4th Sunday of Easter (A)
April 30, 2023
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the first reading from the book of Acts.
Marketing experts teach that businesses need some kind of hook if they want their emails to be read. A hook is a subject line that stirs up the recipients’ interest, and the best hook is a helpful list: Ten Ways to Save Money or Five Ways to Avoid Going Bald (I wish I had seen that one!). I frequently receive emails about the church that follows the same pattern: Ten Ways to Grow Your Church, Five Ways to Attract Visitors. Some of these emails provide helpful ideas, others not so much. The thing is we don’t need emails to tell us what to do. We don’t grow the church, God does. However we can be a strong church, and we an example in the very first congregation, which teaches us four steps to being a strong church.
The first step to having a strong church is a real hunger for God’s Word. Luke writes, “They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching”, and what was the Apostles’ teaching? It was Christ’s teaching! They took what they learned from Jesus and gave it to the people. The Apostles were giving sermons and teaching Bible studies. And the Apostles didn’t soften their message to avoid offending the Jews or potential Christians. A strong church doesn’t follow the whims of the culture, it speaks the truth; consequences be damned.
The people heard the Word of God, and they devoured it because it was all new to them. They didn’t shrug it off as “old news” or grumble “we’ve heard this all before”. They were devoted to it as life changing. Nothing would be the same once they came to believe in Jesus. Luke writes that they wanted this message so badly they gathered “Day by day.” They gathered for church every day! Can you imagine that? I wonder if we have that same zeal for the Word that they did or is all too familiar? Are we devouring God’s Word when we get a chance or does it just not mean very much to us. They met every day while many Christians struggle with once a month or once every six weeks. Of course, there are always exceptions: working, being sick, going out of town, that’s to be expected. What’s also expected is that people worship whenever they can. Remember how God told Moses, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy”? We keep the Sabbath Day holy by making worship our priority.
God wants us to hear His Word because in it He speaks forgiveness and strength for the day. The less you attend service, the weaker you will become. It’s a fact. If you don’t eat, or eat sporadically, it has consequences. If you don’t eat the food which Christ provides, it has consequences. You’re also to hear the Word so you know the voice of the Shepherd. Jesus says, “The sheep follow [the Good Shepherd], for they know His voice…they will flee from [the stranger], for they do not know the voice of strangers.” But how can you hear the voice of the Shepherd if you don’t know it? How do you know strangers are lying to you if you don’t know the truth? Satan is out to destroy your faith: “You don’t need to go to church. You’ve got better things to do. Bible study is boring and unimportant.” These are all lies! Emmanuel will only be a strong church when its people only listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd.
The second step to being a strong church goes along closely with the first step and it’s a real hunger for the Sacraments. I’ve been told that I talk about the sacraments too much. I suppose that might seem to be true, but can we really talk about the gifts of God too much? The gifts that give us forgiveness, eternal life, and faith? Absolutely not! Jesus has given Himself to us in the “breaking of bread”. The breaking of the bread wasn’t an ordinary meal, it’s the meal hosted by Jesus. The early Christians gathered for the Lord’s Supper because it was the most important meal they would ever eat. They hungered for the forgiveness found in the body and blood. Surrounded by Jews and Romans, they needed Christ’s help to withstand temptation to go back to the old ways and the pressure from unbelieving family and friends. You too face temptations to embrace the ways of the world and pressure to renounce the faith. The reception of the Sacraments is at the very heart of a strong church, while a church which neglects the gifts of God will always be weaker.
I’m beyond ecstatic that Emmanuel celebrates the Lord’s Supper every week because the Lord’s Supper is crucial for the Christian. When you skip church you’re also skipping the body and blood of Jesus who was crucified, killed, and raised for you. This impacts you, and your brothers and sisters in Christ. When you commune, you’re communing with all the members of the congregation. When you kneel at the altar your announcing that you believe the same things as those with you. This presents a unified message so when we break bread, Emmanuel is a much stronger church.
The third step seen in strong churches is Christian devotion towards others in the congregation. Luke writes, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They wanted to get together outside of church services. They knew they needed one another because they lived in a different world. They prayed for and encouraged one another. There weren’t any Christians off by themselves because a solitary Christian is easy prey for Satan. We need each other. We need to pray for one another. We need to lift others up and encourage them in their time of need. A strong church is a church that is united. Not just in doctrine but in love for one another. The world is just as bad, maybe worse, than it was before, so Christians still need each other. We’re different than the world around us, we stand alone against the pervasive wickedness, it would be so much better if we stand together in worship and in fellowship. A church that wants to be together is a strong church.
The early church’s devotion for other Christians is further described by Luke. He writes, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This was not communism or socialism, let’s get that out of the way right away. They willingly shared with those lacking. They also sold property and put it in a common treasury to aid the church. The church is still supported with offerings, and when offerings meet the need to serve the needs of the church and mission work the church does it shows a strong church. Everything we have belongs to God. Our house, our income, our cars, whatever are all entrusted to us as stewards. When we recognize this and use our time, talent, and treasures the church is stronger.
The final step in becoming a strong church is being a missionary church. Luke tells us that the Christians were held in favor and high esteem by the unbelievers around them. And what was it that brought about this favor? It was their mode of living. Their lives were saturated with their faith and nothing in their lives was left untouched by their confession that Jesus is Lord. They were as Jesus taught His followers to be lights set on a hill for others to see. They showed their faith in their love for others in the congregation, and in the love they had for those outside of it.
What do we as a congregation, and as individual members of Emmanuel, to be the light of Christ? Are we a light in the darkness? Do people know you’re a Christian by the way you exhibit your faith? How do you confess Christ in your daily lives? This is such an important step for a church because we have the joyful obligation to bring others into the church, to share with them the Good News of the Good Shepherd. Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” There are people all around us and in our lives who Christ has called to be His sheep, but they don’t know it! Jesus knows though and our job is to shine the truth of Jesus and His love as seen in His death for the forgiveness of everyone’s sin! A strong church is one that feels the urgency to share the Gospel, whether it falls on deaf ears or not. We cast the seed and let God bring forth the growth. We can’t make the church grow, but when we’re a faithful church people will see what the church is all about, and by God’s grace they will join us and become part of our strong and faithful Emmanuel. Initially, the Christian Church experienced a time of peace and steady growth. But there was more than growth, there was strength bestowed by God. Satan would soon reveal his hatred of Jesus and Christians would be arrested, tortured, and killed. It was only by the strength they were accorded by God’s Word and His Sacraments they made the faithful confession that Jesus is the risen Lord.
We are in a time of peace, but peace for the Christian is frequently fragile. However, it doesn’t matter if there is peace or hostility, the church and her people must be strong. We must repent of our ambivalence to the Word and Lord’s Supper. We must confess our indifference towards Christ and one another. I can’t tell you that Emmanuel will ever again be as big as it once was; but we can be a strong church, and when we’re strong, God will grant us growth according to His will and by His Holy Spirit. The church must be strong to survive, and by Christ’s help and with His gifts, we can be strong. Strength is ultimately found in Christ’s death and resurrection. Let us find joy and hope and power in the truth of what He has done for us, and these four steps will be all that we need to be a strong and faithful congregation.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen