Can The Reformation Affect Our Lives Today?

On October 31, 1517, a thirty-four-year-old monk by the name of Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany to be debated by those interested in doctrinal error in the Church. This marked the official beginning of what is known in history as the Reformation Event.

The question that comes before us in this sermon is this: How does the Reformation affect the spiritual life of people who live 500 years later?

First, we look at what the Gospel did to Luther’s life.

When the disciples left Jerusalem to evangelize the world, they had a very simple message to proclaim. They were to tell the story that God came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ; He suffered and died for the sins of the world; and those who confess their sins and trust Him as their Savior and Lord will be His children forever.

When Luther was a young man with great spiritual concerns, this message had been so clouded by the Church that he could not understand how a person could find peace with God. No longer was the Church proclaiming that God was love, that He sent His Son to die for the sins of the world, and that forgiveness and peace with God was a gift we receive simply by trusting Jesus as our Savior and Lord. No longer did spiritually needy people hear they could walk in a personal relationship with the Savior who loved them.

Hoping to find this peace, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery where he hoped to escape the temptations of the world. Instead, satan met him inside that building, and his soul was tortured still. No matter how often Luther went to confession, he found no peace.

Yet he continued his studies and was a faithful monk. In 1512, he received the degree of Doctor of Theology and became a professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg. It was while Luther was preparing his lectures on the book of Romans that God spoke to the young theologian through these words: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ÔThe righteous live by faith'” (Romans 1:17).

These words opened Luther’s eyes. He found peace for his mind and fire in his soul. This was a message that the world must hear: “The righteous live by faith.” However, the hierarchy did not share Luther’s conviction. They warned the people that a “wild boar” was loose in the vineyard.

After years of theological arguments and trials, Luther was called to Worms to withdraw his treatise on the church’s departure from Scripture. As he stood before noted theologians and Emperor Charles himself, they asked if he was ready to withdraw his writings. It was then that Luther made his famous statement:

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other Ð my conscience is bound to the Word of God. I cannot, and I will not, recant anything, for to go contrary to conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise.”

Luther was convicted as a heretic and was excommunicated from the Church. He could be hunted and killed. This was heartbreaking for Luther because he loved the church. It was the beginning of the Reformation, and out of it came the Protestant Church.

This is a story in history, and is important to be told. But we also must consider how can this reformation experience affects those of us who live five hundred years later.

One of the great blessings this event from our rich evangelical heritage is the message that we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone! This message was given by the Holy Spirit and returned to the Church’s proclamation following the Reformation.

During these years since the Reformation, people have come to know Christ and have passed the message on in many ways throughout the world. Missionaries have paid a tremendous price by sharing this Gospel in heathen lands, and they are still doing so today. But God has blessed His Church, and the world has been changed.

Yet as we see the blessings that have come to the world since the Reformation, we find human nature cannot comprehend the message that salvation is free. Gradually the Gospel does not ring as clearly as the Bible teaches. Let me illustrate.

When I was a young person, we had annual Reformation rallies. Congregations gathered and joint choirs sang Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” with great luster. Outstanding preachers came to tell the story of how God used the reformer to tell us the simple Gospel. We were inspired and went home as faithful children of the Reformation.

However, I had no peace in my soul. I had been taught, and I believed, that salvation came through faith in Christ alone. Yet I was also told by some of the well-meaning pietists in our congregation that I could not do certain activities if I was God’s child. For example, I could not attend a school-sponsored dance, for this might lead me into adultery. Soon the same thoughts that plagued Luther in the monastery developed in my head. Salvation through faith in Christ plus keeping some of the legalistic rules, like not dancing, drinking, playing cards, etc. Many of us were raised on this teaching of mixing the Law and the Gospel. It only led to confusion about the Christian faith.

