This past Sunday we continued our new teaching series, Telling Our Story, by looking at how the church finally exploded into existence. Being in the room where that happened would have been pretty cool, but there’s something even better that we can be a part of: The continuation of the movement they started into our own communities. This leads us to an important question: How did the early church find such success and what were the results of their efforts? Keep reading to find out.
The Makings of a Revolution
So, last weekend, I finally got the chance to see the Broadway mega-hit, Hamilton. I had listened to the soundtrack through a few times, but there’s just something different about seeing it. The music was just better seeing it performed on stage. The story it weaves from beginning to end is powerful. It puts on beautiful display a full range of human frailty and strength, humble grace and devastating pride, kindness and cunning. The acting was wonderful, and the emotional expression achieved by the actors made seeing the show up that close much better even than seeing it in person would have been. It was, in short, a great show.
One of the most intriguing songs of the show for me came early in the second act and told of how Hamilton and Jefferson and Madison worked out a deal that allowed for the adoption of the Constitution. “The Room Where It Happens” was sung by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odem, Jr., the actors who portrayed Hamilton and Aaron Burr, respectively. The perspective is that of Burr looking in from the outside as this incredibly significant historical moment passed him by. Burr wanted to be in the room where it happens and proved himself willing to do just about anything it was going to take to achieve that goal.
Have you ever been in the room where it happens? Have you ever been there at the start of a movement? There’s just something exciting about being a part of the heady early days of a new movement that seems poised to have a powerful impact on the lives of a group of people, let alone on history itself. Something in us craves that whether pride or ambition or simply curiosity. But, while being there where everything starts is exciting, it’s what comes next that matters even more. When things get off the ground and start working as they were designed, that’s when we know just what kind of a movement we really have on our hands: a flash in the pan or something that will last. Still, being there at the beginning is pretty cool.
Well, this morning, we continue in our new series, Telling Our Story, we get the chance to be in the room where it happens as the church explodes into existence. Last week, in our first live, in-person gathering since this whole mess exploded into existence in our community, we saw how the disciples began picking up the pieces on the other side of Jesus’ ascension to the Father’s right hand. The task He had left them to complete was enormous, but they didn’t try to do all of it at once. Instead, they simply did the next right thing and began moving forward from there.
Jesus had told them to wait until the Holy Spirit came to really get started in earnest, and sure enough, a few days after He ascended into heaven before their eyes, the Spirit arrived and started making a splash almost immediately. Luke tells the story like this in Acts 2:1: “When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated and rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them.”
Imagine being in this room where it happened. Wow! right? The whole thing would have been incredibly surreal—the powerful wind, the tongues like fire, and then the sudden outburst of languages that none of them had any business knowing. Luke uses words to describe it, but you have to know that no words could have done the moment the justice it fully deserved. All the same, this is one of those scenes you just have to read in your own Bible so you can see the whole thing for yourself.
It was the sound of so many different languages being spoken that drew the crowd. You see, while we celebrate Pentecost as followers of Jesus (or, at least, more liturgical traditions do), it was originally a Jewish festival. Jews from all over the world were gathered in Jerusalem for these few days. If you’ve ever traveled to a place where English isn’t the primary language, your ears are incredibly tuned into any sound of words you recognize. Well, all of a sudden, this one morning, people from all over the known world began hearing their own language spoken by these backwoods hicks from Galilee. They were understandably curious. They were searching for some reason for this phenomenon none of them had experienced before. You and I do the same thing. That’s why talented street performers can attract a crowd. We see a crowd gathered, intuit something engaging is happening, and so we go check it out. But, because there is always at least one in a crowd, somebody cynically shouted over the fracas: “They’re just drunk!”
That was the moment something had to happened. The spell had finally been broken by this lazy curmudgeon. They were at risk of losing the crowds now. If many folks bought in to this charge, they would begin to disperse. After all, no one wants to sit around and listen to a bunch of drunk idiots for long. With the Spirit’s leading, then, Peter knew this was his moment to speak. And speak he did. Seizing on the errant charge of drunkenness, Peter took his opening and ran with it. Listen from Acts 2:14: “Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed to them: ‘Fellow Jews and all you residents of Jerusalem, let me explain this to you and pay attention to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it’s only nine in the morning. On the contrary, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel.’”
Peter goes on to show how what was happening before their eyes was a fulfilment of Scripture from start to finish. More than that, he proved from the Scriptures how God’s plan had always been for Jesus to die on behalf of sins and be raised by the Father to eternal life on the third day. Indeed, Jesus’ death and the mysterious case of His empty tomb would have been the talk of the town as the rumors flew. The infusion of fresh foreign ears who hadn’t heard about all the drama of Passover would have only served to reignite the flames of speculation. What Peter wanted them to know was clear. Luke put this in v. 32: “God raised this Jesus; we are all witnesses of this. Therefore, since he has been exalted to the right hand of God and has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, he has poured out what you both see and hear. . . .Therefore let all the house of Israel know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
When the crowd, seized by the movement of the Spirit in their midst and powerfully convicted by Peter’s convincing words, asked what they needed to do in light of all of this, Peter made the first altar call ever given. Look down to v. 38: “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.’” Luke hints that Peter’s sermon went on a good bit longer than this, but the end result is what really matters: 3,000 people embraced the Gospel and were baptized as followers of Jesus. That’s three thousand with a T-H.
But what happened next? In most of our storytelling, we tend to stop with the major success that sparks the beginning of the movement. We stop when the tyrants have been conquered. We stop at the altar with the “I do’s.” What comes next matters a great deal, though, because that’s what determines if any of the things accomplished are going to persist; it determines if the spark lights a fire that will burn or a firecracker that will explode and be gone.
