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Mar 26, 2017

True North | Biblical Community

True North | Biblical Community

Passage: Acts 2:42-47

Speaker: Jerry Deck

Series: True North

Category: Weekend Message

Today we’re talking about biblical community which is why I thought it would be good to look at the early church which is a quintessential biblical community. So, what is a biblical community? What do we look for in biblical communities? Why are they important? I thought it interesting that as I was thinking about that this week I happened upon this video that a buddy of mine posted on FB. Take a look. (show video)

The video is both funny and, if I’m honest, a bit sad to me. Yes, it is tongue-in-cheek in many ways, but quite frankly it also hits a bit close to home and it’s startling when you juxtapose it next to Acts 2. When we think about finding a biblical community or being a biblical community it seems that with some frequency the things we are looking for look a fair amount like the video and not as much like the books of Acts. So, what are we as a church that desires to be a biblical community supposed to look like? This is something that I address to every adult inquirer’s class that we hold and I thought that perhaps I would begin by talking about what we talk about during those classes. 

First, when talking about biblical community, and this is absolutely crucial, the place to begin is not with biblical community. If you begin with biblical community you will inevitably end up in the wrong place. The place to begin is with God and God’s mission in our world. So, we start with a timeline of sorts. Now obviously God has no beginning and no end, but we and our world do and so we start right here with God. God created the world and we like to say that God created the world much like soon-to-be parents set up the nursery for their coming child. Though you may not actually see the child yet you paint the walls and put in the crib and set up a changing table and put a mobile in place all because you already love this child and you want him or her to have a wonderful, comfortable place in which to live and rest. In the same way, well before we were born, God already loved us and so he created this world in order to be a wonderful, comfortable place in which to live and rest. And after having done so he creates Adam and then Eve and his message for them, both verbally and non-verbally is that he loves them and he wants them to love the creation and one another. His mission is to be in relationship with them, to love them and then for them to reflect that love to others.

Of course, they ended up rejecting that, but that didn’t mean that God’s mission was going to be thwarted. And so we see in scripture story after story where God keeps going about his mission of loving that which he created, of longing to be in relationship with them and calling them to love him and to love others. We see him calling Abraham and Sarah and letting them know that he loves them and that they are now blessed to be a blessing. He calls Moses and reminds him of his love for him and then how he is called to share that love with others by freeing the Israelites from their chains of slavery. We see it in the story of Joseph whom God continues to be with and to love and then God calls him to love others through helping them through the famine. Even the prophets that we see in the Old Testament, people who we may think seem angry or mean, are there to offer correction to the Israelites because it is clear that they have forgotten that they are loved by God, that he longs to be in relationship with them and that they are called to reflect that love to others. God’s mission keeps going.

And then, of course, we have the birth of Jesus. And without question, Jesus is born on this earth so that God can say in person, I love you, I want to be in relationship with you and I want you to love others. Remember what Jesus said the two great commandments are? To love God and to love our neighbor. The same mission, from the very beginning (this is not complicated!). And this mission is demonstrated most beautifully in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And then Jesus tells the disciples, whom he taught for 3 years this mission (with mixed results), to wait in Jerusalem because the spirit of God is going to come upon them. And the Spirit of God does exactly that and the church community is born. I realize that this may surprise some people, but the church community’s role is to do what? Yes, to help others to experience the love of God, to let them know that Jesus longs to be in relationship with them and to help them to spread that love to others. But, and this is critical to see, this mission does not end with the book of Revelation. Because throughout the last 2,000 years the church has tried to continue in this mission. Obviously, we have not been perfect in this, but throughout the time of our early church fathers and mothers to the Reformation 500 years ago the mission of God has continued.

And then in 1983 something happened. And that something was the birth of ZPC. And why was ZPC born? Not because people had nothing else to do and so they thought, “Let’s get a group of people together and form a community?” No, because they sensed that this part of God’s world, this part of America, this part of Indiana, and this part of the greater Indianapolis area, needed to be reminded that God loved them, that God wanted to be in relationship with them and that they are called to reflect that love. In other words, this group of people wanted to join into God’s mission. If this timeline were a river then the image is of the biblical community jumping into that river, into God’s mission. This isn’t the biblical community standing on the shores, dipping a pail into the river and then pouring it where it thinks it should. No, we dive into the river of God’s mission and we as a community take that to wherever God desires. One quote that I have come to love that expresses this is that “God’s church doesn’t have a mission, but God’s mission has a church.” Let me say that again, “God’s church doesn’t have a mission, God’s mission has a church.” It’s critical that when we think about the biblical community that we begin there.

One of my favorite professors at seminary said it like this, “The church of Jesus Christ is not the purpose or goal of the gospel (in other words, biblical community is not the purpose or goal of the gospel), but it is the instrument and witness of the gospel.” This is vital to see because it puts community in the exact right spot. When community becomes the sole reason why we exist then we have lost our ability to fulfill God’s mission, but at the same time when we don’t have community then we have lost our ability to fulfill God’s mission. So, we jump into the river of God’s mission and this is exactly what we see going on in Acts 2. Acts 2 helps us to see that if God’s mission is to allow everyone to know that he loves them, that he wants to be in relationship with them, and that he wants them to reflect that love to others, then his strategy is to use biblical community, to use the church. And the 2nd chapter of Acts helps us to see what this tangibly looks like.