It was not until I was a sophomore in college that I first heard the gospel clearly. I sat in the back row of an auditorium listening to a theological professor speak to 400 pastors. He said to the assembled pastors, “I do not like to be offensive, but I must say in Christian love that when I hear some of the preaching coming from our pulpits on Sunday morning, it is not a clear gospel. You are telling the congregation that they are saved by believing in Jesus, but then you add that they must also do something. The results are that the poor people are not spiritually able to do what is demanded of them, and they have no peace. Such preaching reminds me of the advertisement that says, ÔIt is 99.44% pure,’ meaning that, although Christ has done most of what is necessary for salvation, we also have to make a contribution to it. This takes away the assurance of our salvation!”

That did it for me! I was free. It was the greatest day in my life. Christ has done it all, and I contribute nothing! Did that mean that as a free person I could now go out and follow the desires of my sinful nature? Not at all. My life would now be lived out of love for my Heavenly Father. He redeemed me, and I am His forever. He had captured my soul. He would direct me in my living, but the good that would come from my sinful being was a fruit of my faith, not a contribution to my salvation.

As I listen to preaching today and read some of the theological books on social justice, I fear we fall into the same sin of works righteousness. Certainly a Christian loves his brother and sister, feeds the hungry, cares for the sick, and visits the poor in spirit, but these actions are a fruit of the faith, not a contributing factor to his salvation.

The Gospel Ð that we are saved by grace Ð is so far above our human reasoning that we cannot comprehend it. We hear people say there is no free lunch. Many believe this is also true when it comes to their eternal salvation. So they hope they will be saved, but have no assurance. Others believe there is nothing to worry about. A gracious and loving God will save us all.

The Reformation event gave us back the clear biblical teaching that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in His Son, the Lord Jesus. This is the core of the Christian faith, which is eternal. God grant that it may be proclaimed faithfully until he comes again

You Are . . . Called

The Bible has a central theme from the beginning to the end that we don’t want to miss. That theme is this: People matter to God.

We turn to the book of Genesis and see that God created human beings in His own image. None of the rest of creation can claim that for themselves. The psalmist reminds us that we are the crown of the creation. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham to be a special blessing to the peoples of the world. People matter to God.

In the New Testament, we see John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” People matter to God.

Peter tells us in his second letter that the reason Jesus isn’t coming back as soon as they would have thought because God is being patient. He doesn’t want anyone to perish, but wants them to repent.

Again and again we read throughout the Bible that God cares about people and wants to have a relationship with them. They are created for that purpose. Jesus came into the world in order to make that possible again as He died for us on a cross.

Jesus tells us in today’s text that, because people matter to God, He wants people to matter to you. It only stands to reason Ð what’s important to God should be important to His followers.

I heard a humorous story about a young man who applied for a job as an usher at a theater in the mall. The manager asked him during the interview what he would do in case a fire breaks out. The young guy answered, “Don’t worry about me. I’d get out okay!”

That’s how we as Christians respond sometimes when asked, What would you do if Jesus came back tomorrow? “Don’t worry about me; I’ll be okay.” However, you are an usher now. It isn’t enough just to get out yourself; You are responsible for helping others get out. People are to matter to you because they matter to God.

That is what Jesus tells His disciples who have chosen to follow Him in this passage from Matthew. He tells them, You are called. You have a new identity now, a new title so to speak.

First of all, “You are the salt of the earth.”

It’s important for us to realize, when He uses that metaphor, that salt was a valuable commodity back then. Salt was actually used to pay army wages to Roman soldiers. Thus came the saying that “someone is worth their salt.” It was very valuable because it was a preservative. Refrigeration didn’t exist at that time, so fisherman and cattleman who wanted to get their meat to the market without it spoiling, had to salt it down to keep it from deteriorating.

We also know from our own experience that salt adds flavor. If you’ve ever been in the hospital and put on a no-salt diet, you know it’s not a happy meal. When I go to the movie theater and order my box of popcorn, they ask me if I want butter, and I say, “No, just a little salt.” Boy, do they salt that thing down! You know why, don’t you? Because salt creates thirst as well. They want me to buy one those $10 Coca-Colas.

