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Interesting choice of words here as Luke's description begins. He says they "DEVOTED themselves to..." This was not a casual approach. The Greek root (proskartereo) conveys a sense of being really earnest towards something, to persevere, to be constantly diligent. These new Christians were serious about being Christians.
First, they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching. Makes sense. They had a lot to learn. They probably had some religious background. Some may well have seen and heard Jesus as he made his way around the countryside, but, for whatever reason, they had not followed closely after that. This thing about the resurrection was certainly a new wrinkle. They needed to learn.
Truth be told, that is important in every generation. Even though someone might be born into a Christian home, the details of the faith are not picked up by osmosis. They have to be taught. In the earliest ages, the teaching comes from dedicated moms and dads, brothers and sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers. But after a time the teaching is concentrated in the family of faith, the church. Henry Ward Beecher once said, "The church is not a gallery for the exhibition of eminent Christians but a school for the education of imperfect ones." Makes sense. After all, the root meaning of the word "disciple" is "learner." So we keep coming back to Sunday School. And we keep coming back to worship.
To be honest, I sometimes despair of our standards. They do tend to be minimal. In ancient Israel rabbis memorized all of scripture, not just a favorite verse or two, here and there. In our own day, students of Islam are expected to memorize the entire Koran which is about the size of our New Testament. It takes three days to recite the whole thing. How about that? Should we require every Christian to memorize the New Testament? Or if not that, how about having them come to church from week to week. Too much to ask?
As you know, the Gallup organization regularly conducts polls of the American people to measure religious attitudes and beliefs, and they have been doing it for a number of years. Some findings have remained remarkably consistent. For example about 95% of us profess a belief in God; 85% say the Ten Commandments are still valid for today (even though half of the people who say that cannot name even five of the commandments). As to church, here the numbers get distressing. Only half of the American people say they think it is important to belong to a church. In fact, 75% say it is possible to be a good Christian without going to church. Well, it is surely true that you can be a good person without coming to church - I know any number of folks like that. But a good Christian? If you are physically able to come to church and just do not bother? Good Christian? I don't buy it and neither does scripture. As our text has it, one of the things to which these believers were devoted was fellowship.
A pastor was once asked to define "Faithful Attendance at Worship," and this was his reply: All that I ask is that we apply the same standards of faithfulness to our church activities that we would in other areas of our life. That doesn't seem too much to ask. The church, after all, is concerned about faithfulness.
Consider these examples: if your car started one out of three times, would you consider it faithful? If the paperboy skipped Monday and Thursdays, would they be missed? If you didn't show up at work two or three times a month, would your boss call you faithful? If your refrigerator quit a day now and then, would you excuse it and say, "Oh, well, it works most of the time." If your water heater greets you with cold water one or two mornings a week while you were in the shower, would it be faithful? If you miss a couple of mortgage payments in a year's time, would your mortgage holder say, "Oh, well, ten out of twelve isn't bad"? If you miss worship and attend meetings only often enough to show you're interested but not often enough to get involved, are you faithful? (1)Hmm. Some have suggested that the real miracle of Pentecost is found right here in this devotion to fellowship -- that from so diverse an assemblage of people ("from every nation under heaven") a unified body of believers is formed. They talked together, they laughed together, they sang together. "See how those Christians love one another," observers declared. You remember what passers-by thought was going on at Pentecost - it sounded like a drunken party, and it was only nine o'clock in the morning. What a joyous time they had together. And joy should characterize the life of the church. Fellowship suppers, ball games, youth trips, golf outings, Broadway nights - these things may not seem very spiritual to many people, but Christian fellowship is one of the greatest gifts that the church has to offer.
For that matter, one need not be a Christian to understand the importance of fellowship. Harry Golden, that wonderful Jewish storyteller and publisher of the Carolina Israelite, tells of a time in his youth when he asked his father, who was not a believer, "Dad if you don't believe in God, why do you go to the synagogue regularly?"
Harry's father answered, "Jews go to the synagogue for all sorts of reasons. My friend Garfinkel, who is Orthodox goes to talk to God. I go to talk with Garfinkel." Good answer. Fellowship is important.
I remember a Peanuts comic strip many years ago. Lucy says, "It's my life and I'll do whatever I want with it. I'm my own person. It's my life and I'm the one who has to live it." In the last frame she grins and adds, "With a little help." We all need that little bit of help from our friends.
Certainly, there are times when we can use a bite of food with our friends. "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread..." This bread breaking was probably a bigger deal than we give it credit for. Remember, this was a disparate group - they came from everywhere; they were rich poor, male, female, slave, free. And ever since Junior High School, we have known to be careful about those with whom we eat. We don't want to be at the cafeteria table with just ANYone.
