The Christian doctrine that is least developed in most denominations and most disputed by all branches of the church...is that of the church itself. Obviously the older denominations—the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches—have the most elaborately developed teachings about the church. They depend chiefly on the unbroken line of succession of bishops from the apostles and the preservation of apostolic teaching. Most Protestant churches claim to have rediscovered the true apostolic teachings, in the form of the New Testament writings. The Episcopal church, considering itself both catholic and protestant, claims both apostolic succession and apostolic faith. Through the 1999 agreement Called to Common Mission, this is true of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as well.
There is no way we can in the time allotted comprehensively look as all the various doctrines of what the church is and how it should be. But let's touch on some of the Biblical roots of what the church should do as found in today's reading from Acts. We are looking at the church right after Pentecost. Acts 2:42 says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostle's teachings and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.” This is a seminal verse. We are given 4 identifying characteristics of the church. Let's look at each.
We are told that the first converts were devoted to the teachings of the apostles. And what were they? Despite what popular authors say in order to sell books which give different and sensationalistic accounts of what the early church believed, the oldest actual documents are not hard to find. They are the 27 books of the New Testament. True, we also have numerous later books but over the first few hundred years of this era, Christians discussed them all and what we have in the Bible is the firm consensus they reached. The canon of the New Testament was not decided on by Constantine at the Council of Nicea. Rather the council simply ratified what had already been hashed out over the centuries. The so-called “gospels” of Thomas, Judas and all the other touted alternatives weren't even close to getting in. If you want to read the ones that almost made it, google The Shepherd of Hermes (or click here) or the letters of Clement (here) or Barnabas (here).
Throughout Acts, Luke gives us summaries of early apostolic preaching. Scholars have derived from these a basic outline they call the kerygma, which is Greek for the “preaching,” or the “proclamation.” Basically the apostles concentrated on how, in fulfillment of the Old Testament, Jesus died for the world's sins, was resurrected and thereby revealed as Christ and Lord. Those who therefore repent and put their trust in Christ will be forgiven. You see passages in Paul that also mirror this. You can even see how it was incorporated into the creeds. The creeds are really just synopses of the story of the Bible. They evolved from the questions asked of candidates for baptism. They need amplification to be fully understood but they are great summaries of what we believe.
There were ethical teachings, too. Prominent among them were Jesus' teachings to love one another and to be one as he and the Father are one. And so we get to the second characteristic of the early church and the first converts. The Greek word is koinonia and it's usually translated “fellowship.” Sadly, we've taken that word and reduced it to the time we spend eating and chatting after the worship service. That's just a small part of it. For the Greeks koinonia meant a spirit of community that is the opposite of selfishness. So they used it of business partnerships, of marriage and even of the relationship we seek with God. At its heart koinonia means generosity, sharing, participation, partnership with each other, and through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, partnership with God. The church was not just about listening to the sermons of the apostles; they shared—everything.
One of the ways they did so is scandalous to this day. But we will get to that a little later.
The next thing Luke mentions is another manifestation of sharing. From the beginning, the presence of Jesus was known in the breaking of the bread. In the first century, the eucharistic feast was an actual communal meal. But it wasn't merely a potluck. The highlight was the consecrated bread and wine, a sharing of the gifts of God with and among the people of God. Paul wrote, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the body of Christ?” According to the Didache, an early church manual, one version of the eucharistic prayer went, in part, “As this piece [of bread] was scattered over the hills [as grain] and then brought together and made one, so let your church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.” Thus the body of Christ on earth comes together to be nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ and made one with each other and with Jesus.
Finally Luke lists the early church's devotion to prayer. All religions have prayers. How are Christian prayers different? For one thing, we pray through Christ. He is the one mediator between God and humanity. He knows our weaknesses; he has firsthand knowledge of our suffering. He was tempted in all ways as we are and yet did not sin. We do not pray to a God who is utterly unlike us but to one who has the experience of living and dying as one of us. That is a tremendous incentive to pray. It is also a great comfort.
Nor do we pray to a distant God, whom we cannot hope to understand. Because we have the Holy Spirit living in us. Thus we have a deep connection to God, that allows us to communicate with him in ways beyond words. As we said last week, Paul tells us that when we don't know how to pray as we ought to, the Spirit pleads our case with groans or sighs inexpressible by us. We can go to God and know that our inability to articulate what we really mean is not a barrier, for the Spirit of Christ in us is making our deepest feelings known to God.
