River Church graciously invited me to preach at their 4 o’clock service yesterday. This is the full text of the sermon:
Right from an early age I have loved the book of Acts. On almost every page there are stories of extraordinary miracles and dramatic conversions, of new places reached for the gospel and cities won for the Lord. It is quite simply one of the most exciting books in the whole Bible, and it has fired the imagination of countless believers over the centuries.
However I also have to say that when I read it, I find hard not to wish that the church in general was rather more like the one Luke describes in these pages. I would love this afternoon for there to be dramatic signs and wonders among us, for hundreds of people to come to faith, and for new churches and congregations to be planted.
But the reality we face is rather different. For a start, most of us are not called to work in pioneer regions. Our calling is to keep on with the good news in the same place we have always been. When we go home from this service, we will be witnessing to families, friends, neighbours, many of whom we have been already praying for such a long time, without seeing any obvious response. Our ministry seems to be less about going, than remaining faithful exactly where we are, year out, year in, quietly pointing to the reality of Jesus Christ in our lives.
Also, we can’t ignore the fact that our faith, for better or worse, has been shaped by two thousand years of church history. Whatever you or I understand the church to be, that understanding has been shaped by generations of believers who have gone before us, have written our creeds, established our denominations, set up our ministries. We can’t simply set up a new church from scratch as if any of us this doesn’t matter.
I once went with a friend to a house church in Derby. On the way in, I was proudly told that the church didn’t sing any songs which were more than five years old. The church would have been horrified if I told them they’d already established their first tradition. Yet every church has a history and a tradition, and we can’t simply wind back the clock two thousand years. Not unless we start going round wearing togas, and eating dormice, and speaking Greek and Latin – which to me sounds plain weird.
So what is the relevance of the book of Acts to us as a church? The short answer is, that whatever our history, whatever our way of worshipping the Lord, this book gives us some key principles which should form the basis for the life of any church in any place at any time. How those principles work out will vary from church to church, but that is more important is that we understand them and seek to apply them.
Here, then, are the seven key principles from the book of Acts I would like to share with you this afternoon.
First of all, the early church was a gospel-centred church.
At Pentecost Peter concluded his sermon with these words in Acts 2:38: Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was in response to these words that the church of Jesus Christ was founded. The church was a community of believers who turned to Christ, repented of their sins, were baptised and received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
That definition of a church sounds fairly obvious and I hope all of us agree that the church should be this same kind of community today. Yet the sad reality is, too often the church seems to lose its focus and turns into something else.
So, for some people the church is a religious institution where the primary focus is on making sure the rules are obeyed, and the right procedures followed. In effect, the church is a kind of club where all the members have to sign up to the constitution in order to gain entry.
For others the church is a voluntary organisation which seeks to do good. So it becomes some kind of charity working alongside people of all faiths and none, seeking to justify its existence by the work it carries out.
And then there are some who use the church as a kind of spiritual self-help group. The focus here is on teaching how Jesus can fulfil your every need, and realise the potential you have already in you.
Now there is no doubt that a church needs to have proper procedures. It should of course aim to serve others, and it should show how Jesus can make a difference to real lives. But if there is no understanding of the need for repentance, no acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord, no openness to the Holy Spirit, then the church has lost its reason for existence.
That may sound all very obvious, but in my experience the church can so easily lose its focus on the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, we may preach the cross, and we might invite people to respond to the gospel, but I am not always sure we continue to teach the ongoing relevance of the cross to every aspect of our lives.
Listen to these words from Colossians 3:13:
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
0r again from Ephesians 5:25:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
Or from Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
In other words, our relationships, our marriages, even our deepest goals and ambitions have to be shaped day by day, hour by hour, by the fact Jesus died in my place for my sins. My calling as a follower of Christ is to respond by offering all that I am and all that I have as a living sacrifice so that my words and my actions speak of the undeserved and indescribable love of Jesus to all I meet.
This is why, secondly, the church is also called be a grace-filled church.
Let’s read on to Acts 2:42-44:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.
Now you may wonder who is this rather strange chap in a dog collar who is standing here in front of you this afternoon. Well, whisper it quietly, I was born and brought up in the other place, even though I am now a paid up member of the Green Army. My whole family went to St Leonard’s in Exeter and I heard the gospel at an early age.