Bread breaking IS a big deal. Some years ago, a young family, new to the community, began attending a particular church. It was handy to their home. They enjoyed the worship, their kids liked the Sunday School and youth programs. This looked for all the world like their new church home. One Sunday, soon after they had begun attending, a congregational meal was scheduled following worship, so they decided to stay. They found a place at an empty table, were served their meal, and then they left. They never bothered to come back to that church again. Why? No, it wasn't the food. It was the fellowship...or lack thereof. No one sat with them. That told them this was NOT the church for them. Breaking bread is a big deal.
In my book, The Colorblind Church, (2) which many of you have been kind enough to read, there is the account of an amazing Christmas program almost 25 years ago that was shared by black and white Presbyterians in the little village of Liberty Hill, SC. After a time of worship and celebration we adjourned to the Fellowship Hall for refreshments. Miracle of miracles, blacks and whites actually sat down together and ate, something that was absolutely not done in the rural South of that day. Big deal? HUGE deal. But this was the church, and sometimes, even in church, miracles happen.
Such was the case with this new church in the book of Acts. They "devoted" themselves to this bread breaking, and apparently they were very intentional about including everyone.
And, finally, they were intentional, they "devoted themselves to" prayer. More accurately, according to the Greek text, THE prayers. What is being referred to here is probably the Jewish prayers and psalms which are to be said at stated times throughout the day. And these folks continued to think of themselves as Jews (which is why the text would note that they "continued to meet together in the temple courts") even as they struggled to understand their new relationship with Jesus. Regardless if it is rehearsed or extemporaneous prayer, the act of taking time out of the routine and rush of the day to pray is one of the aspects that sustains the community. This is one area in which we perhaps could learn from our Muslim friends.
E. Stanley Jones once said, "The streams that turn the machinery of the world take their rise in silent places." You and I need a source of power for our lives, and we need a source of power for our church that comes from beyond our own energies, desires and commitment. We need to spend time in prayer.
The result of all this devotion to the teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer was a group that produced astounding "wonders and miraculous signs," not the least of which was that "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need."
We hear that, think it's a lovely idea but then set it aside as a communist dream that simply does not work. Utopian communities have been tried in a few places, mostly without success. My Canadian friend Ralph Milton writes, "Our money, the stuff we own, are far more important to us than we are prepared to admit. In my circle of friends, we discuss all kinds of things, some of it very personal, but we never, ever ask, 'How much do you make?' Or, 'How much do you give away?' Clergy are not supposed to know how much we cough up each Sunday. But we put stuff in the offering plates and parade it up front and pray over it, admitting, by our actions, that our money is the measure of who we are." (3) Hmm.
By the way, did you notice that phrase near the end of the lesson that said, this early church went about its business "enjoying the favor of all the people." In other words, people liked them. As they made their way in the community, both as individuals and as a group, they were likeable. In a way, I almost hate to make mention of that, because I would wish that any time anyone would think of the church, whatever church it might be, it would bring a smile to the face. But not these days. Sadly, in our nation in recent years, the attention that the church has gotten has not been very smile-producing. It goes to the extreme religious right and its mean-spirited attacks on anyone who does not buy into their social agenda or to sexual predators who have used the church as a cover for their own perversions. I want things like they used to be, a church that enjoys "the favor of all the people." Then it would certainly follow that "the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
What makes the church the church: teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, prayer. A winning combination.
A church that's all it ought to be;
A church whose members never stray
Beyond the straight and narrow way;
A church that has no empty pews,
Whose pastor never has the blues;
A church whose elders always speak,
And none is proud and all are meek.
Such perfect churches there may be,
But none of them are known to me.
But still, we'll work and pray and plan
To make our own the best we can. (4)
Two boys were talking about Noah and the ark. They were thinking about the odors and the noise and the inconvenience of being cooped up on the boat with all of those animals - about how crowded and about how dirty, and about the problem of separating animals that were natural enemies and so on. One of the boys said, "I just don't think I could stand that." And the other little boy thought for awhile and he said, "Well, yes, it must have been awful. But think of it the other way. It was still the best thing afloat."
That is what I believe that about the church. Sometimes this is not the most exciting place to be, and sometimes church people are not all they ought to be. Still, it is the best thing afloat. I am glad I am here. I hope you are too.
1. James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited, (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1988), p. 87
2. Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 2007
3. From Ralph Milton's RUMORS, a free Internet 'e-zine' for Christians with a sense of humor, 4/6/08
4. Hewett, p. 92