In 2003, a sociologist called Zygmunt Bauman published a book called ‘Liquid Love’. The image on the cover was a heart drawn in the sand with the tide coming in. It’s a powerful metaphor for relationships in our world. The New Testament casts a vision that pushes back against liquid love; it’s a vision earthed in the community of believers we call church.
We live in an age when people are reluctant to commit: ‘I’m too busy at the moment!’ ‘I just like to hang loose!’ Yet at the heart of this community, there is one word that flies in the face of our contemporary disengagement. Luke puts it like this in Acts 2:42.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Devoted is a strong word. It’s a word with attitude. So it doesn’t matter whether you look at the diaries or the cheque-books of these early Christians, there’s no doubt where their loyalty lies.
Why do you think Luke underlines this point? Because it’s all too easy to become disappointed and disillusioned with church. The preaching, the music or the coffee don’t live up to expectations, and we walk away. But not here. Whatever church is, these brand-new Christians are up for it. So, what are they devoted to? Four things, it seems…
They learn from an authoritative message. Luke calls it the ‘apostles’ teaching’. We can’t do that in quite the same way these days; we won’t hear Peter doing ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio 4. But everything God wants us to know about everything that matters is here in the Bible. Here we have the authoritative interpretation of the person and work of Jesus and how we should respond to him.
Why does the apostles’ teaching come first? Because learning together provides the foundation for everything else. It draws us together around common beliefs, common values and common goals. It defines what we believe and how we behave.
Doing life together
How does the idea of 7-day-a-week church grab you? Is it a dream or your worst nightmare? Look at Acts 2:46. ‘Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.’ These early believers are devoted to each other.
‘Fellowship’ has become a rather churchy word. It usually involves coffee and describes what we’re doing when we’re not doing anything else. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fellowship means sharing a common life, pursuing common goals and serving together in community.
Just as the Holy Spirit produces an appetite for the apostles’ teaching, so he produces a genuine commitment to each other, a willingness to use the gifts he’s given us not for our own advantage but for each other’s. What we have in common as a church is not a shared history or set of values; it’s a shared life in the Lord Jesus.
Look how this fellowship works itself out in Acts 2:44.
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.
This mindset arises not out of some sociological theory or apostolic edict, but from the unity of their hearts. These people love each other and feel a sense of responsibility towards each other.
Come back to verse 42. Have you noticed how the Gospels are full of meals? Jesus performs his first miracle at a meal. The one miracle that’s recorded in all four Gospels is a meal — the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus gives his farewell message to the disciples at a meal. He demonstrates his resurrection body over a sun-rise barbecue.
Eating together is one of the most important things we do. Perhaps for some of us, the highlight of the week is the chance to eat together at the weekend. ‘Fast-food’ ought to be a contradiction in terms. When we eat together, fellowship becomes more important than food. Share a meal with someone, and you’ll know more about them at the end than you did at the beginning. That’s what eating together does.
Strangely, there’s not much evidence of Jesus’ disciples praying until we come the book of Acts. Then everything changes. Look again at verse 42.
They devoted themselves to… prayer.
Peter doesn’t seem to preach a series of sermons on prayer; the Holy Spirit creates an instinct — to pray whenever they meet.
They say that the family that prays together stays together. So, how does prayer feature among us? When are we praying? Who are we praying with? What are we praying for? Many churches post their sermons on the net. Were it possible, how many of us would dare broadcast our prayer meetings?
I’m intrigued that the early Christians don’t view evangelism as a separate activity; it seems to be the natural outflow of their life together. I guess when we’re enthusiastic about the Lord Jesus, we’ll be enthusiastic about church. When we’re enthusiastic about church, we’ll want to see others join too. And the result?
…the Lord added to their number daily those who are being saved (v47).
Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t gossip the gospel as effectively as we might is that our own experience of church is hardly worth passing on. If being together doesn’t excite us to the point where we think we’ve got something worth sharing, we’re in trouble. But where our fellowship demonstrates the gospel, insiders come alive, and outsiders get curious.
Am I devoted to learning the gospel, to the welfare of my brothers and sisters, to praying and to growing the church? They’re good questions, but supposing we turned them around — is my church devoted to me?
Spot the personal pronouns and possessive pronouns in Acts 2:42-47. What’s Luke’s point? Church exists to serve people, not the other way round. So, what will church look like if we made this kind of mind-shift? Let me suggest three things:
- We’ll move from running programmes to growing people. This will be a painful step as some programmes may need to stop because they’re no longer fulfilling a useful function. But new ministries will begin to blossom as we see every believer as a gift from the Lord Jesus and we begin to help them fulfil their God-given potential.
- Church leaders will focus less on management and more on ministry. Of course, there will always be administrative aspects to your leaders’ ministry, but how much time do they spend on admin? Can they be relieved of any of that burden so they can devote more time to training one or two new elders or preachers or home group leaders?
- We’ll move from church growth to gospel growth. One consequence of training new leaders is that we risk losing them — they’ll be called to serve somewhere else. True training like this is a very costly business but dare we pray to become net exporters of gospel workers? Our church may not grow but the gospel will spread and God’s kingdom will grow.
A former Methodist preacher painted a picture of a church. The preacher’s name was Vincent van Gogh and the painting was called ‘Church in Auvers-sur-Oise’. An eerie light emanates from inside, but the church has no doors. It was one of van Gogh’s final paintings: he died by his own hand just two months later. By contrast, Luke casts a vision for a devoted church with wide open doors — doors that allow Jesus out into the community and the community in to discover more about him.