Well, we know the church has burned through the centuries because here we are still telling this story that took place so many centuries ago. But how? How did it happen? What did they do that gave them such success and longevity? Fortunately, we don’t have to wonder. Luke tells us. And we do well to pay attention to this because the things that gave them such success at this foundational moment—while they won’t work in the exact same way for us as they did for them because we’re not them and our culture isn’t theirs—will spell the secret to our own success. Last week we talked about doing the next right thing when we are standing on the precipice of a scary and uncertain future. This morning Luke shows us what some of the concrete next right steps to take are. Being in the room where it happens is good, but seeing that the revolution has enough energy to become something more than a devolution back to tyranny of another kind is better.
Look now at how this happened. Luke outlines five practices and five character traits that enabled them to take root as he summarizes what happens after Peter’s powerful sermon. Let me read this for you and then we’ll talk about them. From Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
So then, what do we see here? The first practice is that they were devoted to the apostles’ teaching. What this means is that they were studying the Scriptures together. The church that thrives is the one that studies the Scriptures together. Believers who do not regularly and seriously engage with the Scriptures are believers who do not grow in Christ like they were designed. There’s simply no way around that. This needs to happen individually and as a community. Both are essential to our success. And the character trait that enables this practice to take root is a sense of awe at what God is doing in our midst. The people were filled with awe, Luke said. Simply put: We should be excited about God. A successful church is excited about God and His activities in their midst. The more excited we are about God, the more we’ll be drawn to know Him more—which is a draw to the Scriptures. So, are you excited about God and what He’s doing in our midst?
The second foundational practice here is fellowship. Simply put: believers need time fellowshipping with other believers. Without that, we won’t build the healthy relationships we need to survive in a hostile world. This is why we met at the Gathering Place on Wednesday nights and will again as soon as wisdom allows. If you’re not coming to the Gathering Place, you won’t connect with this church as fully as you could be. And as for the character trait that undergirds this practice, Luke writes that the believers held everything in common. This is not socialism. This is describing a recognition on their part that they were all in this together. No one considered what they had to be theirs, but gifts from God to be used willingly for the advancement of the kingdom starting in the lives of their brothers and sisters in the Lord and flowing outward from there. This sense of unity, you might call it, strengthens our fellowship and makes us able to stand.
The third thing Luke says they did was to be devoted to the breaking of bread. This is not just talking about eating together. This is talking about observing the Lord’s Supper together. This is a practice that flows out of our relationship with Christ and isn’t simply an artifice of religion, but nonetheless, it is a religious practice. Part of being the church is pursuing the elements of religion together. Religion itself is not the evil it is often portrayed as being nowadays. Oh, it can easily become that, but all religion is at its core is an organized approach to creating space in our lives for connecting with God. That’s something we need to do together if we are going to thrive as a church. The character trait which helps to keep this from becoming the soul-sucking empty exercise it too often becomes is generosity. The first church was deeply rooted in generosity, both communal and personal. And this wasn’t about them simply giving away a bunch of their stuff—although they certainly did do that. It was about a spirit of generosity that played itself out in all kinds of ways in their community and beyond. A generous community can share together in their relationship with Jesus and pursue Him gladly from out of that place without fear that the physical practices they use to help them in that pursuit will become emptied of their spiritual significance. A generous community knows no need and seeks to eliminate need in the area within its sphere of influence. And, as Jesus’ brother James would later observe, that kind of enacted generosity is the substance of real religion. A generous spirit like this is one that looks to share not just stuff, but the Gospel itself. And a church that is sharing the Gospel is a church that is working as it was designed.
Number four. Luke says they were devoted to prayer. We touched on this last week. Let me say it again: Prayer has to undergird everything that we do. Prayer is the first and most important way that we can stay connected with our God and thereby tuned in to the plans He has for His world which He wants to see accomplished through us. This commitment to prayer, if we let it, will actually play itself out in a fourth character trait. We see that in v. 46. Luke tells us that they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. That is, their commitment to pursuing God through prayer played itself out in a pursuit of God into the world around them where He was most active. They let the prayer they practiced in secret overflow into public ministry.
This in turn led to the final practice which can be seen as a result of the rest. They enjoyed the favor of all the people. Now, this doesn’t mean they were trying to curry favor with the community in ways that were in contradiction to the Gospel as we sometimes see churches doing today. Instead, all the people around them liked them because they were just so likeable. They excelled at loving one another in the church which has a consistent tendency to begin spilling over onto others outside the church which tends to bring favor because people like it when you do good things to and for them. And it was their character of joyfulness that most enabled this. The church should be the most joyful place in the community. A spirit of joyfulness should pervade everything it does. And why not? We serve the God who is good and has good plans for us that will come to pass no matter what happens here and now. We have every reason in the world to be the most joyful people in the world.
A movement powered by those five things cannot fail. A church empowered by these practices and character traits will thrive. When we study the Scriptures with a palpable sense of awe; when we fellowship together with a spirit of unity; when we pursue our relationship with God with a spirit of generosity; when we prayerfully engage with our community; and when we gain the favor of all the people because of the infectious joy bursting from out of our doors, we will see the community around us transformed. We will see lives renewed. We will see people saved. That’s what happened at the end here. Remember what Luke wrote? Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. Being in the room where it happens is great, but this is where the real magic is. When the church works like it was designed, people are saved.
As we begin moving forward together as a community again, if we want to see salvations multiply, this is the path we need to take. When the church works like it was designed, people are saved. We weren’t in the room. We can read about it like we have today, and it’s an incredible story, but we weren’t there and can’t fix that. But we can be a part of seeing what started there continue to unfurl in this community and beyond; we can be a part of seeing salvation brought to a lost and dying world. The only question is: Are we willing to do it? When the church works like it was designed, people are saved. Let’s get to work.