Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Laetare – The Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 30th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
First Things First – Acts 2:41-47
(To provide context for those unaware, Trinity and St. John were meeting this afternoon to consider a proposal to call a local retired LCMS pastor to serve as a part-time assistant pastor for outreach)
What’s more important, this service, or the meeting we will be holding after the service? Some of you may be thinking, “Well, the service is routine, something that happens week after week, but the joint meeting is an unusual event, about an important decision.” Doesn’t that make the meeting more important? Of course, for Kinlee Jo and her family, today is the day for a once in a lifetime Gospel blessing direct from God, so I’m guessing they’ll side with the service. Even without considering Kinlee Jo’s baptism, others may think, “We have the Lord’s Supper and the proclamation of the Word of God here today, so this service is more important than the meeting.”
Some of you may be thinking, “He left out the third choice, the pot luck!”
What’s more important, this service, or reaching out with the Word of God to people who are not connected to Christ? You might think, “At the service we know what’s going to happen.” God has promised to deliver forgiveness to us, to feed us with His Body and Blood, to bless us with His love, when we gather in His Name. These things are sure and certain. Our efforts to reach out with Gospel, on the other hand, may be received with joy, or apathy, or even anger. Evangelism sometimes results in new members. Sometimes outreach is ignored. And sometimes reaching out can result in the persecution of the messenger. Reaching out is very uncertain, without guarantees, except that it can be hard. So, you might think the more certain thing, the service, is more important.
“Yes, but,” others may be thinking, “we who gather already have faith in Christ.” Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, but salvation is only by faith in Him. So carrying the Word of the Cross to unbelievers is the most important thing there is, isn’t it? You might be thinking the more important thing is always getting the Word out to others who do not believe, praying that God will create faith in them, too.
Which is more important, the Sunday service, or doing outreach? Which is more important on this day, this service, or the meeting about an outreach proposal that follows?
You’re not sure? That’s o.k. These are all essentially trick questions. From the perspective of God’s work, it’s pretty much impossible for us to know exactly what God is doing when, pretty hard for us to determine what thing is more or less important. On the one hand, Jesus was a regular at the Temple and the Synagogue. Our Lord went to Church, a lot. And yet, all through each of His weeks, everywhere He went, He was speaking words of life. What was more important, the conversation He had with the Samaritan woman at the well, out in the middle of nowhere, when He brought her to faith, and used her to convert a whole village, or the dramatic preaching and teaching He did daily in the Temple courts during the days leading to His Crucifixion?
We can’t really say, can we? We are not capable of judging the importance of the various things God is doing. If God is doing something, how could it be less than totally important? God is the One who does the eternally important things. Conversion, our own or anyone else’s, doesn’t depend on us, but on the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God for that!
From our perspective, it is not a question of importance, but rather of priority, what should come first, then second, and so on. When and where He wills, the Holy Spirit works through the Word, spoken through the mouths of God’s people. He acts, through the Word spoken between sinners gathered together in Church. He also acts through the Word spoken by His people out there, all by themselves in the world. The question for us isn’t “What’s more important,” but rather, “What comes first?” What are the relationships between the various moments of our life in Christ? What flows from what? What should we do first, so that everything else follows naturally? What are to be our priorities?
God does His great works of salvation in grand churches, and children’s bedrooms, at tables in coffee shops, and over long distance phone conversations. We do not have to wonder which work of God is more or less important. He will take care of that. But it is important for us to know our priorities, to try to keep first things first for ourselves, because we know how easily we can wander off the path. And today’s reading from Acts chapter two is a huge help in figuring out what comes first in the Church: the Apostles’ Teaching, the Fellowship, the Breaking of Bread, and the Prayers.
Our reading from Acts recounts the events following Pentecost, that day, 50 days after the Resurrection of Christ, when the Holy Spirit came and jump started the New Testament Church. Our reading begins right after Peter’s ‘cut you to the heart’ sermon about Christ and His Cross, "Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ-- this Jesus whom you crucified." Our reading picks up right after Peter’s hearers, cut to the heart, cried out “brothers, what shall we do?.” The reading begins with 3000 repenting souls being baptized for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then, after these Church founding events, we hear this summary statement: And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
First things first – they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. But what are these?
What is the Apostles’ Teaching? It is the Good News of salvation freely given in Christ, the Word about Jesus, that declares Him the long awaited Savior, who justifies sinners, declaring us righteous, by His death and resurrection. The Apostles’ were Christ’s chosen foundation stones for His Church, men who built the Church by proclaiming, delivering, and recording the New Testament, the New Covenant between God and man, the covenant of forgiveness and grace, the New Testament in Jesus’ blood, shed on the Cross, and given to us sinners in the Supper. We have the record of the Apostles’ Teaching in a book that, by extension, we also call the New Testament. The same teaching of Christ that the first Christians devoted themselves to is also the center and authority of our life together, the Holy Bible.
What is the Fellowship? Fellowship translates the Greek word ‘koinonia,’ which refers to things held in common. We translate the ‘koinonia’ family of words with a variety of English words, because it is used in a variety of ways in Scripture: communion, participation, fellowship, sharing, common. For reasons we will see in a moment, in this case ‘koinonia’ is best understood as the early Christians life together, which the tail end of our reading shows was very close, sharing property, giving to all as they had needs. Now, the needs of those first Christians were intense. Leaving the Jewish faith by confessing Christ as God would result in you being ostracized, kicked out of the Jewish community. Homes, jobs, and property may have been lost by many, and so those Christians who still had worldly goods shared them to meet the needs of other Christians, all because they knew their greatest treasure was Christ, in whom they had forgiveness and eternal life.
