The Uncommon Characteristics of an Uncommon Church

Acts 2:37-47

37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

The Fellowship of the Believers

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke breadin their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Dear Friends in Christ,

Have you ever had trouble sleeping at night?  There are few things that are more frustrating than not being able to sleep when you know you should be sleeping and everyone else is sleeping.  That problem can be caused by a wide variety of issues ranging from heartburn to worry to too much caffeine to a whole host of other things.  Well, I suspect that Peter had one of those sleepless nights following the incredible events that had taken place on that Pentecost Sunday when he and his fellow disciples were empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak in different languages and preach like they had never preached before.  The end result of that day was that 3000 people were baptized and became a part of the body of Christ.

So picture Peter that night, tossing and turning in his bed, wondering what he and his fellow disciples were going to do now.  I mean, at the beginning of that day the faithful followers of Christ numbered only about 120.  But now there were more than 3000 of them: old men with stooped backs, young women with bright eyes yet tainted pasts, the rich from the city, the poor from the country.  Something big had started that day.  Something much bigger than Peter ever dreamed possible.  Why, just a few weeks before this he had been cursing and denying his Savior, but earlier that day that we call Pentecost he had delivered what may have very well been his first sermon.  And oh what a sermon it was!  He had opened his mouth and preached with a boldness and an urgency that he knew could have only come from the Holy Spirit.  And he had done it with such power and such effectiveness that in v. 37 of our text we’re told that “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?”  Peter’s reply was swift and certain: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  And so they did.  They repented.  They were baptized.  And they received forgiveness for their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For that reason, we sometimes call this day of the year the birthday of the Christian Church.

And I think it would do us 21st century Christians well to spend some time on this Pentecost Sunday examining what that body of early believers was like.  What were the characteristics that marked the early Christian Church?  Perhaps if we can get a good handle on that, then we can take a look at our own church and determine whether we are following in the footsteps of those early Christians or whether we have drifted from their ways.  So let’s consider some of the uncommon characteristics of this uncommon church.

To begin with, the early church was marked by an uncommon addiction to the Word of God.  Verse 42 of our text says: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”  Note the word “devoted” there.  That means they addicted themselves to spiritual growth and development.  With the same appetite that you and I walk into a restaurant or sit down at the dinner table, they daily walked into God’s presence and said, “Feed me.  I’m hungry.  Quench me.  I’m thirsty.”

It reminds me of a visit I once had with a young man who was not a member of our congregation but whom I’d known for years.  He was a truck driver.  And he told me that when he’s on his runs, he’d gotten into the habit of listening to Christian radio stations which in turn had led him to begin to read his Bible on a daily basis.  And he told me that he now has such a thirst – that’s the word he used – for Scripture that he just can’t get enough of it.

That’s the way it was with those early Christians.  They had an uncommon hunger and thirst for God’s Word.  They just couldn’t get enough of it.

But there was more.  They also had an uncommon affection for one another.  Verse 44 of our text says: “All the believers were together and had everything in common.”  Unlike so many churches today where you find divisions and cliques and factions among the members, there was an uncommon unity that prevailed among the early Christians.  Oh, I’m sure they had differences of opinion about a variety of matters, but it was their common faith in Jesus Christ that bound them together.  Or to put it another way, the Christ who united them was greater than the differences that divided them.

And it was this uncommon unity that led to something else, namely, an uncommon generosity toward one another.  Verse 45 of our text says: “Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”  Just imagine how that uncommon generosity must have played out on a daily basis.  “Need rent money?  Here, God’s given me a great week in my shop, so I have some extra cash you can have.”  “Need a wheel for your cart?  I’ve got two I’m not using.  You can have one of them.”  “Need a roof put on your house?  I’m pretty handy.  I can help with that.”  Such comments must have permeated the New Testament church.

Then one more characteristic of those early Christians that is worthy of our attention today is that they also displayed an uncommon attention to the lost.  So much so that v.47 of our text says: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”  Outreach not just by the apostles but by all the members of this congregation was their #1 priority.  They knew they had a powerful, life-changing, eternity-impacting message to share with people, so they weren’t shy or complacent about it.  It reminds me of the saying that I saw on a church bulletin board once.  You’ve probably heard the ad on TV that says: “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”  Well, the sign outside this church said: “Friends don’t let friends go to hell.”  Those early Christians understood that unless a person becomes a believer in Christ, unless a person trusts in Jesus as the one who died on the cross to pay for their sins and rose from the dead to secure their own victory over death, that person would spend eternity in hell.  Now hell is something that a lot of people don’t like to think about or talk about today, but hell is real.  Hell is hot.  And hell is scary.  And I personally cannot think of any greater motivating factor to spur us on to reach out to those in our circle of friends and acquaintances who right now are hell bound human beings because they are living their lives outside of God’s will, outside of a saving relationship with Christ.

So let’s tally up what we’ve learned so far about the early church.  They had an uncommon addiction to the Word of God, an uncommon affection for one another, an uncommon generosity toward each other, and lastly, an uncommon attention to the lost.  Now let me ask you the big question.  Do you think that describes the typical church today?  Oh how I wish it did, but I think you know as well as I do that most churches in America today are struggling.  They are either plateaued or shrinking.  In fact, according to a study done by George Barna last year: 38% of Americans are “churched,” having gone to a religious service in the last seven days.  34% are “de-churched,” being former active churchgoers who have not attended a service in the last six months.  And 43% are “unchurched,” having never been an active church goer and having not attended a church service in the last six months.  Now if you do the math, those numbers total up to 115%, so there is some overlap between the de-churched and unchurched that I don’t have time to get into.  But it’s pretty obvious that the news is not good for America’s churches these days.

In a way we’ve become like the hillbilly who went and visited his very rich uncle who lived in a very large mansion.  That uncle was giving him the grand tour, showing him all this antique furniture.  And at one point the uncle said, “You know, most of this furniture goes back to Louis XIV.”  To which his hillbilly nephew replied, “I can relate to that because my furniture goes back to Sears on the 16th.”

He didn’t realize that he was surrounded by treasures, did he?  Well, my friends, it’s sad to say, but many in the church today do not realize that they are surrounded by incredible and incomparable treasures, what we might call the treasures of God’s grace.  For the church that was first established on that great day of Pentecost some 2000 years ago and that continues to exist even to this day has been entrusted with the priceless treasure of the Gospel, the good news of salvation that is offered to a world today that is faltering and floundering, a world that is full of so much bad news.

Can you imagine for a moment what a church-less world would be like?  One of my former professors from my days at Concordia Senior College by the name of Dr. Alvin Schmidt wrote a book some years ago about the influence that Christianity has had upon the cultures of the world and especially our own culture.  Respect for life, the spread of hospitals, caring for the poor and needy, caring for the sick and dying through organizations like Hospice, the principles upon which our nation was founded, including even our 3 branches of government – all of these and much, much more were the direct result of Christianity and the Bible’s influence.  So imagine what this world would be like without that influence.  I mean, it’s bad enough right now because we’re getting farther and farther away from the principles of Christianity, but had those principles never been put into place, had those principles never been put into practice, I shudder to think what kind of a world this would be.

So in a world that is experiencing incredible and rapid change right now, much of which is not all that positive, the church stands as one of those rare and uncommon anchors that we can hold onto to keep us steady.  For the church still proclaims the same Jesus as Lord and Savior; we still worship the same Triune God; we still study and follow the same Scriptures; we still celebrate the same Sacraments; and we still believe that the same Holy Spirit who empowered those earliest of Christians still empowers his people today.

May I ask a favor of you, my friends?  May I ask you to pray for our church on a regular basis?  As the pastors of this congregation, Mike and I want more than anything for Salem Lutheran Church to become like the early Christian Church that we looked at earlier in this sermon.  We want to see the characteristics that defined that church define our church as well.  So pray that the members of our congregation would have an uncommon addiction, hunger, and thirst for the Word of God that will be seen in overflow crowds at worship services and Bible studies.  Pray that we would have an uncommon affection for one another that will be reflected in an uncommon unity that prevails among our members where discord and dissent are nowhere to be found and we allow the Christ who unites us to be greater than any differences that may divide us.  Pray that we would display an uncommon generosity toward one another, that a generous spirit of giving might pervade this church, not just when it comes to our offerings of money, but also when it comes to how we give of our time and talents as well.

And then lastly, pray that our congregation might display an uncommon attention to the lost that will be reflected in members boldly sharing their faith with others, not in a holier than thou sort of way that turns people off, but in a pleasant, winsome, concerned way that draws people to Christ.

So pray for our church, my friends.  And while you’re praying about those things you see on the screen, may the same Holy Spirit who convicted those 3000 on that first Pentecost Sunday centuries ago convict you as well.  And may you heed that conviction so that all those characteristics that marked the early church might mark our church and our lives as well.

Let me close then with a story about the famous artist Leonardo DaVinci who was once working on a great masterpiece while an apprentice painter looked on.  Just before finishing the painting, DaVinci handed the student his brush and said, “Now you finish it.”  The apprentice objected and resisted for fear that he might ruin the masterpiece.  So DaVinci said to him, “Will not what I have done inspire you to do your best?”

Jesus does the same with us, my friends.  He started his work in this world 2000 years ago and he has handed us the brush to finish it.  May what he has done for us inspire us to do our best for him.  Amen.