All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For 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. – Acts 4:32-35
West Point has influenced America’s history. As I look across the community of West Point, there are history markers dotted across the landscape. Lewis and Clark found three men from the area to serve on the famous expedition to the Pacific. The Union Army invaded during the Civil War and West Point served as a military fortification to protect Louisville from Confederate forces. West Point has a strong military heritage from Fort Duffield to Camp Young to Camp Knox. West Point has been the home of various industries – a sugar refinery, boat building, and a brick yard. The memory of the historic Rosenwald School, an African American Elementary School, has been preserved here. The first African American teacher, Mary Hawes Baxter, was accepted into the mainstream school system in 1956, and the school library is named in her honor. (westpoint.ky.gov)
As I walked across the landscape of West Point this week, I noticed that the 38th Parallel North runs directly through West Point very close to the church. It is noted on the sign that North and South Korea are separated by this invisible line. And, the story behind the Dixie Highway tells us the importance of staying connected to the world around us. Commerce between Chicago and Florida was improved as the highway made its connections across Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida (US Highways – Dixie Highway). West Point has quite a history, and so does the church.
When we talk about early church history today, we’re talking about the first 400 years of the churches development across the Roman Empire. The early church truly wrestled with their views on who Jesus is and as a result the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) pronounced the relationship of the two natures of Christ. And, at about the same time frame the Athanaisan Creed clearly defined the doctrine of the Trinity for us today. John of Damascus finalized our thoughts around the Trinity in the mid-8th Century A.D. (Kerr, 14-16).
Today we begin a new series from the Acts of the Apostles representing the first 30 to 50 years of early church history. The dating of this writing is as early as 63 A.D. (Blue Letter Bible) – around the time of Paul’s death in Rome – and just before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Jewish War 66-70 A.D. The Temple was destroyed, and sacrifices ended. Rome ruled the city and limited the abilities of the Jews and Christian to worship there (Oden, Life in the Spirit, 267).
When we read through the Acts of the Apostles, we can catch a glimpse of the differences between two strong leaders in the early church – Peter and Paul. We’ve just finished our Lenten series on the Gospel of Mark, which is Peter’s testimony about Jesus. Now we are looking intently at the Acts of the Apostles, which certainly highlights Paul’s conversation and subsequent rise to power as an early church leader (Acts 9.1-31).
This book is well understood as being connected to Luke’s Gospel. In fact to understand it fully the two writings should be considered volumes one and two of one set. The writer of Luke’s Gospel is the same as the writer of the Acts of the Apostles. Luke, the doctor, is mentioned in several letters written by Paul (Col. 4.14, 2 Tim 4.11, Philemon 24).
Luke tells us in the opening passage of the Acts of the Apostles that his first scroll “concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning” right up to the day when he was taken into heaven. Luke helps us to understand that even after the resurrection, Jesus was still teaching his chosen disciples, only eleven of them survived – one follower was lost forever.
Jesus informed his followers that they would begin their own journey apart from manifest presence on earth. The movement of the early church began in Jerusalem then onward and outward until they reached the ends of the earth, “Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1.8).
In the first seven chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, we read about the birth of the early church in Jerusalem within the first five years after Pentecost. The foundling church is immediately faced with persecution by the religious authorities (Acts 6.1-9.31). This persecution causes the flame to spread across the known world with their deeds of power and grace. The Gospel first ignites across the peoples of Judea among Gentile believers (Acts 9.32-12.25). The death of young Stephen at the hands of the religious leaders and James, John’s brother, at the hands of Herod a Jewish-political figure and Roman puppet governor cannot quench this movement (Acts 12.1).
Across the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, there are many similarities in the design of the literature. Both writings open with a preface (Acts 1.1-5, Luke 1.1-4) followed by the Spirit descending upon Jesus (Luke 3.21-23) and the disciples (Acts 2.1-13) in prayer. Both writings begin sermons addressing the fulfillment of prophecy (Luke 4.16-30, Acts 2.14-40) as the opening statements of their ministries. One of the initial healings in both stories is of a lame man walking (Luke 5.17-26, Acts 3.1-10). And, both stories across the pages are surely loaded with conflicts with religious leaders (Luke 5.29-6.11, Acts 4.1-8.3).