Participating in the Spirit led to manifestations of koinonia that were new and surprising even then and whose existence bothers us today. I'm not talking about the signs and wonders or speaking in tongues. I'm talking about a different economic model. Acts 2:44-45 says, “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.” Staunch capitalists will not be happy that one of the first things the earliest Christians did was invent communism. Secular communists will probably be uncomfortable that those involved in the “opiate to the masses” invented their system. In fact, Karl Marx was born a Lutheran and some scholars think that Marxism is a materialistic Christian heresy.
This early Christian communism didn't last. Just 3 chapters later, a husband and wife sell some land and lie about giving all the proceeds to the fellowship. Since it was their property to do with as they wished, their sin was not in holding some back but in lying about it and accepting the praise for giving it all to the community. We don't hear of the experiment again. So did this kind of koinonia come from the Spirit or not? If it was, why did it go away? If it wasn't, why was it mentioned at all?
The ephemeral nature of this form of economic sharing leads some to the conclusion that we should ignore it and definitely not emulate it. But that is way too dismissive of something that the Spirit led Luke to include in God's word. Maybe we get too hung up on the specifics of this particular manifestation of Christians participating in a new kind of koinonia. It turns out there are at least 2 lessons we can learn from this.
First, following Jesus should change how we live our lives in practical ways. It seems that this experiment was seen as a way of dealing with the inequalities in the Christian community. Some of these believers had land and goods, and some didn't. The early church obviously considered this a valid Christian way of dealing with poverty. It called for self-sacrifice on the part of the richer Christians. It called for humility on the behalf of the poorer Christians. And it called for tremendous faith in God. There are a lot of so-called Christians whose lives are no different than those of non-Christians. They really don't try to change the world, not even in small ways. But God wants to redeem and renew all of creation. If we are participating in his life, we need to be doing our share in turning the world upside down, which is to say, right side up.
Secondly, God honors efforts to serve him even if we fail in the eyes of the world. If failure is not an option, people won't try anything new. Bureaucracies don't innovate because people are not rewarded for taking risks but they are punished for failing. But if you look in the Bible, you see that God is constantly calling people out of their comfort zones to take bold actions. He calls Abram out of the earliest civilization into a lawless land to start a special nation. God calls Moses, a fugitive, to return to Egypt and lead his people to freedom. God calls a frightened Elijah out of the wilderness with a mission to confront a regime which wants his blood. Some of their efforts do not go according to plan. God promises Abraham a son through his wife Sarah. But after decades of sterility, Sarah tells Abraham to father a child by Hagar, her servant. And though the child is not the one God promised, he nevertheless makes a great nation of Ishmael, too.
Conceived in the aftermath of Pentecost, this small scale communism doesn't continue as a feature of the church but neither is it condemned. It is preserved in the book of Acts as a challenge for us to try new ways of participating in the divine life and manifesting his redemptive love in community.
Because in the final analysis this is what God is working towards; this is why Jesus came: to make us into a new community, created in his image, a community that is fit to work with God to create a new world and to someday rule it under him. In the words of 1 Peter 2:9, which we will read next week, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people....” None of those are reasons to feel superior. We were chosen, yes, but to do this work. Holy in this context simply means set apart for God's purpose. We may be kings and priests but we are also his servants. It is an honor but nothing to brag about. After all, we all started out as rebels, who had to surrender to God, accept his pardon and let him re-create us.
The church is a work in progress. It does not yet fully reflect the glory of God. Some bits of it even seem to be regressing. Too often we try to emulate the world rather than Jesus. Frequently we capitulate to the world rather than change it. We are rife with factions which are more concerned with their own rights than with feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, visiting those in prison, and welcoming the foreigner. Yet, in various places, Christians are renouncing themselves, taking up their crosses and sacrificially following Jesus.
And we must not despair. Jesus says in John 14:12 that the one who trusts in him will do greater works than Jesus did. How that is possible I do not know. But with that promise ringing in our ears, we should get started. We should start trying out things that embody the koinonia of the Spirit, no matter how idealistic or un-P.C. they are. Remember the parable of the talents. God is more concerned that his servants use the talents entrusted to them to bring in some return than that they play it safe and just conserve them. God wants us to take risks. He wants us to rethink how things are done, always in the Spirit of what he has done and said.
As N. T. Wright says, the Bible is like the first 4 acts of an uncompleted 5-act play. The story and the themes are laid out. We just need to improvise the last act in harmony with what has gone on before, keeping the story's resolution in mind. Not all of our ideas will pan out. We don't know beforehand which ones will succeed and which won't. But actors know that the worst thing to do when improvising is to just stand there. The key is to jump in. Act boldly. Stay in character. Work with what the other actors give you and be generous with them in turn. Don't worry about failing. Ignore the critics. The only opinion that matters is God's. And he says it's going to be a big hit.