We all know some of the marks of a healthy human being – things like low blood pressure, low cholesterol, a balanced diet and regular exercise. But what are the marks of a healthy church? What are the attributes we should look for in our own congregation and in our own Christian lives?
As we look at Acts chapter 4 today we are confronted by two qualities of the first Christian church – prayer and generosity. You may remember that these two signs of a healthy fellowship appeared in last week’s passage too, and we are going to study them a little more closely this morning.
Please do open your Bibles at Acts chapter 4 (page 1094), as my words will make much more sense if you do!
As we return to Acts today, the church has just suffered a setback. Two of its leaders, the apostles John and Peter, had just been arrested by the Jewish religious authorities. They’d been put in prison for preaching about the risen Jesus.
It is no surprise that John and Peter’s preaching was not well received by the religious rulers in Jerusalem. Because they were the same rulers who only weeks earlier had accused Jesus of blasphemy and condemned him to death.
As we join the scene in verse 23 today, John and Peter have just been released from jail and return to their church fellowship. No doubt with the threats and warnings of the authorities ringing in their ears. They knew God wanted them to keep telling the people the good news about Jesus. But the ‘powers that be’ in Jerusalem were telling them to be silent, to keep quiet. What were they all to do?
And faced by our own challenges and frustrations today, what should we do? What should we do in the face of a secular society, a cost of living crisis and any other kind of need?
The answer is to do what the church did in verses 23 and 24 – to turn to prayer. Look at those verses again: “On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.” A powerful prayer meeting had begun.
Faced with fears and frustrations, prayer was the first Christians’ first instinct. And it should be ours too today. Prayer should replace anxiety and come before any action or important decision.
And the reason the early church prayed was because they believed God could help them. They were convinced that God alone had the power help them. Because in verse 24 we are told that these first Christians prayed to a “Sovereign God…who made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.”
But God’s power isn’t confined to the material world, to the physical universe alone. He has power over people too. Because in verses 25 and 26 the first church reminds us of a verse from Psalm 2. Listen again to what it says: ‘“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.”
In other words, this inspired Psalm is teaching that any human effort to challenge God’s good purposes is ultimately doomed to failure. Any effort by powerful men and women to thwart God’s great plans for the world is in vain. Specifically, any human effort to oppose God’s ‘anointed one’ will not succeed. But who is this Anointed One? The answer is that Anointed One is another word for ‘Christ’. So this psalm is saying that any human effort to oppose Jesus Christ cannot succeed.
In verses 27 and 28, the church gives us the most vivid and important example of this. Listen again to what they prayed: “Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”
When Jesus was crucified, the Jewish and Roman authorities thought they were finishing him off. But by crucifying Jesus, they were unwittingly advancing God’s plans and furthering Christ’s mission, rather than cutting it short!
Our Sovereign Lord can transform even the worst human actions and intentions, and use them for good. He can work through the most challenging circumstances to achieve wonderful things, like the resurrection of Christ and the salvation of sinners.
The great news is that if we are Christians we can converse with the most powerful person in the universe. In prayer, we can talk to the throne room of Heaven. As we pray, we can speak to a Sovereign God who can create a universe out of nothing and even raise the dead. No wonder the first church was eager to pray, and so should we be!
And in verse 31 today the church’s prayer was answered in a most spectacular way, wasn’t it? Because “after they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” As the earth moved beneath their feet, those first Christians could be certain that God had heard their prayer – just as he hears our prayers today.
If today’s passage first teaches us the power of prayer, its second lesson is the goodness of generosity. A healthy church is a generous church as a well as a prayerful one.
As Luke tells us in verse 32: “All the believers were one in heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had”. And as a consequence, we are told in verse 34 that “there was no needy person among them.” In a world without a Welfare State, the members of the church made sure that none of their number went without. Rather than keeping their income for themselves, the earliest Christians were investing heavily in God’s work. They were obeying Jesus’ command to store up treasure in Heaven, rather than on Earth.
What is remarkable about the generosity of the first church is that it was entirely voluntary, and it was so sacrificial. Their generosity was free and it was abundant.
Firstly, it was free, because no one forced them to do it. They gave willingly and voluntarily. It was their choice. You see, the first church was a Christian family, not a Communist state. Their generosity was not forced upon them by a government agency or at gunpoint. They gave willingly and freely because they wanted to. They gave freely and willingly to their fellow Christians because they viewed them as fellow family members – as brothers and sisters in Christ. It was their heart’s desire to support one another financially.
As well as being entirely voluntary, the generosity of the first church was also amazingly sacrificial. Our passage in Acts tells us that not only did they give away some of their income, they even sold some of their assets and laid them at their church leaders’ feet. Listen again to verses 34 and 35: “from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”
Those first Christians didn’t cling on to the assets they had. They were willing to let them go if they saw a need that had to be met. They were even willing to sacrifice their personal assets, their accumulated wealth, for the sake of the wider church.
Having read about the great generosity of the first Christians, its worth remembering what caused them to be so generous. The answer is that the first Christians knew they were children of a generous God. Their generosity was a grateful response the generosity and grace that he had shown to them by sending his Son to save them and giving them the gift of his Holy Spirit.
If we are Christians here today, then we too have been recipients of God’s grace. We too have experienced the generosity of God, our Lord and Saviour. So let’s show our gratitude to him by being generous ourselves – by giving to the people, charities and Christian good causes that need our support.
As I finish, I hope today’s passage has provided us with an inspiring example of a healthy church.
• It has shown us the need to be a people of prayer. Christians should be praying hard for the opportunities we need to share our faith. And praying hard to be released from anxiety and empowered to do God’s work in our community.
• And today’s passage has shown us the value of generosity. To imitate the early church we need to be a congregation that gives generously, joyfully and sacrificially. A church that invests in the Lord’s work in this parish and beyond. A church that is as generous and gracious as the wonderful God we worship.
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