A Picture of the Church
A Reformation Sunday Homily
Before I read the text for today’s homily, which is Acts 2:42, let me give you a little background. Most of Acts 2 records the events of the day of Pentecost when the ascended Christ poured out his Holy Spirit on the Church. The Spirit filled the Apostles and enabled them to preach the Gospel in languages they had never learned. That day Peter preached to a large crowd crowd in Jerusalem. The result was that many were convicted of their sin, convinced that Jesus is Savior and Lord, and converted. Three thousand were baptized. In the last part of Acts 2 St. Luke describes life in early days of the Jerusalem church. The description begins with our text.
Text: Acts 2:42
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
Today is Reformation Sunday. The great Reformers were Luther in Germany, Calvin in Geneva, and Cranmer in England. These men looked at the medieval church and concluded that the church had become seriously deformed and needed to be reformed. So they went back to the first five centuries of Christianity, to the Church Fathers, and they went back further still to the New Testament writings. They asked the question, “What was the church like in days of the Apostles?” The Apostolic Church of the first century was their pattern for reforming the Church of the sixteenth century.
Acts chapter two, verse forty-two, is a key text that gives a picture of what the Church should be.
1. The Apostles’ Doctrine
Luke tells us Jerusalem Church continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine. Doctrine means both the act of teaching and the content of teaching.
The Apostles devoted themselves to teaching what they had learned from Christ. When he gave the Great Commission Jesus charged the Apostles to make disciples of the nations by baptizing and “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mt. 28: 19). They saw teaching and prayer as their highest priorities. When caring for the church’s widows began to take too much of their time and energy, they said to the church, “It is not right that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables...we will give ourselves continually unto prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 2:2,4.) Those of us who are called to ministry must remind ourselves of the priority of teaching God’s word, particularly by our preaching in gathered worship. God calls us to study study, interpret, and understand the Word of Truth so there will be no need for us to be ashamed of our work (2 Tim. 2:15) as we teach and proclaim that Word to you.
Not only must ministers devote themselves to teaching God’s Word, but you also are called to devote yourself to the receiving that teaching, making always the worship of the Lord on Sundays your first priority. Listening to and learning the Apostolic doctrine in church is for you, as well as for Pastor Rich and me, a high privilege and solemn duty, and a spiritual necessity. The Scriptures alone can make us wise for salvation by faith in Jesus Christ and are profitable to us for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:15,16). You come to church to do more than learn, but never forget that you come to learn, for your soul’s welfare depends on it.
Apostolic doctrine means also the content of the teaching. The Apostles showed how the Old Testament pointed to Christ. They proclaimed what Jesus had done - his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension. They declared the meaning of these things - that Jesus had obtained for us the forgiveness of our sins, reconciliation with God, and eternal life in God’s kingdom. They taught that salvation call us to a way of life, not to earn our salvation, but to live out our gratitude for it.
The Apostolic teaching has been inscripturated or committed to writing in the New Testament. The church has no right to change the Apostolic teaching to suit the whims and demands of times and cultures. The greatest danger to Christianity in the West is that some parts of the Christian church are doing just that. The New Testament writer Jude has a timely charge to us to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
But we cannot contend for what we do not know, understand, and believe. Our church’s statement of faith, or summary of the Apostles’ doctrine, is the Thirty-nine Articles. Have you read them? Do you understand and believe them? They are in the back of your Prayer Book - I trust you have a Prayer Book at home - I encourage you to read the Articles often. They are are clear and brief statement of the Apostles’ doctrine.
2. The Fellowship
Second, St. Luke tells us that the congregation in Jerusalem continued steadfastly in the fellowship. The word fellowship is one of the most frequently used words among Christians. The Greek word translated as fellowship is one of the few that many Christians know - koinonia.
Many churches have “fellowship dinners.” People bring different dishes - a meat, a starch, a vegetable, a dessert - a potluck supper as some put it. When all the food is on a table, people line up go past the table to get what they want. I have two observations as a veteran of these meals. One is that children need supervision by their parents. The other is that the fried chicken always runs out before I get to it. Having a meal together at church is about the extent of the fellowship among many Christians. But these meals do give us an illustration fellowship. Fellowship means to share in something with others. What you share in creates a bond with others. With fellowship dinners people eat the food together. The share in the food, and and they share in it together. We could say that this is food fellowship.
What do we as Christians share in together?
Fellowship is created by the truth - the truth of Apostolic doctrine. This is something many Christians get backwards. They say, “Let’s not worry about doctrine Let’s focus on love and fellowship. Doctrine can be divisive.” Doctrine is not the enemy of fellowship, but it’s friend. Just yesterday we ministers received a pastoral letter from Nigerian Archbishop
Wabukala, who is chairman of GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference) a conservative group seeking reform within Anglicanism by confessing the truth of the great creeds - the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds - and of the Thirty-nine Articles. Archbishop Wabukala says there is an erosion of confidence in the institutions of Anglicanism, and there is a reason for it: “We must remember that the fundamental reason for this is doctrinal. We are divided because the Faith is threatened by unbiblical teaching.” Doctrine grounded in the Apostolic faith is uniting, departure from it is dividing. Christian fellowship is sharing in receiving and believing the Apostolic doctrine.
