THE LIVING CHURCH
September 24, 2006
In just a moment we are going to be looking into the third and final part of a short series on how the body of Christ builds itself up in love. I have appreciated the comments that some of you have had regarding the first two parts of this study. This one will require a response from each one of us. We will explain what we mean by that in a moment.
R. L. Brinley and his wife were living and working in the city of Moscow when their daughter in the U.S. made plans to come and visit over the holiday season with her parents in Russia. She bought for them as a gift a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Michelangelo’s painting, Last Judgment. In packing for the trip, she decided that the box would be too big to try to get into her luggage, so you took a digital photo of the box top and then put the pieces of the puzzle in a plastic bag. What she hadn’t counted on was that the computer technology that her parents had was not quite as advanced as hers. They were not able then to make use very quickly of the digital photo of that picture. So while they looked for the right computer cable to buy in order to access that picture of the painting, they struggled to put the puzzle together, 1,000 little pieces without anything to look at to model. He wrote that the progress was slow and frustrating. But when they were finally able to print the picture, progress became much faster and much more fun because they could look for what it was they were putting together, figure out where that little piece might fit in that big picture, and then begin to enjoy the process a little bit more.
I wonder if something similar to that might be helpful for us in the work of the church. Is there a picture that we could look for that will help us to see where we fit in, how we need to go about putting things together, and then to be able to make better progress and to enjoy more what it is that we are trying to do?
When we think that way about the New Testament church, our minds inevitably turn to the passage that we have chosen for our text this morning. It is from Acts 2, and while we are basically going to be studying only the last part of it, I need to read a little larger section for us to remember. I am going to start at verse 36. This great text is, of course, describing what took place on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection of our Lord. This is the beginning of the Lord’s church in this world.
Notice that Peter proclaimed, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
This text describes what happens when those who have received gladly the gospel of Christ, the church, face the task of living day by day. You may have noticed that twice in this reading that phrase “day by day” occurs – verses 41 and 47. Notice carefully that here is the living church at the business of doing what the Lord has called them to do in every day life. Here is what happens when faith in Christ meets the real world and the responsibility that the gospel gives to the Lord’s people.
Why This Picture Means So Much To Us
Think for a moment why this picture means so much to us. One reason is that we believe in the restoration of New Testament Christianity. We believe the New Testament teaches that the church of the Lord and its establishment was not merely a religious movement which started in an incomplete way and evolved to be something better, but that the Lord began what he wanted, that he established that day a church, a group of Christians, people who had been saved from their sins through the gospel of Christ, and then under the leadership of the inspired apostles, the same men who preached the gospel to them, they began to live as people saved by the gospel. The idea is that this is not merely a beginning place for us, but that this is model for us. This is where we look to find our identity and to understand ourselves in the Lord’s plan.
Secondly, this picture is so meaningful to us because we want to serve and to bear fruit like they did. If you were able to be with us the last two Sunday mornings, you know that we started by finding out that everything that is His own is my own as a Christian, but that I am not my own anymore. I belong to him and I want to serve because of the benefit of his cause. Then we discovered that those who want to serve need to learn to work together and to serve together. We studied that last week. But here in this passage, those two principles are applied, and these people with glad and generous hearts go about the business of being what they have become. In so doing, they find favor with both God and man, and the Lord is able to add to their number day by day those who are being saved. That thrilling picture enthuses us and makes us want to bear fruit and to serve like that.
And then third, we find in this passage the outline of the structure the church needs for that kind of service and growth. This is the part of this study that maybe doesn’t mean as much to us as it should. I don’t know how much time and effort is spent in various movements today trying to establish structures, etc. to carry on religious work. Sometimes we get to the place where the method appears to be a lot more powerful and more meaningful in what is produced than the message does. In this text, though, there is, if you think about it, a structure which will allow for all of the growth that the church will ever experience.
What We Find In The Ministry Of The Church
There are five great ministry areas in Acts 2 that will allow the church to do everything that God has ever given it to do, everything that the New Testament teaches to be its responsibility. Please look with me at what we find in this passage about the ministry of the church.
First, of course, there is evangelism, the telling of the good news. Jesus has been made both Lord and Christ. God has exalted him to rule over a kingdom. Forgiveness of sins is available in his name. The fulfillment of all of God’s promises is available in him. Telling the good news has to do with proclaiming the identity of Jesus, the death of Jesus for our sins, his resurrection, and his exaltation. This story is told to the lost with a view toward their response and faith and obedience to the Lord.
The outreach of the church that we are talking about here, the telling of the good news, may be local one to one. It may be national in which it is made available to this whole country. It may be international where the message is taken to some other part of this globe. But it is the message of who Christ is, what he has done for all people and how a person is suppose to respond to it. The power is in that message, and it is the work that we read about the apostles beginning here, and it is the work that goes on as the book of Acts spreads. You will find them telling this good news in the temple. You will find them telling it to other places when they are scattered by persecution. You will find them even coming up with plans to send out mission workers to bear this message to other lands.
It may take the form of personal contact where you speak to a neighbor at your work or across the street or at school or at the store or somewhere in daily life. It may involve special events which are done to proclaim this message or the use of print media or electronic media or missionary journeys. But it will be about doing what we can to touch lives with the gospel of Christ. The first great ministry area that you see here has to do with telling of the good news, evangelism. Evangelism is not a religious word. It means the telling of good news, the bearing of a message that blesses.
The second important area of ministry that you will notice in this passage is education. In verse 42 notice that these who have been added, these who have been saved, devote themselves to the apostles’ doctrine, the apostles’ teaching. That surely is no surprise to any of us who have read the gospel records, for we know that Jesus taught that those who have received the good news, those who have become Christians, are then to be taught to obey all things that the Lord has commanded, and that is what is happening in this place.
This continual process is the means of developing loyalty to the Lord who has been embraced. It is the means of growing to maturity. These people who are added start out as babies in Christ and now they need to grow to full grown men. This is the means for equipping individual Christians to fill their place of service in the Lord’s army. This educational process may involve, of course, one on one instruction, the teaching of a mentor. Many of us who have ever tried to be involved in serving in any way didn’t sit down in some sort of a formal training class. We went to someone who had served that we respected and asked, “How do you do it? How do you go about this?” It may involve Bible classes. That, of course, is the reason for a major part of our work together as a congregation here. It may involve special training efforts where we train people to serve in one way or another or to fulfill certain tasks in the Lord’s kingdom. It may involve the materials and the supplies and the equipment that have to be used in the teaching process.
But however you look at it, this educational part of the ministry of the church is responsible for great sections of the New Testament itself. Think about it! Why are the epistles in the New Testament? These are letters written to people who are already Christians about how they are supposed to live. I Timothy, for example, was written so Timothy would know how to behave himself in the church of the living God, which is the pillar and the ground of truth. Teaching is a big part of our task. The Lord has chosen to save people through a message and to grow the saved through a message. That message has to be proclaimed. It has to be taught, and the church is here to do that task. The church is not an institution. It is you. We are here to do that task.
Thirdly, notice the ministry area in this passage that is described simply as fellowship (v. 42). “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship.” Fellowship is a word which has to do almost entirely with togetherness in one way or another. This is an equally important ministry with teaching, and I believe that the telling of the good news cannot be effective without the presence of meaningful fellowship. Fellowship is whatever builds the togetherness, the sense of belonging, the shared relationships of life in Christ and of work together in Christ.
Tim and Jan have blessed me with the little devotional guide, “Power For Today,” over time. I had been working on this lesson when I read “Power For Today” Saturday morning. In it the devotional for that day made note of the fact that the film, “March of the Penguins,” depicts the amazing life story of penguins in Antarctica. I didn’t think I had much in common with penguins in Antarctica, but it turns out I do. I’ll bet you do too. Listen to this. “The film begins by showing the long march of the penguins from the sea to their inland breeding ground. They march in large numbers forming long columns. As the narrator points out, a lone penguin attempting the march rarely survives. The penguins remain at the breeding ground during the Antarctic winter until their eggs hatch and their chicks are strong enough to march to the sea. And during this period, when a storm comes, the penguins gather in a tightly packed circle with their backs to the wind. Those on the outside of the circle are protecting those in the middle. So that all may have a chance to survive, the penguins take turns standing on the outside of the circle to protect the center.” Then the brother who wrote this observes, “As Christians we can learn from the penguins. Life is difficult, and only by drawing close to one another, protecting and encouraging one another, can we survive the inevitable storms that life brings. No one should try being a lone Christians.”
