Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 15, 2011
“Koinonia: The Church’s Life Together” (Acts 2:42-47)
During this Easter season, we’re tracking the readings from the Book of Acts, under the theme, “Witness, Mercy, Life Together.” Witness: The church bearing verbal witness to Christ the Savior. Mercy: The church showing the compassion of Christ in serving people in need. Life Together: The church being the fellowship, the family, that Christ has formed for himself. We see each of these aspects of the church’s life well on display here in the Book of Acts.
The last couple of weeks, the readings have focused on “Witness,” the church boldly proclaiming the word of God in the world. Last week, for example, we heard Peter proclaim both Law and Gospel in his sermon on Pentecost Day, calling sinners to repentance and to faith and forgiveness in Christ. Today, then, we see the results of that witness. The proclamation of the gospel, which brought many people to believe and be baptized–the gospel witness leads to a church being formed. The church: a community of faith with Christ at the center. The believers live their lives in community, formed and held together by the gospel and the sacraments. This common life, this fellowship–the Greek word for it is “koinonia.” And so our theme this morning, “Koinonia: The Church’s Life Together.”
You know, sometimes I think we view the church in terms of what it can do for me. We look at it in an overly individualistic way. What am I getting out of it? How does it please me? “Me and Jesus,” for maybe an hour on Sunday morning, at least one or two times a month. I come to church by myself, I sit in my isolation booth, and then I go home.
Now I’m exaggerating here, of course. I know for many of you, church means a whole lot more than that. And I thank God for the beautiful life together that we share here at St. Matthew’s. God has done a beautiful work here among us, knitting us into a close and caring family. But even in the best of congregations, I think there is always room for us to grow. Some of us are not as connected and “plugged in” to the life of the church as we could be. Some of us could do more to reach out to those who are less connected. We all can learn something from the description of the early church that we find in Acts.
Our text this morning is one of the most beautiful pictures of what a church can be, here in these closing verses of Acts chapter 2. Setting the tone, in particular, is verse 42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
The “they” here is all the people who came to faith and were baptized as a result of Peter’s preaching. And what did they do? Come to church just occasionally, with just a marginal connection? When the mood hit them, and they got up on time, and they had nothing better to do? No, no way! Far from it. It says here that they were “devoting themselves” to the church’s common life. They dove in with both feet. They “continued steadfastly” in the things that make up the church’s life: teaching, fellowship, communion, worship.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” We have the teaching of the apostles in the pages of the New Testament, where they in turn expound how Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. So we too have the apostles’ teaching, because we have the Holy Scriptures. The early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching,” that is, they were constantly learning, soaking up, taking to heart, the preaching and teaching of God’s word.
How about us? Do we gladly hear and learn preaching and God’s word? Or do we let it bounce off our heads? Are we taking full advantage of the opportunities we have in this church to grow in our understanding of the apostolic teaching? That would mean being in church, every Sunday, health and weather permitting. Did you notice I said “every Sunday”? That’s what “devoting ourselves” would look like. It would also mean, if you’re physically able to do so, going to Bible class. Right now on Sundays, we’re going through Romans, and in our weekday class, we’re reading through the entire Bible. Hey, how about starting up a Sunday School for our kids? They would really benefit from it, and we could do it, we could work out the logistics to make it happen. We just need the kids here regularly. We have a catechism class for our older kids, and I’m always interested in starting up an instruction class for adult prospective members. So, while our worship attendance is above average, and our Bible class attendance is above average, too, there still is room to grow.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship.” Here’s that word “koinonia,” translated “fellowship.” When we hear “fellowship,” what do we think of? Cookies and coffee downstairs? Hey, nothing wrong with cookies and coffee, but koinonia, biblical fellowship, runs a lot deeper than that. The term “koinonia” refers to having things in common, sharing in the common things. It starts with what we all have in common as Christians. We all believe in one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We all have been baptized in the name of the triune God, so we share in a common birth. We all partake of Christ’s holy body and blood. These objective gifts of God, which we all share in–these are the things that form us as a communion of saints, a community of God’s holy people, set apart to belong to him, all receiving the holy things–Holy Gospel, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Communion. This sharing in the common things is what makes us a koinonia, a fellowship.