What Jesus is implying here is that the world around us, meaning people in our society, is deteriorating. It’s bland and impure, spiritually and morally. People need God’s life-giving touch in their lives. Likewise God needs salty “Jesus people” like us to touch those lives in a positive way through words and actions so that they might be changed by the love of Christ. Jesus’ followers like you and me have the potential to be a preservative and to bring flavor into other people’s lives Ð to be change agents.

The church takes a lot of hits. We’ve gotten some negative history about hurts that we’ve brought to the world. However, Consider the positive changes brought by Christianity that have been a blessing to the world. For instance, we see these wonderful hospitals. Many of them are here because Christian men and women started them. They wanted to see healing and care given to those who were sick in their country.

We look at some of the great universities of the world Ð Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Oxford Ð that were started by Christian men and women who wanted young people to get the training they needed to be successful in life. They wanted to train them to be missionaries and make a difference in the world for Christ. Some of the greatest works of literature, philosophy, music, art, architecture, and sculpture are here because of Christian men and women who used their giftedness to bless this world with beautiful things.

We look at modern science. It is rooted in a biblical world view that assumes an orderly and predictable universe. Many early scientists were also devout believers and many still are today.

What organization often is the first to respond when disaster occurs in the world? Typically Christian organizations are the ones trying to bring about some healing for the hurt that some sort of tragedy has brought upon people. Where would we be without salty Jesus people?

Jesus goes on to give the disciples another title. “You are the light of the world!” People sometimes question this, for Jesus said He was a light of the world. But think of it this way: as the moon reflects the sun in the dark of night, we as Christians reflect the Son of God in our dark world with our actions and our words.

What does light do? It reveals, illuminates, guides. It dispels the darkness and makes things clearer. It makes things more safe for us so that we’re not stumbling around. I know I’m thankful for my night light when I have to get up in the middle of the night. Jesus is basically saying the world is a dark place spiritually and morally, and it needs His light.

When the author Robert Louis Stevenson was a child, he was rather sickly. He was often stuck at home in bed. One cold winter day, his mother came in and saw him leaning against the window as he watched the lamplighters light the streetlights. She said to him, “Robert Louis Stevenson, what are you doing? You’re going to catch a death of cold. Get away from that window!” He said to her, “But Mother, I’m watching a man poke holes in the darkness.”

That is what Jesus is saying to His disciples in this passage today. People are living in darkness. They need someone to poke holes in it for them to make their lives a little bit brighter with the love of Jesus Christ.

You are salt; you are light. And in this passage, Jesus not only tells us about this new identity, but He also gives us some responsibility. He goes on to say, “What good is salt if it loses its saltiness?” We need to retain our saltiness.

Salt in those days was not very pure. It would easily wash away in the rain leaving just the impurities. How do you keep high potency as a Christian? You need to take care of your soul. Feed it the Word of God, spend time in prayer asking for God’s guidance and God’s strength, God’s help and God’s wisdom. Retain it in fellowship with small groups of Christians or in worship as you hear again and again about the mighty love and power of God at work in this world. All these things help retain that high potency salt that we are.

Jesus also implies that salt is no good if it stays in the salt shaker. It is only good if it touches the object that needs it. It needs to touch people’s lives in a positive way. We need to shake our salt shakers. Perhaps a good song to sing in church these days would be, “There’s a Whole Lotta Shaken Goin’ On.”

What does a salty Christian look like? Well, first of all let me tell you what it doesn’t look like.

A police officer pulled a driver aside and asked for his license and registration. “What’s wrong, officer?” the driver asked. “I didn’t go through any red lights, and I certainly wasn’t speeding.”

“No, you weren’t,” said the officer, “but I saw you waving your fist as you swerved around the lady driving in the left lane, and I further observed your flushed and angry face as you shouted at the driver of that Hummer who cut you off. And I watched you pound your steering wheel when the traffic came to a stop near the bridge.”

“Is that a crime, officer?”

“No,” replied the officer, “but when I saw the ÔJesus loves you and so do I’ bumper sticker, I figured this car had to be stolen!”

What does a salty Christian look like? It a person who is compassionate, authentic, real, sacrificial, thoughtful of others, interested in hearing other people’s stories, a good listener, a compassionate servant with a big heart for people who are hurting, and willing to be involved in the lives of others. It is a person who does not keep the salt to himself, but instead shakes it in the lives of other people.

“What good is light,” Jesus goes on to say, “if it’s hidden under a bushel basket?” Light is meant to be put on a lampstand so others can see in the house and not get hurt. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Jesus is talking about good works! Not only are we to clearly communicate the revelation of God’s truth, of what He has done for us in the person of His Son Jesus as we clearly tell the Gospel, but we also, with our actions, are to let the Gospel speak. Tell people that Jesus has captured your heart and that they matter to Him. Then be a willing servant of them and let them know God really does care about them.

In his book, The Best-Kept Secret of the Christian mission, John Dixon writes about his introduction to the Christian faith. He says, “Under God, my own conversion was a result of one person’s willingness to embody the mission of being a friend of sinners. One of the relics of Australia’s Christian heritage is the once-a-week Scripture lessons offered in many state high schools around the country.

“One of these Scripture teachers Ð Glenda was her name Ð had the courage to invite my entire class to her home for discussions about God. The invitation would’ve gone unnoticed except she added, ÔIf anyone gets hungry, I’ll make hamburgers and milkshakes.’ As I looked around the room at all my friends Ð all of them skeptics like me Ð I was amazed that this woman would open her home and kitchen to us. Some of these boys were among the worst sinners in our school! One was a drug user and seller, one was a class clown and a bully, one was a petty thief with a string of breaking and entering charges to his credit. I couldn’t figure Glenda out. She was wealthy and intelligent. She had an exciting social life, and she was married to a leading businessman. What was she thinking inviting us for a meal in a discussion about God? At no point was this teacher pushy or preachy. Her style was completely relaxed and incredibly generous. When her VCR went missing one day, she made almost nothing of it even though she suspected, quite reasonably, it was someone from our group.

“For me, her open, generous attitude toward us sinners was the doorway into my life of faith. As we ate and drank and talked, it was clear this was no missionary ploy on her part. She truly cared for us and treated us like friends, or perhaps more, accurately like sons. As a result, over the course of the next year she introduced several of us from the class to her ultimate friend of sinners, Jesus Christ and lives got changed because someone took a risk and served with light and salt in the life of John Dixon.”

You don’t have to go overseas to do these kinds of things. I almost entitled this sermon, “You Are a Missionary,” because that is what Jesus is telling His disciples: you are a missionary. Being a missionary doesn’t have to happen somewhere else on the globe. Opportunities are all around us if we but open our eyes to them, take a chance, and reach and love somebody in the name of Jesus Christ. Use the name of Jesus.

Do you know what will happen? You will see amazing results! Jesus said, “Through you others will give glory to your Father in heaven.” Give glory to your Father in heaven! They will give themselves over to Him, and lives will be changed because you touched them in the name of Jesus Christ.

That is my appeal this day as Jesus reminds us, we are missionaries. Make your life count for Jesus Christ this week. Let it shine for Jesus.

You Are . . . Valuable

Don’t you miss Charles Schultz, the Creator of the comic strip “Peanuts”? I loved reading those cartoons! One of my favorites is of Charlie Brown and his friend, Lucy. They are outside, looking up at the starlit night. “Charlie Brown,” Lucy says, “aren’t the stars beautiful tonight! Their grandeur speaks to me. Look up; I see Orion, and Aries, and the moon growing on Pleiades. What do you see, Charlie Brown?”

Charlie Brown murmurs, “Well, I was going to say I see a ducky, a chickie, and a cow jumping over the moon. Can we go inside? I’m beginning to feel insignificant.”

