Dear Disciples of Jesus throughout the North American Lutheran Church,
What is the nature of Christian community that nurtures people as faithful followers of Jesus, equips them to reach others with the Gospel of Jesus and provides for their growth and development as disciples of Jesus?
Following the amazing miracle of Pentecost, Peter’s bold preaching, his explanation of who Jesus is and what He had done for them and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit as more than 3,000 people came to faith in Jesus, we read these important words about the formation of the community that was able to sustain and grow the Church, the body of Christ.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 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 and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 NIV).
How we minister to one another within our congregation has a direct effect on how we do ministry in the larger community. How we treat one another in the Church directly affects how we treat others beyond the Church. Our witness within the Church is our witness to the world about the difference Jesus is making in our lives. So how are we doing?
Unfortunately, there is often a great divide, rather than consistency, in our behaviors. We love the sensational until it affects our lifestyle, or compromises our security, or has implications for our finances. Today there are many who are searching for gratifying experiences rather than meaningful relationships. At times we care more about spiritual excitement and spectacular entertainment. If you wow them, they will stay; if they get a little bored, they are gone. Personal experience and feelings become the measure or standard for evaluating “real Christianity.”
The community gathers together to create one mountain top experience after another with no valleys in between. A friend of mine once said, “it reminds me of a baby’s digestive system, an insatiable appetite at one end and a total lack of responsibility at the other end.”
We want the excitement without the relationship with Christ and His Body, the Church. Some stay for the experience but leave before it requires the conviction, commitment and mutual accountability of genuine relationships. Many are searching, not for Jesus, but for the path of least resistance, the easy way. They want to enjoy the sensational and hear preaching and teaching that never challenges.
Enthusiasm is up; commitment is down. Excited audiences are increasing while disciples are decreasing. Many people in our culture are identifying themselves as “nones.” They prefer not to call themselves Christians and want to remain unattached to any particular community of faith so as not to mitigate their individualized faith or cramp their lifestyle.
Consumerism still abounds — demanding a smorgasbord of perspectives and ministries to meet every felt need. We heed the inner call to follow ourselves rather than the call of Jesus who says, come and follow me! Following the path of least resistance is what creates a meandering stream and results in people who never learn the meaning of persistence. It is so tempting to see our mission as meeting those needs.
However, that is not the nature of the Church described in the book of Acts. The disciples knew that following Jesus was never the easy path, but the only life-giving path. These disciples had been through struggles as they followed Jesus. They were the first community of believers. They knew what was necessary to live in community with Jesus. Following Pentecost, Jesus turned the leadership of His entire Church over to those He had trained as His disciples.
Look with me for a moment at those essential ingredients.
What led up to Pentecost is almost as important as what followed. They had an intensive focus on prayer that produced a passionate spirituality. I believe the same holds true for us today. We can either be a Church under fire or a Church on fire. In order to be on fire, we must become combustible material.
I am convinced that prayer makes us combustible material. If you go back and read what happened after Jesus’ death, you will find the disciples huddled together in prayer. Even just huddled in prayer, they grew from a group of 11 to a group of 120. That’s how many disciples there were by the time we get to Pentecost. From Ascension to Pentecost there is a 10-day prayer vigil. They were drawn closer to Jesus and to one another. The Holy Spirit was already at work.
Now consider the text:
1. As the disciples devoted themselves to the teaching of Jesus, those in the Church devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles. How many read and study Scripture daily, engaging in Bible study with other Christians?
2. As the disciples shared fellowship with Jesus and one another, they led the Church to do the same. Their fellowship was focused on sharing meals together and praying together. Many in the Church have little connection with others as “fellowship” has been devalued by the Church, thinking that we cannot compete with all the secular opportunities for fellowship, thereby undermining the strength of our community. Are you creating opportunities for genuine Christian fellowship?
3. They expected Jesus to act, and He did. As they experienced the miraculous when they were with Jesus, when they went out to do ministry in His name, that same miraculous power was manifest in the Church. If someone experienced Jesus’ call to follow Him in one of your worship services how would you know? Do we care? Do we really expect Jesus to show up? If we don’t believe He is truly present, why should anyone else?
4. The Christian community cared for one another. They loved one another the way Jesus loved His first followers and gave His life for them. They gave up possessions as a way to care for the needs of fellow disciples. They cared so much that they shared everything, every care, every concern, every joy, every sorrow — everything. Have we become so independent that we have no clue what is happening in the lives of those around us? How can we become more caring?
5. They gathered together regularly. They worshiped together daily. They had a mutual sense of obligation to be together to support one another and to share their faith in Jesus. The average active Christian only attends worship about two times per month. The result is that spiritual gifts are not being put to use to build up the entire Body. We attend to see what we can get, not what we can give.
6. Their love and commitment spread from the worship center into their homes. They manifested the love they experienced in Christ through the love they had for one another. Their community was marked with joy and sincerity in their hearts. What are the marks of Christian faith being lived out in our homes? How are parents discipling their children and witnessing to others in their neighborhoods?
