This morning’s sermon by Dr. Karl Böhmer on Acts 2.42: And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
A small crowd has assembled to watch the big man start his motorcycle. It’s a vintage motorcycle, you know, the kind you need to kick start. Passively, effortlessly he turns out the kickstart with a flick of his leg. The engine is primed; the choke is in position; the gear is in neutral and the ignition is switched on. He places his foot on the kickstart. Then he shifts his weight onto one side and swings up and brings all of it to bear down on the lever. The first time, of course, the engine turns over once, splutters, and – dies. So he does it again, In an instant the massive engine turns over and comes to life with a magnificent bang. He revs once, twice, puts his feet up with a wink, and the chopper roars off, and with a series of glorious backfires, disappears over the next hill. – But: It is a vintage motorcycle. It is fickle. It is tricky to maintain. Two kilometres up the steep road it begins to sputter and cough; the fuel can’t get through. The machine starts to jerk. The engine peters out and dies and after the splendid start the machine comes to a sputtering stop at the side of the road.
Steadfastness is as important for spiritual life to continue as the beginning was for it to start. Is that not so? Overall, the Christian church has in many instances behaved rather like a vintage motorcycle. It came to life in the magnificent bang of Pentecost – a glorious sermon, a mass conversion, a growth explosion. Great numbers of repentant and dedicated believers, too big to be contained in any one building; groups of followers springing up all over the city. But: Just a bit down the road, there are arguments in the church, there is false teaching; there are sinful practices, there is uncertainty, people are fitfully wavering, there are factions in the body of Christ.
Is it not similar for us individual Christians? We get kickstarted into the faith at baptism, our childhood faith roars off, we experience a highlight at confirmation or when we join the congregation; and then there come times when our faith life gets fickle. As we head up the steep parts of the road in life your faith splutters and coughs; your journey is a sputtering series of Anfechtungen; you sin; sometimes it seems your faith is liable to peter out.
There are times when we look at the daily running of the church, the ordered quietness of things, the seeming ordinariness of Sunday worship, and we ask: What ever happened to the glorious beginnings of the church? Or we examine our own faith, and we sense that we’re slipping and spluttering and a far cry from our exciting, confident beginning. And at such times we get disillusioned and we question the beginnings. Can it be that we looked at things too idealistically back then? Can it be that Pentecost and the beginnings of the church weren’t all that great after all?
Well, Scripture at least doesn’t idealize the beginning of the church. It fully makes mention of all the problems: Dishonesty and deceit, as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1ff), racism in the church, needy people getting neglected (6:1), disunity over doctrine and practice, even in the leadership echelons (ch.15). Even so the church boomed. After the 3,000 conversions on the day of Pentecost, people came to faith every day. The church grew. But this growth did not come about by a continued increase in ecstatic events. There wasn’t a greater Pentecost on the second day, or even bigger miracles on the third; no, rather, people quietly came to faith and were baptised – and congregations formed. People became Christians, and God continued to work steadfastly at His people as He had done from the earliest beginning in the Garden of Eden. The day of conversion is followed by countless other days characterized by constancy, steadfastness, devotion. The vitality and the intensity of the beginning – of the church, of faith – lead into the orderliness of church life and the steadfastness of daily faith.
Scripture characterizes the early church as devoted to doctrine, fellowship, Holy Communion, and prayer. They devoted themselves… Is this true of you? Are you devoted to these things? So often we Christians emphasize our freedom. We aren’t under the law anymore, right? But in that freedom we often choose to wean ourselves from devotion to these things. Others will watch the doctrine, we don’t always have to attend, or commune, or pray. With the best of intentions, we have moved our Christianity into everyday life; but because everything is supposed to be holy for us, it seems nothing is holy anymore. Dear saints: We do not live in heaven yet. Sinners are only steadfastly justified before God by continuing to get help from Him.
