Belonging

This evening we are beginning a new series of studies entitled "THE CHURCH and ... " We are going to be looking at various aspects of the Church and issues relating to the Church. We start off with the subject of BELONGING to the church. Many people treat the church as an "optional extra". Their faith is something very individualistic. "It is between me and God," they say. That bears no relationship to New Testament Christianity at all. To be a New Testament Christian meant being in the Church and belonging to an actual Christian fellowship. So I want us to begin this series by looking at the first picture you have in the bible of the Church in action after the day of Pentecost - Acts 2 verses 42-47. And I want to talk about reasons for belonging. But what is the background to our passage tonight? Answer - the work and life of the person the disciples had thought was "the Christ, the Son of the living God" had ended. He had been crucified on a Cross, the worst of all forms of executions. As terrifying then as it is today. In the paper on Friday it was reported that the Sudanese authorities are executing by crucifixion 10 people in West Darfur State. It is terrible and it was terrible. But God three days later on that first Easter Day raised Jesus Christ from the dead. The tomb was empty and the risen Jesus was seen by his disciples. We have been thinking about these things over the last two Sundays. Then the day of Pentecost came round a few weeks later. And awesome things happened to the disciples. The Holy Spirit came in utterly dramatic ways with tongues of fire on each of them. They spoke in tongues, not like modern tongue speaking (whatever people may think of that). Rather it was such that people from all over the known world were "amazed and perplexed." They said: "we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" (Acts 2 11). So they asked questions. Peter then got up and preached his first sermon. It was about the ministry of Jesus, and about his death, Resurrection and Ascension. Nor was this myth, Peter asserted (Acts 2. 32):

"we are all witnesses to this fact."

Nor was all this something just out of the blue. It had been foretold by the Prophets, he said. It was all part of God's plan for the world. It was (Acts 2.23):

"by God's set purpose and foreknowledge."

Nor was this preaching of the Gospel or "good news" just to be listened to and walked away from - like being at an entertainment or a Cup Final. No! It demanded a response. People knew it then. And people know it today when they hear Gospel-preaching. Acts 2 verse 37:

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?"

Verse 38:

Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, 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."

I don't know if there is anyone here tonight who has heard the message about Jesus - his Cross and Resurrection - long enough, and you have thought hard enough about it - perhaps over Easter - and you now need to make a response. Well, here is what you have to do. Inwardly you need to repent - that is, you need to turn from going your own way and ignoring God (the bible calls that sin) and you need to turn to Christ who died for you, in your place, bearing your sin. You do that inwardly by faith. But then you need an outward step - you need the outward profession of baptism (or if you've already been baptised you need to renew publicly your vows). And the promise here is that you will be forgiven and you will receive the Holy Spirit and he gives you new life. Who needs to turn to Christ tonight in repentance. You've done enough thinking. You now need to be definite. If so, ask Jonathan Pryke about baptism or publicly renewing your vows. But Peter went on. It was a long sermon - Luke in Acts is only giving us the gist or the basic outline of what Peter said. Look at verse 40:

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation."

Words still relevant for today. And there was an amazing result - real church growth, verse 41:

Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

What then? Luke obliges us with another summary, in verses 42-47, our passage for tonight. This is a condensed picture, but a vitally important one of the early church. And it gives us FOUR REASONS FOR BELONGING. It is on these reasons that I want us to focus tonight. The first reason is that the Church is FOR TEACHING THE BIBLE and you need that teaching. Look at verse 42:

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching.