There are a lot of Charlie Browns in this world today Ð people feeling insignificant, like they are nobody, and they don’t matter. Many people are struggling with insignificance and a lack of self-worth. We can even hear signs of this in statements people make offhandedly: “I feel kind of invisible down at work, like my boss doesn’t even know what I do.” We see it in the person who attends the large church or works in a gigantic corporation: “I feel like just another face in the crowd or another number”; a person in the nursing home: “Some days I feel forgotten. I used to be a respected businessman, but now no one even checks on me”; and in the child who is not as bright or talented as a sibling and feels ignored at home: “I feel like a nobody in this house.”

We see insecurities acted out in stories of people struggling with eating disorders and in people pleasers who are basically just saying, “Please, just like me.” We see it in suicides of young people and in the hostile, angry personalities of people who just give up, feeling like they matter to no one. We even see insecurity in some successful people: executives driven to succeed at all costs, sacrificing their family on the altar of success in order to feel important.

Where does this problem with self-worth come from? First of all, this can be a harsh and cruel world in which we live. I was reminded of that recently as I was reading a newspaper article that just broke my heart about young girls who were posting their pictures on YouTube and asking if they are pretty or ugly. One particular little girl, Sammy, discovered what a cruel world we live in when some of the responses to her photos really beating her up with words. How awful!

We see the “isms” in our society. We see more and more ageism. Racism has been around as far back as I can remember. Also, sexism. These things have a way of making people feel very insignificant.

Some of us were raised with parents who never seemed to know how to affirm our worth. Our worth was conditional upon our accomplishments. Society has set standards by which we judge our worthiness. We’re taught that personal value is based on one’s career, academics, financial statement, the size of your house, how much you can produce, abilities, athleticism, looks. And if you don’t measure up to those standards, you feel worthless. All this leaves many feeling like a nobody.

The danger is that we could even lose our souls over this. When our self-worth is based on the applause of people, we find ourselves sometimes willingly entering into one compromise after another in order to gain approval, and that is dangerous for your soul and mine.

Jesus has something to say about this, and I’ve learned along the way that when Jesus speaks, it’s good to listen to Him because He knows what makes life work. After all, He invented it. In today’s text, Jesus was sending His followers out to do some mission work. He had warned them that it wouldn’t be easy. They’d run into a lot of obstacles, and people would put them down and even try to harm them. I imagine He could see the uneasiness on their faces, so as He was talking, He pointed to some birds flying around, and said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Did you hear that? “You are of more value than many sparrows.” To the insecure person, to the person feeling insignificant, Jesus says that you are valuable in your heavenly Father’s sight!

Why would Jesus say that? Two truths stand behind that statement about your value. The first truth is out of the Old Testament. It tells us that we are created in the image of God. That means that we have high standing over all the creation. Psalm 8 picks up on this as it says we are the crown of God’s creation. Psalm 139 describes us as fearfully and wonderfully made.

To say that you are created in the image of God means you have a mind with which to think and reason, a will with which to make decisions, and a spirit that is eternal. You are created for relationship with your Creator. The sparrow cannot claim that, neither can anything else in the creation. Only you are created in the image of God. I love this little statement I once heard someone say somewhere, “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.”

The second truth is that Jesus knew what lay ahead for Him. He knew He would die on a cross for you and me so we could have a restored relationship with our heavenly Father. We are valuable, but we’re also sinful, and that relationship between God and us was broken by humanity’s sin. God is loving but He is also just. Sin had to be paid for. But here’s the thing: you are so loved that while you were still a sinner Ð think about this: while you were still a sinner Ð you and me Ð the Son of God, Jesus Christ, laid down His life for You at the cross. He paid for your sins with His holy and precious blood. God poured out the wrath of His punishment upon His only begotten Son out of His love for you. We love quoting John 3:16. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Just take the “world” out of it and put your own name. For God so loved “Steve,” God so loved “Mary” that He gave His only Son . . . Billy Graham said one time, “Even if you were the only person who ever existed on this planet, God loves you so much that He gave His Son to die for you.”

