GOD'S CHURCH - THE FOUR ESSENTIALS
Dear Christian friends,
I am going to admit something to you. I have preached these words from the book of Acts before. In fact, I did so almost 13 years ago next month when I became the pastor of this congregation. These words from Acts 2 really served as the agenda for the ministry I would have here at MessiahLutheranChurch. I like to think that these words didn’t form my agenda but are the Lord’s agenda for his church.
When I served as the chairman of the South Atlantic District Mission Board, in my twelve years as chairman we started 29 missions in the Southeastern United States. I traveled to all the places where we started the missions. Sometimes I preached for the trial service before the big first one – the Grand opening, if you will. The congregation that already had been gathered rehearsed for that service the next week. As the chairman of the Mission Board I came to encourage them. I preached at that service. I always used this passage from the Book of Acts. In my estimation, this passage really instructs what every church should be doing.
Why am I using these words today? To be honest we got back from vacation on Thursday evening. I wanted something to preach about. But that isn’t the only reason, nor is it the main reason. I am finishing the topic we have spent our time on this summer – God’s Church. We have studied on the consecutive weeks what it means, where it is found, what is taught matters, her assignment, and to whom she (God’s church) needs to go. Today we speak about the “God’s Church - Four Essentials.” What are they? 1) The Apostles Teaching; 2) The Fellowship. 3) The Breaking of Bread and 4) Prayer.
These words take us back to the early church in Jerusalem, the first Christian Church, the one that grew out of Pentecost. It was quite the church. It was a dynamic church. Was it because they had a choir of a thousand people and an orchestra that could outdo the New York Philharmonic? Did they have a crystal cathedral with extraordinary stain glass depicting every facet of Jesus’ life? Was this a congregation that had all the big Jewish stars of film, screen and stage? What made them a great church was the fact that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. These are the things that make a church the kind of church God wants any church to be.
What does it mean that they “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching?” Weren’t the apostles the simple gentlemen – many who were fishermen? Weren’t the apostles the ones who got into an argument about who was the greatest of hem all? Didn’t these guys run away from Jesus when they were in the Garden of Gethsemane and dessert him when the chips were down? Why in the world would anyone want to devote themselves to what they taught?
While it is true that these disciples were not always on track with Jesus, we need to remember the rest of the story. They did spend three years with Jesus. Most importantly we need to remember what Jesus promised to them. On the night before he died he promised,
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Think about what the Lord is saying there. Those words were speaking about the future – about Pentecost. He would and did send the Holy Spirit and did exactly what Jesus said he would do. God sent the Holy Spirit to them so they would preach exactly what Jesus taught them. So they were teaching the Word of God. So when the first Christian church devoted themselves the apostle’s teaching, they devoted themselves to the Word of God. Not only did the apostles teach the word of God, they wrote it down. It is the New Testament of God’s holy book – the Bible.
It is not surprising then that an essential of the Church and her work is to preach the Word of God. Let me tell you something that I find absolutely amazing. I am not patting myself on the back by any means because I take it for granted, but I have heard far too often from visitors to the churches I have served far too often, “Pastor, thanks for the biblically based sermon. We haven’t always heard one in churches we have visited” or in some cases were members. That blows my mind, and it ought to blow your mind also if you don’t hear one from this pulpit or any church you attend that claims to be Christian. You know what? Apparently it isn’t necessarily a guarantee. I wouldn’t know. I work almost every Sunday.
When we preach the Word of God, we need to preach the two main messages of the Bible, the Law and the Gospel. He wants us to teach God’s commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, God commands us to stop being hateful and cantankerous and mean. He wants us to quit being selfish and self-centered. He wants us to put ourselves and our wishes aside and recognize that God is number one and others are second and we are last in the pecking order. If we fail, we sin. If we sin (and we all sure do) we deserve to go to hell. Yes, hell! Jesus spoke of it like this that we deserve to go “to outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
But what Jesus taught doesn’t end there in outer darkness and with weeping and gnashing of teeth. The apostles were taught to preach and teach what they were taught and saw. Jesus came to the world because he loved the world. He taught and he accomplished a huge triumph. It was his triumph over sin and death. There is a message of a blood stained cross where he paid the wages of sin. There is an empty grave where God shows us the payment for sin was complete. We have peace and pardon fully and freely and forever. The message is all about grace. We can’t do anything to receive it or deserve it. It’s all done – by God himself. Believe it! That’s the apostles’ teaching. That’s the message of the Bible, an essential of God’s church.
