10 Lessons from the Early Church
The Book of Acts, written by the gospel author Luke, is the record of the Acts of the Apostles, or in simple terms what the early followers of Jesus did after His death, resurrection and ascension. Luke’s primary aim of writing the book was actually set out by the words of Jesus: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The bold, faith-filled stories of the early church awaken us to the mission and focus of God’s Church. There is a sharpness and an effectiveness about the body of Christ that will be stirred as we hit on some key lessons we learn from the early church. The raw passion, boldness and urgency found in Acts is what we long to see awakened, showing us the “new normal” we believe God is calling us to as we are empowered by the fire of the Holy Spirit.
As we take a bird's eye view of the book of Acts we believe that God will reawaken the mission of His church. We're expectant for the Holy Spirit to bring a fresh empowerment, a new urgency to mission, and a restored confidence in the gospel. The book of Acts starts and ends with this focus, a call to prioritise the Kingdom. In Acts 1:3 we read that during his time on earth after his resurrection Jesus continued to teach on the Kingdom of God. At the end of the book, in Acts 28:31 we see Paul fearlessly proclaiming the Kingdom without hindrance.
If Kingdom is our vision, then it’s as if resurrection is the story; the very heartbeat to that vision. Resurrection is a persistent and predominant theme running throughout the Book of Acts. It’s inescapable. The apostles come back time and time again to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s as if it is the most prominent thing on their mind. Interestingly, whenever anyone asks of them a question, accuses them of something or just gives them an opportunity to share their story the one thing they always come back to is the resurrection of Jesus. And wouldn’t you? If you had been there - living and following Jesus, witnessing his incredible life and ministry, weeping with the other believers over his death when suddenly he is no longer dead? Of course, you would tell and retell that story over and over again.
Acts is a book filled with stories about the Holy Spirit - there are 57 references to the Spirit across 28 chapters, making up over a quarter of the references within the New Testament. In chapter 1, Jesus insists that the apostles must do nothing without the Holy Spirit: 'Wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me. John baptized in water; you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit. And soon.' Not only must we wait on the Spirit, we must go on being filled by the Spirit. Only two chapters after the iconic filling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost the apostles are filled once again in Acts 4:31 'After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.'
As a church 'Community' is one of our five values. In Acts 2:42-47 we are presented with a church with commonality, an exceptionally fruitful community of believers who were one in heart and mind. Looking at the book of Acts we can often feel intimidated rather than inspired. We live between the ideal and reality of what community actually looks and feels like - where discipleship happens. In Matthew 10:2-4 we are introduced to Jesus's twelve disciples, the dirty dozen. A complex mix of introvert, extrovert, liberal, conservative. James and John, two of Jesus's closest friends, could be described as sons of thunder, mummy's boys. In today's culture of choice, what binds us together now, as it did then, is commitment. In the monastic tradition, individuals make a lifelong commitment to their monastery - choosing to stay put in order to get somewhere.
Acts 1:14, Acts 4:23-36
All our lessons so far lead us to prayer. Once again, what we see in Acts may jar with what we see of our own communities. Acts 1:14 says 'They agreed they were in this for good, completely together in prayer, the women included. Also Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his brothers.' Prayer is a gift, a direct line to God. It is relational, not a means to pressurise God. It is an ever present resource, a direct petition to the heart of the Father which underpins our faith. Our prayer life must intertwine with mission and community, acting as a gateway into these two practices. In Acts 4 we read of the early church raising their voices together in prayer, as a result they spoke the word of God boldly. In Acts 2 we read that the apostles devoted themselves to prayer, a glue holding the community together. The Book of Acts gives us perhaps the clearest example of what a praying community looks like.
To preach; to utter a serious or earnest exhortation. Now usually derogatory: to give moral or religious advice in a self-righteous, condescending or obstructive way. Acts 1:8 lays down the gauntlet - will you be a witness. On Sunday we unpacked the myths around our commission to preach: You need to be a church leader. You need to know the Bible inside out. You need to have been a Christian for a significant length of time. You must be holy, perfect. Our lives must be overflowing with blessing. All these things simply aren't true. Time and time again in the book of Acts, we see that before salvation and miracles comes preaching. As a result the apostles stand out. The same is true of ourselves today. The early church faced opposition. But what use today are stonings, shipwrecks and jail sentences when likes and the opinions of others have so much power over us. Once again the same was true then and now. We need boldness. Nearly 2,000 years ago a match was struck in Palestine that would eventually ignite the whole world. When we share the Good News, we open a door for people to meet with the risen Jesus.
'The Spirit of God began to take hold of him' Judges 13:5. Throughout the library of scripture we are presented with stories that depict the wild and reckless love of God. Noah, and a wild request to build a boat. Abraham and Sarah, and a wild announcement from angels about impossible babies. Ezekiel, and wild and impossible questions from God about dead bones coming back to life. In Jesus we see the wildness of God revealed in human flesh. In the book of Acts we can become confused, or even offended by the outrageous acts of a wild God. As we come close to the Bible, the living Word of God, we choose to resist or choose to submit. Ultimately we know that submission to the wild ways of God brings peace and contentment. At the time, however, it can feel like stepping out into the unknown.
Acts is a book of opposition. Wherever the apostles went there was a threat to their lives and wellbeing. Matthew 10:22 shows us that Jesus understood the severity of the situation the Early Church would find themselves in: "You will be hated by everyone because of me." As we read through the letters of the New Testament, words written by the likes of Paul, Peter, John and James - leaders of the Early Church - we uncover their approach to opposition. Romans 5:3-5 couldn't be any clearer: 'we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.' Currently Iran is the nation with the fastest growing population of Christians. It is also ranked 9th in the world for volume of persecution to the church. Then and now, mission is a byproduct of persecution. In the UK opposition looks different, but we still need to learn to suffer well.
Salvation is to be expected. The book of Acts show us 'normal' Christianity. A Christianity in which faith is found on a daily basis, and the church grows exponentially. As we as a church develop a new confidence in the gospel message of Jesus, we can expect to step out of a spiritual winter and into a new season of salvation. Within Luke's gospel we read of countless parables about growth - a mustard seed that turns into a large tree, yeast which expands in dough. The Kingdom of God is built to grow.
Over the past 12 weeks we have dived deep into the book of Acts and the story of the Early Church. We’ve been reminded of the roots of the movement of Jesus followers that we’re caught up in, we’ve been re-envisioned for mission and now recommissioned to bring our own individual contribution.