This verse is a practical guide to being a church. There are other, more theological definitions of church: The New Israel, The People of God, or The Body of Christ are all beautiful expressions of the sublime mystery which is the church. But the practical details of being church are rarely expressed more accurately or succinctly. However, Acts is not a text book on ecclesiology, it is a narrative, so we might want to ask the question: Who is "they" that devoted themselves?
Acts 2 is about Pentecost. The apostles got all filled up with the Holy Ghost and were running around doing the glossolalia thing (speaking in foreign tongues) which created quite a stir. While some detected the spirit of God, others humorously offered other kinds of spirits, of the alcoholic variety as an explanation. Much of the chapter is taken up with the preaching of Peter, who famously kicks it off by saying, "These men are not drunk like you suppose, it is only nine in the morning." Instead, he explains, this is the prophecy of Joel come to fruition. He then tells the story of Jesus to the assembled crowd of Jews from all over the dispersion. "God," he declares, "has raised up Jesus and exalted Him to glory." "Jesus, Whom you crucified," Peter announced, "is both Lord and Messiah."
While we are used to this message, the crowd wasn't. You can well imagine the shock they felt in hearing that a recently executed criminal, someone whom the religious leaders had rejected as a charlatan and fake, had risen from the dead. The crowd, we hear was cut to the heart and so they asked Brothers, what should we do? Herein is laid out a model for encountering the Word. Tell the story and invite the response; understand what it means, understand what you should do.
Peter's advice "Repent and be baptized." Baptism is pretty straightforward, it is a liturgical act. Repentance, however, may take more explanation. The Greek word, metanoia, is a compound word literally meaning to change one's mind, to have compunction for one's life. Repentance is a mind change which leads to a life change. "Knowing this... I will never be the same again."
Peter also exhorts them "to be saved from this corrupt generation." Here are words ripped out of the conversations of our daily life. This week I read a headline that the rise in atheism had led to an increased need for exorcists. While the Episcopal Church has limited involvement in this type of thing, over in Rome thousands of priests are being identified and trained to do this work. Salvation is frequently equated with going to heaven, but Peter seems to include earthly experience as well. Jesus spoke of the Lost. A world which has lost its focus and direction is lost. People who are swept along by the tides of popular opinion are also lost. If you see our society as "on the right track" and you can embrace the beliefs and values of our culture, then you see no need for Jesus. If, on the other hands, you see not just the beauty but also the horrors, not just the truth but also the lies, not just the love bur also the indifference, the selfishness and the pain, then you may long for deliverance. This Jesus is The Deliverance God promised.
The "they" is the three thousand converts who claim flooding into the church in response to Peter's proclamation: a sign of the Holy Spirit at work and the depth of human need. But having turned from the corrupt world they needed to turn toward something better. They embraced what you and I have embraced:
- the apostles' teaching is the orthodox 'faith'; that which is believed by everyone, every where and at all times. This is "the Truth" [in Christ] and that has been handed on from Christ through the Apostles. In our church it is found in preaching, Sunday School, Bible studies and other groups.
- fellowship is a shared journey. At the creation of man God decided that it was not good to be alone. If God is Trinity and we are in God's image and likeness then it makes sense that love and relationship are so central to Christian life. Jesus gave Himself for others, and all of us, in Christ, are called to love one another
- the breaking of bread refers to two dimensions: the fellowship expressed in common meals and the sacramental meal of eucharist. While our gatherings are no doubt more liturgical and ritualistic, the core remains the same. When we eat together we encounter Jesus in each other and in the bread.
- Prayers conveys two ideas as well. Our personal prayers are certainly included, but "the prayers" are probably the liturgical, written prayers of the first believers. The Jews had memorized (liturgical) prayers. Jesus read and memorized prayers and His life was shaped by those prayers. In the early church written prayers were used especially in the eucharist.
Each day, the mission and ministry of every parish should be shaped by the ideas found here. Our only question is how faithfully and energetically we will engage in this work?
Jesus died but God raised Him and He is Lord and Messiah. He is now in heaven at God's side. Someday He returns. We believe it. Because WE BELIEVE IT, we have repented and been baptized. Now our daily task is to practice the churchmanship proclaimed in Acts 2.