Monday, April 12, 2021

So, what is the normal church that we are returning to?

 Our church began working its way through the early chapters of Acts earlier this year and yesterday arrived at 2:42-47. It was my turn to preach, so here's what I said (pretty much).

I'd be interested in the thoughts of others

There’s lots of excited talk at the moment about things returning to normal. Tomorrow we can go and spend a small fortune sitting freezing in a pub garden with six friends and queue for a haircut and shop for non-essentials. Yay!

And churches are wondering what this means for us. A return to singing - yay! (again or not - depending on your taste!!), gathering to worship and learn together in silent rows, standing in the lounge having coffee with people we know and those we’d like to.

But is that what is normal for church? If it is, then it’s little wonder that so few people join in with us - maybe 5% of London’s population gathers in a church on any given Sunday; fewer on Zoom over the past twelve months.

The only time I met Prince Philip was at the opening of a youth centre in Bromley. I introduced myself as a baptist minister in the town and he remarked, ‘Oh, are there any Christians in Bromley?’ Legendary wit? Astute social commentary? Not sure…

But this ‘normal’ of church life is hardly a description of the revolution we started to look at when we opened Acts together earlier this year. Today we get to the place where Luke gives us the first of two summaries of ‘normal’ church life (the other is in 4:32-37) 

Here it is,

The whole company of believers stuck together and held all things in common. They were selling their goods and belongings, and dividing them among the group on the basis of ones need. Knit together with singleness of purpose they gathered as the church every day, and as they ate the common meal from house to house they had a joyful and humble spirit, praising God and showing overflowing kindness toward everybody. And day by day, as people were being rescued, the Lord would add them to the fellowship. 

That’s different to the version you’re looking at because it is from Clarence Jordans Cotton Patch translation of Acts 2:44-47.

Jordan was a remarkable Baptist preacher from the deep south of the USA that most of us have never heard of. Trained in agriculture and the New Testament (he had a PhD in NT Greek - and those aren’t easy come by!), he and a few friends set up Koinonia Farm in 1942 in Americus, Georgia.

Based on a radical call to discipleship, Jordan set out to create a community that was committed to racial integration, nonviolence, a simplified lifestyle, sharing of possessions, and stewardship of the land and its resources.

This was very Acts 2 but in the Jim Crow states of the USA in the 1940s, it was also dangerously out there.

But Jordan believed the resurrection changed everything. This was the promised revolution that had erupted into the world from the hand and heart of God. For him, 

The resurrection of Jesus was simply God's unwillingness to take our 'no' for an answer. He raised Jesus, not as an invitation to us to come to heaven when we die, but as a declaration that he himself has now established permanent, eternal residence here on earth. He is standing beside us, strengthening us in this life. The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not that we shall die and go home to be with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick prisoner brothers with him.


The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.


Hence Acts 2 being a manifesto for and description of this revolution. Let's focus on four features of this normal church life Luke draws our attention to:

firstly, shared space being together requires open homes - and we find that all through the book. The revolution has come home (2:46; 5:42; 11:3; 16:15, 31-34; 18:7, 8; 20:7-12, 20)

As Christians spread out, homes were their base; the place where they lived and worked was the place where the revolution took root and spread to others. Most Christians would have met in workshops where they plied their trade as artisans of one sort or another.

This had two implications. The first is hospitality which is essential to forming community. It’s why Paul says a vital qualification for being a leader in this movement is that they were hospitable (Ti 1:8). And the second is that through their homes they were focused on helping out. Their gatherings were very practical; these folk looked out for each other at the square meal level (2:44 cf 4:32-37; 2 Cor 8:13-15). If people couldn’t bring food to share that didn’t matter, they could always get a meal because that’s what the gathering was for.

But of course it went beyond that. As Jordan says, ‘What the poor need is not charity but capital, not caseworkers but coworkers. And what the rich need is a wise, honourable and just way of divesting themselves of their overabundance’.

And that is precisely what Koinonia Farm is all about. People with nothing are provided for and given the skills they need to provide for others. And the model has spilled out into other communities where groups of Jesus followers buy debts and pay medical bills, offer training and the finance people need to get on their own two feet so that they do the same for others.

Students often enthuse to me that it would be great to see God working among us in signs and wonders just as he did in the early days of the movement. And I agree with them. And then I ask if they are prepared to pool their resources so there is equality among the people of God and no one in need. If we want to release the signs and wonders we crave, economic jubilee is an essential part of it.

Secondly, we see shared values in operation. There are so many stories about how the world works, each one giving rise to values to live by – we see it in the way the government works, companies operate and if we are going to embody God’s revolution, we need to know ours so that we can model them to others.

Values are based on two things: facts, the apostlesdoctrine: there are things we need to know; so reading the bible, talking about it, learning it matters. We need to know who Jesus is, what God has done, how the Holy Spirit works in our midst.

But the other thing we need is footsteps. The point of this teaching is that we walk in it: writing to the Corinthians Paul said he was sending Timothy to them to remind them of his way of life, not just his words (1 Cor 4:17). If the facts do not lead to foot steps, they are not being heard right, they are not being learned correctly. If they remain in our heads and do not reach our feet, they are, frankly, pretty useless!

So we need to learn how to be accountable to one another for how were living; this is not threatening but good; it strengthens us, helps us become the community we are called to be: if were not changing as result of coming to church, becoming more like Jesus, why are we coming?

Thirdly, these were a people with a shared mission, a community that was built as much by working together serving others as by meeting together: what they did to show kindness and offer practical help to their neighbours was the outworking of their shared values.

So their gathering was a bit like stopping at the motorway services when on a long journey. They met to refuel, get fed & get cleaned up so they could continue serving God their neighbours during the week: this is what church is for. So 3:1-11 with its story of mission follows 2:42-47 and shows that the revolution has taken root and we are becoming the community that will show the world who God is. 

Effective evangelism is always incarnational, it’s always a demonstration of the message in actions that flow from the message; we cannot preach what we are not prepared to live. As John Stott once said evangelism and social action are two blades of a pair of scissors, one without the other is as useless as one-bladed scissors.

So the revolution is about feeding hungry people as much as talking about Jesus, housing homeless folk, sharing food with our neighbours, clothing the naked, healing the sick, welcoming the stranger and making space for them at our tables. That’s when our neighbours start saying, these people have turned the world upside down, as the people of Thessalonica said of Paul and his crew.

And finally, what we see here is a shared encounter: a community of trust, learning, mission and mutual accountability is the very best place to encounter the living God (43). God doesnt leave us to live as disciples and become such a community on our own: he gives us his power and strength through the Holy Spirit. 

Then we see signs and wonders, share our goods, are flooded with joy because God is active in each one of us and in our gathering: it is here we taste the new creation as we grow together into community and the world sees in a way that changes their lives and ours (2:47).

As Clarence Jordan says, ‘The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.’ Adding, ‘Now faith is the turning of dreams into deeds. It is betting your life on the unseen realities.’

Is this the normal we are longing to get back to? Are we longing to gather because we are products and perpetrators of the Pentecost revolution? As we walk this life of faith together, we will grow into that community, for faith as Jordan reminds us ‘is not belief in spite of evidence but a life in scorn of the consequences.’

God will build little outposts of his revolution through his Holy Spirit wherever people trust him and allow him freedom to move: is that us?