In his letters near the end of the Bible, John refers to those who follow Jesus and trust in Him as God’s “beloved.” “You are God’s beloved, bought and paid for by the precious blood of Jesus.” He thinks you’re worth dying for. Take this to the bank! I know this world has a way of beating the tar out of us and making us feel like insignificant nobodies some days, but nothing could be further from the truth, I tell you!

So today I have a simple appeal for you. Rest in these words of Jesus: You are valuable. Claim it, trust it. Tell yourself, “I am valuable in God’s sight. I am somebody.”

I invite you to bring this truth with you into your prayer life. With this truth at work in your life, you can approach God like a child who confidently approaches his loving father knowing he will not turn away. As a father myself, when my kids call, I pick up. Carry this truth with you as you step into each new day. Let it be your confidence and your defense. When the world takes its shots at you, step into the day reminding yourself, I am somebody in the eyes of God! I am loved, and I belong to Him.

Pastor Homer Larsen gave me an idea years ago. He said to put this little saying on a card and tape it to your bathroom mirror. “I am a precious and important individual in the eyes of God.”

I am a precious and important individual in the eyes of God. I have been teaching that truth to my confirmation classes over the years. I have been sharing it with my congregation. We need to hear it again and again. Let this truth impact you when you’re fearing the future. Remember that you are God’s beloved, and He has a plan for you. You are His and He has promised you, His beloved child, that nothing can snatch you from His strong hand. He will always be there, and He holds you in the palm of His hand. How’s that for confidence?

I found this little letter that I want to read for you. It is a breakup letter to the Fear-of-What-Others-Think-About-Me. I really liked this one when I found it.

Dear Fear-of-What-Others-Think,

I am sick of you, and it’s time we broke up. I know we’ve broken up and gotten back together many times but seriously, Fear-of-What-Others-Think, this is it! We’re breaking up. I’m tired of over thinking my status updates on Facebook trying to sound more clever, funny, and important. I’m sick of feeling anxious about what I say or do in public, especially around people that I don’t even know that well, all in the hope that they’ll like me, accept me, praise me. I run around all day feeling like a golden retriever with a full bladder. “Like me! Like me! Like me!” Because of you, I go through my day with a cloud of shame hanging over my head, and I never stop acting. The spotlight’s always on, I’m center stage, and I’d better keep dancing, posturing, and mugging or else the spotlight will move and I will dissolve into a little meaningless puddle on the ground, just like that witch in the Wizard of Oz.

I can never live up to the expectations of this imaginary audience, the one that lives in my head but whose collective voice is louder than any other voice in the universe. And all of this is especially evil because, if I really stop and think about it, if I let things go quiet and listen patiently for the voice of God who made me, and the Savior who died for me, in His eyes it turns out I’m actually, profoundly precious, lovable, worthy, valuable, and even just a little fabulous. When I find my true identity in Christ, then you turn back into the tiny, yapping, little dog that you are.

So beat it, Fear-of-What-Others-Think. You and I are done! And no, I’m not interested in talking it through. I’m running, jumping, laughing you out of my life once and for all. Or at least that’s what I really, really want. God help me.

Dear friend, the world can be a cruel place. It can take a toll on your outlook of yourself. Don’t let it. I encourage you, trust these words of Jesus, the risen Savior, the Lord of all creation. You are an important and precious individual in the eyes of God. You are of more value than many sparrows. You are valuable.

Under Construction: Fellowship

My wife Julie and I had some work done on our house recently. Our master bathroom, which really needed work, was under construction for quite a while throughout the spring and summer. We came up with a concept design, and then we had it gutted and totally redone. It was a long, tedious process. Fortunately, though, we had a second bathroom to use. Now it’s done, and wow! It is beautiful! We’ve even joke that we are going to take a picture of it and use it in our Christmas cards this year!

Why am I talking about my bathroom? Well for the first past two weeks I’ve been doing a little sermon series entitled “Under Construction.” God’s Word tells us that the follower of Jesus Christ is a person who is basically under construction. When a person says “yes” to Jesus, his life becomes a construction site. God’s intention is to build him up and conform him to the image of Jesus Christ. It is a lifelong process.

