A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 30th April 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube
If God is our shepherd (as it says in Psalm 23), if Jesus is our shepherd (as it says in John’s Gospel – 10:2-5, 11), what sort sheep should we be? That’s a good question on the day this congregation has its Annual Church Meeting, looking back on the last year and looking forward to the next.
Handily enough, today’s Bible reading from the Book of Acts helps us with that. In a few, short verses it provides us with a picture of how things were in the very first Christian church; the congregation that gathered together in Jerusalem in the days following the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s a story is for us to ponder and then apply in our different setting today, not a simple blueprint that we are to replicate in every detail. That said, we ignore it at our peril, for the essentials of church life are there, both in terms of life within a congregation, and also concerning how a congregation relates to those around it.
So what does it say in the Book of Acts? First, it says, ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ (42) Apostles’ teaching … fellowship … breaking bread … prayers – essential elements of the shared life of a Christian congregation.
Apostles’ teaching: who were the apostles and what were they teaching? Here, we think about the twelve apostles. Originally, one of those was Judas (who is not our role model). When they came to replace him, keeping the number at twelve, echoing the twelve tribes of Israel, they said that the person appointed had to be someone who had been around from the beginning of Jesus’s ministry to being a witness to Jesus’s resurrection.
Apostles would teach out of their experience about Jesus’s life, ministry, death and resurrection, as the act and sign of God in reconciling everyone and everything to God, so that we all enjoy abundant, eternal life. If we are not teaching that then we are not operating as a church. It’s a good thing then that we have Bible reading, preaching, and Bible study and discussion groups featuring so prominently in the life of this congregation.
As well as the apostles’ teaching, the Book of Acts mentions fellowship. They met together. People say that you are as liable to meet with God in the garden as you are to bump into God in church. That’s true as far as it goes, but you’re much more likely to grow in your relationship with God when you’re in the company of others, benefitting from their example, discovering new things through the much greater pool of shared experiences that a group provides; hence fellowship.
So as well as gathering for worship, or to explore the Bible together, I’m glad that we give time and opportunity to meet together after worship for conversation, though not today as we will meet in the fellowship of a more formal Church Meeting instead. And then there’s the other opportunities we provide for fellowship, though Tuesday café, Saturday coffee morning, Sunday breakfasts, meetings of HANDS and the like.
By the way, with regard to fellowship, my attention was caught last week by research report concerning the many ‘warm hubs’ which have sprung up as a response to high gas and electricity prices putting great pressure on poorer people. Over half a million people have visited such spaces and they have appreciated the physical warmth. What the research discovered though was that their greatest impact is in reducing social isolation and loneliness. Most of us are sociable creatures, seeking company, in need of fellowship.
Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread: the first disciples ate together. When in the Book of Acts it talks about them breaking bread together, it does not make clear whether this was a formalised re-enactment of the Last Supper – what we today would call ‘Holy Communion’ or ‘the Lord’s Supper’ – or whether it was about everyday meals shared together, perhaps sometimes including that more formal, liturgical, worshipful element. I suspect it was a combination of both.
That suggests to me that it’s good to have a similar combination going on our church today. We maintain our pattern of monthly communion services on Sundays, plus some special occasions during the year. And we combine that with opportunities to meet together (as a fellowship) to share food and drink: pie and pea lunches the other month, Coronation Afternoon tea tomorrow-week: get your tickets now from Norma, if there are any left to sell.
Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and the prayers. Did you notice that in Acts it mentions not just prayers, but ‘the prayers’? As well as those individual prayers that we all make, either occasionally or frequently, there were more organised occasions for prayers, perhaps ones with words everyone knew or with responses for members of the congregation to make.
I’m glad that our worship always includes prayer; communication as an integral, essential part of our ongoing relationship with God. I’m glad that prayer so frequently commences and concludes our meetings. I’m happy that we have had for some time a group meeting for the purposes of intercessory prayer – praying for the needs of others. Prayer connects us as a church with God, and prayer focuses our minds, and influences our actions in responding to what is going on in the world around us.
‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ These are essential elements in church life. I’m glad to see aspects of them all in the life of this congregation. I encourage us to pay attention to them, to maintain, develop them so as to strengthen us as a church.
And look at what happened in that first Jerusalem church, in the days following the resurrection of Jesus, when these four aspects of life were integral to existence and flourishing.
It led them into significant acts of practical care and sharing: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.’ (2:44-45)
Congregations don’t run on air. They need money. Our annual accounts tell us that; they tell us how we both need a lot of money to carry on with our activities and to do so in this extensive suite of buildings. And the financial report for our Annual Church Meeting properly notes the ongoing, generous, committed financial giving of church members, which allied with fund raising and room rentals, keeps the Saint Columba’s show on the road.
And note that even from the earliest days of the church committed giving and sharing spilled outside of the fellowship, into the wider community. We hear that the followers of Jesus continued to meet publicly in the temple in Jerusalem, and that they ‘broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.’ (2:46) I strongly suspect that this involved interacting with others who were not members of the church. At the temple and in their homes they shared their experience of Jesus, and they shared their material goods.
I think that’s why it says in Acts that at the temple and in their homes that they were both ‘praising God’ and also ‘having the goodwill of the people.’ (2:47) They were known for being joyful and being generous, not just to their own, but to others. So, by the way, there’s why it’s appropriate for us to raise money and make a donation to the RVI social work team, just as, for example, we did to North East Young Dads and Lads project, and to Pearey House here in North Shields at Christmas time last year.
As a Christian church, meeting together in 2023, then, the challenge is there before us: live out your life in the tradition of the very first church congregation: learn and teach about Jesus; maintain fellowship; share bread together; keep praying; and let that combination of life flow out to others beyond the membership of this congregation. So, as we look to the year ahead, may God give us strength for that and bless us when we do so. Amen.