So, what is the early church, the early biblical community doing? Well, they are devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship. They’re breaking bread together. They’re praying. Wonders and signs are being done. They were together. They had things in common. They sold their possessions. They gave to the poor. They spent time together. They ate food. They praised God. They had the goodwill of all the people. They added to their number daily. This is what a biblical community is called to do.

And one way that folks have broken this down that I have found to be helpful is to think of these things in 3 different categories. First, you have being devoted to teaching, breaking bread, prayer, wonders and signs, and praising God. These things are all communing with God. One of the components of a biblical community, one of the ways that it joins into God’s mission, is by doing these things. These things build our relationship with the triune God. 

Secondly, we have fellowship, being together, having things in common, spending time together, eating food. These things help to build community within the followers of Jesus. From the very beginning simply spending time together and eating with one another has been a crucial part of what it means to be a biblical community. Christians have been eating donuts and having quarterly church brunches for a really long time. It’s not an extra!

Then thirdly we have selling their possessions, giving to the poor, gaining the goodwill of all people and adding to their number. This is what has been called the commissioning of the biblical community. It’s not enough to stay locked up in our sanctuaries praising God or cordoned off in the gym at our church brunch. We have to be out in the community and in the world bringing shalom, bringing hope and grace and food to those who are in need. 

And for a community to be truly biblical I believe they have to be doing all three of these things. Truth be told most churches tend to be good at one or two of them, but struggle with engaging in all three. They may be really good at teaching the Bible and worshipping, but what good is all of that knowledge if you are isolated from one another and from the world? As we said last week, we have a story to share. Or they may be really good at being in fellowship with one another, but quite frankly that quickly becomes nothing but a social club that is self-focused. Or others are really good at going out and being about others, but when you do that you can quickly burn out if you are not rooted in God and if you are trying to do it independently of others. 

And so, at ZPC our desire then is to try and make sure that we do not neglect any of these aspects of what it means to be biblical community. You can hear it in our mission statement: Called together by God (community), to make disciples (communion) and release them for service in our broken world (commission). As leaders of the church we must make sure that we are engaging in these things. One of the real joys of the inquirer’s class is that after I have given this talk we have folks who come in, one after another, and talk about how we do these things. Whether it’s deacons talking about how we care for one another or someone from the Great Banquet or home groups sharing about the opportunity to grow in our relationship with Jesus or someone from Mission Commission who shares about the ways in which we try and reach beyond our own borders. We are a church, we are a biblical community that is committed to these things. Are we perfect at it? Yes. Just kidding. No, we’re not, but I do feel blessed to be a part of a congregation that is working toward these three things. 

The question of whether or not we are perfect in doing these things is one that I think needs to be addressed when it comes to biblical community. One thing that happens when we read this particular passage in Acts 2 is that it seems that this community is absolutely dreamy. At times this is what people who come into the church oftentimes think as well. That, as a biblical community, we should really be pretty much just like this early church and when we’re not people oftentimes can grow disillusioned or cynical or simply leave the church either trying to find another church that they think will live this seemingly perfect church in Acts 2 or they just leave church altogether.

The first thing to be clear about is this: the early church was…not…perfect. One of the stories I most appreciate is the story of Ananias and Sapphira found just 3 chapters later. Now this is a scary story, quite honestly, but it’s about two early believers who sell their property, just like we see in Acts 2, and then lay the money at the apostle’s feet. The problem is that they held some of the money back. Actually, that’s not true. It would have been fine for them to hold money back. The problem is that they lied about holding the money back. As Peter said to them, this was your money so you could have kept some or all of it. And so they end up being struck dead. (We’re going to tell this story again and again at during our next stewardship campaign!) My point is that even at the beginning of the church when great things were happening, there were still people who struggled with being honest, with being generous, with looking exactly like Jesus. When you talk about biblical community, if you look at the community that is in the Bible you will see that it means the community will include people who don’t always get it right, who mess up. If you’re looking for perfection you may not be looking for a biblical community, but for a utopia that doesn’t exist.

One of my favorite quotes about this comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who says, “He who love his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” This is a bit like marriage. When I do premarital counseling you can frequently tell the couples who have idealized marriage and you know that when the marriage actually begins they are going to be in for a rude awakening. In fact, the couple always does an inventory before the counseling begins and one of the categories is “Marriage Expectations” and this deals with trying to help them understand the reality of marriage because if they don’t then they will hold their partner to unreasonable expectations which is never healthy. Of course, you also want them to have some expectations because the marriage should elevate them, making them stronger, pushing them further. Churches, biblical communities, should be encouraged and pushed by what we see in the 2nd chapter of Acts and they should not be more in love with the idea of biblical community then the actual biblical community of which they are a part.

So, what happens in church then is that each of us as youth or as adults, come into the community knowing that being a part of a community means that your hopes, your gifts, your faith, your imperfections will meet the hopes, the gifts, the faith and the imperfections of others and that right there at that intersection is where the Spirit of God meets us a biblical community and throws us into the river, into the mission of God, where we commune with him, commune with one another and are commissioned into our communities and our world.

I love the biblical community, not just because I’ve devoted my life to it, but because it is the instrument that Jesus formed to further his mission. It’s not perfect, we’re not perfect, but when you as a community dive into the river of God’s mission there is nothing better. In those moments when we are hitting on all three components that we see in Acts 2 we get remarkable glimpses of the Kingdom of God. This isn’t about what the pastor wears or the lighting in the sanctuary or the size of the building or the taste of the coffee-this is about God’s mission on earth. Let’s keep diving in and seeing where the waters take us! Amen.