"Priorities in the Converted Community"
April 6, 2008 Acts 2:42-47
Where do we find joy? What might make a person so happy they want to sing? The world might try to persuade us that we need a certain amount of material wealth or status in order to be joyful. But those who are in Christ can experience joy in surprising places - even places that are very poor, where there's not much materially to get excited about. Vanessa Brown is an Information Management Assistant with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. She describes her experience attending a food delivery in a flooded-out portion of Uganda, which allowed local people to stave off hunger until they could plant again after 6 months. She wrote, "Chaos, confusion and the outcries of hungry people …these are the things I expected to see and hear at a food distribution in flood-affected Uganda. But instead, I saw order, calmness and the sounds of people rejoicing and singing praises for what they were about to receive." It wasn't much to rejoice about: five households were called up at a time and received one 50 kg sack of maize flour, one three litre container of vegetable oil, and one 50 kg sack of beans for them to divide amongst themselves. But in their extreme poverty, they expressed joy and sang praise to God.
The early church in Jerusalem similarly faced a huge task with meagre earthly resources. They'd just been commissioned to take the Good News about Jesus to every nation. At Pentecost they started out as just 120 people. Yet they didn't sulk and whine that the job was too much, or they didn't have the money. Instead they experienced God's grace in such a powerful way that they exulted in their new-found spiritual riches in Christ, and also were freed up to share materially with the poor in a way that was remarkable.
I've organized today's message using the old computer acronym GI-GO. (Maybe is influenced by spending several hours one day this past week figuring out how to retrieve data off Emily's laptop after its motherboard got fried by lightning!) In computer parlance, GI-GO means "Garbage In - Garbage Out" - the machine's processing is only as valuable as the data that's entered into it. But at the end of Acts 2 we see the early church experience "Grace In - Giving Out".
When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and then some 3000 onlookers trusted Christ after Peter's sermon, the church experienced abundant grace. God's spiritual riches poured out to restore and renew warped, broken-down sinners into transformed, loving saints. The New Testament understands grace as something Jesus uniquely brings us, in contrast to the stark legalism of the Old Testament code; John 1:16 says, "From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another." We understand grace as Jesus, who was rich in heavenly power and glory, voluntarily limiting Himself as a human, becoming poor and suffering sacrificially, so we might in exchange become rich (2Cor 8:9).
In the early chapters of Acts, the grace outpoured results in a radically new FOCUS and EXPERIENCE for those who believe. A new focus in that their attention was given to something quite different: 2:42, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching..." When we become a Christian, there's a whole new worldview; as Paul puts it, "we have the mind of Christ" (1Cor 2:16). And, "from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view...if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2Co 5:16f) To get thinking the way Jesus thinks involves intentionally shaping our minds in Biblical patterns. The first Christians devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching: the whole New Testament was about to be born, it must have seemed like a spiritual pipeline constantly revealing new truth as they re-read Old Testament passages and suddenly saw Christ referred to in so many places. Jesus had promised His disciples the Holy Spirit would teach them all things: this must have taken time to receive, digest, reflect on, understand, and pass on verbally or in writing. So the first believers made it a priority to focus on the apostles' teaching - and so shall we, if we want to grow in our understanding of God's revealed truth.
At the end of 2:42, they devoted themselves "to prayer". Talking to God, listening to the Father, telling Him their personal needs AND seeing what He would choose to show them in silent meditation. The disciples had seen Jesus cultivating an intimacy with God through close conversation using terms like "Abba/Poppa", so unlike the stiff formalism which bound synagogue services, and devoted time to exploring this new spiritual interchange. A family member's email signature has this quote on prayer by Henri Nouwen: "to pray means to stop expecting from God the same small-mindedness which you discover in yourself." New horizons from God's perspective!
