Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
As we continue our celebration of Easter, we are preparing for Pentecost. The same power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is manifest in both these central events in our life in the Body of Christ.
While the event of Pentecost is truly amazing, what followed was just as miraculous. What followed was the development of a community that nurtured these new disciples to live as faithful followers of Christ.
Pentecost gave birth to the Church and the first followers of Jesus shaped it according to the life they experienced with Jesus. The formation of people in this community of disciples not only sustained the Church but equipped the Body of Christ for the spread of the Gospel and the fulfillment of Christ’s mission, to make disciples of all nations.
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)
This text reminds me that 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?
It is often difficult to keep our focus on Christ’s mission and invest in the quality of community that sustains it. Many people crave an experience. They want spiritual excitement and spectacular entertainment. Leaders fear that if we don’t wow them, they will get bored. So we gather the community 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 will 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. For that reason, audiences can increase while the number of disciples decreases.
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!” A ministry of meeting consumer driven needs can easily replace the central mission of disciple-making.
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 over the leadership for His entire Church to those He had trained as His disciples. Look with me for a moment at those essential ingredients.
By the way, I believe that 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.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples huddled together in fear and they prayed. They were a Church under fire. Their prayer life prepared them to be ignited with the fire of Pentecost, and they became a Church on fire!
I contend that it was their prayer life that made them combustible material. That small prayer group of 11 grew to a group of 120. During that time of prayer, they were drawn closer to Christ 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 today read and study Scripture daily?
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, even though they spend countless hours trying to create community. Many leaders have abandoned the pursuit of fellowship, believing that they can’t compete with the plethora of opportunities for fellowship in the world. Christian fellowship should be more than just having fun!
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, so in the Church that same miraculous power was manifest. 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? How can we talk about “real presence” in the Eucharist and not expect Jesus to manifest His presence? 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. Giving up possessions was 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 in North America 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. Unfortunately, some come to worship in order to see what we can get out of the worship experience instead of what we can give to others from our store of spiritual gifts.
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 in our congregations? Do others look in on us and see only bitterness and anger, resentment and resistance to reconciliation with Christ and one another? If we are not growing, perhaps we should spend less time blaming the world and consider how we are living with 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 and liturgies, 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 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 the foundation of faith is laid within us, then we are to grow in the knowledge of God and His will and be filled with spiritual wisdom, pleasing God, walking worthy, bearing fruit in every good work.
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” (John 14:6).
It is by following Jesus as His disciples that we grow in our faith, 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 my joy to be with you following our risen Lord, Jesus Christ!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!