Sermon #183 St. James the Less #90 5/3/20
Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Intro Acts Sermon Series
This time of quarantine has forced everyone to become a little more creative. I know some people who have taken up new hobbies or have honed certain skills during this past month.
Some are now master gardeners or puzzle extraordinaires. Others have gotten creative with their cooking or painting skills.
Even the Church has been forced to become creative during this time. Now, most pastors and priests are amateur videographers and webmasters. I know more about Facebook and YouTube than I ever wanted to.
But this disruption from our routine is also an opportunity to try new things. And so, for the month of May, we are going to do a sermon series on the Book of Acts which will lead us all the way to Pentecost on May 31st.
Yes, amazingly even Episcopalians can do sermon series. We’re just going to try it out and see how it goes.
And to be honest, I’m excited about this. Acts is a great book for us to spend some time in because it follows the birth of the Church and its early years of growth. But though the title is “Acts of the Apostles,” its real focus is on the acts of the Holy Spirit.
We’ll see through our readings this month how God’s Spirit shows up again and again throughout this book, filling up these scared and broken disciples, and transforming them into bold and passionate preachers of Jesus’ Good News.
Being a Spirit-filled believer within a Spirit-filled community is something we need to hear and consider how that applies to our life right now, while we are separated from each other.
But before we go any further we must first talk about Little League baseball.
Growing up in Murfreesboro I played Little League baseball, and there really isn’t anything like it. It teaches so many great lessons to kids about teamwork and fair play, even if the games can be highly competitive.
When I got to the 11 and 12-year-old division my coach was Dan Bogle. His teaching method was fairly simple: learn the fundamentals, learn them well, and everything else will take care of itself. And so, we practiced the fundamentals of baseball over and over again.
He would make sure we were throwing the ball correctly so that it would go in a straight line and catching a ground ball out in front of us so that we had time to react to a bad hop and throwing to the right cutoff man so that runners didn’t advance (Can you tell I’m missing baseball).
Week after week our team solely focused on the fundamentals and creating that muscle memory. And lo and behold when we starting playing other teams we won.
I used that focus on the fundamentals all the way up to when I played college baseball. When the game got too complex, I just needed to simplify and return to the basics, and it worked every time.
This mindset translates to pretty much everything. Playing any sport, mastering any instrument – it works with business methods and even relationships as well. If you do the little things right, a lot of the bigger things will take care of themselves.
When we are struggling in our personal or professional life some good advice is to return to the basics, and I think the same is true for our faith.
Four Marks of the Church
In chapter 2 of Acts, on the day of Pentecost, Peter has just finished preaching his very first sermon. And it is so powerful and convincing that three thousand people in the crowd become followers of Jesus. (Talk about a successful first sermon.)
Our reading picks up at the very end of this chapter, and it says these brand new believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Scholars call these the four marks of the Church. These are the four practices that the earliest believers dedicated and devoted themselves to.
Putting it in baseball terms, these are the fundamentals of practicing our faith. Let’s think about each of them for a moment.
The apostles’ teaching, along with the Hebrew Scriptures, were all these first believers had. None of the gospels were written, no letters from Paul, just the stories of Jesus from his closest followers. And so, they spent much of their time listening to what these men said about the Crucified and Risen Jesus. And out of that comes the New Testament.
The second mark is the common life of believers, stated here as the fellowship, which addresses the need for community vs. isolation. For the early church, if you were going to be a Christian, you needed to participate in the common life of the Body. There was no such thing as an isolated believer.
Then we come to the breaking of bread, which at its simplest is table fellowship, sharing in the common life of faith through a meal together. But at its most sacramental, they were fulfilling Jesus’ command to “Do this in remembrance of me.” It was practical and yet soaked in spiritual significance.
And lastly, the prayers. Our text says they spent much of their day in the Temple courts praying. They continued to be a people rooted and shaped by daily prayer, which they learned through their Jewish tradition.
And so, when we look at these four practices we realize that they’re not just once a week practices that we only do on Sunday, but daily practices. These four marks shaped every day of these new believers’ lives.
Acting as Family
The bow on top of these four marks is that they did all this as if they were an actual family. Once you entered through baptism into this new community the focus shifted from the individual’s need to the need of the family (and even towards the needs of those outside of the family). They sacrificed their own wealth and possessions so that others could be cared for, just as any good family member would do for one of their own.
They were linked by shared faith and common daily practices, which ultimately shaped every part of them, including how they thought about their possessions. And it seems like they enjoyed doing it.
I mean just listen to verses 46 and 47, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of ALL the people.”
Being an Acts 2 Church
I think there are two questions that our passage forces us to ask. What would it look like to be an Acts 2 Christian today and what would it look like to be a part of an Acts 2 church?
I want to propose a hypothesis for both questions.
First, being an Acts 2 Christian: Quarantine has forced us to slow down, and create new habits. It has disrupted pretty much every part of our life. It has even taken us away from our Sunday worship at church, which I think we could agree is not an ideal thing, but it may be inviting us into a new thing.
By taking away the Eucharist, the music, and the prayers that we are so accustomed to, we are rediscovering “the basics,” the bare essentials of our faith.
During this time, we can personally devote ourselves to the four marks of the Church. We can read our Bibles to receive the apostles’ teaching, we can be a part of the fellowship of the church-though virtually for the time being. We can break bread while longing to return to the Eucharistic feast. And we can always dedicate time in our day for prayer. Lord, knows our world needs it right now especially our doctors, nurses, and those who are suffering.
That’s what a quarantined Acts 2 Christian might look like. But what about an Acts 2 church?
There is one thing that all dying churches share in common—it’s that they are all solely introspective, they only think about themselves and their needs.
The new forming church that we see in Acts 2 thinks about those inside the family and those outside pretty fairly. They care for those in need who are fellow believers and those who aren’t.
They were keenly aware of those around them. Like any good church, they had their traditions (i.e. the four marks), but they continued to make it their mission to bring others into the community.
It’s clear that the early church was not there for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of the world. An Acts 2 church cares for its members but is never solely focused on themselves. They are always inviting and welcoming others to be a part of this generous and loving family that is shaped by the four marks.
Quarantine doesn’t have to stop us from being Acts 2 Christians or an Acts 2 church right now. In fact, I think this is the time that we can get back to the basics and fundamentals of our faith, and hone those four marks as well as we can.
Like taking ground balls or practicing the piano day after day, devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. Soon they become not just a routine but a way of life.
Which is exactly the point.
Photo by: Wesley Arning