Living Members: A Church of Character

Read: Matthew 5:1-16, Acts 2:42-47

Whenever I am asked to write a reference for someone, I find myself very humbled: I am being asked to write a few paragraphs that sum up a person’s character. So yes, humbled. Initially. And then, in the words of the great theologian Elmer Fudd, I feel vewy, vewy powerful… What you say,  and sometimes what you don’t say, can make all the difference.

Enjoying favour

There’s a sense in which this passage reads as a reference. A character reference for the Apostolic Church. Or you could say it’s like a family photo, like those great family photos of old. All you have to do is take one look and you know precisely the sort of people you’re dealing with….

Groenenboom family 1967

…not wanting to be the centre of attention. At all.

Acts 2 tells us about the character of this church from a number of different angles. And the angle we want to looks at today is seen in the last part of v.47:

“praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47, NIV)

The word Luke uses for ‘favour’ is more commonly used for ‘grace’. What it tells us is the general population looked at this church, and saw it to be very good. They viewed it very graciously.

At first look this may not have been too difficult. They shared the same faith background as the bulk of the community. They were continuing to meet in the temple courts. The community around them were paying close attention. They saw their commitment to Temple worship. They saw their unity. They saw how they shared and supported the needy. And they liked what they saw. So in a very short time it seems this church had developed significant social standing.

Now, we will think of some churches or Christians which have developed significant social standing. And it is not always healthy. Like the Sadducees in Acts. They developed social standing by currying favour with the Romans. They played favourites with Herod. They were cunning political operators, the great pragmatists of their day.

But the Acts 2 church did not earn favour that way. Unlike the Sadducees, they did not go looking for favour or seeking influence. I say this because healthy favour is never sought. Healthy favour is always bestowed by others. Scot McKnight observes:

These deeds aren’t done in order to solicit their praise; they are done out of obedience and love, and their inherent goodness is inherently praiseworthy[Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy]

This is the kind of favour God calls us to in his word:

“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12, NIV)

This is the high calling Jesus gives his followers:

“You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13–16, NIV)

That’s what’s happening here. The light is shining. The salt is being tasted. The new community of Jesus are loving one another, caring for one another, meeting one another’s financial needs, worshipping together, contributing to temple life. And people are noticing. They see great things happening. They may not be sure what to think about Jesus, but they are saying ‘that’s the kind of church our community needs; if I was ever looking for a church, I’d check that one out, first.”

Now, we need to keep our feet on the ground here. A  few chapters on and those well connected Sadducees were playing more of their manipulative tricks. They are jealous of the attention Jesus’ church attracting so they resort to malicious slander, and the Apostles find themselves in front of the New Testament equivalent of a Senate Inquiry. And then it gets worse.

But here, the word is getting out and the light of new creation is shining into the darkness of humanity. Make no mistake: when the people of God are the kind of community he calls them to be, truth, love, and life always spill out into the world around them.

A story:

Some years ago I pastored a church in Hobart. That church was very active in assisting refugees to settle in Australia. I don’t know how many Bosnian and Sudanese people our church helped. Maybe a dozen families over the years. Around that time, a church on Tasmania’s north coast had been seeking a pastor for a number of years, without success. They decided to call a pastor from the reformed church family in South Africa. This was the first of the South African pastor called by the Christians Reformed Churches of Australia. At that time I was serving as the CRCA’s Ecumenical Secretary, and I was asked to countersign the sponsorship application for the Department of Immigration. We were informed it was going to be a long process: routinely taking 12-18 months for the visa to be granted.

The next day the phone rang. It was the local head of the Department of Immigration in Hobart. She said the visa application had been granted. I said “Um, OK, so you have received the completed visa application…” She said, “Well, yes we have received the application, but I am calling to tell you that application has been granted. Visa approved.”

So I asked the inevitable, “Doesn’t that normally take, like 12-18 months?”

Her answer: “Yes. But your church has done a lot to help refugees. This is our way of saying thanks…”

A process that normally took 12 – 14 months had been done in just over 24 hours. The calling church rejoiced. A South African pastor and his family packed his bags. And what is relevant to our text today is how that day we enjoyed the favour of the people.

Or take this article I grabbed from the newsfeed yesterday: The headline: “Churches are best social melting pots in modern Britain”. It said:

“…churches and other places of worship are more successful than any other social setting at bringing people of different backgrounds together, well ahead of gatherings such as parties, meetings, weddings or venues such as pubs and clubs.”

Scot McKnight agrees:

“When the church is the church it is fully engaged in loving everyone as neighbours. As such, the church becomes the most lovingly, compassionately, justly, peacefully engaged segment in all the world.” [Kingdom Conspiracy p.111]

Here’s the deal: When the church thrives, our community wins.

How important this is, friends. We tend to think that if we just keep our theology right then we will find God’s blessing. And true: It is critical that we remain committed to the apostle’s teaching – as did this church in Acts 2. But we live in such uncertain times that orthodox teaching, in and of itself, will not be enough to convince a watching world of the claims of Christ. It probably never has been enough. Our culture is becoming increasingly hostile: the ALPs Sam Dastayari’s outburst against Katy Faust on Q&S last Monday shows us just how hard it is to hold an opinion that is different from the latest pressure group. There are times when we will need to respond to such vilification with measured debate. But the church will never win with debate alone. We will only ever win as the power of the Risen Christ enables his church to live a distinctly different life, to live a better story. The Acts 2 story.

Let me say again: When the church thrives, our community wins.

Love your church

And why, ultimately, is that?

When it all comes down to it this community thrived for a reason. It wasn’t because they had a great mission statement, or because  they understood their theology so well. They were thriving because Jesus was alive in them. Jesus lived in them. Jesus has given them life. Jesus, just weeks before, had gone to the cross and taken their sin, their guilt, and borne their punishment. He has finished it utterly and completely. Jesus had risen from the dead. Conquered death. Rose as victor over the grave, over the devil and his kingdom. This risen Jesus now lived in his people. His Spirit had woken them up, brought them to life, softened their heart, opened their eyes, made them alive!

They were in Christ and they were new creation: a new community, new people, new shared life, wonderful hope bubbling out of them like living water. They were bearing the fruit of the Spirit. They were embodying the very Kingdom of God.

See this church? None of this can happen unless Jesus lives in people. Unless people bow the knee to this loving Saviour and call him Master. On their own they, and we on our own,  can do nothing. But with Jesus living in them they could do everything he had called them to do. When Jesus lives in the church, the church thrives! And when the church thrives, our community wins. This is why they enjoyed the favour of all the people.

Friends: you know how this needs to be applied?

First up: prayer. I do not know why we find it so hard to develop a culture of prayer. Yes, we are all busy. But we are all Christian. We all have Christ ruling our hearts. We all are washed by his selfless sacrifice. We all have life in his name. When loving, vibrant community can be such a powerful witness I do not know why we do not make the time to get together and pour our hearts out to the Lord on this (and other) issues.

I know we pray in our home groups. I know one or two meet on Wednesday mornings. Obviously, we pray on Sunday when we gather. But why is it so hard to have times specifically for prayer? Why is this not part of our communal life with Christ? I believe we need to open up this aspect of our spirituality, and we should do some soul searching as to why we have not embraced a prayerful communal spirit to this point. After all, doesn’t the word call us to this?

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18, NIV)

Second: Love your church. Really, love your church! I don’t want to focus on negatives, but we realise, I think, that it is too easy to whinge, to complain, to compare. We have all done it, we are all sinners. I think, especially in our culture, that passive aggression is the besetting sin of today’s western church.

I have my checklist, and if you stop doing what I want, I will stop serving, I will stop paying, and if it gets any worse, I will just stop coming.

Christians don’t throw stuff when they get angry, they just withdraw.

Want to enjoy the favour of all the people? Then, yes, there is much good that needs to be done, and we should be eager to so it. That will bless our community. But perhaps the best thing we can do for our community, is to do everything we can to help our church thrive! Think of the various aspects we have covered over the course of this series, and consider what steps you are taking to bring these things to realisation:

Apostolic teaching: what plans are you making to connect with a Home Group, or to deepen your understanding and acceptance of God’s word?

Fellowship: to do whatever you can to celebrate the oneness we have in Jesus. How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity

Sharing: being sensitive to the needs right here: when one weeps, we all weep; when one celebrates, we all rejoice; prepared to bear the cost to help out those with great need

Worship: do whatever you can to enrich what happens here on Sunday and through the week; develop a God centred view of worship together. Come ready, willing, keen to honour him, and to encourage others in worshipping our King

Witness: sharing the good news of Jesus, celebrating how much we love this church he has given us. The church is his bride! Let’s make her beautiful, and wear that love on our sleeve…

And as we do, the Lord’s goodness will overflow from the church into our community. The effect will be unmistakable. The fruit of the spirit. The character of Jesus. The Kingdom of God. The church will thrive, community will win, and Jesus will receive all the glory.

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