We need to focus on the Lord through intentional Bible-reading and prayer so we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, rather than being conformed to the world's patterns by default. This past week I was listening to a sermon by John Piper in which he was making the point that we must resist letting the world define our categories, our ways of describing and perceiving reality. God's eternal power and glory, His holy judgment, our human fallibility and sinfulness, Christ's vast mercy and substitution to save us - these are not the usual starting-places for earthly thinking. The Spirit helps us do what we need to do, namely, learn to think and see things the way Christ thinks and sees.
A second aspect of "Grace In" besides FOCUS is EXPERIENCE. V42 says the early Christians devoted themselves "to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread..." They hung out as a group, they kept on meeting together in various locations, both at the temple courts and in individual homes. This was a new community developing; they were discovering with other Christians what this new life, being 'born over again / from above', was all about. It wasn't a solitary project, but a corporate experience. Jesus said, "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." (Mt 18:20)
When they were together, it seemed obvious that they would not only share meals (which became known as agape-feasts or love-feasts) but also communion, the Lord's Supper. That's how the two disciples travelling to Emmaus had experienced the disclosure of Jesus after He was raised from the dead (Lk 24:31). For the early Christians communion hadn't been standardized into a rote ceremony, it was a fresh summary of the mystery of Jesus' self-giving. Paul could write, "Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?" (1Co 10:16) Communion made the Christian experience participatory, a holy and mysterious experience deep with meaning shared by several, somehow becoming one in their Lord.
In their experience together, interesting things happened. 'God' things. 4:31, "After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly." How's that for a confirmation God's heard your request - the building shakes?! 2:43, "Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles." Those who went to the FreshWind conference in March at Toronto Airport tell of seeing people healed physically - that's truly wonderful, God still does it! Such gifts seem to have been especially prevalent among the apostles.
Their experience was permeated by joy and praise. 2:46f, "Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God..." Seems a fitting response to all that was going on! When you're first saved and come to know Jesus, it's like a load has been lifted - your guilt is gone, now you have God's help with your problems. After Philip baptized the eunuch in chapter 8(39), the Ethiopian 'went on his way rejoicing'. When the jailer at Philippi was converted after Paul and Silas' midnight singing and the earthquake, Luke records, "He was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God - he and his whole family." Joy is a usual part of the Christian experience. It's one part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22f). Even Nehemiah knew "the joy of the Lord is your strength" (Neh 8:10): Christians have every reason to be the most joyful people on earth. Bad things may happen, but 'what can man do to us'? What can separate us from the love of Christ? Now God even takes the bad stuff and turns it around for the good of those who love Him (Rom 8:28, 39)
GRACE IN to our lives affects our FOCUS and our EXPERIENCE. When we're aware of that, when we dwell on that and know it deep-down regardless of our circumstances, it can't help but spill out in our relationships to others. 4:33 sums up this stage of the early church: "much grace was upon them all." Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, "And God is able to make all grace abound to you, [not just trickle in, or be somewhat satisfactory in quantity, but ABOUND!] so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work." (2Co 9:8) Grace has its outworking.
GI-GO: That fountain of grace spills out in giving to others, overcoming our selfishness by Christ's love in action. At least 4 ways here - TOGETHERNESS, SELFLESSNESS, WELFARE, and WITNESS.
First we give ourselves in TOGETHERNESS. V42, they devoted themselves "to the fellowship..." V44, "All the believers were together..." V46, "Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.They broke bread in their homes and ate together..." Isn't this starting to sound like a group of folks who 'have it all together' - literally?! So, when we confess our sins, repent, and receive Jesus as Saviour, He gives us a new humility, a new love and warmth for people, especially for the household of faith - our new 'sisters' and 'brothers' on a spiritual plane. In the Natural Church Development framework, one of the eight key quality characteristics is "Loving Relationships": if that's not happening, it's not church! Hebrews 10:25 exhorts us, "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-- and all the more as you see the Day approaching." Gathering with other believers is vital to our ongoing spiritual health.
A second aspect of Giving Out is SELFLESSNESS. Hold onto your hats, this gets pretty radical! V44, all the believers "had everything in common", NLT "shared everything they had". This isn't communism, but voluntary sharing of private property as needs arise. V45, "Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need." Hence the motto for Christian stewardship incorporating this verse and Acts 11:29: "From each, according to their ability; to each, according to their need."