When I was twelve I went on a weekend away with my Sunday School. I understood for the first time the message that Jesus died in my place for my sins. I took away a booklet called Journey into Life and I read the prayer of commitment at the end. And nothing happened. I hadn’t yet grasped what I was reading was not an interesting theory but rather an act of committing my life to the Lord.
Six months later I went on holiday to a Christian holiday centre in Yorkshire called Scargill House. I don’t remember anything I was taught in the youth programme during that fortnight. But what I do remember is the love shown to a precocious and rather confused boy who was almost a teenager. It was that love which made me understand the reality of what Jesus had done for me on a cross. So when I got back from holiday, I took that booklet out of the drawer and this time actually prayed that prayer of commitment.
Since then, I have always understood that the gospel is not just about coming into a new relationship with Jesus Christ. It is also about coming into new relationship with your brothers and sisters in Christ and together forming a new family in the Lord called the church. And that is exactly what happened at that first Pentecost as men and women, young and old responded to the good news Peter preached. Up until that point most of the people who heard Peter speak had been strangers to each other. They just happened to be in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came in power, and they came from many different nations, backgrounds and social classes. Yet when they heard the good news, they became as one in Christ. The first and most immediate outcome of Pentecost, in other words, is that the church was born.
This meant that for a start in this early church there were no insiders or outsiders – everyone had been part of the church for the same length of time! Nor there were any cliques where some were included and others excluded. Rather there was a deep, deep love which flowed into practical acts of generosity and service. Goods and possessions were seen as blessings to be shared; talents and gifts were seen as reasons to help one another. It’s little wonder then that the early church grew so fast. Because ultimately whatever we may say about the good news, it is the quality of our relationships one with another which bears out the truths we claim about Jesus Christ. And if we are serious about growing the church we need to watch our relationships one with another and strive for that same Spirit-filled unity in and amongst us.
And as these verses show, the early church was a church devoted to prayer.
It may sound obvious but it’s worth stating that whenever the first believers faced a new situation or an unexpected danger, they prayed. That does not mean each of them went away and prayed on their own. Rather as Acts 4:24 puts it: they raised their voices together in prayer to God.
Now culturally I think many of us have problems with this idea of praying together. We have this individualistic worldview where the heart of our prayer life is our own personal walk with Lord. The church prayer meeting is seen as an optional extra, something that we might attend if we have the time, and possibly even then only to support the faithful few who turn out so regularly. I need to say right off that this worldview is wrong. If you look at Scripture, there is no either/or between individual and corporate prayer. There is only a both/and. We pray both on our own and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Both ways of praying are an expression of our living relationship with our Lord and Saviour.
And I would suggest one reason why the church in this country so often appears so weak is that too few of us quite simply get together and pray as if this was the most important thing we could do. On the other hand, Acts 4:31 tells us: After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. And that is not an isolated occurrence in this book. We often speak of the book of Acts as the story of the early church but it is also a wonderful account of what happens when Christians pray. Because there is, you see, an inseparable link between the progress of the church and the priority of prayer.
Samuel Zwemer, who in the early 20th century was an American pioneer missionary to Muslims once said these words: The history of missions is the history of answered prayer. It is the key to the whole mission problem. All human means are secondary. And if you study the history of revivals over the past few hundred years, you will see that nearly everyone has been birthed in men and women getting together and praying. Corporate prayer, in other words, is the fuel which propels the church. Yet somehow or other we have convinced ourselves it is an optional extra, something for the spiritually keen who don’t really have anything better to do. That attitude, I suggest, reveals we haven’t fully understood the gospel and the grace of Jesus Christ.
As can be seen from the verses I have already quoted the early church was also focused on the word of God.
Acts 6:1-2: In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.”
Why did the twelve apostles not get involved in the daily food distribution? It wasn’t because they saw this practical task beneath them. They had been present when Jesus washed their feet, and they knew just how much their Lord and Saviour had given up for them. Nor was it simply the case that they decided that practical administration wasn’t their gift. That could easily have been misunderstood as an excuse for not doing what they really didn’t want to do in any case.
No, the apostles focused on the ministry of the word of God because they knew ultimately only that word could heal the divisions in the church. The food distribution would sort out the immediate issue, but only by concentrating on the word of God could the underlying problem be addressed.
