Exegetical Statement: In this section of Acts, Luke describes the activity of the 3,000 baptised souls after Pentecost. Luke characterises their life as a life of devotion—a continuous engagement and faithfulness to apostolic teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. This life of the Church was wrought by the Gospel, thus formulating their unity. The Holy Spirit worked such unity among them that they all agreed to view their possessions as belonging to the Lord to be used for the good of their neighbour. This unity, in addition to the wonders and signs the apostles performed, brought awe to those outside the Church. These Christians engaged in such blameless living that they had a good reputation with all. The Lord Christ not only saves souls, but He also brings them into His Church.
Focus Statement: The Lord’s Church lives a life of devotion to the Word and fellowship.
Function Statement: That my hearers will know they are still the Church even during quarantine and, therefore, to live devoted lives to the Word.
Introduction: The Perfect Church
What is the perfect church? What would it look like for St. Paul in Union to be the perfect, ideal church? Many, I think, would turn to our text in Acts to get the image: everybody believes the same doctrines, there’s fellowship, we all agree on politics, we serve our community, and we have a good reputation and no one thinks bad of us. This text is often used for that, but things didn’t stay “perfect” for long. Divisions eventually rose among them, and other problems, hence the letters St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, Corinthians, and other churches—because they had all sorts of problems that needed to be addressed.
But maybe some of us don’t go this far back. We might go back to a more recent time of the ’50s because “everybody” supposedly went to church on Sundays. While that may be somewhat true statistically, someone with my skin colour would not have been able to attend many all-white churches, let alone a prestigious seminary because the Civil Rights Act wasn’t signed until 1964. So, great as the ’50s might have been, it wouldn’t have been that great for me and half my family.
Many of us think back to some age of Christendom and wish the Church would return to some supposedly former pristine state. Except no pristine state has ever existed. No church can be perfect because the church is run by sinners. Not even the church in Acts was perfect. Nevertheless, we can learn something from these Christian ancestors of ours. First, what is devotion; and second, what is fellowship?
When I say “devotion,” what comes to mind? Probably something like reading a devotional book or a reading plan through the whole Bible or a book of the Bible, or maybe even watching my devotional videos on YouTube. While devotion certainly includes reading the Word, that’s not all it is. It’s not wrong, but this is a narrow definition of devotion. I like the definition Dr. David Schmitt gave at the seminary: “Devotion is a deep reverence for a particular teaching of the faith that manifests itself in contemplative and active practices in the world.”
Apparently, the teaching these Christians had a deep, unifying reverence for was charity, so they all agreed to sell their possessions and give to the poor according to what they needed. Out of their devotion to God’s Word according to the apostles’ teaching has flowed a devotion to the 9th Commandment to love and care for their neighbour. From now on, as you think of devotion, ask yourself, “What am I devoted to?”
Personally, I have a deep reverence for the Scriptures’ teaching on the first article of the Creed, which has to do with creation. In the Small Catechism, we confess in the first article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.”
Because of this confession, the Spirit has instilled in me a deep reverence and passion for the liberal arts, such as reading, painting, and writing. So, I enjoy literature in all its forms and have a deep appreciation for artists, and I use the gifts of writing and photography God has given me to glorify Him. Out of my devotion to God’s Word has flowed a devotion to the first article gifts He has given me. For others, the first article of the Creed might instill in them a deep reverence for creation, leading to acts of care for the environment.
Yet there are also things we devote ourselves to as the Body of Christ, which we see in Acts. So, as we devote ourselves to the Word here at St. Paul, what other devotion flows from that? One of our devotions is to children, as evident in our church’s preschool. The Scriptures instructs us to raise our children in the Lord, and that is precisely what we do in preschool and catechism.
These Christians in Jerusalem were also devoted to fellowship, yet much like devotion, “fellowship” is another word we throw around. What does fellowship mean? For many, fellowship consists of coffee, orange juice, and doughnuts in the narthex or the fellowship hall, which takes place right after church. Yet our Christian ancestors in Jerusalem met in each other’s homes nearly every day! Sorry to disappoint you, but fellowship is much more than your cup of coffee and ritual of small talk every Sunday.
The Greek word for fellowship, κοινωνία [koinonia], is an intimate word. This is not a word that matches well with our American individualism and privatism. Fellowship is a close community of people. We confess it in the Creed: the communion of saints. Many of us go years without knowing some peoples’ names in our church because we think fellowship means… well, we have no idea what it means! So, what does fellowship mean?
As English speakers, we are infamous for mispronouncing words. “The ‘ship’ in fellowship is not the word ship at all.” That part of the word is originally a pre-Germanic word, skapaz, which means “the form of something,” or shape, while the word for “ship” comes from skipam. Skapaz, skipam. Completely different words, yet easily confused. In his book titled Echo, Rev. Jonathan Fisk says we better understand what fellowship means when we replace “ship” with the English word shape, and we get “fellow-shape” [Fisk, 186]. So, what is the common shape of the Christian?
It is twofold: It’s the shared awareness that we are diseased creatures stricken with the spiritual leprosy of sin and it is the shared awareness that God has cured us of this disease. By faith, together we call out our sins, admit it, and confess it to God. And together, we receive God’s healing Word of salvation that cleanses us of our sinful disease in the waters of Baptism.
God’s Word actually does something. The Word that created the universe is the same Word that forgives you all your sins and shapes you into a child of God in the community of believers. So, we Christians want to hear more and more of Jesus’ words, and we gather together for this continued “fellow-shaping” as the holy people of God.
This is most apparent in the Lord’s Supper. The Christians in Jerusalem devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers, our text says. This is not a phrase that means they often had lunch and dinner together—it’s a lot more than going to El Ranchito; it’s a liturgical phrase meaning they gathered together to receive the Lord’s Supper and to pray. They gathered together in the liturgy of the Word to be shaped by it and to receive the Lord’s Supper. That’s what’s happening in the liturgy—you are being shaped by God through His Word and Sacraments.
As Rev. Fisk describes the Supper, “Here is a tie to God in the fellow-shape of kneeling, eating, and drinking with a neighbor who might very well be my least favorite person in the world, but who now shares with me a bond that is stronger than blood. This blood of the fellow-shape is the promise of resurrection that we have in the man who gave it to us” [Fisk, 189].
What Does it Mean to be the Church?
But are we still the Church even though we cannot gather and receive the Sacrament? We can’t meet every day like the Christians in Jerusalem could. Even without this quarantine, we still can’t meet almost every day because we all have jobs and lives. Are we still the Church even though we can’t go to church right now?
Well, what is the Church? It depends on which sense of the Church you’re referring to. There are two senses. As our Confessions say, “Strictly speaking, the Church is the congregation [or assembling] of saints and true believers” where the Word and Sacraments are properly preached and administered [AC VIII, 1]. We call this the visible Church. Unfortunately, even hypocrites and the ungodly are mixed in with this church—wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Yet because we cannot gather during quarantine, we cannot come together as the Church, but this does not mean we’re not the Church because the Church is not only these visible signs of Word, Sacrament, and the gathering of God’s people. Our Confessions also describe the Church as “the fellowship [the fellow-shape] of faith and of the Holy Spirit in hearts” [Ap VIII, 5].
The Church, then, is paradoxically hidden and visible. Though the Church has a visible place in time wherever the Word is preached and the Sacraments rightly administered, the Church is also eternal and hidden—found wherever God’s people are, both in Heaven and on earth. When we confess in the Creed that we believe in the communion of saints, these are both the saints throughout all the earth and those currently resting in our Lord.
Now that you understand what the Church is, what does it mean to be the Church? We Americans inevitably view the Church through the lens of the marketplace. As we’re driving down the road, we pass by a church, then a Walmart, then a drugstore, hence the term “church shopping.” Contrary to our American culture, the Church is not a group of autonomous individuals who decide to come together and listen to some dude give some speeches. The Church is God’s people who belong to God and to each other—fellow-shape. American Christians have this preposterous idea that it’s just me, myself, and I, and sometimes Jesus when I’m feeling down.
But that’s not what it means to be the Church. The Church is not some store as part of the American marketplace for you to get your fill at the altar of consumerism. God is not a vending machine. The Scriptures’ description of the Church is contrary to our American autonomy. Saint Paul describes the Church as a body, particularly the Body of Christ. He describes the Church as a body with many members, all of which need each other. He says, “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body… If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? …As it is, there are many parts, yet one body” [1 Corinthians 12:15-20].
Are there individual members? Yes. But they all make up one unified body. As an arm that is cut off from the body withers and dies, so a Christian who deliberately cuts him or herself off from the Body of Christ withers and dies. Of course, during these trying times, the individual members are involuntarily cut off from the body. For the time being, the Lord is permitting us to suffer this, but remember the Church is also hidden, which you are a member of.
As a member of the Church, you are the Church. Having a place to gather is certainly a fundamental part of the Church, but it wouldn’t be the Church without people—without you. Are you a person? Particularly a person whom Christ has claimed as His own in the Holy Spirit? Then you are the Church—His Church. Though you cannot gather to hear the Word and receive the Lord’s Supper for now, you still have your Baptism and you still receive the Word. Therefore, you are still the Church. You are still being “fellow-shaped” into God’s holy creature in your daily Baptism, as Luther describes it, and the hearing of the Word.
So, to put it as simply as I can, the Church is God’s people who are devoted to hearing His Word as they gather together for this purpose, fellow-shaping them as the community of believers, from which flows a unified devotion to loving their neighbour.
Remember though, the Church does not depend on you or me, or Pastor Mat; it depends on Christ the cornerstone. If the cornerstone should break, the building collapses. Thank God you and I are not the cornerstone of the Church. If we were, we would’ve ruined everything long ago.
Since it depends on Christ, it is Christ who upholds His Church. Jesus held up His Church through the dreadful suffering of the cross and His rising from the grave; therefore, He holds you, His Church, through this time of quarantine, which cannot compare to the eternal weight of glory that is to come upon His return [2 Corinthians 4:17]. Let us pray:
May this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our cornerstone. Amen.
Fisk, Jonathan. Echo. Unbroken Truth. Worth Repeating. Again. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2018.