Taking care of each other is still an important part of a Christian congregation’s life together. Our situation is very different from those first Christians on Pentecost. We are not under persecution. Being a Christian does not cost us very much in worldly goods and comfort. By and large all of us have tremendous earthly blessings. We do not face a critical need to share all we have with each other. But we should not, and Lord willing we do not, forget our obligations to each other, especially when situations change and needs become intense. Remember how the Christian community responded to our need when fire damaged our building, twice. Remember the times we have taken special offerings for disaster victims all over the world, and well as for anonymous members and neighbors in need. Most of all, remember that the resurrected Christ is your greatest treasure. He frees you to be generous to all, and especially to those of the household of faith.
What is the Breaking of the Bread? This is the Bible’s first name for the Lord’s Supper, based on the beginning of the Words of Institution: Jesus took bread, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said... The Breaking of the Bread is that pinnacle of the regular weekly worship service, that unique delivery of the Good News, the Gospel that not only strikes our ears, but also feeds our mouths and souls, with the true Body and Blood of Christ, given for the forgiveness of sins. The earliest Christians gathered en masse in the Temple as long as they were allowed, rubbing shoulders with their Jewish neighbors. These early Christians were just clinging to a familiar space, but God used this to create outreach opportunity. But it appears the Jewish authorities were not going to allow them to celebrate the Supper in the Temple. So the Breaking of the Bread, the Lord’s Supper, took place in homes.
For us, it is flipped around. We today are free to celebrate the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, in our church buildings, and we rejoice to do so. However, for those members who cannot make it here, usually for health reasons, we do our best to take the Word and the Supper to them. And taking God’s Word and Sacrament into the community very often results in the Seed being planted. Neighbors, and family, and staff at hospitals and nursing homes observe our visits, and overhear the Word, and sometimes watch us celebrate the Supper. So, as we seek to keep the Supper a priority, as it was in Apostolic times, God is also using it in His ongoing Mission.
What are the Prayers? The New International Version, a translation many of us know well, translates this fourth phrase, ‘and to prayer,’ but the English Standard Version, along with other more literal versions, translates more accurately, “and the prayers,” plural, more than one. The plural reference is to patterns of prayer, for the people of God have always gathered together to pray, and also prayed individually. The praying of the congregation gathered together teaches me and leads me in my private prayers.
As a congregation we pray together regularly, in ways that are beautiful, memorable, and clear. This teaches us and empowers us to pray at home, with our families, and by ourselves. As usual, Jesus offers the best example. He was a regular at the prayers in synagogue and Temple, and also regularly prayed with His disciples more privately, and also retreated to quiet places by Himself, to speak with His Father, all by Himself. Lord willing, it is the same for us, gathering en masse on Sundays and Wednesdays, using the Psalms, and the hymnals and the liturgies, and also praying from the heart, and then continuing to pray through the week, praising God, giving Him thanks, and asking for His help with all our needs and concerns.
First things first: the Apostles’ Teaching, the Fellowship, the Breaking of Bread, and the Prayers. Then what? The Good News of new life in Christ extends into daily life. Christ who has joined Himself to us now works through us in our various callings in life. Our reading continues: And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
The fellowship, caring for one another, critical because they were leaving the Jewish community by becoming Christians, is prominent. God’s blessing of miracles done through the Apostles continues, a very helpful advantage for building a brand new Church. And yet we know miracles were not the center, because Scripture says that miracles will pass away, and because healing miracles were not listed in the four central priorities. Gathering together to pray, and hearing the Apostles’ teach, and breaking bread, and caring for each other, these four pillars dominated.
And then God used this focus on these four pillars to give this new body of believers “favor with all the people.” We know from the Gospels and from the rest of the book of Acts that the Jewish authorities tried to stop the Apostles’ from proclaiming Christ, but the favor of the people slowed down their persecutions. The Jewish leaders were always afraid of the crowds. In time, many of those who were impressed by these Christians eventually also come to hear the Word, and then believed in Christ, and so the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. The people of God were devoting themselves to the Apostles’ Teaching, the Fellowship, the Breaking of Bread and the Prayers, which don’t really seem like outreach. But God was at work, in and through them, using the preaching of His ministers and the lives and deeds and words of His people to win the favor, and finally to win the hearts of unbelievers.
What’s more important, the Sunday Service, or doing outreach? Neither. They are, from God’s perspective, both part of a seamless whole, a continuation of His Work, done by His Word. There is a bit of a mystery to all of this. The Church as an organization does not work like earthly organizations, for the real work is always done by the Spirit, through the Word, in His perfect timing. So our priority is the life that lives from that Word. From that Word we learn that we are free, and incredibly blessed, to gather around the Word of God and the Lord’s Supper, and also that we are free, and incredibly blessed, to live generous lives, ready to give the reason for the hope we have, resting in the promise that the Lord will build His Church, that He will add to our number, day by day, those who are being saved,
in Jesus’ Name, Amen.