Dear Working Preacher,
Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
It’s a simple litany isn’t it? And along with a few other such short phrases—such as Jesus is Lord, God so loved the world that he gave his only son, or Jesus Christ the Son of God saves—it is the gospel in brief. The gospel that I am so grateful that you preach. So let me say it once again this Easter season, Working Preacher. Thank you for preaching the gospel. Thank you for peaching the good news of grace and resurrected life in a world of law and death.
A nice sermon outline
As you well know, during the Easter season the first lesson readings come from the book of Acts. This year, for three weeks in a row, the readings come from Acts 2. This is the third of those three weeks. In the first two weeks, Peter’s Pentecost sermon is read in two parts, which culminated last week with the announcement that “those who welcomed his message [or, received his word] were baptized.”
This week’s reading continues with the next line: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.”
That’s not a bad three- (or four-) point sermon. What does the Christian life look like? What is the initial response from one who receives the word of the gospel? That one devotes oneself to:
- The apostles’ teaching
- The breaking of the bread and the prayers
[Or, if you prefer to count to four: 1) The apostles’ teaching, 2) the apostles’ fellowship, 3) the breaking of the bread, 4) and the prayers.]
Or … divide things up in whatever way seems best to. You.
The apostolic teaching
I am not going to define or expound on the content of each of these things, here. You know them as well as I do. And your spin on them is probably a little different than my own. And these Dear Working Preacher columns are not commentaries—they are more contextual reflections.
What I want to reflect upon this week is what it is about the current moment makes each of these things so crucial for the Christian life right now.
Why is it urgent for Christians to devote themselves to the apostolic teaching right now?
I take “the apostolic teaching” to be mean both the core Christian gospel and the New Testament. The New Testament is, after all, the only record we have of what the apostolic teaching was.
It seems to me that it is urgent for Christians to devote themselves to the essential witness of the gospel and the study of the New Testament because we live in such a pluralistic and often relativistic culture. When you find yourself surrounded by people who believe different than what you believe, it is urgent for you to understand what your own community teaches and believes.
One cannot engage across difference in meaningful ways if one isn’t clear about what one believes.
Christianity is not an individualistic religion. The church is the body of Christ, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the community of saints.
Coming back out of the isolation of COVID has been both hard and beautiful.
It has been hard, because we’ve learned new habits. Maybe they’re even bad habits. Habits to fear being exposed to the neighbor. Habits to sleep in late, stay close to home, or just hunker down and get lost in books and screens.
To be the church, we need each other. To be the church in a pluralistic world, we really need each other.
Two family stories. The first story is about my son. My son and I went to worship together recently—just the two of us. On the way home he said, “I’m really glad we went to church today.” We worshiped, saw people it was good to see, and even sat down for coffee after worship with my nephew, brother, and dad.
Speaking of my dad. The second story is about my dad. My dad used to say about a congregation where he and I had been members together, “The best thing about this congregation is the fellowship hour.” And he meant that not as a criticism of anything else, but a true word of praise of how meaningful he found the fellowship of the fellowship hour.
Martin Luther said in the Smalcald Articles that the “mutual conversation and consolation” of the saints is a means of grace akin to word and sacrament.
Attending and devoting ourselves to Christian community and the grace that comes with it is crucial because we are coming out of COVID, because we need to come together across difference in an age of polarization, and because quite simply we need each other.
[P.S.—My son gave me permission to relate that story. I didn’t ask my dad’s permission. But growing up, I appeared in more than one sermon, so … you know.]
The breaking of the bread and the prayers
I take “the breaking of the bread and the prayers” to mean worship and prayer, although there are other ways of construing them.
What is it about worship and prayer that it is absolutely crucial for the church to attend to at this particular cultural moment?
At its most basic, worship and prayer are communing with God.
According to the New Testament, in the breaking of the bread, we do several things: truly receive Christ body and blood, receive forgiveness of sins, proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes, and remember Jesus.
In prayer, we likewise do several things: Give ourselves to God, receive God fully, praise God, plead for mercy and justice, express trust, and listen for God’s voice in our lives.
At this moment in time—after the enlightenment and stuck in its reductive epistemology—it is urgent that the church recover a sense that faith in the Triune God is about a great deal more than believing the right things. Faith is about more than giving intellectual assent to the right doctrinal assertions.
Faith is about communing with the reality of God—with the fullness of the reality of God. And for that reason it is urgent that we devote ourselves to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.
Thank you for all you do, Working Preacher, to preach the good news.