The Communion of Saints
April 14, 2019 Speaker: Winston Miller
Topic: Default Scripture: Acts 2:38–2:47
As we’ve heard today already, my family and I have recently moved back to South Florida with the intention of “planting a church” in the city of Lauderhill, just west of the city of Fort Lauderdale. And as I prepared to speak with you all this morning, I had to pause to consider what we’ll be doing – that phrase “planting a church”. What we feel called and led to do is not merely start a new organization, or a non-profit business, or even a movement. What we have been called to do is to settle in the city, be salt and light, and gather those whom God will bring to repentance and faith through the teaching and preaching of his Word… as we are working for the good of the city.
Because the church is not merely an organization, though it is organized. It is THE united body of individual believers in Jesus Christ. And it extends far beyond who we can see now. The Apostle’s Creed is one of the historic summary statements of what the church believes about God and the church. And in it, the church confesses as one body: “We believe in the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints”, where the term “catholic” means “comprehensive”. This line in the confession is not just referring to Orlando Grace Church and University Presbyterian Church and St. Luke Episcopal Church and Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church and First Baptist Church. When we talk about the “communion of saints” we are referring to the fellowship or the relationship that we share with
the believers that we’ll learn about in our text today, as well as all believers in
Jesus that have lived and passed from this world into the eternal presence of Christ. We have a fellowship with them because God has also convicted our hearts by his love for us through his Son Jesus Christ, and we believe in Him. Therefore, we’ve been adopted by God into His family – an amazing thought – and we are now brothers and sisters for eternity! Because of Jesus Christ! We share this fellowship with believers who are living all over the world today, in every country, every nationality, thousands of cultures, a spectrum of skin shades, speaking different languages. We even share this fellowship with believers who have not been born yet! In the eyes of our Savior who died for His church, we are one church, one body, with one head – Jesus Christ, who declared in Matthew 28:18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and upon that authority, we are commissioned to make more disciples of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
As wonderful as it is that we have communion with past and future saints – there is something special about the communion, or the community we have with the saints in the present; particularly with the community of believers in Christ who are physically close to you – those of this particular household of faith, Orlando Grace Church. Look around; it may or may not feel like it to you right now, but the community that this church has is special. Most special. And there may be a couple reasons why you may not feel it right now, if you don’t: Number 1) Community does not happen “automatically”. Even for the church made up of believers in Jesus who have been filled with the Holy Spirit, who have been mystically brought into union with Christ and with each other. It doesn’t even happen automatically in the closest of unions – families. Those folks we see every day, eat with, sleep with, live with – community has to be fostered. It must be developed. As a boy, when my sisters and I would get into the inevitable disagreement that turned into a fight, my parents would tell me: “That’s your blood. You’ve got to work it out – you’re family!” I have the privilege of being married to Brenda, and that privilege obligates me to work hard to resolve our differences and work to become one flesh, as God has declared us to be. Having close community doesn’t happen automatically.
Number 2) Beyond community not happening automatically, Community is hard! Not all of us have great memories or experiences when it comes to the idea of community. You may have exhausted all the peacemaking principles you know of in your family, and you still ended up with unresolved conflict and distant from one another. You may have experienced people that you care about deeply and have shared much with move away from you. And it’s painful. You may have been part of a church community where you never fit in or were hurt, leaving you jaded about the concept of community – even jaded about the church and about God.
However, it is with the church that God gives us an opportunity to make him known as the church works together to proclaim the gospel, and to be salt and light in this world, when we love one another as He loves us. For that kind of community to happen in this household, we’ve got to be intentional about remembering what has been done for us by Jesus and by being obedient to Jesus. And, for those of us who are believers in Jesus, for the Church, our world needs to see this right now. An isolated and lonely world needs to see and feel what we have.
Late last year the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) sponsored a nationwide survey called The Loneliness Experiment, the largest survey into the issue of loneliness to date. Of 55,000 people surveyed, over 40% of 16-24-yearolds indicated that they experienced loneliness more often and more intensely, greater than any other age group. One of the presenters of the findings said this: “We were staggered by the huge numbers of people taking part in our survey. This research shows we need to take loneliness seriously in all age groups. We know that most loneliness is temporary, but we need to find ways to prevent it from becoming chronic.” This group, 16-24-year-olds are the largest percentage of users of social media; and while the belief was that technology would connect us like never before, social media has exposed the fact that what we need are real relationships. Real life-on-life community.
In 2017, a Commission on Loneliness was released in the UK, calling for governmental action and suggesting strategies for combating loneliness, including taking personal responsibility for maintaining relationships, intentionally engaging with family, neighbors and one’s wider social network, and working to make communities as welcoming as possible. However possible, our world is looking for solutions to combat isolation and move toward loving and caring relationships that work to combat depression, anxieties, and loneliness.