Fellowship is grounded in worship. In Acts 2:42 Luke describes what the Christians did when they gathered with each other. They received Apostolic doctrine; they broke bread; they prayed. All these are things Christians do in worship. Too often, when Christians think about fellowship, they have in mind a feeling they have for one another, or an experience they have together, having a potluck dinner or a church bowling night. But the most important experience we have together, and the one that most binds us together, is what we are doing right now - worshiping. One of the greatest blessings we have as Reformed Episcopalians is our common worship through the Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer is what most drew me to Episcopalianism. There is so much chaos in worship among other Protestants, and as much as they deny it, it is almost impossible to have true Christian unity where there are such divergences of worship practices. Let us not take for granted our Book that unites us in the worship of God. Christian fellowship is sharing in worship God with one another.
Fellowship is expressed in loving and caring for one another. When we share in the Apostolic doctrine and in common worship, our fellowship will spill over into the ways we love and care for one another. We have an “unfeigned love” and “love one another from a pure heart fervently” (1 Pet.1:22). Our goal is to “be like-minded, have the same love, (to be) of one accord, of one mind.” We seek “in lowliness of mind (to) esteem (each) other (as) better than them(our)selves. We “look not to his (our) own things, but every man on the things of others” (Phil. 2:2-4). The practical outworking is that we meet each other’s needs. St. Luke tells us that “Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them and, and brought the prices of the things that were sold...and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (Acts 4:34,35). This was not a failed early experiment in communism, but an expression of Christian love and commitment to do whatever was necessary to care for one another. Fellowship is sharing in love and concern for one another.
All Christian fellowship is ultimately found in Jesus Christ. The Apostolic doctrine is about the saving work of God in Jesus; worship takes place by the saving mediation of Jesus; love and care for one another is loving and caring for those Jesus loved and cared for enough to save. Fellowship is sharing with one another in Jesus and his salvation.
3. The Breaking of Bread
Third St. Luke tells us that the church at Jerusalem continued steadfastly in the breaking of bread.
What is this breaking of bread? A first look might lead to our thinking that this Christians having meals together. A few verses later, St. Luke says, “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:46,47). However, verse 26 seems to summarize the daily life of Christians in Jerusalem. They went to the temple; they shared meals in homes; they praised God; they enjoyed favor with the people.
Acts 2:42 describes their gatherings for worship and more likely reflects the sacramental language of Luke 22 where in the Upper Room our Lord “took bread and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave it unto them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you: do this in remembrance of me’“ (19). Later in Acts St. Luke tells us about Paul’s visit to Troas where “upon the first day of the week...the disciples came together to break bread…(and)...Paul preached to them” (20:7). It’s Sunday, and followers of Christ in Troas meet together for the breaking of bread and preaching, for Word and Sacrament.
In 1 Corinthians 10 St. Paul writes, “The bread which we break, is it not a communion of the body of Christ? For we are we being many are one bread, and one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread” (10:17). The bread we break is the bread the minister breaks in the Eucharist. What happens in that Holy Supper? We have communion with Christ, and we express our fellowship with one another.
In the New Testament Word and Sacrament go together as proclamation and sign. The Word proclaims the Gospel to us, and the Sacrament pictures and seals to us that same Gospel. Together they unite us to Christ by faith. And, united to the sacrificed body and shed blood of Christ we are united to one another. When we come together at the Lord’s Supper, we confess our sins and renew our faith so that nothing stands in the way of our communion with Christ, and we put away the old leaven of malice and wickedness and renew our commitment to live in love with one another so that nothing keeps us from communion with one another.
Article XXVIII (28) of our Faith states this beautifully: “The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly and worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is partaking of the Body of Christ; likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.”
4. The Prayers
Last St. Luke tells us that the church at Jerusalem continued steadfastly in the prayers.
These prayers are not the private prayers of God’s people but the prayers they prayed when they came together in worship. According to St. Luke, when Jesus cleansed the Temple, he said, “It is written, My house is the house of prayer” (19:26). The temple had regular hours of prayer (Acts 3:1). When the synagogue system developed so that people who could not often come to the Temple could worship the services were very much like our Office of Daily Prayer, including the reading of lessons from the Old Testament and the recitation of forms of prayer.
The Book of Common Prayer is a great treasure for us and the whole church. The Book of Common Prayer is, of course, more than prayer in the narrow sense of adoration, thanksgiving, confession, petition, and intercession. It is, rather, the whole of our drawing to God and God’s drawing near to us. But it is certainly prayer in the narrow sense. It gives us the words with which we pray to God, praising him, requesting his forgiveness, and asking his blessings upon other sand our ourselves.
We should never allow a wedge to be driven between the form of prayer and the spirit of prayer, between the words of prayer and the heart of prayer. There is no magic in merely reciting the words of the prayers. Engagement of our tongues without engagement of our minds and hearts is empty. We must not allow prayer to become rote. On the other hand forms of prayer, words given to us by the Prayer Book, are no enemy of genuine heart religion. The Prayer Book both leads our hearts into the spirit of prayer and gives us deeply spiritual words with which to pour out our hearts to God.
Thank God for Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, the Litanies, and Holy Communion. We use these forms of prayer every Sunday. And we can continue these prayers in our homes. There are places online where you can read or listen to Morning and Evening Prayer. And you will find in the back of your Prayer Book Forms of Prayer for Families (pp. 593-605). Take advantage of these resources.
Sometimes you need a clear picture to understand. In Acts 2:42 St. Luke paints a word picture of the ordinary life of the church. The church devotes itself with fervency and frequency to the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.