Sunday, 3 January 2016

The DNA of Church Life: Sermon Text

If you’re like me then, this morning, you’ll be feeling a bit weird. The Christmas and New Year Holidays suspend the normal rhythms of life. Our bodies have not been through the usual Monday to Saturday routines that we do week in week out and so, we can find ourselves a bit detached and disorientated when arriving here on this first Sunday of the year.

However, whatever we feel this morning, we stand, as individuals, as families, as a church family, as a town and as a nation at the beginning of another year. Whether we want it to or not, the great big wheel of life is about to make another turn as it travels down the road of history. In the coming year, we will do many of the same things again that we did last year, and that’s good. The routines and rhythms of our lives give us a great sense of identity, direction, passion and conviction. They reveal what we truly believe to be important. But there will also be new things in 2016; some we will have planned for, others we won’t have. Some will be in our control, others will be beyond our control. And no matter how cynical you may have become about New Year’s resolutions, it is always important to reflect on where you’ve been and where you’re going.

Take a look at the photo behind me. I’m not sure how easy it is for those at the back to pick out individual faces, but this is a photo of an RFC morning meeting from about 7-8 years ago.

There are many people in this photo who have relocated to new places and new stages of life e.g. Sitho and Miranda being the most obvious here. Those of us who are still around have also change stages of life, James Del Rio has shorter hair and has become a dad, whilst I have more hair, at least on my face and I’m married with a kid arriving imminently . Scott and Bea have children, and Zoe Green, a mere tot in this picture, started secondary school this year.

If you think back to ten years ago, you could cite many things that have changed since that time, but there are no doubt many things that are still the same too. At a very basic level, you’re still eating three meals a day, still sleeping for roughly 8hrs over a 24hr period, maybe still watching Eastenders, or tuning in to the football results, still seeing many of the people you know from back then, a good number of them you saw just this last week.

Healthy human life on every level personal and communal is always a mixture of things that remain constant and repeated and things that are changing.

As a church there are many things that have remained the same, we still meet on Sundays to worship Jesus, teach the Bible, take up an offering, take communion and encourage one another to live faithfully for Jesus in the nitty-gritty of the day to day. Many of us still meet mid-week in small groups of various kinds to encourage one another because once every seven days is not often enough. However, things are also different now, we are gathering a greater diversity of people than ever before at more times and locations than ever before.

And so this morning, at the turn of another year, I want to shine a spotlight on those constant routines, which have be growing and advancing the kingdom of God ever since the church was birthed about 2000 years ago and after me, Ian Anderson will get up and tell us how we are looking to work some of that out in our refreshed small group system and how you can get involved.

Following that, over the next two Sundays, Scott and Andy will further flesh out some of those refreshments to our small groups system by talking about two new kinds of groups that we want to dovetail into the our current way of doing things. The reason we are making those additions is because we live in 21st century Reading, not first century Judea and we want to best serve all of you who come through our doors at each of our three Sunday meetings.
Our hope is that if you are:
  1. Currently happy in a lifegroup, little will change,
  2. If you are new, you will find it easier to get knitted into our small group community life, and
  3. If you are a long term RFC member, there will be something new and invigorating for you to get involved in so that you don’t feel like small group life is more of a treadmill than a joy.
So if you have a Bible, please turn with me to one of the most well-known passages in the New Testament: Acts 2:42-47 and let’s take our noses off the grindstone of the present moment and see what the Spirit of God stirs in us afresh as we read and meditate on it together.

And they [that’s the new believers – the early church] devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47

Acts 2:42-47 shows us the “DNA” of the routines in the early church. (If you can make it out, it’s DNA in the image behind the text on this slide). Every human being has the same essential DNA, it’s what makes us human as opposed to ants or pigs, or tulips, but every human being’s DNA is slightly different. Some people have blue eyes, others brown, some people have black hair, others blond etc etc. So whilst we aim to have the same “DNA” as the early church, because we live in 21st century Reading, it will look different on the surface.

So what was the DNA of those first Christians?