God uses various tools to make this happen. He uses the Word of God, as we talked about the first week, and He uses worship, which we talked about last week. Today we’re looking at one more vital ingredient that is found in the post Pentecost story about the beginning of the church. Today we are going to look again at what Jesus’ disciples of Jesus did with the 3,000 new converts to the faith.

Acts 2:42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching (that’s the Word) and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers (worship).” All who believed were together and had all things in common. They sold their possessions and goods and distributed the proceeds to all as any had need. They devoted themselves to fellowship.

What comes to mind when you think of fellowship? When I was growing up, fellowship at our home church in Montana meant coffee and donuts after worship. We had a big room in the church basement called Fellowship Hall where we would have regular potlucks, which I loved. While these things are fine and are fond memories for many of us, it is not what this passage seems to be describing. I just can’t picture 3,000 people standing around eating cookies and drinking coffee after their baptismal service on Pentecost.

The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia. It comes from the root koina, which is defined as common. They had a common life. Koinonia describes coming together in partnership, in sharing, in communion, around a common denominator, a common connection Ð Jesus Christ. They had each been saved by Jesus from sin and death and had placed their faith in Him and what He did for them at the cross. They each had received restored fellowship with God through Jesus, and it brought them together, so they shared in that life. They connected with one another in partnership and devoted themselves to the community. They enjoyed fellowship in homes. They studied together, ate together, worshiped together, prayed together, and took care of each other’s needs. There was a lot of giving to each other.

The question we should probably be asking is, so why did they devote themselves to fellowship? Obviously, the disciples of Jesus started the activity. Perhaps they remembered Jesus saying, “For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst. (Matthew 18:20).” They wanted these new Christians to experience the power of that promise of Christ: that He was present with them. Or perhaps they remembered Jesus again and again describing the Christian life in terms of participating as a community. Maybe it was simply the fact that the Apostles were discipled in fellowship as a community. Jesus had modeled it. He even sent them out on mission trips two by two in their training. Jesus seemed to ingrain in their thinking that they never were to go it alone.

Perhaps it was Old Testament wisdom about the power of being together like Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes 4:9, “Two are better than one . . .” They can withstand anything together. Or in the book of Proverbs, “Iron sharpens iron . . .” (Proverbs 27:17).

Maybe all these things played into the rationale of those disciples. We can’t know for certain, but we do know this: they devoted themselves to fellowship, to walking the journey of faith in Christ together, to being the church. It was a priority in their discipling program.

What does this fellowship look like? Well, as we saw earlier in Acts, it describes people who gathered together. They even went so far as to sell what they had and gave the proceeds to those in need.

Now this passage isn’t saying you shouldn’t have possessions when you become a Christian. Obviously people kept their homes where the meetings were held. Jesus and His apostles never outlawed private possessions for Christians. We do remember Him calling the rich young ruler to voluntarily give everything away to follow Him, but that was a single occasion and not a regular demand. The main point the writer of Acts (by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) is trying to make is that these people stuck together. As followers of Jesus, they took care of each other and looked out for each other.

The practice didn’t stop with that first church. They kept at it in the years that followed. Have you ever noticed the dozens of “one-another” phrases in the New Testament?

Love one another. Live in peace with one another. Honor one another. Teach and admonish one another. Accept one another. Stop judging one another. Serve one another. Forgive one another. Have concern for one another. Carry one another’s burdens. Don’t envy one another. Restore one another. Comfort, encourage one another.

Dozens of these kinds of admonitions are in those letters. If you do a little research on your own, you’ll find even more. They basically all come back to Christ’s command to “love one another as I have loved you.” It is a clue that fellowship is not a small thing or an afterthought in God’s mind in your discipleship; it is a practical necessity for your personal growth in Christ. We were not meant to go it alone in our life with Jesus. A personal relationship with Christ is meant to be lived out in fellowship with other believers in the local church. It is kind of like a laboratory experience that grows us, and we learn to live with one another.

