This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service over the Internet.
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Our reading today comes from Acts 2:42–47.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people.
What is the church in Frodsham up to at the moment? The buildings are closed. How on earth are we fulfilling the great commission to go into all the world and to make disciples? It might be how we view things. For many traditional Anglicans, for example, the church building and the vicar is very central. Without either, it can be hard to know what church is. For others, it’s the gathering together that is important and something that I admit I miss. But of course, socialising is not what our faith is about.
What difference are we making? What is the wider church in Frodsham up to in these days when the buildings are locked? I’m aware of Churches Together being part of a community mobilization, Open Hands, where people who are isolated in their homes have food and medication deliveries. I know that many of us have had opportunities to speak with our neighbours about Jesus and many other things. I know that our communities have gathered together like never before to serve one another. That includes those Jesus followers who work for shops and provide essential services.
So many of our own congregation have been phoning one another to check out and check up on how they are. I know that Mansell, from King’s Church, has been taking out his violin to some local roads to cheer up folk by offering some live music. Unfortunately, my skill-set isn’t that good. Is the church fellowship being added too daily by these examples of love? Perhaps. Maybe not how we expect the church to grow as they’re not coming into church buildings to hear the good news of Jesus. Rather, people in the community are being good news. This is the church being alive and active.
Last week, in the earlier part of Acts 2, we saw the four things that Peter said people had to do: repent, turn back, believe, be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit. This week there are also four elements that the emerging church became famous for: teaching, their common life, breaking of bread and prayer. For the last couple of years, I have had a little scrap of paper on my notice board in the church office. It’s now just here above my computer.
It has two columns. Column one says, “Consumer church. Church is seen as a dispenser of religious goods and services. I come to church to be fed, to have your needs met through quality programs, and have professionals teach your children about God. This is equivalent to saying, I go to church.” Column two says, “Missional church. A body of people sent on mission who gather in community for worship, community encouragements and teaching from the word, in addition to what they are self-feeding themselves through the week. This is equivalent to saying, I am the church.”
The two are different entities and quite starkly, whether or not we like it, the present COVID-19 crisis has forced us into becoming missional church. We have no choice other than to be church as we cannot go to church. For many, this was always thus. They always saw church as being central to their relationships with people, their actions, and activities within society rather than a place that they go to in order to get a bit of God. In theological parlance, the first column, Consumer church, is what is known as Christendom, many religious activities that make us think that if we do the right stuff this makes us Christians, enforcing the “I’m not good enough unless I do X, Y, or Z to please God.”
Column two, the Missional church, was always God’s plan to be some part of something bigger. It works in different ways. Not confined to our activities in a building. And congregations are finding this out, or sadly perhaps they might not be alive at all. In this mode the church is different but it’s also a part of the wider community. It is committed, connected and it’s being love and light to those around and that’s the job of the church. It always has been.
Tom Wright, in his commentary on Acts, put it this way.
Those of us who grew up in Christian families, with ‘going to church’ as a habit of life from our earliest days, may sometimes think of all this [teaching, common life, breaking of bread, and prayer] as quite humdrum and ordinary. … But imagine a world without this astonishing teaching! Imagine a society where there was no ‘common life’ [or fellowship] built around a shared belief in Jesus! Imagine a world without ‘the bread-breaking’, or a world without prayer! … And,
says Tom Wright,
… if you lived in such a world, and then suddenly found yourself swept up in this pattern of teaching, fellowship, bread-breaking and prayer, you would know that new dimensions had opened up before you, and new vistas of how the world might be had suddenly become visible.
This awe would only become increased as the power of the Spirit worked through the apostles. These four marks: teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer are all as important as the other. In the same way as a Community church, the community bit is not only us. It is all of us and beyond are fellowship and gathering. It includes our local heroes in the Frodsham Open Hands Community Group who are fetching our shopping if we can’t go out. It includes those who lead community groups. It includes those who we know socially and part of our wider people network. But of course, not all of them are part of the church bit of Community Church.
The first time I came to a service at Main Street before my tenure began, I came to an activity Messy-type Sunday, just shortly before Christmas 2016. Martyn Payne had asked us to lay long ribbons in a criss-cross design on the board to represent the weaves and wefts and connections of our lives. The design now hangs in the worship area of the church or perhaps I should say the chapel because the chapel is the building and the people are the church. This picture shows us that we are the church as parts of the community.
The church adds to its numbers when people who don’t know Jesus, as well as those who are, are touched by the goodness of God when each one who knows Jesus offers grace and love and compassion to one another. The Church must act in the name of Jesus. Otherwise, it’s merely another community group. The intention of every activity to make it church was never purely evangelistic, where people were often seen as projects to be saved. Rather the very natural places where the weaves and weft connect and overlap is precisely where the community interact with the church. They were never designed to be two totally separate things. People are part of the community and the church is part of that community. It needs to interact rather than separate itself from the rest of the world. But the difference is always the difference Jesus makes.
Whether we offer our community activities, whether they’d be coffee morning or children’s programs or anything else, simply fetching the newspaper for a neighbour, all of these instances are where we can intentionally love our neighbour. The connections are built where we are in community with one another. The people in the earlier part of Acts, as we heard last week, were cut to the heart because they had heard for the first time that they had killed the Messiah they were looking for. Peter’s response was that they should turn back, believe, and be baptised, for then they would receive the Holy Spirit.
Those in Christendom for many years have made this invitation into a fourfold inflexible formula. “Do it this way and you’ll be okay, if you don’t you can’t be saved.” But I would want to suggest that in its fuller context the wider community was involved to some extent, and so the flexible fourfold functions of the church became the marks of how the wider community knew a real believer.
Through their devotion to teaching, fellowship, common life, the breaking of bread and prayer. This common life, what the New Testament called Koinonia, led people to giving what they could, so no one was left out, nobody was destitute or hungry.
In closing, I want to venture that God enabled more people to become part of the church each day because of the loving communal activities that people saw and said, “I want to be part of that dynamic group.” Their lives were the missional activities. The early Christians didn’t have an alpha course or other evangelistic outreach.
Lives lived and loved together, shared together, an intentional way of being, having the spirit of Jesus living in and through them, the way of life through the activities of teaching a common way of being, of sharing food in one another’s homes and prayer were the marks of the church then and so it must be now and so on. We are a church community gathered as much as we can via phone calls and letters and cards and emails and the internet. Most importantly, we need to remember that we are joined by the spirit of Jesus, living in us through His spirit.
That’s how the church grows, by the spirit of God, by people seeing spirit-filled lives, loving one another. We are a community church. It even says it on our name, Main Street Community Church. We are called to love everybody around us as image-bearers of God who created them and us. We are learning afresh that we cannot gather in a building, but we are no less church. We are compelled to go, to love in extraordinary ways, to show the love of God who desires the church to be His bride.
Wright, Tom, Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12, SPCK, London, 2008. p45.
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