The passage opens with the phrase they devoted themselves in other words, they made a conscious effort to make the things we’re about to look at a priority. There’s no sense of accident, no sense of “can I be bothered today? No sense of “well if it happens, it happens.” No doubt this devoting meant persevering for the long haul – a kind of “for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health” style devotion, the kind of devotions where they had to give up other things, things that they used to do, because no matter how rich or poor you are, in the wisdom of God we all have only 24hrs in a day.

Now Baby Walker is on the way, Elli and I will have to rethink how this devotion will look for us. Elli has given up paid employment and I have given up extra management responsibility at work so that we can together devote ourselves to the Lord in this new season. Our seasons of life change and with each change, we need to reassess, and devote ourselves again to the important things.

If you are honest with yourself, as 2016 stretches out in front of you, what do you need to give up / or just do less, so that you can devote yourself to the most important things?

To frame that question more positively, what do you need to pick up in 2016? For some of us, there are some things in the list behind me that we’ve never really thought about doing, for others of us, we have done them in fits and starts, in a hit and miss kind of way, for others, we are flying on some of these. But I would be willing to guess that none of us are sitting there thinking that we have all six totally nailed.

My aim, as we walk through this list is not to burden us with huge expectations, and fill up our diaries with more meetings, it is to show you how God wants to share his heart with us and wants you to share your heart with him. He loves you unbelievably – more than you could ask or think and in inviting us into these six things, he is inviting us into his heart.

So, firstly, v46 they regularly met together, both in large gatherings at the Temple and house to house across the city of Jerusalem. There isn’t any detail about how the system worked, only that they wanted to be in each other’s lives a lot. They were a new family, and healthy family life means they made it a priority to be regularly physically in each other’s presence, social media was not enough, and they only used Skype when for a time, they were forced apart by circumstance.
It’s these regular meetings together of various kinds that make the rest of the passage we looked at possible. They didn’t have the internet or books or TV to get what they needed, or electronic giving as a way of helping the needy from the comfort of the sofa. If they wanted to grow in understanding, or meet the needs of others they had to get of the sofa and go and find a real person to do it. And they knew that if they didn’t do it, their hearts would grow cold. (Heb.10:25)

And what did they do when they met together?

Well, second on the list. verse 42 says, they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching. What was the Apostles’ teaching? I hear you say. It’s everything that Jesus’ disciples (now apostles)
  1. Learned from him as they lived with him during his life on earth (1 John 1:1-2),
  2. It was learning how Jesus is the fulfilment of all the Old Testament hope (Lk.24:27) and
  3. It was learning how Jesus’ life and work transform everything for the world, now and forever. (Rev. 21:5)
In short, they devoted themselves to understanding what we would now call the whole Bible and what it meant for their lives and they devoted themselves to those who helped them to understand it, because in doing so they got to know God’s heart. Like I said a second ago, the only way they got the vast majority of that teaching was to be in the physical presence of those who were delivering it. They didn’t have the Internet.

Now in our day, assuming we have appetite to know what the Bible says, then beyond the 30min Sunday sermon, we are drowning in all kinds of clever ways and means to get the Bible and its message into our hearts whether through reading, hearing or watching, whether free online or through the purchase of study materials. For us, as we seek to get the solid gold teaching of the Bible into our hearts, we need to ensure:
  1. That we are listening to people who teach what the Bible actually says and not to those who are twisting its message - that means using the Bible to make you a follower of them rather than a follower of God.
  2. That what we are listening to isn’t making us proud and drawing us away from the local church.
  3. That we are around people who help us not only understand it, but put it into practice so we don’t become hypocrites.
How are you doing with getting the words of the Bible into your heart? If you only ate meals, as often as you read the Bible what would your body look like? If the answer is not good or dead, what needs to change so that you can feed and thrive your soul? (If you can’t find anything, let me know, I will do all I can to help point you in the right direction.)

