A Mixed Up Minister?
What insights does the book of Jonah have for ministers today?
Led by The Revd Tom Stuckey, a former President of the Methodist Church.
Priorities for the Church - 2/2
Acts 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers.
We resume our study of the priorities for church life as described in Acts 2:42, looking at the two remaining priorities listed there and the two 'hidden' ones.
THE BREAKING OF BREAD
Maybe this is the item that needs least exposition from me. The phrase, of course, is one of many used for the gathering of believers around the Lord's Table to share in the bread which symbolises his body broken for us on the cross, and we can assume that it includes also the sharing of the cup which symbolises the shedding of his blood for the forgiveness of our sins. It was a basic part of an early Christian meeting, and all the indications are that it took place at every weekly gathering. It focussed the attention of believers on their Lord, and in the light of the story of the disciples who walked to Emmaus and met with the Lord who was known to them in the breaking of bread, we may be sure that they regarded it as a meal in which the Lord himself was present as the host. Early Christians appear to have held a congregational meal which extended to more than the bread and the cup, and this was one of the ways in which they practised the fellowship that we were talking about a moment ago.
I pick up one point that Luke makes, and ask whether the occasion is for you one of glad and joyful participation, as was the case with the meals in the church at Jerusalem? Here is a specific practice which can easily become a somewhat formal ritual which we observe outwardly, and there is the danger that we may have the symbol without the substance.
The word is in actuality plural, 'prayers'. Christian meetings were occasions for prayers, so clearly not just one prayer, as is sometimes the case in our modern church meetings, but at least two and probably several. We can assume also that these prayers were offered by several people and not just by a so-called worship-leader, a person who is unknown in the New Testament! The scope of their prayers is not listed, and it can be as wide as the variety of different types of prayer mentioned in the New Testament: praise and thanksgiving, confession of sin, petitions for your own needs, intercession for other people's needs, and all that conversation with God which is reflected in Paul's writings. I suspect that thanksgiving was particularly prominent, since that is the mode that Luke specifically mentions later in the passage.
We are dealing, let it be remembered, with gatherings that are primarily gatherings of Christians, and therefore there is freedom to pray without having to bear in mind large numbers of non-Christians present for whom this would have been strange. Our modern practice tends to be to separate off the specific prayer meeting, so that our Sunday meetings are of a kind that would not be strange or inappropriate for non-believers present. The problem is that by doing so we also cut out most of the believing part of the congregation who cannot, or perhaps will not, come to a meeting specifically and exclusively for prayer. Maybe this passage is telling us that we should not put asunder what God has put together, that if we made more time for prayers in our Sunday meetings, then more people would be able to take part and would learn to pray. Our prayers would thus be a much more united and powerful voice addressed to the Lord. Should there be a time for open prayer in our Sunday meetings? Have we forgotten that prayer is one of the four priorities, and not an extra merely for some believers?
So there are the two remaining priorities listed by Luke, but I said that I had two more points that I would want to add. Counting and naming the ones present is easy, but which are the two that are missing? What else should have been in the list?
That is the activity whereby Christian congregations tell other people about Jesus and persuade them to become Christian believers. There wouldn't have been a company of people to practise my four priorities if there hadn't been evangelism in the first place, and the rest of Acts will be largely about that. Yes, evangelism is a priority. And if it was necessary to evangelise in order to have a church at all, it is equally necessary today if we are to have congregations that continue and do not simply die away and cease to exist. That is not the primary reason for evangelism, but just a reminder that you can't have my four priorities at all if you don't have people to do them, and therefore we must put evangelism up front before them all.
The second absentee is what most people, if asked, would say is the primary duty of the church: to worship God. But it's not there; it's simply not mentioned, and we are never told anywhere else in the New Testament that the main purpose of the church, or even one of its priorities, is to worship God.
So why were these two points not included in my, or rather Luke's, list of four? The answer lies in the fact that what Luke is describing is what the church does when it actually meets as a church. It meets to build up the believers in their faith by the four means that we have described, and it is essential that believers come to meetings that do precisely this. But it is also essential that the church is evangelistic and communicates the gospel to those who don't yet believe, and that it reaches out to the community in love. We need to think how that task is also to be done. And when the church does these four things, and engages in evangelism, it is in fact worshipping God, in that it is doing his will and honouring him and giving him thanksgiving and praise. Worship is not something extra. It is rather as if somebody said, 'I breathe, and my heart beats, and I eat and drink and work, and talk - and in addition to all these things I live', when life is the sum-total of them all. So we hear the apostles' teaching, we take part in fellowship and the breaking of bread and we pray, and in doing these things we are focussing that worship of God which should encompass all that we do, whether in or out of the church meeting. All life is worship, and similarly all that we do in church is or should be worship.