Acts 2:42-3:10; John 20:19-31
2nd Sunday of Easter
St Barbara’s 24.04.2022
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today we begin a new series exploring the early chapters of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It is a great book to look at straight after Easter, as we see how the first Christians responded to and made sense of the resurrection of Jesus. Luke, having told the story of Christ in his Gospel, now moves on to the ongoing work of Christ through the Christian community that is born and grows in response to the incredible life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a book full of excitement, pace, energy and challenge, and gives us a window into what Christian discipleship can be like.
The early Christian community wasn’t by any means perfect. Luke doesn’t hide from us the fact that there were at times sharp disagreements, fall-outs, and some members who seemed to have dubious motivations for being part of the community. But his story does help us to see what church life was like before it got too weighed down by the trappings of power and the desire to conform to secular pressures. The sad example of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch in Moscow, blessing Russian troops and justifying the invasion of Ukraine as a righteous religious war, when members of his own church in Ukraine are being systematically murdered, is only the most recent in a shocking litany of times down the ages when the church has sought secular power more than spiritual truth.
So what does Luke’s account of the earliest Christian community have to teach us about being Christians here in the 21st century?
We will come back to the events of Pentecost, and the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost in a few weeks time. But today, we begin with a description of the early church community. Luke tells us “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Those four acts have rightly become central to the life of the church ever since, foundations on which all else should be built.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. The apostles, the disciples who had spent the last three years following Jesus, seeing him live, hearing his words, had so much to share. One can imagine Peter, James, John, Matthew or Philip sitting down with a group of new believers, some of the 3,000 new converts on the Day of Pentecost maybe, and telling them the parables they had heard Jesus tell, or maybe sharing with them their amazement when Jesus fed the 5,000 or walked on water. They may have taken time to show how Jesus fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures; together they may have wrestled with understanding the full impact of Christ’s death and resurrection. And one can imagine the eagerness, the enthusiasm, of those new Christians to listen, to learn, to discuss. What they were hearing was revolutionary and life-changing stuff!
Their devotion to the apostles’ teaching has set a good model for Christians ever since. We too should devote ourselves to learning more of Christ. Hopefully, sermons in church are one way that helps you do that, but there are many other ways too. Whether that is the reading of the gospels and the new testament on your own, the joining of a home group, the listening to podcasts, the reading of books. This Easter season, how might you look to learn more about faith?
They devoted themselves “to fellowship”. We are told “everyday they continued to meet together”. Just a few days of being in isolation with Covid last week made me realise again how important fellowship is, that sense of community, how much we gain from being with one another. And fellowship is more than friendship, although it certainly includes that. It goes deeper. It is about recognising that we are all part of a spiritual family, that we have a unique connection to one another, and that then changes the way we relate to one another and look after one another.
The early Christians lived this out by sharing everything in common. This may not have been a denial of all private property – after all people continued to have their own homes – but it was certainly radical generosity. In the ancient world, extended families tended to live together and also work together in the same trade or business. Up to three or four generations – including grandparents, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces – would all work together, trusting each other, sharing a common purse. Occasionally there were hiccups – Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son wouldn’t have been so powerful if Jesus’ audience couldn’t recognise the potential truth in the scenario of a son who recklessly abused the common purse – but generally this was how you lived. What you earned went into the family pot. From that pot came the money to buy everyone’s food and clothes, pay for any medical bills, and so on.
The early Christian impulse was to see things exactly like that. We are family, and therefore we care for one another as family. It was a model that the disciples had already followed with Jesus – they had shared a common purse which people contributed to from their resources.
However, trying to live that way with just an extended family, no matter how large, or with 12 disciples and a few other followers, is quite different from the challenge that confronted the early Christians, when several thousand joined them. Some of their commitments proved difficult to maintain but they kept true to the key principle: being family, loving one another, means ensuring everyone is looked after, that no one goes without. That must be true for us as a community here at St Barbara’s. If there are people who are struggling we should help one another. And it is true for our wider family – we should not let brothers and sisters in other parts of our city or other parts of the world go without if we can help.Our fellowship should have a very practical expression.
The early Christians devoted themselves too to the breaking of bread, which they did whenever they met in each other’s homes. At the heart of their life together was the act of reminding themselves of Christ’s death and resurrection. They existed as a Christian community for no other reason than because Christ had died and risen from the dead. Without that, there would be no church, no faith, no hope; but because of it, life was totally transformed. For us too, the breaking of bread is a core part of our meeting together. Every time we take communion, we remind ourselves of Christ’s great sacrifice for us, and we remind ourselves of his triumph over death and evil. This is the heart of our faith.
And they devoted themselves to prayer. As we saw in our series on the Lord’s Prayer, prayer is what links us to God: it reminds us of our need of God for our basic needs, for our forgiveness, for our guidance; and it reminds us of our responsibility to one another. We cannot pray “our Father” without also thinking of those who also come before the Father in prayer as our brothers and sisters.
These four core foundation stones of the early church – learning together, sharing together, remembering together, praying together – are so simple, but they had a remarkable impact, whether it was in the individual stories of transformation, such as the man who couldn’t walk that Peter and John heal in Jesus’ name, or whether it was in the fact that the early Christians “enjoyed the favour of all people”. May they more and more become the foundation stones of our life together too.