However, as an Anglican I also recognise that in our culture today there are some believers who would at this point question precisely this direct and practical relevance of Scripture I am talking about here. The Bible is very much seen as a product of its own time and culture, unable to address the issues of the modern world in a way that we find acceptable. Such a view of the Bible is sadly all often taught in our universities and in our training colleges, and it is not surprising that those who encounter this teaching not only see the Bible as irrelevant but also come to doubt its authority and even its very inspiration as the Word of God.
Yet, for me, as an evangelical, I firmly stand on the conviction outlined in 2 Tim 3:16 that: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. In other words, I believe that the Scriptures were written for our direct practical benefit so that God could speak through His Holy Spirit to every situation that we face. I am not of course suggesting that it is always easy to understand what the Bible says. We still need to spend time studying the Word of God, going back to the original languages, looking at how other people have wrestled with the big issues that it raises. But we always do so in order that we might apply what we learn to the real situations that people are facing, and maintaining a kind of dialogue between what the Bible says and what our experience is telling us.
At St Michael’s we have recently started a sermon series on the Psalms. What strikes me again and again is how so many psalms were written precisely out of the tension David experienced between what he knew of the Lord and what was actually happening in his life. He knew the Lord to be the faithful God of the covenant who remains constant and unchanging in every season of life. But he also faced situations where he despaired of his own life and could only call out in anguish and distress. It was out of this tension he wrote so many of the psalms, and they have a spiritual power which still speaks to us today.
And it seems to me that like the apostles in the early church we still need men and women whose full-time ministry is focused on bringing the eternal word of God to bear on lives which are all too often in a state of change and confusion. After all, the divisions in the church weren’t going to be solved just by making sure everyone had an equal amount of food. In my experience you tend to find that when you have two groups who don’t get on, they will soon find something else over which they can happily – or unhappily – fall out. The apostles – and this is something that comes out again and again in the epistles – had to teach as matter of first priority about unity in the body of Christ and show how that unity had to work itself out in the life of the church in practical, concrete ways. That is why they devoted themselves to the Word of God, because it is this teaching of the Word of God which is in the end the mark of the health of any church.
But even when the church is centred on the gospel, filled with grace, devoted to prayer and focused on the word this doesn’t mean that what lies ahead will be plain sailing. For the fifth principle of the early church was that it was refined by suffering.
In Acts 6 and 7 we are told of the arrest, trial and death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As a result Acts 8:1 goes on to tell us: On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Now I guess that all of us here find the idea of suffering and persecution uncomfortable. We don’t like the idea that the Christian faith might involve a cross and we may wonder why a loving Heavenly Father would let His children go through such trials. But actually persecution is the tool that He uses to refine our faith; it shows whether when push comes to shove we really care that much about following Jesus.
Fortunately the early church was prepared for the suffering that faced them. They knew all about the suffering of Jesus Christ. The apostles had been eyewitnesses of the cross, and they would have passed on all He taught about His suffering and His death. They also had been baptised, and in those days baptism was very different from the comfortable religious rite we practice today. As soon as you confessed Jesus as your Lord, you were breaking from the rest of society who owned Caesar as their King; from your family and friends who worshipped other gods; even from your business partners who would exclude you from their trade association. Baptism really was about saying goodbye to an old way of life and making a commitment that bore a real cost.
But because the early church knew what they could expect, they had a robust Christian faith that prepared them for every season of life. And that is important. I get worried today when a kind of “Christianity lite” is preached, when the message is all about the wonder of God’s love and the joy of coming home to your Heavenly Father. That message is of course true. But it’s only half the story, and it seems to me that if we want to make disciples who stay the course we need also to teach about the cross and the cost of commitment. So that when that evil day comes we together are able still stand, confident in Jesus’ ultimate victory.
Again, at St Michael’s, in our Christian basic courses we have recently spent quite some time reflecting on these words from Romans 8:14-17:
Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
Now I would be the last person in the world who claims to have a gift of prophecy. But if there is one prediction that I would make about the future of the church in the West, it is this. We are going to increasingly be facing a situation where we will face direct opposition and at times persecution. After all, if you look at the history of the church, you will see that the freedoms we have enjoyed for hundreds of years are by and large an anomaly compared to the experience of so many other believers other world. And for a variety of reasons these freedoms are now coming under attack. You may see them as a sign of spiritual warfare, or as a sign of changes of society, or as a sign of God’s judgement upon a church that has grown complacent. But whatever the reason, we need to be prepared to face suffering and teach others to do the same. Not because we want to be martyrs, and so draw attention to ourselves, but to show that we stand in solidarity with Christ our risen Lord and want to glorify Him in our life, and where necessary, in our death.
