I know, that there is power in God’s Word. You come each Sunday ready to engage it. Many of you wrestle with it in Life Groups. More and more of us are setting aside time each day to get alone with our Bibles and let God feed our souls. Because of all this, amazing things are happening.
Luke tells us that back then awe came upon everyone because of the many signs and wonders they saw taking place. I would suggest to you that such wonders have not ceased. Now, I haven’t seen anybody here at Faith walk on water or raise somebody from the dead. What I have seen, however, are lives transformed. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I have sat in my office, or over a cup of coffee at Starbucks, or in a pew here after worship some Sunday morning, and I have listened to one of you describe to me how God has showed up in your life and worked in miraculous and transformative ways. Along the way, our lives, and our life together, are being transformed as we devote ourselves to the apostle’s teaching.
Second, Luke tells us that the church of his day was also devoted to fellowship. Because the very Spirit of God had filled them, they shared a deep connection between them which was eroding all the barriers which had at one time kept them apart. What before would have been unimaginable was now becoming reality. Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, each was finding an equal place around the same table at which Christ was the host.
Since my first days here at Faith one of the things which has most impressed me about this congregation is the way our unity in Christ is stronger than the differences which might otherwise divide us. I know, for example, that if we spent all of our time in this church talking about politics and social issues, some of us might struggle to find even a little bit of common ground. And yet every Sunday you worship alongside brothers and sisters who are going to vote opposite you in every election and on most every issue and yet those divisions which so deeply divide our country these days have not been allowed to divide us.
As another example, just this week I had another group of seniors, people in their 70’s and 80’s, tell me that they want to see more opportunities to connect with the children and youth of our church. They warned me, in fact, that I better not ever do anything that splits up our church along generational lines. I can’t tell you what that means to parents here like me, to know that their children are so valued in this community, to know that age will not be allowed to divide us.
One more example. Though we have a ways to go until we closely resemble the racial-ethnic makeup of the neighborhoods around us, we are slowly becoming more diverse and I know that is something celebrated by this community. We don’t want a church where everybody looks the same. We may not be free from racial prejudice completely, but we want to be free. Christ is helping us to be free.
So race, politics, gender, age, personality, in Christ we want to be free in this community from the things which divide the world around us.
And in the same way that this deep fellowship of that early community led them to share everything in common, even selling their possessions to give to those who had need, I see that happening here as well. Just this week I heard yet another example of a person in our church who discovered that one of our families was struggling to get by and he made a very generous and anonymous gift that I know will help this family out of a very tight spot. The sort of sacrificial help I see regularly in this church is the sort of help you usually see only in families. But since that is what we are, a family, that is what happens here. We are devoted to fellowship in and through Christ.
Thirdly, Luke tells us that the early church was devoted to the breaking of bread and the prayers. In other words, they were devoted to worship. Regularly, they gathered around the Lord’s Table. Constantly, they were at prayer. They spent time in the temple worshipping, but they also gathered in homes around dinner tables where, Luke tells us, their hearts were full of gladness and generosity.
Once again, I see these same things here at Faith. For many of you, the gathering of this church for worship is the most important event of your week. Whether it’s a Sunday morning service, or a special Advent worship, or a Friday morning funeral, many of you go to great efforts to be here in this place whenever we gather around this table and look up at this cross.
But our worship doesn’t end when we go out the back doors of the church. Countless times over these past nine years I have sat with you around other tables, down in Link Hall, out at restaurants, in the dining rooms of your homes and, I have to tell you, while I always enjoy any good meal with good people, when I sit around a table with my brothers and sisters in Christ I experience a level of gladness and a generosity I don’t experience with those who do not know Christ. Some of the times when I have most felt the presence of Christ, in fact, are times when I have been around your dining room tables or you have been around my dining room table and we have shared a meal together with Christ there in our midst.
Finally, Luke makes clear that the early church community was also devoted to the world around them. They acted in such a way that won them the goodwill of the people in their city. Daily, in fact, God added people to their community. When he did they accepted these people, making space for them at the table. This community was not some holy huddle focused inwardly upon themselves. This was a community that knew they existed to bless the world around them.
Once again, I see this same thing happening here at Faith. Christ is drawing people into this community who are being saved, people who beforehand had little or no idea of all that God had in store for them. Many of you have stories you could share of how you met Christ in this church, some of you for the first time. And not only are people coming in but people are being sent out. So many of you are praying for opportunities to share the good news of Christ with people you care about who don’t yet know what God has done for them. Hundreds of you are sponsoring World Vision children around the world in places of desperate poverty and God is using your generosity to literally save lives. Nearly every time I sit down and talk to people in this church about how they are spending their time outside these walls I am stunned to learn of the ways so many of you are sacrificially serving others in your workplaces, in your schools, in your neighborhoods, all around this city. Truly, the people of this church, like all the people of the church across time and space, are the hands and feet of Christ in this world
Devoted to the teaching of the apostles. Devoted to fellowship. Devoted to worship, in this place and beyond. Devoted to blessing the world outside these doors. This is the description of the church of Luke’s day. God is teaching me that this is just as much the description of the church of our day, just as much the description of Faith Presbyterian Church.
Does this mean that this church perfect? Well, that depends on what we mean by perfect? Do we understand and obey scripture as much as we should? No. Do we love one another and forgive each other as much as God loves and forgives us? No, not yet. Are you following Christ in every area and aspect of your life? No, and neither am I. Are we serving the city around us, and the poor of this world, as generously and sacrificially as we could? Certainly not. And in this sense we are not perfect. In this sense we must keep striving, with God’s help, to become increasingly more so a community that resembles Christ in the way we live and love.
In another sense, however, I would suggest to you that we are perfect. Is our foundation perfect? Yes. Christ is a rock upon which the church, this church, will never be shaken. Is the bond we share with one another perfect? Yes. For those of us who have placed our faith in Christ as Lord and Savior, God cannot bind us together any more permanently than the Spirit of God already has. God’s love for us is perfect. In Christ, God’s favor towards us is perfect. God’s promises to us are perfectly being fulfilled in us and around us. In this sense, yes, this church is perfect.
This reality, this reality of the church, this reality of this church, a reality willed by God the Father, accomplished by God the Son, and sustained by God the Spirit, is a reality in which we can participate today. Even now. Even here. Even us.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Acts 2:42-47. What about Luke’s description of the church stands out to you?
How is the church different from every other community in the world?
Imagine Acts 2:42-47 as a description of Faith Presbyterian Church today? How would this description be accurate?
Are there ways it would be inaccurate?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.” What does he mean? Do you agree?
Share an example of how have experienced Christ in the community of this congregation.
More on next page…
Eugene Peterson, an 81-year-old respected teacher and leader in the church around the world, was recently asked what he would like to say to younger Christians who are seeking more authentic community and discipleship. This is what he said:
Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for 6 months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place. That’s what I always told people. If people were leaving my congregation to go to another place of work, I’d say, “The smallest church, the closest church, and stay there for 6 months.” Sometimes it doesn’t work. Some pastors are just incompetent. And some are flat out bad. So I don’t think that’s the answer to everything, but it’s a better place to start than going to the one with all the programs, the glitz, all that stuff.
What is he saying? Do you agree?
What does the church, this church, mean to you?