Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter High Mass and Holy Baptism Sunday 11 May 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
“The people devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” Acts 2.42
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives us a pen portrait of the early Christian community. He shows us:
- first, a period of waiting between the Ascension and the Day of Pentecost: only nine days of waiting rather than the nine months of a pregnancy;
- then, the excitement brought by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, the preaching of Peter to those who are amazed by the event they have witnessed;
- followed by the conversion of the first new Christians
That must have been as exhilarating as the arrival of a new child. But as with the arrival of a child – which brings with it new responsibilities and routines as well as joy and delight. A new life has to be nurtured and sustained. The same is true of the infant Christian community.
Luke tells us of growth in numbers and transformation in the way people lived. Christians embraced communal life, the rich gladly sold property and shared with the needy.
Numerical growth and sacrificial sharing, though, are the effects, not the cause. They grow out of the rich faith of those early Christians. So before we think of growing the numbers of Christian and building the life of the Christian community life, we should look for what built the faith of the early Christians.
The opening verse of our passage suggests a set of practices, four habits or priorities, which nurtured their lives as Christians and as a Church: “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This is the earliest listing of what came to be called “marks” or “notes” of the Church: characteristics like the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” of the Nicene Creed, that identify the Church as the Church.
Luke gives us these, not just as historical information, but as characteristics which are of enduring importance in the life of the Church.
We are not told that the first Christians spent every Sunday trying to recreate the extraordinary experience of Pentecost by whipping up enthusiasm, but that they did things which might seem quite ordinary. But they are the means of people experiencing genuine “enthusiasm,” which means, literally, to be “filled with God;” not as a short-term high but as a long-term commitment.
1. They devoted themselves to “the apostles’ teaching.” Luke distinguishes between
- the proclamation of the Gospel to those outside the community
- and the continued teaching of the faith to those within it.
The line between the two is not hard and fast. The teaching of those within the Church continues to include the gospel. That’s why we listen to a reading from one of the gospels at every mass. The Book of Acts itself is part of the Church’s ongoing reflection on what the gospel means for us how that is to be applied, put into effect, within the Church, so that the Church might continue to be faithful to its calling.
We are called to devote ourselves to scripture, to dwell in it, to learn from the way it has been interpreted in the life of the Church down the ages, what we call tradition. We learn too from what scholars can teach us. We listen to Jesus speaking in the Gospel so that we may know the voice of the Good Shepherd. We do not read scripture to increase our stock of information about God, but in order that we might hear God speaking to us and be drawn into relationship with him. We meditate on scripture so that we might be formed and transformed by it.
2. They devoted themselves to the “apostles’ fellowship.” “Fellowship,” as it is used in some circles, can be one of those cringe-inducing words. It suggests a forced jolliness and an eternal grin. But first of all, it means the “fellowship,” or the “communion” of the Church which is generated by the Holy Spirit. It has been said that the real miracle of Pentecost is that from a diverse multitude of people “from every nation under heaven,” (2.5) a unified body of believers is formed. That same miracle is true here. This cannot be just a humanly-generated warm feeling.
It is a fellowship which produces astounding effects, ‘wonders and signs” (2.43). Not the least of these was that “all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
It is often suggested that this is an idealised picture. But this shows a lack of confidence in the power of the resurrection faith to overturn all material and social arrangements. The community of goods in the Acts is concrete testimony that something revolutionary had happened to these people. Life could never be the same for them again.
In an age when our worth is counted in terms of our monetary wealth, or spending-capacity, rather than what we contribute to the “commonweal,” the good of all, this says something we urgently need to hear.
Wee Jeremy here, like any child, depends on others for food and care, and will continue to do so for a long time. And he will also depend on his parents and godparents and family for those things which by word and example guide and sustain the human spirit in compassionate and generous ways. He will learn to love because he is loved.
None of us, however solitary our lives, are truly independent of others, and trying to be is not good for us. We cannot baptise ourselves, we are brought to faith and sustained in it by others. Love of God demands love of neighbour. There is no direct vertical connection which by-passes the horizontal. This is true of our about recognising the importance of both the universal and the local Church. This “mark” of the Church applies both to the universal Church, but also to the life of the local church: in our communion, our relationships, our fellowship with each other; our bearing of one another’s burdens, our mutual encouragement.
3. They devoted themselves to “the breaking of bread.” The gathering of the fellowship at the table is another tangible, visible expression of the work of the Spirit among the new community. All through Luke’s Gospel, whenever Jesus “was at table with them,” there is fellowship, revelation, and controversy. Jesus was criticised for the company he kept at table” “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15.2). He failed to make proper distinctions between people at table – the place where social distinctions are often most rigidly enforced. Eating together is a mark of unity, solidarity and deep friendship, a visible sign that social barriers have been broken down. He still invites sinners to his table – he invites us.
At that stage there was probably no sharp distinction between the Church breaking bread at meals and “breaking bread” as sacrament.. For Jews, when the blessing is said at table, the table becomes a holy place, eating together a sacred activity. Their partaking of food “with glad and generous hearts” suggests joy at the coming of the Messiah; the meal experienced as an anticipation of the Messianic banquet, a foretaste of Jesus’ promise that his followers would “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22.30).” In their eating and drinking, the resurrection community is already a partial fulfilment of that promise, enjoying what shall be consummated in the kingdom of God.
We now make a clearer distinction between the sacramental and the ordinary. The “breaking of the bread” means the eucharist, faith and community fed by the sacrament; the richness offered in Christ’s body broken and his blood shed: the Good Shepherd who leads his flock to pasture, who sets a table before us.
But there should be no sharp divide between sacrament and other meals. We should eat and drink always “with glad and generous hearts.” That joy and generosity should show itself in eucharistic, that is thankful lives; in recognising that our life is dependent on God’s gifts and the work of others, and in a concern to share these good things with those who are deprived of them by natural forces or human ones.
4. The infant Church also devoted themselves to “the prayers.” These were probably at the Jewish hours of prayer. We are told that they continued to attend the temple (2.46). In the midst of all the newness, the community does not neglect the traditions of the ancestors. So in this church every day, the prayers are offered, as they have been for a century and a half, not just by individuals who pop in to light a candle on their way to work, or by the clergy whose duty it is, but by people who come to take part in the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer with their psalms and readings and canticles and prayers: the Christian development of those daily Jewish prayers; and in the Mass which is “the breaking of bread.” The Christian’s prayer, even when we are on our own, is always the Church’s prayer which is itself the prayer of Jesus Christ. Prayer is not primarily about individual self-improvement, much less making us feel better. It is a work done on behalf of others.
A “mark” of our authenticity and vitality as a church will be our involvement in prayer. For each of us, and all of us together, that is an opportunity for communion with God. Some time ago, I suggested to members of the freedom pass generation, those who get to travel free of charge, might use this freedom to come and share in and help sustain and enrich our church’s daily round of worship.
So we have heard the apostles’ teaching and we will pray and break bread, but first we come to the baptism of Jeremy who is to be admitted to their fellowship.