And the true Church, or "the Spirit-filled church", is where you can "devote" yourself to, and receive, "the apostles' teaching." Some people talk about Spirit-filled churches and ones that aren't Spirit filled. That is fair enough. But how do you tell the difference? There are a lot of funny answers going around. But Luke would say, look for this characteristic first of all - it is where it's members are concerned for "the apostles' teaching." These new converts were not having some emotional or mystical experience that meant they could ignore their minds. No! The first thing they did was to "devote" themselves to the apostle's teaching. "Devote" is a strong word. It meant they spent time doing it. They persisted in doing it. They were thorough about it. Presumably they wanted to know the truth because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. Nor did these early Christians for a moment imagine that because they had received the Holy Spirit and were "born again", the Spirit was their only teacher. They didn't imagine they did not need others to teach them. No! They were desperate for teaching. They were eager to learn and discover God's truth. They wanted to learn from the apostles. That is a mark of being Spirit-filled. But why be concerned for the apostles' teaching today in 1999? Why not be as concerned to listen to some of the modern teachers who contradict the apostles. The week before last two Bishops (along with others claiming to be Christians) wrote to The Times with assumptions that seemed to contradict the clear teaching of the apostles over sexual morality. Why not listen to them? ell, one reason is given here, in verse 43:

many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.

God confirmed the teaching of the apostles by miracles. Nor were these miracles that anyone could perform. You and I may have amazing answers to prayer from time to time. But these are not of the order of Apostolic miracles. Certainly these apostolic miracles were more than turning silver amalgam teeth fillings into gold ones - something claimed in a newspaper report yesterday. The apostles raised the dead and had remarkable instantaneous healings. Paul in 2 Cor 12.12 talks of ...

... the things that mark an apostle - signs, wonders and miracles.

If they were "marks" of an apostle, they set the apostles apart. What they did was not what other Christians did. And that was a way God authenticated their teaching. A far as I know he hasn't authenticated the teaching of the Bishop of Edinburgh and the Bishop of Wolverhampton like that! Also, of course, the apostles were commissioned by Jesus himself and had met him, risen from the dead. You say, "OK, but how do you learn their teaching today? They've been dead nearly 2000 years." Answer: their teaching, in its authentic form, is in the New Testament. And the New Testament endorses the Old Testament. So you get the apostles' teaching today in the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments. And so a Spirit-filled or true church is a biblical church - it is where the bible is taught. That is why you need to belong to a church that teaches the bible. If it doesn't do that, it does not have one of the fundamental marks of the church. Now because the church is for teaching the bible, you need to be consistent in your belonging. You need to be regular. At this church (for instance) over a period of years we aim to have a rounded programme of biblical teaching. But time is precious. We cannot be repeating all the time. We can only repeat the essentials of the faith. So if you are going to be devoted to the apostles' teaching or biblical teaching and you treat JPC as your spiritual home, you can't afford to be here one week and there the next. Of course, you have to be away sometimes. But you can catch up. And you can do that by reading the sermon transcript, that you get at the tape desk at the back of the church or you can download the sermon from our church web site (www.church.org.uk - so easy to remember) or you can hear a tape or see a video. And test ever ything you hear against the bible itself. But you need to belong to a church because you need the teaching of the apostles and that is what you have in the bible. And the church is for teaching the bible. So don't belong to a church that doesn't teach the bible! Let's move on. The second reason for belonging is that the Church is FOR FELLOWSHIP and you need Christian fellowship. Look at verse 42 and 44:

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship ... (verse 44) All the believers were together and had everything in common. {45} Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.

The church is where practical needs are met. In the early days of the church (and in the West until relatively recently) meeting members financial needs was high on the agenda. But please note - this is not primitive communism. The tenses here, for those of you who know about these things, are imperfect. That means, "they were selling, they were giving." What happened was that as there were needs someone who had an asset and wanted to help others financially, sold it and used the proceeds to meet the need. Later on in Acts you hear how someone sold a field. It was private stewardship but with a recognition that material goods should be for the common good of the church. That still should be the case. And this generosity of the early church was (and still is) a mark of the Spirit filled church. This was the great mark of love in the early Church. It wasn't that all these Christians were noted for gushing all over each other. What was noted was not love as an emotion, but love as practical service. The pagans said of the early believers: "see how these Christians love one another." But they said that, we are told, in the context of Christians giving money. With the Welfare State there are undoubtedly less financial needs in the West, today. But what about the needs of Christians in the Third World or Christians in the church you know to be in need? Note it was "needs" that were met, not "wants"? However there are more needs than financial needs. There is the need for mutual care and support. And Christian fellowship supplies those needs. It does! If you are a Christian young mother in this church, for example, and you are in one of the young mothers groups, you do not have the isolation that many others have today. There are a lot of very lonely people out there in the world. There is human as well as spiritual value in the small groups and activities of the church. But fellowship is not only about how you yourself can benefit. If you are going to be faithful to the apostles' teaching, you need to serve as well as be served. You need an environment where you can exercise gifts of service. That is what the church provides. That, however, is where the rubber hits the road. Paul says (Gal 5.13):

serve one another in love.

The Christian fellowship is not just about your satisfactions and fulfilling yourself. It is about helping others and in ways that count. Are you doing that? Oh! you may say you want to do "ministry" - that is another word for "service". But it won't help if it is only in ways that you want and that are not necessarily what others need. And the ways that count include those humble tasks. That was the way of Jesus. He wiped the disciples feet, as we reminded ourselves on Maundy Thursday. So first the Church is for teaching the bible; secondly, it is for fellowship and you need fellowship. The third reason is that the Church is FOR CORPORATE WORSHIP AND PRAYER and you need to praise God together with others and to prayer together with others. These early Christians "devoted themselves" not only to "the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship" (verse 42) but also "to the breaking of bread and to prayer." The original has "the breaking of bread and the prayers." It seems this is a reference to the Lord's Supper (or Holy Communion) as we call it and prayer services or meetings - not just private prayer. And it looks as though they had both more formal and less formal times for meeting - verse 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.

They were both in the "temple courts" and "in their homes." It is unlikely they continued the sacrificial worship of the temple, but they probably made some use of the formal Jewish prayers. But they also met informally in their homes. "They broke bread in their homes and ate together" - you can't do that on your own. And they were "praising God." And they prayed together. Are you devoted to prayer - not just private prayer but corporate prayer with others. If you are a true Christian you will be praying with others. At this church there are opportunities for that on certain Wednesday evenings and there is our Day of Prayer. So thirdly the church is for corporate worship and prayer. And you need to come together with others to praise God, celebrate Holy Communion and pray. Finally, the fourth reason for belonging is that the Church is FOR EVANGELISM and you need to be involved in evangelism. Look at verse 47:

And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Jesus tells his disciples to evangelise. But, according to this verse, the Church is necessary for that evangelism. You see, evangelism is not just about people making decisions, it is about making people disciples - at least that is what Jesus said in Matthew 28.19. So when people profess faith they need to be nurtured in the Church, the Christian fellowship. They need to be added to the church. Here, then, is another mark of a truly Spirit-filled church - it is an evangelistic church. It is not just concerned with learning the bible, enjoying fellowship and experiencing corporate worship and prayer. They are all essential. But they are not enough. A healthy church is also a growing church, because it is an evangelising church. It is seeing people "being saved". How did evangelism work in the early church? The Christians preached the gospel - as Peter had done. The proclamation of the message about Jesus was, and is, still the great way the Holy Spirit brings people to faith in Christ - 1 Cor 1.21:

God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

But there were no illusions. The early Christians knew they had to be faithful in doing their part. Yet they knew that it wasn't they who were transforming men and women. It was God. It was "the Lord" who "added to their number daily those who were being saved." That is why they needed to pray and why you need to pray today. Yes, you must organize so that you can preach and speak and talk to others. But it is God, the Holy Spirit, who brings men and women to faith in Christ, not you. And these early Christians knew that when the Holy Spirit worked in someone's life he brought them to "belong" to the church. They were "added to their number." Also, this happened "daily". Is that how you see evangelism - as a daily activity? It is not just for big missions. They have their place. But are you looking out for "daily" opportunities to witness to Christ? I must conclude. I do so by repeating those four reasons for belonging to the Church. One the church is for teaching the bible; two, the church is for fellowship; three, the church is for corporate worship and prayer; and four, the church is for evangelism. And you need to belong if you are going to be part of that fourfold programme.

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