Remember, most of the New Testament letters were written to church communities (fellowships) Ð not individuals Ð giving them instruction in how to do life together. The payoff is huge in this, you see, for God can use the gift of each other to keep us strong and build us up into something that resembles the image of his Son, Jesus. We receive great strength and personal growth in doing “one-anothers” in fellowship.

After every altar call, Billy Graham, the great evangelist, would say, “Now that you’ve said Ôyes’ to Jesus, go find a Bible-believing church and plug-in.” He knows how important fellowship is to grow a person in their life with Jesus. He said one time, “Churchgoers are like coals in a fire. When they cling together, they keep the flame aglow. When they separate, they die out.” Martin Luther once said, “No man or woman should be alone when opposing satan. The church and the ministry of the Word were instituted for this purpose, that hands may be joined together and one help another.”

I like reading the writings of Christian writer Max Lucado, who wrote a wonderful little statement in one of his books, Imagine Your Life Without Fear. He said, “Questions can make hermits out of us, driving us into hiding. Yet the cave has no answers. Christ distributes courage through community. He dissipates doubts through fellowship. He never deposits all knowledge in one person but distributes pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to many. When you interlock your understanding with mine and we share our discoveries, when we mix, mingle, confess, and pray, Christ speaks.”

Another writer that I enjoy, Ann Lamott, shares a story she heard from her minister that illustrates the necessary presence of others in our journey of faith. She writes, “When my minister was about seven, her best friend got lost one day. The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman and then she told him firmly, “You can let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from my church.”

Lamott goes on to say, “And that’s why I stayed so close to my church: because no matter how bad I’m feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church and hear their tiny voices, I can always find my way home.”

In my own congregation at Shepherd of the Valley where I’ve had the pleasure of being a pastor for so long, we spend a lot of time, energy, and resources building strong, life-changing fellowship through small group ministries. Our theme this past year was “Life is better connected,” because we’ve discovered along the way that, by committing yourself to sharing your love and the love of Jesus with other believers, you get changed. This past Sunday I watched, with great joy, a group of people head into our little prayer chapel with one of our members, Mary, who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her small group insisted that they pray over her and hold her up to the Lord. That sort of fellowship strengthens a person, and you experience the truth of the statement, “Where two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them.” Mary sure experienced it that day.

Fellowship also strengthens our witness for Christ to the world around us. A loving community attracts. Acts remind us of that. After describing this fellowship, it says, “and the Lord added to their number daily.” You see, when people are getting loved and are getting taken care of, when they give themselves away to each other and have a strong sense of belonging, word gets around. People are hungry to belong and by belonging we can point them to Christ, who is our common denominator and is behind all of it.

In light of what we’ve studied today in this text, my appeal is for you to devote yourself to being an active, giving participant in the fellowship of believers in your local church. Be there for your brothers and sisters in Christ. Fellowship can be done in a variety of ways by volunteering to serve in your church. Maybe your church is doing a Habitat for Humanity project, or the nursery is in need of workers so young couples can go to church without wrestling with their small infants. We are never too old to participate in something like that.

Perhaps a Sunday school class, a youth group, or someone in your church needs a helping hand. Plug in even if you are homebound. I challenge you to call your pastor, ask for a few names of people in your church for whom you can pray or send a card of encouragement. You’ll be amazed at the difference it can make. Befriend someone who needs a friend. They’re going through a rough patch and need someone to come alongside of them. Perhaps you could use your professional skills to help someone who can’t pay, like the retired handyman I read about who does work for widows once a week, or a dentist who helped out a single mom’s child who badly needed some dental work but couldn’t pay. Offer to give someone a ride to church or to the doctor. Maybe you’ve got a timeshare or a cabin up north and you know someone who can’t afford to go on a vacation but really needs to get away with their family. Give it to them.

Fellowship can be done in a whole host of creative ways, and you will be amazed at what God can do with you and through you and in you.