A healthy church

Sermon: Sunday, 22nd October, 2023
Speaker: Alistair Donald
Scripture: Acts 2:42-47

There are all kinds of different churches in the world today. Some gather in great, historic buildings, with wonderful architecture and elaborate music. Other church groups gather in fields, or perhaps under trees if it’s very hot. Others still must meet in secret, in the houses of church members, for fear of very real persecution.

We in Kirkcaldy Free Church are somewhere in the middle. Our church building is not especially big or historic, but we do meet in public, not in secret. We have a sign inviting people to come in. And all this is to remind us what is important in the life of a church. What does a healthy church look like? And do we meet that standard? Like everything else in the Christian faith, we must begin with the Bible. There may be a place for tradition and local customs, but the most important thing is this: Does our church fit the pattern of what the New Testament says is a healthy church? What does a healthy church look like? Well, happily we have our answer in today’s Bible passage. This was of course before there were any church buildings, as these were the earliest days of the church.

As we’ve seen in recent weeks, when the Holy Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost, the number of Christians suddenly went up dramatically in response to Peter’s preaching – just 150 before Pentecost, but another 3,000 added on that memorable day! Today we find what that early church actually did, so that they had a steady increase in their numbers – not as dramatic as that first growth perhaps, but still regular growth. As we read in verse 47 that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. We see 4 things about this early church, which we would do well to copy: A learning church; a loving church; a worshipping church, and also an evangelizing church as we’ve just seen.

A learning church

‘They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching.’ (Acts 2:42) Notice the word ‘devoted’. This was not just a kind of hobby, something to fill in their spare time. No, this was seriously engaging with the teaching of the Apostles – every day, all through the week, in everything they thought and did. Now, as you might have noticed, these early Christians had Peter and the other Apostles to teach them in person – but we don’t. We don’t have apostles today. And that is perfectly true. In some churches today there are people who are described ‘apostles’. You could describe someone in a pioneer missionary situation as having an ‘apostolic ministry.’

But that’s not the same as these early apostles, the ones appointed by Jesus himself, including the Apostle Paul. They were unique. Their ministry was authenticated by ‘wonders and miracles’, which God enabled them to do as Jesus had done. Now, we should never say never, but today such things are very rare indeed, for the simple reason that we don’t have apostles today. Yes, we do have answers to prayer where God has clearly healed someone in a way that leaves the doctors flummoxed. But wonders and miracles on a New Testament scale? Not so much.

So then, if we don’t have Apostles today then how can we devote ourselves to the Apostles’ teaching? The answer of course is that the Apostles wrote down what we need to know in the New Testament. We have the Gospels, written by the Apostles or under their close influence, with their various accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus. We have this Book of Acts, where fully twenty percent of Luke’s text reports the sermons and speeches of Peter and Paul. And we have letters written to the early churches by various Apostles: by Paul, by Peter, by John and others. We have the Book of Revelation, revealed by Jesus to John. We have the teaching of the Apostles right here!

And we also have individuals in the local church qualified to teach what the Apostles taught – we have elders. Having elders in a church is itself very much part of apostolic teaching, it’s not something that self-appointed elders have dreamt up! They are not to ‘lord it’ over the congregation – not at all! – they are to be ‘servants of the Word.’ You can read what the qualifications of an elder are in Paul’s 1st letter to Timothy, chapter 3, and it includes being ‘apt to teach’ – having an ability to teach what the Apostles taught. So it’s important to pay attention to what we hear week by week from this pulpit. To listen properly and not just let the words wash over us. That’s one way of being ‘devoted to the Apostles’ teaching’, to be a learning church.

But it’s not the only way. To be a learning church, it’s also important to study the Bible for ourselves, so that we can grow as Christians. We’ve been given heads to think with as well as hearts to feel with. Remember: these were Spirit-filled Christians. But they didn’t say, ‘Well, now that we have the Holy Spirit, we don’t really need to listen to mere humans preaching and teaching, and we don’t need to study and reflect on the Apostles’ teaching.’ Not at all! Spirit and Word go hand-in-hand: Spirit and Word, Word and Spirit! Indeed, these newly Spirit-filled had a real appetite for teaching. The believers devoted themselves to learning more about Christian teaching and Christian living, to please their new-found Lord!

Sometimes we humans set ‘head’ and ‘heart’ against one another. By which I mean, those who stress the ‘head’ enjoy working things out by reasoning, while those who stress the ‘heart’ care more about how they feel about something. This is a big issue nowadays, when so many only care about how something makes them feel. And we Christians can also do this: ‘Oh, I’m not so interested in working out my faith and how I relate to God and to others. What’s important to me is how I feel about my faith.’ The truth of course is that both are important. We have ‘heads’ as well as ‘hearts’. And here’s the thing: when we really study and pray over a passage of the Bible to add to our understanding, that will also bless our hearts! When we see the glory of God and the wonder of the Gospel in a fresh light, that will lead us to worship more! So: study God’s Word for yourself. If want some advice on helpful resources or websites, ask one of the leaders. That’s what we’re here for!

A loving church

Now this is so important. A church that is not a Loving church is not a New Testament church. For these early Christians not only devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, but they devoted themselves also to fellowship. Togetherness. Hanging out. Finding out about our fellow believers, taking a real interest in their concerns. The original word comes from the word ‘in common.’ If you take a good look round, you’ll see that we are quite a diverse gathering – diverse in age, in race, in nationality. But what are those differences compared to what we have in common? Our oneness in Christ!

