We are living in strange times, indeed. As we continue into 2021 hoping to finally get through all the disruption the pandemic has brought us these past 12 months, I am still pondering this question: What is the Church, and what impact did social distancing restrictions have on our ability to be the Church?
I want us to take a closer look at a passage of Scripture from Acts 2, which can rightly be called the birthday of the Church. It is the story of the Holy Spirit coming on Pentecost. That day tens of thousands of Jews had traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Weeks, which was held seven weeks after Passover. Intersecting this gathering, a much smaller group of Jesus’ disciples was in Jerusalem 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus. On that day 120 people gathered and prayed in a small upper room when the Holy Spirit came with the sound of a violent wind. They were all filled with the Spirit and began speaking in other languages. This apparently created such a ruckus that they spilled out of the little house and likely made their way to the temple courts where thousands of Jews were able to witness this scene unfold.
As Peter began to address this massive crowd, he summarized the story of Jesus— his life, death and resurrection. He explained that Jesus, now sitting at the right hand of God, has poured out the Holy Spirit on his people, which is what they were now seeing and hearing. This first sermon leads the Jewish seekers to ask a vital question, “What shall we do?”
Look closely at how Peter replies in Acts 2:38-47.
38 And Peter said to them, “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 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
So, what is the Church, and what does it mean to be the Church?
“What shall we do?” How do we ensure that we are still living out the call to be a vibrant body of Christ in this world − his Church? At the risk of being overly simplistic and prescriptive, I suggest that we must remember the core elements outlined here at the birth of the Church.
First and foremost:
- Repent. Turn to Jesus and put the full weight of your faith in him and him alone. In short form, wake up and come on and follow Jesus with your whole life.
- Be baptized. Be cleansed in the waters of baptism where we reenact the death and burial of Jesus and his resurrection. The casting off of our old sinful self and the receiving of our adoption as sons and daughters of the Father. For those of us who have already been baptized, we are called to remember our baptism.
- Receive the Holy Spirit. Paul seems to promise here that those who repent and are baptized, who are cleansed from their sins, would receive the Holy Spirit. We believe each sincere and believing follower of Jesus receives the Holy Spirit at conversion. However, many people in the Church seem painfully unaware how desperate we are as the people of God for a dynamic, ongoing and abiding relationship with the Holy Spirit who is always drawing us into the very real relationship that exists between the Father and Son. We believe that the Christian life is the Spirit-filled life. A vibrant church is a spirit-filled people.
Then do these things…
- The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. The followers of Jesus submitted themselves to sound biblical teaching and preaching. They were eager and hungry to learn more about Jesus, the Word and what it meant to live this out. We have often equated this with going to church and listening to sermons, but this was not just passive listening to yet another sermon. They were devoted to the teaching − I imagine they hung on every word. They hungered for the truth of God’s word. What this might mean for us in the midst of a pandemic is that even if we don’t feel comfortable making it to a Sunday in-person service, we can still get out our Bibles and study along through the livestream. Because we all know it is more challenging to pay attention at home, extra effort to be attentive will be required.
- The believers devoted themselves to fellowship. The Greek word here is koinonia. It is far deeper than just being in a room with other believers. Koinonia gets toward a kind of communion that can only happen in and through other Spirit-filled believers. It involves a kind of supernatural love expressed in the many “one another” passages of Scripture. See Romans 12:10, 1 Peter 3:8, Romans 15:7, Galatians 5:13, Ephesians 4:32, Hebrews 3:13, 1 John 3:11 and so on. At Holy Trinity we have many forms of smaller communities still meeting in person and online where deeper fellowship can safely happen. Visit https://htcraleigh.org/lisu-smaller-communities/.
- The believers devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. Most commentators on this text find that the formality of the phrase, the “breaking of bread,” refers to the Lord’s supper. While it could, of course, also refer to the fellowship of believers around a dinner table, it most likely refers to the words of Jesus when he said, “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In order for the Church to be vibrant, the body of Christ must gather around the table and participate in and reenact the story and life of Jesus on a regular basis through communion. Remember that you can join us each Wednesday for our mid-week Holy Communion service.
- The believers devoted themselves to prayer. In order for the body of Christ to be a vibrant people, we must be a praying people. Both in our own personal lives and in regular gatherings to pray with other believers. See more about ways you can engage in prayer on your own and with others at Holy Trinity.
I am convinced that any group of believers−be it 3, 30 or 300−who participates in the life of Jesus in these core practices is, in fact, the Church wherever we find them. Whether gathered outside, in a home, via livestream, on Zoom, in a small group or during Sunday worship. The people of God who repent, are baptized, receive the Holy Spirit, and devote themselves to sound biblical teaching, deep fellowship, communion and prayer are at its very core the body of Christ. The question for us is not how to gather like we used to under COVID-19 restrictions. The question is how can we get back to the core elements of what it means to be the Church? Wherever we find people deeply committed to these things, I believe we will also see the same outcomes as evidenced in Acts 2:43-47: signs and wonders occur; people become radically generous and connected; and God’s people become full of praise, worship and love. Isn’t this the kind of church we long to be at Holy Trinity?