June 9, 2019
Pastor Lucas Bitter
Intown Lutheran Church (Atlanta, GA)
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The Christian Church was officially up and running! It had been an action-packed last 2 months. . .
- First, Jesus had been arrested. The crowds had left him. His own disciples deserted him. And he died on a cross, rejected and alone. The movement called Christianity appeared to be over.
- But then, on Easter, Jesus rose! And he appeared to his disciples over and over again, including one day when he appeared to more than 500 of them at the same time. And he ascended into heaven right in front of his disciples’ eyes, but not before giving them instructions to spread the gospel to the end of the earth.
And by the Day of Pentecost, it started to happen! The Christian Church was officially up and running. There were 3,120 Christians in the Jerusalem, and surely many more to come. What an exciting time for the Church . . . .
And yet their were some serious challenges waiting for these Early Christians, weren’t there? How would they be able to escape from the same Jewish leaders who crucified Jesus? How would they be able to convince pagan Greeks to suddenly turn from their false gods and worship Christ? How would they be able they plant churches in cultures unfamiliar to them, where the majority of people disagreed with them?
As they contemplated all these challenges, I wonder if the excitement of Pentecost started to wear off and be replaced with fear and pressure. “How are we possibly going to pull this thing off?”
Intown Lutheran Church is also officially up and running! It’s been an action-packed last 2 years.
- First, we did a whole year of planning. Surveying members of the community. Studying. Picking a name and a logo and a mission statement and a location.
- Then, we launched worship (exactly 9 months ago today – did you know that?) And since then we have shared God’s Word with many people through worship and Bible Study, brought several batches of new members into the congregation, and hosted a booth at a bunch of different community festivals. Last week was perhaps our biggest move yet – we just officially signed the lease on a brand-new 24/7 ministry space! What an exciting time for our church. . . .
And yet we face some serious challenges too, don’t we? Like those early Christians, we are located in an area where there are many people who do not believe what we believe. No, we don’t have angry mobs of persecutors knocking on our doors at night (in fact, overall our neighbors have been very, very nice to us.) But instead I think we face the challenges of ambivalence and apathy. There are so many people you talk to who basically say, “Yeah, church. . . . I’ve been there and done that. I know what it’s all about. And I’m just not interested anymore.” How can we convince people like this that the God of the Bible is, indeed, a God worth knowing? How can we find enough people, in general, to actually build a financially stable congregation in this crazy over-priced, fast-growing part of Atlanta? As we contemplate these challenges, it doesn’t take long for the excitement to wear off and be replaced with fear and pressure. “How are we possibly going to pull this thing off?”
Perhaps that’s a question you’re not only asking about church, but also about your own daily life.
You face financial pressures from living in the big city.
You face work pressures from working at your first big job.
You face parenting pressures from trying to bring up well-adjusted kids in a world that seems to be getting crazier by the day.
And on top of all this you face the accusations of the devil, the temptations of the world, and the weakness of your own sinful nature – which threatens to pull apart your life completely and perhaps even pull you away from your faith in God.
Fear and pressure, unfortunately, are familiar guests in all of our homes and in our lives. And we ask “How are we possibly going to pull this thing off?”
In our sermon text today, God reminds us of the key to dealing with fear and pressure in our life. That key, quite simply, is to stop focusing on ourselves. Because when we do it’s depressing. . . .
- NO, the early Christians did not have the ability in and of themselves to spread Christianity throughout the world!
- No, you and I do not have the ability in and of ourselves to build a new church in the center of Atlanta!
- No, you and I also do not have the ability in and of ourselves to be the kind of employees and spouses and parents and single people that our God wants us to be!
But that’s exactly why we can’t focus, and trust, and rely on ourselves. Instead we need to focus, and trust, and rely on Jesus.
- Jesus who has loved us and wanted us to be his since the beginning of time.
- Jesus who lived a live powerful enough to cover up all of our weaknesses, all of our sins, and guarantee us a spot at God’s right hand in heaven.