And then that common life shows itself in how we care for one another. Love–love for our brothers and sisters in the family, expressed in helpful, practical ways. When some of us are hurting, we’re all hurting. When some of us rejoice, we all rejoice. When we see a brother or sister in the family in need, we act to meet that need. That’s what happened, voluntarily, in the early church: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This is not government communism, done by force. This is churchly community, done out of love. We’re in this together.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread.” “The breaking of bread.” This is not referring to potlucks–although, as you know, I like a good potluck as much as the next guy. No, “the breaking of bread”–well, this translation doesn’t quite capture it, because there’s a little word missing: “the.” The Greek actually says “the breaking of the bread”–“the” bread. “The breaking of the bread,” in the early church, was really a technical term for the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion. The early Christians devoted themselves to partaking of Communion, Christ’s holy body and blood, given and shed for them–and for us–for the forgiveness of sins.
One of the things that has happened during my tenure here at St. Matthew’s about which I am the happiest is that, about a year ago, we returned to the church’s historic practice of every-Sunday Communion. I’m so glad we did. What a joy it is to join together here at the Lord’s Table to receive his life-giving gifts! Being the Body of Christ is so closely tied to receiving Christ’s Body and Blood.
Christ Jesus our Savior gave his body into death and shed his blood for us on the cross, to win forgiveness for all our sins and to take away the power of death from over us, as his Easter resurrection shows. Those very benefits that he won for us on the cross–forgiveness, life, and salvation–Christ now packs into the breaking of the bread and the partaking of the cup. Friends, our Savior feeds and nourishes his church with this sacrament, so that we are strengthened through the same in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another. This blessed eating and drinking is a wonderful thing for us to devote ourselves to.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.” “The prayers.” Not just “prayer” in a generic sense, but it says “the prayers,” indicating a more formal, liturgical worship practice. The early Christians were Jews, remember, so they were used to having set prayers, like in the Psalms, like in the worship practice of Israel at the temple. And that doesn’t make worship any less “spiritual.”
In any case, they devoted themselves to the prayers. Regular worship, the prayers and praises of God’s people, as we receive God’s Word and Sacrament. We still do this today. We still sing our praises to our gracious God, and we bring him our petitions, our supplications, and our thanksgivings. God graciously hears and receives and answers our prayers for Christ’s sake.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.” That was the life together of the early church, and it is our life together, too. Why? Two reasons.
One: We need it. We need to be sustained in our faith by being part of the body of Christ. God’s plan is not to have a bunch of Lone Ranger Christians, footloose individuals, to sink or swim on their own. No, God has placed us into a family, his family called the church. We share a life together, and in that living together, in that close community, we are built up in our faith. We’re like coals in a fire. Together, we stay warm. Pull us apart, and we grow cool and are in danger of dying out. We need our life together as church. This is God’s idea, it’s his plan, and it’s a good one.
The other reason we share in our life together is because the world needs us. We have work to do, we have a mission to carry out. There are things we can do together that we cannot do as individuals. We need to support this congregation, because it is an oasis of life, a bastion of the pure gospel, a haven of heaven, here in Bonne Terre. And we are part of the larger church, too, as a member congregation of the Missouri District and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. We have exciting opportunities to be a part of, here in America and around the world. “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” is an emphasis for our life and work as a synod. And it is a worthy emphasis for our congregation, as well.
“Koinonia: The Church’s Life Together.” It’s life that God gives us, pure gift, life with Christ at the center, as both source and goal. It’s new life, life that he won for us by his death on the cross. It’s eternal life, life that comes with Easter resurrection packed into it. “Koinonia, Life Together”: Our common life is uncommonly good!