They devoted themselves to the fellowship. We have a fellowship hour after church, don’t we? Sometimes we equate that fellowship hour with what Luke is talking about here – a time for coffee and doughnuts or those little cinnamon rolls that you get at Costco, or those sandwiches that have that ham spread or chicken salad in them. Let’s not even talk about the chocolate chip cookies! How could they have fellowship without Costco?
When they had fellowship, they had something more precious and more needed than chocolate cookies. Fellowship is a bond that we enjoy because we know the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We know God created us and preserves us. We know Jesus redeems us and makes us his own. We know the Holy Spirit is the one who convinces us that all of this is true as he gives us faith through the Word that is preached and the sacrament that is received.
In this fellowship we love each other, support each other and encourage each other. We serve the Lord who brings us together and serve by each other’s side and at the Lord’s side. In this fellowship we do things together like teaching what the Lord has taught us to teach, from this pulpit, in Bible classes, in Sunday school classrooms, in your homes. We support the preaching and teaching of the Gospel as we do through our Wisconsin Synod in foreign lands and in our own world here.
This whole concept of fellowship in the Christian church has been around ever since there were believers on this earth – Adam and Eve, Abraham. Even Noah felt it although it was only with the seven others who were in the ark.
This fellowship goes beyond this world. We even have fellowship with the saints who are in heaven. When we get there it will be perfect and forever. This fellowship, this bond we have, is something we need to expect and treasure and strengthen as we reach out to each other and others who are don’t have it yet since they don’t know Christ yet. Fellowship, the second essential of God’s Church!
The third is that devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. Some believe that people ate together a lot. Maybe they did, but that is not what Luke is referring to here. This is the Lord’s Supper.
They did things a little differently in those days. The early Christian church had something called the Agape Feast. They would eat a meal together and worship during the meal and then end it with the Lord’s Supper. They enjoyed the blessings that go with the Lord’s Supper.
Some like to refer to the Lord’s Supper as the visible Gospel. As Luther says, "In, with, and under the bread and wine, we receive Christ’s true body and blood to eat and to drink.” Why? “For the forgiveness of our sins!” In a most personal way and in a most intimate and individual way our Lord assures us the forgiveness of sins as he gives us of himself in body an blood, the body and blood that won for us forgiveness of sins.
But there is another Sacrament too – Baptism! It is tragic that the blessings are not proclaimed as they ought to be among so many Christian churches. Romans 6 tells us we are united with Christ or engrafted into Christ and raised with Christ; Galatians 3 tells us we are clothed in Christ. Acts 2 tells us our sins are forgiven and we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. John 3 tells us we are born again. II Corinthians 12 tells us we are made members of the God’s Church. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper – Lutherans refer to them as the Means of Grace – are essential in God’s Church.
The early Christian Church also devoted themselves to prayer. That was really practiced in the early Christian Church. Prayer was taken very seriously. They prayed for each other. They prayed for the apostles. They prayed people out of prison because many Christians were thrown into prison because they not only believed but taught that Jesus arose from the dead. Jesus cleansed the temple one day because so many merchants had taken it over. He told the people that God’s church is a house of prayer.
I have been in missions all my ministry and have noticed this. When I try to pray through our membership, from things that I learn and know about you people, it is hard to pray through the membership list in a day. It takes time! Then there is a world to pray for, and government to pray for – more than ever. There is so much to pray for no wonder the Bible says, “Pray continually.” Don’t look at our prayer list that we keep in the bulletin as an announcement telling you who is hurting or needing help, it is a list of people for whom to pray!
These days there are a lot of trends and fads that people are looking for and doing in churches. There is a church in Illinois that advertised they would change your oil while you go to church. There are diet classes, job classes. You can get into baseball leagues, basketball leagues, soccer leagues, exercise classes and just about everything else under the sun to attract people. I am not critical of that at all as long as the essentials go with it – the apostles teaching, the devotion to the fellowship, the breaking of bread (God’s sacrament) and prayer. That ultimately needs to be our business here as we pray that God would bless it.