- Jesus, who promises to send his Holy Spirit with his people to spread his gospel across his world – whether that be in Jerusalem, Ephesus, Rome. . . .or Atlanta, GA.
- Jesus, who puts his Word in our mouths and assures us in the Old Testament Lesson, ‘My Word never returns to him empty – but always accomplishes what I desire and achieves the purpose for which I send it.” That applies to the outreach of our church just as much as it applies to devotion with your wife, Bible stories with your kids, and sharing the gospel with your neighbor. We have Jesus’ Word on it. His Word is always working.
So no matter what sphere or stage of life we are in, anytime we feel fear and pressure and ask, “How are we possibly going to pull this thing off?” The best answer is to stop focusing on ourselves and start focusing on Jesus
That’s exactly what our friends in the Early Church did almost 2,000 years ago. There were so many different things they could have chased after or focused on as they prepared to spread the gospel to the entire world as God had asked them to. . . . but they kept it simple. They focused on Jesus.
Our text begins, 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
These weren’t things they just happened to do. They devoted themselves to these things. They prioritized these things. They focused on these things. And so we’ll spend some time digging into each one of these things this morning.
The first thing the Early Church focused on was the Apostles’ teaching.
This was not manmade teaching (like they all really looked up to the apostles and wanted to hear their ideas.) No, this was Jesus’s teaching. Jesus had gathered these 12 apostles around himself and for 3 years straight he had trained them for this moment. He had taught them how the entire Old Testament Scriptures pointed to him. He had taught them how the whole point of the entire Bible is that sinful people get to go to heaven for free – simply by repenting and believing in the name of God’s one and Only Son. He had taught them the gospel. And he had equipped them to teach it to others.
So, the Early Church devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching. They couldn’t get enough of the Bible. They lived and breathed for that life-saving good news about Jesus.
The second thing the Early Church focused on was fellowship.
Do you know what fellowship means? When I was a kid, I always thought it was an actual ship. Our church had a “fellowship” committee which I always thought was weird because our church was landlocked and I had never seen a ship of any kind on the church campus. Maybe the fellowship committee was building it somewhere else. . . As I got older, of course, I learned that “fellowship” means the relationships we have with other Christians! As I got older I also learned that fellowship is an easy thing to fake. It’s easy for a church to boast, using buzzwords, about how their members “intentionalize community” and “form authentic relationships,” and to share Instagram pictures of their beautiful members smiling together over a latte. . . .but it’s much harder for those church members to actually be there for each other when the camera is put away. To actually listen to the serious problems that other people are struggling with. To actually admit the serious problems that you’re struggling with. To view your fellow Christians not just as people you go to church with, but as spiritual family.
Christian fellowship is easy to talk about – but harder to actually do. The Early Christian Church was actually doing it.
44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The Early Christians were so well known for their fellowship that even their enemies noticed. One unbelieving Roman ruler at this time was quoted as saying, “See how they love one another.” Their fellowship wasn’t faked, or contrived, it was real . They truly were a spiritual family.
You know why? Because they were focused on Jesus!
- Without Jesus, a church is just a gathering of people who like to hang out on Sundays. Maybe go out for brunch, take a selfie, and feel like you got your spiritual fix for the weekend.
- But with Jesus, a
church is something completely different.
- It’s a group of starving people, rejoicing that they have found bread.
- It’s a group of terminally ill people, rejoicing that their disease has been cured.
- It’s a group of sinners, learning that they have been forgiven.
So it’s actually “the teaching of the apostles” that led to “the fellowship” (does that make sense?) The closer these Early Christians got to Jesus. . . the closer he drew them to each other, as well.
The third thing the Early Church focused on was the breaking of bread. Yes, they had church potlucks. But they also had something far greater. . . .they had the Lord’s Supper.
Let me ask you a question – what’s the closest bond that a group of people can ever have in this life?
- Is it a sports team where every player has their teammates’ backs?
- Is it a unit of soldiers, a “band of brothers,” who have laid down their lives for each other again and again?
- Is it an actual band of brothers (children of the same parents who grew up together?)
- Is it the bond between a parent and a child?
- Is it the bond between a husband and a wife?
What’s the closest bond a group of people can ever have in this life?
None of the bonds I’ve listed so far can compare to the incredibly close bond of sharing the Lord’s Supper with someone else. Standing at the Lord’s table and sharing from the very same dish – or in the case of the Early Church, the very same loaf and the very same cup – the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, given into death for our sins. The Lord’s Supper is the closest bond human beings can have in this world, because it’s an appetizer for something that lasts beyond this world: the eternal marriage feast of heaven.
Wow. No wonder the Early Church “was devoted to the breaking of bread.”
Finally, the last thing the Early Church focused on was prayer. Prayer for each other. Prayer for their world. Prayer for those who were persecuting them. Prayer for those who had yet to come to faith. Personal, private prayer in their bedrooms at night. Corporate, public prayer when they met together at the temple. They prayed because they were confident that the same Jesus who died for their sins was now at the right hand of God, interceding for them and actually answering all of their prayers.
Teaching. Fellowship. Breaking of Bread. Prayer. These were the top priorities of the Early Church.
Do you notice what those four priorities all have in common? (pause) They don’t focus you on yourself. They focus you on the love of Jesus.
- Learning the love of Jesus from the Bible
- Pouring out the love of Jesus to other people in your life
- Tasting the love of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper
- Trusting the love of Jesus it in prayer
The Early Christians avoided fear and pressure by focusing on the love of Jesus instead of themselves. And guess what. It worked! The results were obvious: Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. . . . the believers praised God and enjoyed the favor of all the people. . . . and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The Early Church was not perfect. It was full of sinners just like you and me. In the years to come the Early Church would slip into false doctrines, yield to persecution, engage in immoral lifestyles, sin against each other.) Half the letters in the New Testament are written to various churches to address these kinds of problems. The Early Church was not perfect. But at the very beginning they did something right. They focused on God and not themselves. And God richly blessed both their church and their personal lives because of it.
I pray God would do the same for us – and I think he will because when you break it down, 2,000 years later, we’re still focusing on pretty much the same things.
Just like the early Christians, God’s Word is the highlight of our church service every single week. We have several readings from Scripture, as well as a longer sermon digging deeply into the truth of God’s Word. We also prioritize Bible Classes (I think Bible Basics has probably been our top offering for the community so far. We’re also planning to start Sunday School and Bible Study before worship in our new space this fall. As we spend all this time in God’s Word. . . it focuses us on Jesus. It reminds us how much he loves us. It equips us with a clearer understanding of all God’s promises, so that when life gets hard we’ve got them in our back pocket. Just as it is when we speak it to an unbeliever, so it is when we read or hear it for ourselves. God’s Word never returns to him empty.
Just like the early Christians,, we also focus on fellowship. What a blessing it is to be surrounded by intelligent people whom you love and respect, who also believe that God created the world in six days. And that every word of the Bible is God’s Word. And that heaven really does exist. You are not alone! You have a spiritual family who believes the same things you do. And when life gets hard you can turn to that spiritual family for love and support. Sometimes you are the one supporting others; sometimes others are the ones supporting you.
Just like the early Christians, we also focus on the breaking of bread. Once a month our congregation celebrates the Lord’s Supper, and I like to think of it as the best Sunday of the month. Because we are being connected with each other as closely as anybody could possibly be in this life, and because we are being connected to God with the true body and blood of his One and Only Son. As it’s sometimes called, forgiveness you can taste.
And finally, just like the early Christians, we also focus on prayer. Prayer offered publicly, with specific requests from members of the congregation (usually received from the back of the Connection Cards.) Prayer offered in private, as we take the needs of our brothers and sisters to the Lord.
Teaching. Fellowship. Breaking of Bread. Prayer.
These are the ways God takes our focus off ourselves, and puts it on our Savior Jesus.
These are the ways God takes away our fear and pressure and replaces it with confidence and peace.
These are the ways God connects us, to him and to each other.
These are the ways God builds his church.
One person, one conversation, one heart at a time.