Chapters 8-10 reflect the next five years of the early church development. In both accounts there is a centurion inviting the main character to their home (Acts 7.1-10, Acts 10). Both stories illustrate the care for a widow through the raising from the dead (Luke 7. 11-17, Acts 9.36-43). The stories include missions to the Gentiles (Luke 10.1-12, Acts 13-20) and the arrest of a prophet at Jerusalem (Luke 9.51-19.28, Acts 19.21-21.17). The connection between Jesus and Paul are significant from their mission to the Jewish community to their trials for bringing the Good News to the very people who would reject them. Yet, both stories conclude on a positive note that no matter what happens to the prophetic voice, God’s people will fulfill the Scriptures (Luke 24.44-47, Acts 28.23-31).
For me the Gospel of Luke dovetails into the Acts of the Apostles with a search for new life found in the Risen Jesus. In his last chapter of Luke’s Gospel, he closes the story of Jesus’ burial with a profound question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised (Luke 24.5-6).” When we think about history and how it impacts our lives, what are we searching for? Are we looking for something to mourn or commemorate? Or are we looking to capture a vision for our future? I think Luke was inspiring us to look for something more than the past at Jesus’ tomb. He inspires us to seek the future.
When we look back across the pages of the Bible, our aim is not to commiserate the past or honor the dead or preserve their name and inheritance. For instance Luke wrote a Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. We can speak with boldness about the benefits of his writings for us today. However, we do not read his works to preserve his name alone or his place in Christian history. Although we do commiserate the past and honor the dead of history, our aim is a little higher than remembering for the sake of recalling historical data.
When we gaze across history, our eyes should always be upon the prize of discovering how another’s life impacts yours, mine and ours as a community of believers. Each person’s life is not simply to be recalled, but we are to skim the good stuff off the top of their lives that applies to our own life experiences. We want to learn from them, and model the life of dedicated Christians who have followed Jesus to their deaths – whether martyrdom or natural causes.
When we study this passage together, we can discover what makes a great church. Powerful witnessing was a key to the early church, “The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them (Acts 4.33).” This passage sits in between a hallmark high in the development of the early church, and the subsequent culling out of non-Christians by the finger of God. The story tells us that Christ has risen from the dead and has ascended into heaven. After he leaves this earth, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit upon the disciples while they were together in worship (Acts 2.1-4), which we call Pentecost but was originally known as the Feast of Weeks connected to the season of harvest (Exodus 23. 14-17, 34.18-24, Deut. 16.9,16). As a side note let me point out that if you desire a fresh wind of the Spirit, here’s your model. It all happened while they were praying. If you want a movement of God upon your life and the life of your church, you need to be in serious prayer.
The Acts of the Apostles moves from the initial empowerment to the work that came from that Spirit experience. Peter stood up among the people and proclaimed the Good News, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away – as many as the Lord our God invites.” (Acts 2.38-39) This Spirit experience created a new community of believers in Jesus who were empowered by God to live a different kind of life – convicted of their sins – and desiring to live together in a new kind of community – sharing all things in unity.
The great power (dunama – we get the word dynamite from this Greek word) and great grace (charis – we get the word charisma from this Greek word) of God were upon the early church leaders (Acts 4.33). The Acts of the Apostles has been affectionately called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. Luke helps us to understand that the Holy Spirit is the promise of the Father (Acts 1.4) The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost fulfills the prophetic words uttered by Old Testament prophets, including John the Baptist (Acts 1.5, 2.16, Luke 3.16) even Jesus (Acts 1.8).