Emmanuel Eladipo Brother. Same Father! Why? Because what Christians have in common is much more than any differences of background we may have. So a loving church is one that’s devoted to the fellowship, and so must we be. How do we do that? Older churchgoers here will remember how things often used to be. Yes, churches were fuller, but at the end of the Sunday service, everyone just hurried away! Coffee was something you only had at home! Staying on for coffee and chat after the service isn’t the sum total of fellowship, but it’s a good start. That’s the way we at least begin to get to know each other. And getting to know each other can only happen if we make space for that to happen. Our mobile phones are a great blessing in keeping in touch with others elsewhere, but should never be a barrier to fellowship with real, flesh-and-blood fellow Christians here in person. We need to make space to get to know each other.

And there are other ways of sharing fellowship not just in the church building or after worship services sharing meals together. Inviting each other into our homes for a meal. Look down at the end of verse 46: ‘They broke bread in their homes, and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.’ So fellowship means enjoying what we have in common in Christ; sharing meals and even sharing other things?

This brings us on to a very interesting verse later in our passage, verses 44-45: ‘They had everything in common.’ Let’s think about that. Does this mean that we should all have access to the Church bank account, transfer in any money we have into that, and all be issued with bank cards so we can dip in and take out from the church bank account what we need at any given time? Not quite! Selling their possessions and goods; this wasn’t a one-off fire-sale of everything they owned, but something that was done from time to time as the need arose. Very occasionally, Christians are called to renounce all possessions – St Francis was one like that. But more usual is the idea of sharing what we have with those in need. We are all stewards of what God has blessed us with. Our money, our homes, our possessions really belong to God, and we hold them on trust.

Back then, if someone had a piece of land they didn’t need, and someone else in the church was in need, the owner would be willing to sell that piece of land for the benefit of a brother or sister who was going through a hard time. This was voluntary, not compulsory. But in a loving church, it happened. How do we know this wasn’t a one-off sale of absolutely everything they owned? Well, as we saw a moment ago in verse 46 they still had homes.

So does this mean that those among us who are better off than others can breathe a sigh of relief and say that this doesn’t really apply nowadays? Not at all! Where a fellow Christian has a genuine financial need, then of course those who are able to should feel free to offer help. Clearly this can only happen if a need is made known to the leaders, and any help will be given privately, without fanfare or fuss. As Jesus said, when you give, ‘Do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing!’ (Matthew 6:3)

But as Jesus’ brother James said in chapter 2 of his letter: ‘Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?’ That would certainly not be a loving church.

So a healthy church will have warm fellowship, which can only happen if we are all devoted to achieving it, and that it will be a fellowship in which we really look after one another.

A worshipping church

This is perhaps the most obvious indicator of a healthy church, so we’ll not spend so long on this one. We meet together every Sunday to have fellowship, yes, but of course we also meet to worship God – worship God the Father, through his son Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit. But it is worth checking what this meant for the earliest Christians. And as well as being a learning church and a loving church, they were also a worshipping church: They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and to prayer. The breaking of bread undoubtedly meant the Communion meal, which we share together from time to time in our church services. But it also refers simply to them having meals together when they gathered for worship. Again, we do that – not every week, as it takes a lot of planning! – but we do that here.

They also devoted themselves to prayer. A church can have great preaching and teaching, but if there’s no real commitment on the part of its member to prayer, then the church can’t be said to fit the New Testament pattern. And our worship, including our prayer life, needs to be both in the more formal setting of Sunday services and at home. We see that this was the pattern in our passage.
We read in verse 46 that ‘they continued to meet together in the Temple courts.’ The Temple was still standing in Jerusalem at that time. The new believers wouldn’t have had any need to take part in the Temple sacrifices for sin, since they believed – as we do – that Jesus himself paid a once-and-for-all sacrifice for us in his death on the cross. Peter had made that quite clear in the sermon we looked at last week, earlier in this very chapter. But they may well have taken part in the public worship of the Temple, for example by singing Psalms there.

Paul said later on to the Colossians that they should sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in their worship times. If you ever wondered why we have at least one Psalm every week, well this is the reason. But we also sing hymns and other songs – only the best will do in worshipping our great God!

So the first believers worshipped in public in a formal context. Yet we read that they also broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. What a lovely picture this paints for us! A worshipping community where even outsiders noticed that there was something different about these people! Those who worship with glad and sincere hearts have a great balance between being joyful and being reverent. Those glad hearts were also filled with awe (verse 43). This balance of joy and reverence is a true sign that the Holy Spirit is present.

Joyfulness in worship may not seem immediately obvious in Scottish worship services. I have worshipped in African churches, both in Nigeria and here in Scotland. Our new friends may not find our worship especially joyful, but believe me, compared to some church traditions in Scotland, we are pretty joyful. So let’s sing out with real gusto in the closing hymn!

An evangelising church

‘And the Lord added daily to their number those who were being saved.’ (Acts 2:47) A church that is only concerned with learning, loving and worshipping is all very well, but such a church would be entirely inward-looking. A healthy church is concerned with those who are as yet outside the Body of Christ, but who we hope will join us.

Converting people is not the work of humans, but the work of the Lord. It’s the Lord who added to their number back then, and it’s the Lord who adds to our number today as well. It’s just not something the preacher can do. We can stand here till we’re blue in the face proclaiming Christ, urging all to repent and turn to him – but it’s only the Lord who can convert anyone. I know from personal experience long ago what that feels like. I’ve been where you are. You’re sitting there listening, and it’s like the message is really hitting home to you, personally. It’s when you think, How did the preacher know that about me? This really makes sense to me now, and I’ve got to do something about it!

But the Lord also uses fallible humans to establish contacts with those outside the church. That’s something we all need to get better at, don’t you think? It’s when we’re out in the world during the week that we meet people. And that’s when any of us can share the Gospel, or invite them to church. I’m not saying it’s easy. But if we each take on board what it means to be a learning church, a loving church and a worshipping and praying church, then it will become a little less hard.

And may the Lord himself add regularly to our number those who are being saved.