Thirdly, they devoted themselves to fellowship. Fellowship is being united together around a great cause. It’s more than friendship and definitely more than just acquaintance. Friendship is what we do when we need to relax, Fellowship is what we do when we want to work together to make a difference. Chatting about football over coffee after this meeting is nice, but in the strictest term, it is not fellowship. Both friendship and fellowship are needed, because life is a rhythm of work and rest, and we should do our best to embrace both, whilst not confusing or pushing too far one way or the other. The early believers no doubt enjoyed each other’s company, and relaxed with each other, but they also devoted themselves to the fellowship task of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. I consider Sean and Scott both as my brothers in the fellowship of the gospel, but also as friends because I enjoy relaxing with them on the rare occasions we get opportunity for that, like the meal we had together before Christmas.

Jesus reigns and calls us into the mission of carrying his presence to every nook and cranny of the world. Like the Fellowship of the Ring in Tolkien’s books, the fellowship of the church calls us all to unite in and work for a greater cause than our own lives would naturally give to us.
Based on these definitions of friendship and fellowship. How much of your interaction with other Christians needs to shift in focus. I guess some of us need to chill out a bit and take ourselves less seriously – It’s Jesus who is God’s gift to the world, not you or me, but others of us need to step up and take ourselves more seriously – again, Jesus is God’s gift to the world, but the God of Heaven calls all of us to stop lingering in the shadows and get into the task of bringing the Kindgom of God to the whole of creation whether on our doorstep or around the world.

Fourthly, they devoted themselves to the “breaking of bread.” That means, they ate meals together. They ate meals together in each other’s homes and they ate meals together as a church. Moreover, they took communion together – that is bread and wine.
Now this sharing of food together was more than a mere refuelling session – topping up on much needed calories and nutrients, it was a sharing of lives. So long as you’re not all hypnotised together in front of a TV screen, then when you share food together, you share hearts together. When we take communion together, we are sharing a meal with God, and sharing our hearts with him. Whether that is in your home or out and about in Starbucks because living in a shared house setting means you can’t always spontaneously invite people back to your place.

Two quick things about this sharing food is sharing life thing.
  1. If you are inviting people to share food with you, remember that these are family meals, not Great British Bake Off auditions. When you invite Christians to your house, just put in front of them what you would normally eat yourself, whether that is a ready meal, beans on toast, pizza and chips or something else. Don’t get caught in that toxic mentality that says you have to cook something, better, impressive or different. Don’t put the cart before the horse, sharing food creates an opportunity to share hearts together. It’s not about you and your clever cookery, so don’t close your heart to offering someone a meal because you can’t so something that in your head looks “good enough.” More than that, if you’re too busy feeling annoyed about the consistency of your chocolate pudding, you’ll become annoying because you won’t be really listening to or engaging in the conversation with the people around you.
  2. If you are invited to eat together with someone, say yes (assuming the diary allows of course) and thank them. If you have any dietary requirements, or food you really can’t stand then say so because they won’t want to torture your taste buds or make you ill. When you arrive enjoy what they put in front of you even if it is not what you would make for yourself and thank them for what they have taken time to prepare and thank God that you have a meal to eat. Then share your lives together.
Last year we had the month of meals, where we were all encouraged to get together over food, why not, in the spirit of that, think of someone now that you could invite round for a bite or take them out for a drink or a meal before the month of January is over. And if you do invite them round, remember, it’s ok to give them turkey left overs. ☺

Fifthly, they devoted themselves to prayer. Now when I read the word prayer in that text, I think all of the following happened:
  1. Singing songs (Col.3:16)
  2. Singing or saying the psalms of the Old Testament together – a practice that the more modern churches have lost in recent decades (Eph. 5:19)
  3. Practising the gifts of the Holy Spirit like prophecy, words of knowledge etc
  4. Praying for the successful advance of the Gospel (2 Cor. 1:11, Phil. 1:19)
  5. Times of fasting (Acts 13:2)
  6. People praying on their own
  7. People praying informally together
  8. Organised prayer meetings

A healthy prayer life, will have all of these elements in it.

Prayer does a number of things:
  1. It draws us closer to God and brings the Kingdom of God to earth – on earth as it is in Heaven. (Matt.6:10)
  2. It reminds us that it is God’s power that changes the world, not our clever words or organisation (although those are part of it too.)
  3. It builds trust. Hearing a person pray helps forge trust between you. (John 15:7)
  4. It births in us a generosity of heart to others –It’s hard to hold a grudge against someone you are praying for God to bless. God softens your heart in the praying. (2 Tim 2:8)
  5. It reveals to us what our priorities in life really are. You and I will spend our time praying about the things that are most important to you (1 Peter 5:7).
What do your prayer routines say about you? What do they reveal about your priorities? What adjustments do you need to make?

Mention Prayermate App if time.

And finally, they devoted themselves to meeting each other’s needs. You see, when you are family, you cease to draw strong lines about what belongs to whom. This is a hard idea to grasp in our culture, because, even in our sense of family, we are so rabidly individualistic. From their very first steps, our children grow up in an environment, which is always drawing lines about what belong to whom. Many children have their own room where they can cultivate the life long capitalist routine of amassing a stash of stuff they can call “MINE” and mine means “NOT YOURS”

But if like me, you have had the privilege of travelling to far flung places that aren’t so chronically individualistic, you find that families and communities don’t talk in such strong terms of “MINE, NOT YOURS,” but rather they share everything together according to need. They aren’t communist, it’s just that when you are poor and all your family lives in one or two rooms, it’s very hard to develop a sense of entitlement to your own things, like we do in the prosperous West, because poverty and necessity give rise to a common dependency which means people share.

Consider your own biological family. If relations are good between you, then when one of your family member hits hard times, then the other family members do all they can to help them out, even going without in their own lives to ensure the others who have fallen on hard times, for whatever reason, have what they need. And they do it not because they have too, but because they are family and that is what healthy family does. It sticks together supporting one another.

The early church was God’s family, and so when one person got into difficulty, then others helped them out, not because they were forced to, of felt they had to, but because they considered them to be family, like their very own flesh and blood.

Now that happens here in RFC – both formally and informally. Formally, before Christmas, the elders gather info from the church family about who is in need and as a church family we distributed food vouchers various people.

But it also goes on more informally in the day to day, ranging from people helping others out who are in desperate times to people helping others out who just need a hand.

Now, what does the passage say happened when the believers devoted themselves to these things? Well six things happened:

  1. v43 they revered God – They began to see God’s words as more important than their own opinions – they put their own self-centred assumptions to one side, chose to do what God said and saw that he was able to do super abundantly more than they could ever ask or think.
  2. v46 they had joy – They managed to break free from the lie that we are most happy when we focus on ourselves and came to understand the truth that obedience, far from being the road to slavery and misery, was the road to true liberation and joy.
  3. v43 the apostles did miracles - This is a truth that our individualistic culture finds hard to swallow and I am not entirely sure how it works, but due to the obedience and devotion of the whole church - together, certain individuals, namely the apostles were performing signs and wonders. Our obedience, or lack of it, to God, doesn’t just affect the fruitfulness of our own lives, it affects the fruitfulness of the wider church family. Imagine what God would do if we all devoted ourselves wholeheartedly to all these things above.
  4. v47 they praised God They saw all that God hand done and all that he was doing and they couldn’t help but burst forth in praise to God. And as per Psalm 67 when the praises and obediences went up, the blessings came down and at this point in the story they came down in two ways:
  5. v47 they had the favour of the wider community People were saying – wow – God is really among you! Now whilst the respect would remain, the favour wouldn’t last for long, after the stoning of Stephen at the end of Acts 7 the wider community and especially the authorities, became hostile to the early church favour turned to fear and suspicion, but even they would have still revered them and what is most important in all this is not wider society’s opinion on the church for that changes with the fads and fashions of the times; what matters is that God’s people are faithful to all that he asks of them.
  6. v47 People were converted and added into the church God blessed their endeavours, spoke life into dead souls. Whilst we can never turn the word of God into a robotic formula, nevertheless, as they gave themselves to God, God blessed their endeavours with life – new spiritual life.
2016 stretches out in front of us, and God has given us everything we need for life and godliness though his Son and the presence of his Spirit with us, so that we can with confidence devote ourselves the things we have highlighted this morning. Now, Ian is going to come and tell us about how we can work some of this out by getting involved in small groups, as they give us a great opportunity to grow in the likeness of God.