Jim Elliott was an American missionary who was killed by the Auca Indians in Ecuador in 1956, at the age of 28. You may know his well-known saying: He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose. Our trouble it seems to me, is that we believe we can keep what we have and have the benefits of knowing Christ without bearing the cost. That, after all, is the message so many of our worship songs tell us. We need to learn to sing about suffering and about offering ourselves fully and totally to the glory of God, come what may. We may not like the lyrics as much, but at least we will be a lot clearer about understanding the path to glory.
And yet for all the trials and tribulations that the first believers faced, the early church was an outward-looking church.
Acts 11:19-21: Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
Imagine, if you will, arriving in a new place like Antioch and calling yourself a Christian. The locals would already have heard about you. They would have known the trouble you caused. Perhaps the police had orders to arrest you as soon as you showed up. Would you be willing to start sharing the good news?
Yet it seems as we read through the book of Acts almost nothing stopped the first believers speaking out. They knew just what a radical difference Jesus had made to their lives. They had a story which simply had to be told. And so they told that story, not only to people like themselves, but also to people that perhaps they previously had very little to do with. They realised that Jesus was far more than a Jewish Messiah; He was the hope for the whole world. So in many ways it didn’t matter whether the person they were seeking to reach was Jewish, Greek or from any other background. They simply saw those around them in Antioch as folk who needed to hear about Jesus, and so they spoke.
After all, if they didn’t speak about Jesus, the chances are, these folk would have ended up worshipping something else. You see, we mustn’t ever make the mistake of thinking that if we don’t share the good news of Jesus, somehow those around us will remain, as it were, spiritually neutral. More and more I find that we live in an age of great spiritual hunger and confusion, and people are looking for meaning and purpose in their lives in all kinds of strange directions.
So opposite St Michael’s there is a psychic shop where you can have your fortunes read and learn to read tarot cards. Round the corner there is a spiritualist church where mediums promise to connect you with the dearly departed. Down the road in Devonport the Scientologists have bought the Royal China Fleet Club and who knows what they will do with it once they have planning permission. And even if folk don’t go so far as to actually go to these places, this won’t mean they won’t invite the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons in when they come knocking, or go to Waterstones and browse the spirituality books, or click on a weird and wacky website promising fulfilment and well-being.
Our task to spread the good news of Jesus Christ is urgent and it is important. As in every age, we are surrounded by false gods and no gods, and we must always recognise that our primary goal is to witness to Christ and Him crucified. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:22-24: Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Two thousand years later we must continually pray that through us others discover in Christ the wisdom and power of God, for their own good, and keep looking outwards to reach those who are living and dying without the knowledge of His saving grace.
This leads to the final point that the early church kept in step with the Spirit.
Acts 13:2-3: While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
Now I realise it may be a little dangerous coming to a Pentecostal church and talking about the Holy Spirit! Again, because of our different history and experiences, you and I may have a rather different understanding of the Holy Spirit. But I am always reminded of some words George Verwer, the founder of OM, said at a conference I attended some thirty years ago: I don’t care how you get the Holy Spirit, just get it! While nowadays I might quibble at the use of the word “it”, there is a lot of truth in what he said back then.
Because if we are to be a gospel-centred church we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. If we are to be a grace-filled church we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. If we are to be devoted to prayer we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Do you get the pattern? It is the Holy Spirit who keeps us focused on the word of God, who sustains us when we are refined by suffering, who makes us an outward-looking church.
So however you or I may understand the work of the Holy Spirit, let’s together make sure we keep in step with Him. Let’s keep working together for the sake of the kingdom, valuing and recognising our differences, while seeking the common goal of making Jesus known in a world that is – in those poignant words of Ephesians 2:12 – without hope and without God.
And to that end may I humbly and warmly thank you for inviting me to preach this afternoon. If any of my words have not been of the Lord, then please let them fall away. But if the Lord has chosen to speak through me, then please do take away a little of what I’ve said. And let’s ask Him to make us more and more the people that He calls us to be, so that His church at this time and in this place is revived to the glory of His name. Amen.