First Mennonite Church
November 1, 2020
Guiding Principles from the Early Church
Text: Acts 2:41-47; 4:32-37
Here we have two snapshots of what the Christian community looked like in its very early stage. These two brief descriptions are plain and easy to understand. But the question is, are those descriptions about the early church prescriptive on how Christian churches should look like today? There is no doubt the portrait Luke gives about the early church is amazingly beautiful. The church was growing by leaps and bounds: from 120 disciples (1:15) to 3,000 new converts (2:41) and then 5,000 new converts (4:4). The gospel message was fresh and was accompanied by deeds of power. The news of Jesus, his life, teaching, death, resurrection, ascension, and his divine appointment as the Jewish Messiah at his glorification, was more than a mere novelty to the awestricken crowds. The news of Jesus, through the apostles, echoed the prophetic style of ancient Israel’s prophets, but compounded by the real-life transformation of common people into a new community. Therefore, the crowd was responding to the gospel message by the thousands and the church was growing at an exceedingly fast rate.
The new believers were also very eager to learn more about Jesus. Teaching was a major part of the apostles’ duties. Although Peter and John were the visible and leading figures of the movement, we can assume that the other 10 were also actively engaged in teaching as we see in verse 10: The apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. As a natural consequence of getting together for teaching, fellowship was simultaneously happening as well.
As the church was gathering for teaching and fellowship, eating together was an essential part of their daily activities. The phrase “breaking of bread” might indicate celebrating the Lord’s Supper as well as eating their regular meals. We should remember that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the context of the early church’s regular meals, according to what Paul says in 1Corinthians 11. Luke’s description of how these Christians ate their meals together is very telling about the spirit of unity, humility, and gladness that characterized their love feasts. “They broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God.”
Actually, Luke did not want his readers to be left assuming there was unity of spirit among the early church. He states it plainly: Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” The level of unity in a group of around 8,000 people to be described as being of one heart and one soul is almost impossible to believe. In this day and age, average churches are less than a 100 people, however, it is surprising at how little they can all agree on.
We should be reminded, however, that the unity found in the early church was direct effect of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of those believers. The Holy Spirit was like a centrifugal force, unifying the community, bringing each member closer to Christ and to each other. Their social, economic, or religious background was all dispelled by the Holy Spirit. Among them were people who were former Pharisees, Sadducees, fishermen, beggars, professional, like Matthew who was an accountant, Luke was a doctor. There was Joanna who was Herod’s manager. And among the church were certainly the many people who Jesus had healed and who were very poor. We are told that those who had material means provided for those who did not have. They had everything in common. The life of the early church was a powerful testimony to the profound transformative and redeeming force of the message of Jesus. The life of the early church was something totally new and beautiful to outsiders. To the unbeliever, the Jesus movement was an admirable and enviable bunch of people.
And as a result of that, Luke gives two easy-to-miss details about an important character of the church. In verse 47, we are told that the church was “having the goodwill of all the people.” And in chapter four, verse 34, we read that “great grace was upon them all.” The words “goodwill” and “grace” come from the same word Greek word charis. Therefore, goodwill can be understood as going both ways: The early church extended its goodwill towards everyone in the community, including those outside or that outsiders saw the church with great respect and goodwill. If we take the latter meaning of those words, it would mean that outsiders viewed the church with great respect, affection, and goodwill. Although non-believers were not part of the group, they had a high regard towards it.
The witness of the early church regarding non-believers should call our attention. On the one hand, we are told that the early church expressed genuine concern, charm, love, etc. towards those who were not believers. The early church reached out lovingly towards those who were not its members. Today, that would make a great difference when it comes to doing outreach and evangelism. When the church expresses concern and has goodwill—in other words, when the church is friendly, helpful, and has a cooperative attitude to address the needs and concerns of outsiders, the message of the gospel has more possibilities of being received. This attitude on the part of the church is extremely important these days. I do not want to sound negative, but research shows that churches do not fare well, perception wise, among non-believers. Many do not have goodwill towards the church today.
Therefore the question is: How are we doing about that?
Once again, here is the question, are the descriptions given about the early church prescriptive on how Christian churches should look like today? The point we might readily objected to is the early church’s communal practice. They sold their properties and brought the proceeds to the apostles to help those who were needy. No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. There would be many reasons why this is not appealing for us today. We like to have our “own things.” We are told to shy away from everything that smells of “communism.” Even though, the extent of communism found in the early church might be beyond what we can or are willing to commit, the spirit of caring for one another and especially those who are in need should be something we can still do. We should remember, however, that there were many other elements about the early church that we should continue to practice.
The early church had a voracious appetite to know more about Jesus. So the question for us is: have we learned everything there is about Jesus that his words have become stale or have lost their appeal to our minds’ and souls’ palate? If we say they have not, how much time do you put into studying and embodying his words in your daily life?
The early church had a strong sense of community. The church took advantage of every opportunity to do things together. They studied, ate, served, prayed, suffered and rejoiced together in the name of their Lord. They had goodwill towards those outside the fellowship as well. And both its love and concern for the wellbeing of those inside as well as for those outside opened doors to share the good news of the gospel. How much concern do we have for those not belonging to our group? How do we express it?
There is something about the early church practice of being a community that is really important for us to take notice of. Communities have strengths and weaknesses. The strength of a community lies in its capacity, readiness, and commitment to care for its own members. People within a community feel they belong and are cared for. They feel they have others with whom to share their joys and sorrows. However, communities can have weaknesses too. Before too long, certain rules of behaviors begin to form, which lead to rigidity and legalism. Another weakness is its lack of porousness. In other words, the communities has difficulty accepting outsiders, especially people who might not be like-minded with those inside. In many cases, when people visit a church, particularly small family churches, they often feel like if there is a barrier to their being accepted and admitted into the community.
In verse 47, we read: And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. The early church was a porous community. That is, the church was not a closed community. Rather, new people were being added to it every day. There were all kinds of people inside the church.
May the Lord help us to learn from the basic principles that characterized the early church. We should not try to literally imitate the early church. Rather, may the Lord in his abundant grace revive in us a thirst to know him and the power of his resurrection, as Paul says. May the Lord grant us the desire to seek only what is best for our brothers and sister. May the Holy Spirit expand the range of our heart’s love to include every person that comes to our doors. May the Holy Spirit unify us into a new humanity in the image of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen!