Sunday, July 28, 2013

Early Christian Fellowship 3

... continued from yesterday
Fellowship is a second key element of healthy church life, and it is also a mechanism for discipleship. The early Christians met together often, and not only to worship.  They may initially have expected Jesus to return rather quickly--we remember that they didn't really leave Jerusalem on the mission until someone got killed (and even then, the disciples didn't leave). They may have gathered at the temple in part expecting Jesus to return there.

Nevertheless, they modeled the fact that God's people are a fellowshipping people. People tend to hang out with other people who have the same values and way of looking at the world. Since God must be the ultimate value for a believer, who provides the ultimate lens for looking at the world, something is wrong if Christians do not enjoy hanging out with one another. It's not that we should behave like some cult that never speaks to anyone else--Jesus certainly didn't model that approach either. It's that we should have more in common with other believers, where it counts the most, than we do with individuals who do not share our faith.

They ate together, "breaking bread." Acts does not explicitly connect the fellowship of the early church with the last supper in Luke 22, communion.  But Paul, writing earlier than Luke, seems to assume that the Corinthians ate "the Lord's supper" whenever they came together (1 Cor. 11:20). From his description, this supper was not a small 10-15 minute ceremony at the end of a worship service but an entire meal. It is at least reasonable, then, to assume that the regular breaking of bread Acts mentions quickly became associated with Jesus' final meal with his disciples. Each meal remembered that they would eat with Jesus one day when he returned and set up his kingdom on earth.

These were "love feasts," as Jude 12 seems to call them, something like the pitch-in dinners churches often have today. The earliest Christians seem to have eaten together often, perhaps even more than once a week on the Lord's Day, Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead (cf. Rev. 1:10).  They "ate together with glad and sincere hearts."  They no doubt prayed.  They probably shared their needs with one another.

They broke bread together in homes.  This was a completely appropriate place to meet because believers had become a family, brothers and sisters now.  And where else would be easier to cook food and eat?  "Table fellowship" was a major sign of intimacy in Israel at the time, and we remember that Jesus' opponents criticized him for eating with the wrong people (e.g, Luke 19:7).

A third element Acts mentions is prayer.  The earliest Christians prayed together.  We would like to think that they prayed alone as individuals as well, but this is not the kind of prayer that Acts highlights. The prayer that the New Testament talks about by far is corporate prayer, prayer that the community of faith did together. They prayed together when they were in each others homes and they prayed when they gathered together at the temple.

1 Corinthians 14 pictures a rather charismatic service in Christian homes. Perhaps they started with the meal.  Then after supper, perhaps they had a time of prayer and prophecy, as the Lord led.  From 1 Corinthians 11, we know that women prayed and prophesied just as the men did (cf. 1 Cor. 11:5), which fits with what Peter says will happen in Acts 2:17. This would also be a natural time for teaching.

We see in Acts that they also gathered at the temple, a fourth element in this early description of the church.  Nothing about Acts suggests they met there to rail against the temple or indict its sinfulness. Stephen will have some words against the temple leaders soon enough, and it gets him stoned. There is no evidence in Acts that the disciples said such things when they visited the temple.

The tone is rather one of worship, similar to the way Christians today go to church to worship. In fact, Acts 21:24 indicates that the Jerusalem Christians even offered sacrifices at the temple.  In hindsight, we know that the temple was destined to be destroyed and never rebuilt.  We know that Jesus was a full replacement for the temple sacrifices (cf. Heb. 10:8-9).  It arguably took them much longer to realize these things, and one of the reasons the New Testament is so clear on these points is possibly because the gospels also had the benefit of hindsight.

The principle is perhaps that the earliest Christians went to the place where God's name was, the temple (cf. Deut. 12:5).  Since Jesus is the reality to which the temple pointed, this is now "where two or three gather" (Matt. 18:20). This can certainly be in a home, but there is something about a location that is set aside, sacred space, that helps our human minds focus on worship.


Susan Moore said...

Part one of two.
I appreciate what you are saying in regards to Stephen, “Stephen will have some words against the temple leaders soon enough, and it gets him stoned. There is no evidence in Acts that the disciples said such things when they visited the temple.” But I think we must use reason when determining cause and effect. Spirit-led Stephen was not killed by the truth of his indwelled Spirit. If the truth of his indwelled Spirit had killed Spirit-led Stephen, then that would be the house standing against itself, which cannot stand. To that one may reflect, ‘Well, Susan, was not Stephen murdered because he stood against the house?’ But Stephen, by telling the truth, was not standing against the body of the one who is faithful and true, he was standing against the beliefs and false teachings of the Satan-led liars that had crucified Christ. It was not the truth that killed Stephen, it was the rebellious hearts of the worldly people raging against God that killed Stephen. Jesus had warned His followers (including us), “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects Him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). As he was boldly speaking the truth we are allowed to see Stephen walking with God, by grace through faith, as he passes between the pillars of the narrow gate.
It seems to me that the voice of Stephen was, in fact, the initial slice through the old wineskin of the covenant of the Law into which the new wine of the blood of Christ had been poured. That old wineskin would be opposed not because it was created by God as a ‘bad’ wineskin, but rather because it had been putrefied by the rancid wine of the disobedient people, and the legalistic thinking of the opportunistic-minded leaders of the Jewish faith. After all, did not Jesus, Himself, warn us in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”? The stoning of Stephen, in effect, spilt and splashed the blood of Christ into neighboring nations so that, before they could even catch their breath and declare self-righteous control of their decisions, the early believers who fled from persecution were actually effecting the Great Commission by the direct hand of the Spirit of God.
The destruction of the temple many years later leaves one with the final image of a thoroughly destroyed wineskin that had become putrefied by centuries of human reason, tradition and false teachings of Scripture. A wineskin that would never again be either relevant or useful because over the course of time it had offered no declaration of desiring to become pure and holy enough to hold the glory of God.

Susan Moore said...

Part two.
But that all being said, there is Good News. According to The Common Language of God (the linguistic meta-language of the right-brained Bible that Jesus taught me about as I grew up in Him as a child. A child who suffered the loss of a linear/temporal memory due to suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The PTSD occurred after being attacked by men. A memory that could not keep track of history because it could not tell past from present, but it could, instead, keep track of like circumstances.); when the full amount of gentiles have come to faith in Christ (Romans 11:24-26), the Living Water of the River of Life that flows from God will have then made it to the dead sea, and the salty water there will be made fresh –where that river flows everything will live(Ezekiel 47”1-12): That translates into the left-brained Bible that most Christians read as meaning that when the full amount of gentiles have come to faith in Christ, the Jewish nation will have their heart of stone made into flesh, and the effect of that renewing of their mind is that they will turn from their rebellion to worship and serve Jesus Christ as their Messiah. And then (back to the right-brained Bible) we will all, as one body, be released like calves from our stalls to attend the marriage supper of the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world (Rev. 19:6), and we’ll be led by Christ and get to finally trample the wicked (Malachi 4:2-3). And then, to leap to the ending of the story, we get to go home with our husband, Jesus, and live happily ever after (Rev. 21-22). 
I love how God hasn’t given up on humans. But what my soul drips gratefulness to Him for is how He loves His children. He meets us at our level of understanding and grows us from there. I praise Him, and will rest in Him on this Sabbath day. May the grace of Lord Jesus be with us all. Amen (Rev. 22:21).