This transformation from selfISHness to selfLESSness is one of the most striking features of true Christian conversion. When Jesus becomes Lord in our lives, we realize we're not on the throne any more; the universe doesn't revolve around us. So we're freed to see and love our neighbour in a new way. Dr Lloyd Ogilvie comments, "The best of human relationships, apart from the Holy Spirit, are based on the barter of mutual needs, interests, causes, or fears. We do not naturally live in close, harmonious, giving, and forgiving relationships. Unless there is something we need either to get or provide, we are not drawn into either friendship or partnership. Without the Holy Spirit, we use people or are used by them depending on our dominance-subservience personality quotient...We are fundamentally selfish.
"But when the living Christ sets us free we are able to participate in His external purpose for His people: that they become one--one with Him and one with each other. My definition of the church is: the fellowship of those given by Christ to be to each other what He has been to them, so that together they can be to the world a demonstration of the new humanity He died and lives to make possible. When He performs the miracle of His love in us, it is then that a character transformation begins which makes it possible for us to love unselfishly."
Even churches can be selfish. One of the great things about the Canadian Foodgrains Bank is the way denominations have overcome their differences to share together in a common cause with great outcomes. James Alty, Logistics Manager, notes that in the past 17 years, "Canadian Foodgrains Bank has grown from 10 members to 15 members. This expansion of the membership should be recognized for what it is - an interchurch miracle. We may be theologically different but we all read scripture in the same way when it comes to responding to the poor and the hungry."
Togetherness - selflessness - giving out also results in WELFARE or relief for the poor. Because the early church shared the money with those in need, 4:34 states "There were no needy persons among them." Not one! When the tax collector Zacchaeus came to know Jesus, his first response was to say, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor..." (Lu 19:8) Christ's love in our hearts moves us to respond to genuine need as we're able. 1Jn 3(17) asks rhetorically, "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?" With some 800 million people on the planet lacking basic food security, we're called to do something. Donors' generosity has allowed the Foodgrains Bank to go beyond emergency relief through food aid to address the larger systemic issue of finding sustainable solutions to their hunger.
Finally, Giving Out results in remarkable WITNESS. V47, the church was "enjoying the favour [NLT goodwill] of all the people.And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." When we help our neighbour, it's a very tangible and solid witness to God's love and concern for them. If sincere, that's hard to resist.
Blessed, to be a Blessing
Jesus said, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded..." (Lk 12:48) We are blessed through Jesus' grace and forgiveness showered upon us; knowing Him moves us to give out that same grace to others.
The Foodgrains Bank sponsors food study tours in which Canadians visit other countries to see deliveries made, but also find out the real story behind the shipments. Recently some Canadian youth visited Honduras. A typical coffee farmer receives 36 cents for the same pound of coffee that might cost us $5.40 on the supermarket shelf. One youth visiting the fields up on a mountainside noted, "Most people would have struggled with the hike let alone picking and carrying all of the coffee up the mountain several times a day." One farmer they visited almost lost his life in 1998 when Hurricane Mitch struck; mudslides washed away everything he had, except his family. He had to rebuild from scratch. The Canadian visitors remarked how despite everything the farmer and his family had been through, they never lose faith or give up.
Elizabeth Cameron is the daughter of the minister at the church my parents attend. She summed up her visit saying, "Many people thanked us for being there, and some said that our visit to their home was a blessing sent to them from God. I thought, 'Here I am, hearing the story of an amazing person who has struggled against so much adversity, and I am the one being referred to as a blessing.' I almost cried because I was so struck by that concept. I have led a blessed life. I know that each story I heard, each person I met, each smile on a child's face, and each of the thousands and thousands of stars I saw from the mountains in Honduras was yet another blessing in my life. I now pray that God will protect and help the people I met in Honduras. It's their turn for a blessing." Let's pray.