Let me illustrate what I mean. Those old vintage motorcycles worked very differently to the way the new ones do. Their engines worked on a “total loss” lubrication principle. Here is how it worked: Early motorcycle engines had hand pumps on their oil tanks. When you started the engine you gave ‘er a shot of oil. Every so often you would give the engine another stroke of the pump. The engine used up the oil and got more clean, fresh oil to the bearings with each stroke of the pump. This gave regular spurts of clean, fresh oil going into and through the engine. The point is that the engine was not self-contained – it constantly needed, it depended on new oil being fed through it to keep it running. Now we also work on a total loss principle. God gives you grace – you use it up! In other words, you are not self-contained, closed units either, as if you could keep on going forever on what you got at baptism. Oh no – you constantly need the Holy Spirit to replenish His gifts to you, and your spiritual engines operate by using that grace up and giving it out. Without God working in you on a regular basis through his Word taught rightly and the Lord’s Supper administered purely in the fellowship of believers, without the communion of regular prayer, you run out of oil – usually when you need it most. A Christian doesn’t have to attend church or commune or pray; he just does. How could we ever stay away from the place where the Lord is to be found with all His gifts? So it was with the Pentecost Christians. After the kickstart of their baptism they steadfastly devoted themselves to ordered Christian life with the emphasis on four things: the teaching of the apostles; fellowship; Holy Communion; and prayer. And this steadfast regular devotion was as important for their spiritual life to continue as the beginning was for it to start.
The Pentecost Christians modeled that for us in many ways. The first thing they were devoted to was the teaching of the apostles. The teaching of the apostles, the apostolic doctrine, was and is the lifeblood of the church. It is recorded in Scripture, it is all about God revealing Himself in human flesh, in an historical event that needs to be told. The doctrine of the apostles was about Christ. This doctrine needs to be pure and free of the gunk and sludge of false doctrine that corrodes engines and makes them fail. No false Christ will serve, nothing but the crucified Christ will do, it is the doctrine of God incarnate living and serving and suffering and dying, the doctrine of God incarnate rising and redeeming and reigning and returning. Once for all, one for all. That’s the doctrine we need to keep our engines running, you and I.
The second part of this Christian devotion concerns fellowship. Our Christian community encompasses not only Sunday worship, but the rest of our life as well. The Lord not only wants us to serve each other with our presence here on Sundays, but also in the sense of material needs, that we help one another where there is need. The last time you went to the movies, how much contact did you have with the guy next to you? Probably not much; when the movie’s done, you go your separate ways. Too often we view ‘the Sunday experience’ like a movie at the cinema, as if we come together to witness something here and then each go home to a separate life afterward. The Lord does not want ‘moviegoer Christians’. Fellowship means sharing in something together- sharing in Christ and sharing Christ out, sharing in life, sharing in love. The Lord provides for you and through you so that all share, be it with time and listening, be it with service or material help, be it with prayers and mutual consolation. That’s the fellowship we need and need to give to keep the engine running.
Prayer – steadfast prayer – belongs in this community as well. God calls for our prayers. Many things would be different in this world were it not for the prayers of steadfast Christians. Many things can change through the prayers of steadfast Christians. Not because we have to persuade God to do something, but because He wants to be prayed to. He wants to give us good things by our prayers. It goes without saying that communion is the most intense expression of this fellowship and grows out of it and quite rightly belongs therefore in the center of our worship. Because we have fellowship in the apostles’ teaching, we also have fellowship at the Lord’s Table. Here we are again wired into Christ; here in the Lord’s Supper again our fellowship with each other is celebrated and strengthened. It is tremendously significant that already the very first Christians regarded communion as one of the pillars of their fellowship – so it comes as no surprise that they devoted themselves to making use of it steadfastly.
Without regular maintenance and fuel, not even the most beautiful motorcycle will run. So it is with faith and the life of the church. We can only continue if we are refreshed and strengthened by the Lord regularly. The first Christians found their strength where God offered it: In the pure teaching of Christ, in fellowship, in communion and in prayer. Scripture provides here God’s maintenance program to keep the engine running and drawing the fuel of faith in Christ and doing what needs to be done. He does that because He is devoted to you. He turns total loss into total gain. When we also devote ourselves to these things, neither our faith nor the church will peter out – and by God’s grace we will reach our destination. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
Pastor Karl Böhmer