The Spirit is described as a fluid-force that in-fills persons who believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. But the first step in the conversion process is always preaching about Jesus followed by faith and repentance that creates an inward change in the heart and forms an outward response – a call to live in a loving relationship with God, self, and others. The catalyst is the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The writings of Luke are for believers who are growing in their faith and understanding about Jesus to strengthen their resolve as true followers in the faith. Luke inspires believers to become a hero of the faith who finds their conversion the beginning point of living in community with others and sharing the Good News of a changed life style.
From the readings of the Acts of the Apostles the new community was at odds with the way life was done prior to their conversion. The story of Ananias and Sapphira point to this conclusion – pretenders are not welcome in the community of faith. This couple serve as an illustration to the true community of believers. Instead the goal is to be in one accord, “The community was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, ‘This is mine!’ about their possessions, but held everything in common (Acts 4.32).” That’s a really tall order in our lives today. We are not taught to be so open handed with each other.
When we look at this passage we can see exactly what makes a great church community. According to Luke, it includes what I call “Gospel Giving.” One of the hardest things to do is share, unreservedly! A modern day example of hording is a man named Wellington Burt. Wellington Burt was a multi-million dollar lumber-man in Saginaw, MI, who served in politics as Mayor of Saginaw and Senator of Michigan. Burt refused to bequeath his fortunes to his immediate family instead delaying the pay-off of his assets for 92. Twenty years after the last grandchild died in November 2010 the delay for pay-off came and the courts were able to designate twelve heirs of his fortune. By the decision of his will, Burt made his decision to prevent his monies from being used for immediate gratification in his family. Perhaps he felt he had the right to decide how his fortunes would be spent, but surely his decision does not reflect the same values we find in Gospel Giving.
When we think about Gospel Giving, this passage in Acts helps us to grasp the importance of benevolence within the church to others who are struggling, “There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4.34). The act of giving happens within the community of believers that becomes a balance of respect and power. Others gave to the needy within their communities to shore up those in near-sighted relationships. The dispersal happened under the authority of church leadership, specifically the apostles, “They laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4.35).
In the early church there were four key ingredients in how they lived together and worship God: the apostle’s teachings (creeds), community (church), sacraments (elders orders), and common worship (Sunday mornings).
When we think about church, and what church means, there are three key motifs that we must hold us together (Oden, Life in the Spirit, 261-265). First, the church is where new life is coming into being (Evangelical, Revivalism, and Pietism). Second, the church is the place where authoritative and reliable truth is being passed on to the next generation of believers (Eastern, Roman, Anglican, Catholic, Liturgical). Third, the church is the reconciling community in the world that manifests God’s love toward neighbor (Liberal, Mainline, Protestant, Political Theology). All three of these motifs must come together to produce the faithful community called the Church (religion of the heart, the book and the people). When any one of these motifs gets overemphasized, then the Church gets out of her nature balance in relationship to God, self, and others.
United Methodist attempt to hold these three motifs close together. John Wesley understood himself to be a man of one book, the Bible. He found himself fully oriented to the truths of the bible. At the same time he was influenced by the pietism and his own heart-warming revivalist experience. John Wesley looked to the personal experience of God for the blessed assurance that his soul was saved. But Wesley held close to the liturgy and his desire was to remain closely connected with the Anglican community. He did not desire to separate himself from the liturgical and orthodox ideas of his faith. However, he realized that there was great need for the religion of the heart to impact the people in his home of England. John Wesley sough to reform his society by encouraging education among his ministers, supporting orphanages, and developing small groups that aided the people to live healthier lives.
The Church is the community of the called. We are the “called out” and “called together” ones. It is the Son Jesus who calls us to discipleship. And, it is the Holy Spirit that calls us to a holy life. Those who form the Church are the ones who have been called together through the proclamation of the Gospel. Those who are called to be the Church choose to be set apart from the world. They are the baptized ones who accept a new life for them selves.
Over the next 7 weeks we will explore West Point UMC history and the West Point community history. Each week one of our members will tell a story from the church or community that reflects the unique character of West Point. Together we have the opportunity before us to reflect on our personal history from the angle of church history, asking ourselves, “How does my community look like the early church? Where have I seen God at work? And, what do we do next?”