In this passage in Acts 2:44 it says that “all who believe were together.” The emergency situation in which they found themselves in that beginning carried that togetherness to an almost unbelievable extent where they sold what they had and counted it as belonging to all of them together so that these people who were away from homes, removed from jobs, who happened to be in Jerusalem when they became Christians, would be able to survive. This fellowship caused them to be in a temple together day by day (v. 46) and also in their homes together breaking bread and receiving their food with glad and generous hearts. Glad and generous fellowship is the third ministry area of the church. The ministry of fellowship is inviting, including and involving. It is building hospitality. It is sharing responsibility in the work. It is the warm sense of togetherness that we have to pray for and then to build together as a congregation. I hope that you won’t regard that as a less meaningful part of the work than evangelism or education. It is the lifeblood of those other two works.
Fourth, notice that worship becomes a ministry area of the church. In Acts 2:42 it says that they devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers. It has long been regarded by ancient commentators as well as more modern that the breaking of bread in this passage, since it is paired with teaching and fellowship and prayers, has to do not with the common meal but with the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper and prayers are found in this passage. So is praising God (v. 47), and so is the sense of awe and faith and gladness that permeates the whole paragraph.
This is the devotion to worshipping God together. It includes everything it takes to have assemblies that honor God, the planning for it, the preparing for it, the place for it, the people to lead and to serve, the people to greet, those to help people get to the place, those to assist with what happens with what goes on as worship is offered up to God. Worship is the expression of our fellowship in the good news we have heard and learned about. Worship together is the response to what has saved us together, to the grace of the one who has added us together. Worship becomes an important part of the work of a local church such as we are.
And, the fifth great area of fellowship is service - service in terms of seeking to meet the needs of one another. It is the pooling of resources to help people who have special needs and difficult circumstances in their life. It is the outpouring of love in service of all kinds. In this passage, it is the service in which those who had possessions sold them and made sacrifices in the interest of other people’s needs. It is the service which included the work of distributing these proceeds to everybody who had a need. Notice that there is the giving and there is the work of actually administering what has been given. We sometimes call this benevolent activity, but it actually is a function of service to the Lord and in love for each other in fellowship.
This type of service is a result of what we have been taught to do as Christians, and it is an expression of the togetherness that we have studied about. It means caring for each other’s practical needs. It means emergency response to benevolent calls, it means visiting the bereaved and the sick, helping with weddings and funerals, being there with each other to celebrate when there are happy things that occur. Service means, basically, paying attention to what is going on in each other’s lives. It is an inconvenient thing. It calls us away from merely pursuing our pleasures in life.
Here are five great ministry areas of the Lord’s people: evangelism, education, fellowship, worship and service. When it gets to the “how to” of the things we have been talking about in the first two lessons, this gets to the practical application of it. This is where we need to ask for your help and cooperation. Every one of you, young or old, who is a member of the North National church. On your way out today you will be given a sheet to fill out. If you are a member of this congregation, do not walk by the young men who will be at the door without getting one of these. If you are a teenager and a member of this congregation or if you are an extreme golden ager and you are a member of this congregation, don’t walk out without grabbing one of these green sheets. This is a way to try to make use of the abilities and talents of our members who want to serve. Some of you might say that you filled out a sheet like this five or ten years ago. But you might now have grown to the place where you are ready to be involved in other kinds of work. You may have even graduated to the place where you are a golden ager, and you need to be involved in that program. Maybe you are now at the age where you need to be involved in the youth program, where you want to help teach or something like that. Unless you never change and unless our membership never changes, then periodically to renew our efforts in the work we have to do something like this. When you get this, you will notice five ministry areas that I have talked about here. George, one of our deacons, has put this together for us and he has made an effort here to list all the different responsibilities and functions, or most all of them, that it takes to do what we try to do as a congregation. We are asking that you take one of these and that you respond to the invitation this morning by completing this. Return it to George tonight, Wednesday night or at least next Sunday. When we get through with this, we would like to have as many of these as we have members of this congregation. All of us need to be serving. As a church we need to work together. This is a way for us to plan exactly how we will do that.
Of course, this entire process raises the question of our relationship to the Lord and our devotion to his service. It may remind us that we need to be serving. It may make us appreciate the invitation that he gives for someone like you or me to become his servant. It may mean that sometimes in looking in the mirror, we can see that we have been more self-serving than we have Christ-serving. We may want to correct that. Because of that, we want to say today that if you do need to come to the Lord and correct one of these situations, you want to let him have you like we found out in this passage today, then we would like to encourage you to take that step. Come this morning if you need to while we stand and sing together.