7. The world was watching how they lived and treated one another, and Christian community became a witness that captivated many others. The way they lived in community with each other drew people to Christ. What is our witness to others? Do they sense bitterness and anger, resentment? How would they interpret our resistance to reconciliation with Christ and one another?
The disciples had experienced this love and community as they followed Jesus. Christianity is not just a statement of faith, a body of knowledge, an experience. It is not a matter of being a member of an organization or institution. It is more than theologies, liturgies and vestments or strategies, structures and constitutions. It is about one thing, rather one person, Jesus Christ. It is about following Christ, believing in Christ, serving others in Christ and living in Christ.
Martin Luther’s commentary on this text from Acts, as you can imagine, affirms that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone. It is not by works or through the law. Like those who first heard Peter’s preaching Luther says, “We must fall upon this Gospel and be broken to pieces and in deep consciousness lie prostrate, like a man that is powerless, unable to move hand or foot. Here all men must confess their incapacity and inability to do the good. We lose faith in ourselves, confess our sins, admit that our sentence of condemnation is just and simply trust, believe and cling to this divine grace that is ours through Christ. It is Christ who has taken that first step in our direction, accomplished it all for us and makes His abundant grace so readily available to all who believe. Once we come to Christ and thefoundation of faith is laid within us then we are to grow in the knowledge of God, His will and be filled with spiritual wisdom, pleasing God, walking worthy, bearing fruit in every good work.”
Of course, Luther does not miss the opportunity to challenge pastors to preach as Peter preached, both Law and Gospel. First, he tells us that we are nothing, a displeasing abomination because of our sin. “Then the preacher offers us grace; that is, he tells us that God will not utterly condemn and reject us, but will receive us in His beloved Son, and not merely receive us, but make us heirs of His kingdom, lords over all that is in heaven and upon earth. The first makes us fearful and restless so the Gospel must come quickly so that we do not despair forever. We must preach the Gospel to him and lead him to Christ that he should be saved out of the pure grace and mercy of Christ. The heart rejoices at this word and runs to such grace as a thirsty deer runs to the water.”
Luther continues by reminding us that what follows Peter’s preaching is the proof that we have faith in Jesus in the treatment of our neighbor. Christ’s love comes through us. We find pleasure and joy in serving our neighbor. Those who follow Jesus see the world from a different perspective, not obsessed with what the world values. Luther says, “With Christ the root and sap are good for He has grafted us onto a rich and fruitful vine, therefore, such fruits must come forth.”
The disciples remained with those who had come to believe in Jesus. The design of this community, the New Testament Church, bears the same marks that the disciples experienced with Jesus. They want the new believers to be as intimate with Jesus as they were. They want them to experience His powerful presence. They want them to know and love Jesus as they did, to understand who He is and the nature of His kingdom. They want them to understand that they too are on a journey of following Jesus.
The invitation is simple, “Come and follow me!” He is the Gospel. He is the singular object of our faith. He is eternal life, and there is no life apart from Him. He is all there is. In Him, the whole world holds together. This is the content of faith and the only source of salvation. He is who He claims to be — the way, the truth and the life.
It is by following Jesus as His disciples that we grow in our faith and are involved in ministry that offers care and consolation to our neighbor. It is following Jesus that transforms our lives. It is following Jesus that becomes our witness. It is in following Jesus that we lead others to hear both Law and Gospel and believe in Him and, through that faith, to respond obediently as His disciples. This is the heart of what it means to be Mission Driven and to engage in Life-to- Life Discipleship. The faithful transmission of this message through Word and Sacrament ministry is the legacy and heritage that has been passed on to us, not to simply embrace, but to share broadly. It is the life we are called to live.
It is easy to get stuck at the place where we keep saying, “This has been a tough journey, and we are still a persecuted remnant.” Instead of lives overflowing with thanksgiving, we live in fear. Instead of trusting, we live in doubt. I tell you we cannot proclaim what we have not claimed as ours in Christ. We must lay claim to the fact that we have it all in Christ. We are not those who are starving, we are feasting at the banquet. We are those who have abandoned the values of the world. We are those who have resolved that we cannot be a part of a church body that compromises the Gospel for the sake of accommodating the world — that would only make us as spiritually famished as they are. Instead we live as those whose only mission is to lead those who are starving spiritually to the only bread of life, Jesus Christ.
Discipleship can only exist and flourish in a community that nurtures disciples. Caring for one another is indispensable for growing and making disciples. When our faith is in Christ and when we are living that faith by following Him, we have everything we need to accomplish the work God has called us to do, to proclaim Christ in word and deed until the entire world knows.
If God is going to use us for His redemptive purposes, our goal is not to emulate other church bodies and desire what they have (fancy offices with highly centralized structure). Every asset we have is for one purpose, to equip every part of the Body to boldly proclaim the Gospel and grow disciples until they are mature spiritual leaders in the church capable of discipling others. It is not your size, scope of ministry, your building or your budget that matters, it is only one thing — your faith in Christ and your commitment to follow Him within His Body, the Church.
To that end let us press on.