Now, the church does not exist merely as a cure for loneliness. And a relationship with Christ and the church may not eliminate feelings of loneliness, especially as we come to understand that there is a longing in our hearts that must continually be filled through our relationship with our God until he returns. But in our text we see a portrait of God’s grace being shown in the community of the early church that we can experience today, because we are the same body of Jesus Christ. And as we reflect on what we see in this text, may our intentions toward each other and toward those that are not yet believers in Christ be shaped in order to reflect that same grace. We may lack the power on our own to be the community that God has called us to be. But, because of God’s grace, there are four observations we can see in the text that are characteristic of the church from the outset: the Salvation experienced by the church, it’s resulting Devotion to Jesus and to each other, the Compassion it showed to the body of Christ and to the world, and the Impression it made on the world. Four things: Salvation, Devotion, Compassion, Impression.
In our chapter, in Acts chapter 2, Jesus’ followers had gathered together in an upper room in Jerusalem after he ascended to Heaven following his resurrection. Some strange events had just taken place, and the Apostle Peter is speaking to a large crowd explaining to them what just happened. Most of the crowd were Jews who had come to Jerusalem from all over the world to celebrate the Passover feast, and they spoke many different languages. Many of them witnessed Jesus being crucified. And now, they’ve just witnessed flames appearing over the disciples who were in the upper room, and the disciples suddenly being able to praise God in different languages that were not native to them, but that people in the crowd understood clearly. Peter explained it this way – quoting one of the Old Testament prophets, Joel (verse 17): “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh”, and then in verse 21 he says “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Peter says: “The last days are here, and God is not holding back from including you in his family now – just believe in Him – call on the name of the Lord.” And listen to the summary of his message, in verse 40: “And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” By crooked generation, or as some versions say, “corrupt generation”, he means a world outside of Christ that is hopelessly corrupt and decaying. Pastor Tim Keller describes it this way: “There is a force in the world that makes everything disintegrate. You can just tell. Look at your relationships. Look at your friendships. Unless you are working incredibly hard to maintain them they fall apart. They fall apart if you just let them go. You drift apart from people. Little misunderstandings come in. Relationships fall apart. Families fall apart.” So in this sermon in Acts 2, Peter admonishes the world to turn from this force – from sin – through repentance, and to turn to Christ in faith as their Lord and Savior. To believe in the work that Jesus has done on their behalf. And here’s what we receive when we do: as Keller paraphrases: “a salvation that is absolutely comprehensive. … a salvation that will reverse the corrupting power of human existence. A force that is greater than that force that automatically makes relationships and our physical bodies fall apart, automatically makes families, civilizations, and cultures fall apart. I have something that will heal the results of all sin. I have something that will heal physically and spiritually and emotionally and socially in every way.” Jesus is offering more than just assistance – he’s offering to change the framework of our existence from being a part of a corrupt, decaying generation to being a part of the body of Christ, the one who defeated death, who defeated Hell, who defeated the grave, who never decayed, who lives forever, and because he lives forever, so will you and I – as members of the household of faith in Christ – the Church. That is salvation!
And so, verse 41, “those who received his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” God convicted their hearts, there was genuine repentance, and they willingly and publicly affirmed their status as members of the household of faith, of the community of believers. And think about this: I’m sure everyone didn’t know everyone else. Remember, there were folks there from all over the world! Different cultures, different languages, different likes and dislikes. Now they’re a part of the same community group.
Now, they’re going to the temple together. Now they have all things in common. You see what salvation does? It joins you to a family that you will then have to get to know.
You know, when we bring our children here to be blessed, they have the awesome opportunity to hear the gospel and see it worked out; not just in their immediate family, but also in community, in this household of faith. The same for when we baptize new believers, young and old. This entire household has the privilege of welcoming these new members into the family, teaching them what the apostle’s taught about Jesus, breaking bread with them, and beating back the darkness and decay of this world by praying with them, loving them, caring for them….like family, because of God’s salvation.
This brings us to the second characteristic of this New Testament church: Devotion. Verse 42 says “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” These new Christians whose lives had been forever changed when they heard the message of the gospel and believed, and who were baptized, now had new hearts that longed to know more about Jesus. They were basking in their new identity as children of the God they knew previously as the lawgiver and the judge, and now they know as their Father. They are now children of God – enjoying all the rights and privileges of being in the family.
But they were not satisfied with just being part of the family in name only. No, they were all in… devoting themselves to four things: to teaching, to fellowship, to celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and to prayer. The word devoted is significant, as you might have guessed. It’s translated here from the Greek word pros-kar-tereō, which can have the meaning of “faithfully attaching oneself to a person or applying oneself exclusively to a certain thing, devoting oneself to it tirelessly.” This is not mere observance, or consistent attendance, or enthusiasm that wanes. This is devotion.
Devotion. For her role in Black Swan, Natalie Portman trained with the New York City Ballet dancer Mary Helen Bowers for eight hours a day, six days a week for 12 months before the film started shooting. That would be devotion.
For his role in the film Fury, Shia LeBeouf trained with the U.S. National Guard and was a chaplain's assistant in the 41st Infantry. During the filming, he didn't bathe for 4 months. Devotion.
Jamie Foxx wanted to give the best imitation of Ray Charles. So on the movie set he wore prosthetic eyelids, leaving him blind for most of each day.
Occasionally, he was inadvertently left alone on the set, because the crew would forget that he was blind. He also learned all the piano parts and lost 30 pounds in one week for the role. Devotion.
So, in this New community, when the Apostle Peter said: “Hey, let’s talk about what Jesus had to say about the Old Testament Scriptures and how all of those Scriptures were fulfilled in him” this community was right there, intently listening. When the Apostle John said: “Let me tell you how Jesus prayed to his Father that we all may be one in him, just as He and the Father are one, so that the world may believe that Jesus was sent into the world to save us.” They were right there to listen and imitate John. They needed to know! They were devoted to the teaching of the Apostles. When the Apostle James said: “Let me tell you about his resurrection and teach you about what that means for us – that we have passed from death to life, that this entire world will be restored and renewed because he lives and will return” – they were intentional and devoted to listening, learning, and obeying. What gave them the power to do this? Certainly having hearts transformed by the Holy Spirit does this, but one of the means God uses is this community, and the encouragement they gave to one another in fellowship.
They devoted themselves to fellowship. Now this is remarkable. This is noteworthy. You can devote yourself to teaching as an individual. You can devote yourself to prayer as an individual. You can even attempt to devote yourself to participating in the Lord’s Supper without too much intentional interaction with others. But it’s impossible to devote ourselves to fellowship by ourselves. Fellowship requires interaction with others, and with our community. As a believer, a Christian, a member of the body of Christ, the Spirit of Christ makes it possible for us to devote ourselves to one another. Why? Because of what Christ has done for us.
Years later, the Apostle Paul would encourage the church in Philippians chapter 2 verses 4-8: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in
Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The disciples of Jesus, now the Apostles, were firsthand witnesses of this. With his status as King of the universe, if anyone had the right to demand devotion, it would be Jesus. But for our sakes, Christ became completely and utterly vulnerable – he became human. And Jesus devoted himself to every one of his disciples, and they were never the same. He instructed them to love one another as he had loved them. And now, after the day of Pentecost when three thousand more were added to their ranks, they are devoting themselves - giving themselves away to each other. Giving themselves in ways that had not been done before in society – either Roman society or Jewish society. The rich were there as well as the poor. The African, the Asian, and the European were there. Different personalities. Different abilities and disabilities. All devoting themselves to one another in fellowship. Learning about one another. Eating together. Praying together. Giving to each other. All giving up whatever rights they thought they had. Appreciating and adapting to their differences. All attempting to ensure that the other had what they needed to survive and thrive. Jesus was who brought this community together. And if we don’t seek Jesus as the cornerstone of our community, we can’t have real community. But because of Jesus, we can look at our calendars and time block our Community Group meetings and prioritize them above movie night by ourselves. Because of Jesus, we can attempt to learn the name and story of one more person that we don’t know in this household of faith and commit to praying for them. Jesus will help us while we devote ourselves to this.
And this community’s devotion to fellowship included their devotion to the Lord’s Supper and to prayers, because these were done together in this household of faith. They prayed together, and as one commentator notes: The idea of devotion when it comes to prayer is that of “constant diligence, effort that never lets up, and a confident waiting for results.” What an exciting time this must have been! No wonder there was awe among everyone! In devoting themselves to prayer, they prayed expecting to hear from God and expecting to be changed by
God. And Scripture records wonders and signs being done through the apostles.
Let’s continue. A common salvation that brings this community together. Devotion to God and to each other. And the third characteristic that marked this early New Testament church is that of compassion. But briefly, how many of you have heard of Marie Kondo? Marie Kondo is now famous in America, as well as in Europe, Australia, and her native Japan because we have too much stuff. That’s why she’s famous. She has given people a reason to get rid of things they know they don’t need and don’t even want. Statistics show there are 300,000 items in the average American home. 25% of people with two car garages don’t have room to park their cars inside their garages. 1 in 10 Americans rent offsite storage for their stuff, and we have enough storage facilities in the U.S. for every man, woman, and child to stand in a self-storage space at the same time. We’ve got stuff. And Marie Kondo helps us get rid of it.
On her Netflix show, Tidying Up, she encourages us to put all of our stuff in a pile on the floor and stare at it, feeling deep in our soul how much stuff it is and how unnecessary it is. Then you pick up each item, like a piece of clothing, and ask yourself “Does this spark joy?” If it does, you will feel the joy, and you keep it. If not, you thank the clothing for everything that it has meant to your life, and you discard it. Thrift stores have seen a marked increase in the number of items being donated since this show has started airing on Netflix.
I’ve got to admit that this show really helped me think about how much stuff I’ve accumulated and how much I could get rid of. And in our text, the church was also giving things away. But their motivations were much, much different than those inspired by Marie Kondo. In the Old Testament, God had instructed the Israelites that “there will be no poor among you”. God would bless them in a way that they had enough, and enough to give to those among them who did not have the ability to acquire what some others had. God would provide for everyone through everyone. But the Israelites were disobedient and did not apply this consistently. But in this New Testament church, there are changed hearts and transformed lives because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And in this community, the Scriptures came alive in these people who were literally new creations, with the remembrance of the example of Jesus and his love for them. And their possessions no longer possessed them. People gave away what they possessed because they no longer coveted ownership. They realized that it was not because of their ingenuity or even their hard work that caused them to acquire their possessions, but it was because ultimately, and most importantly, God had allowed them to have it. And the time had come to steward what God had given to them to help others. They were giving out of compassion, not compulsion.
They were giving out of compassion, not selfishly. And they were glad about it.
And God increased the generosity of their hearts.
This compassion was a characteristic of this community, and frankly, it was strange. This was not the way the rest of the world acted. It was not the way the Jews acted, not the way the Romans acted – there was no community like it. In fact, for example, it was common in Roman culture for parents to discard unwanted children, especially baby girls, exposing them to the elements after birth. But in their compassion, Christians would have none of it and would rescue these babies. Christians became know for their service to the poor, to the widow, to the orphan, and to the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant. And the message of Salvation, and the Devotion and Compassion of this community made a significant Impression on the world.
In his book Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, historian Larry Hurtado writes something very interesting: “The very features of early Christianity that made it odd and objectionable in the ancient Roman setting have become now unquestioned assumptions about religion in much of the modern world.” He also writes this: “If you were to go out into the streets of almost any city today, at least in most Western nations, and ask people, “Do you believe in God?” you would probably get one of three replies: “Yes,” “No,” or “I’m not sure.” Likely, no one would ask what you mean by “God” or which deity you have in mind. Even modern atheists presume that there is only one God to doubt! But in the longer and wider context of human history, this is a curious assumption. Its prevalence in large parts of the world today is largely due to the cultural impact of Christianity.” In verse 47 of our text, it is recorded that this Christian community was “praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” How were they having favor? They would have refused to worship the multitude of
Roman gods. They wouldn’t eat meals that had been dedicated to Roman deities. They would have refused to give the proper platitudes to the Jewish officials. How would they have favor with these realities?
But before Jesus ascended, he told them in John 13 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” So the love they were showing for one another through devotion and compassion, because of salvation was making an impression on the surrounding community and bringing others into the community. Now what’s recorded later in the book of Acts is that, in God’s providence, the overwhelming favor in Jerusalem did not last. Soon after, persecution became so bad for this Christian community that they had to flee Jerusalem. But through the love being shown to each other in this community the testimony of Jesus went forth, and the gospel was spread around the world, and the Holy Spirit convicted the hearts of many, and they were added to the church. The church was and is the means by which the Holy Spirit is adding new believers to the household of Christ.
I am so glad that even though I was far from Christ and his Family, he brought me into His presence and gave me a community… all through the blood of Christ.
Ephesians 2:12-13 tells us: “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Everything we have and everything that we are is because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He has reconciled us to God, and we have been adopted into the family of Jesus. So that, as it says in verse 19 of Ephesians 2, we are no longer strangers or aliens or foreigners, but we are fellow citizens of heaven with all of the believers in Jesus – past, present, and future. We are the holy, catholic church, the communion of saints.
My parents used to sing an old song that I was reminded of recently:
We’re part of the family, the family of God,
We’ve been washed in the fountain, cleansed by his blood. Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod, For we’re part of the family, the family of God.
Sometimes we laugh together, sometimes we cry,
Sometimes we share together, heartaches and sighs, Sometimes we dream together of how it will be When we all get together, God’s family.
So by God’s grace, may we find joy in our common salvation that brings this community together. May we be devoted to God and to each other. May we be compassionate toward one another and to the world so that our unbelieving neighbors will see how God has loved us and saved us, and that he will do the same for them. I’m so glad that God the Holy Spirit has been shed abroad in our hearts and brought us near, so that I may be your brother in Christ. I pray that he has done the same for you. If not, let’s talk about it.