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The Blessing of Belonging: Essentials for Spiritual Fitness

There’s the story of the Sunday morning conversation with a woman having trying to get her husband to join her for church. She keeps encouraging him to go, but he keeps coming up with reasons he doesn’t want to go: he stayed up late, it’s early, he works hard all week, he doesn’t like how the Bible challenges him, the church includes people there who don’t think exactly like he does. On and on he lists the reasons he doesn’t want to go to church.

Finally in exasperation his wife yells back, “But you have to go to church: you’re the pastor!”

Why church?

If someone were to ask, “Why do you go to church? Why are you part of a church family,” what would you say? What reasons would you give? Why church? Why bother? Why get out of bed and come to church when you could just stay at home? How would you answer that question?

I can’t think of a more important question to address honestly as we relaunch in-person worship services. Why church? What is the New Testament vision for the church, and what are the benefits of belonging to the local church. That’s what we are going to unpack today and over the next five Sundays.

We will also do things we can only do in-person—like Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Like singing together. Like reciting the historic creeds of the Christian faith. Like face to face fellowship.

We start with one of the most loved New Testament descriptions of the very first church—found in Acts chapter two. If you have a Bible or Bible app, please open it now to the book of Acts chapter two.

Learning from the first church

As the book of Acts opens, Jesus has already poured himself into a small group and then commissioned them to continue what he has begun. He has been crucified and raised. Over a period of forty days he has appeared and convincingly proven that he has defeated death and is God’s unique Son and our Savior.

Before he ascends back to his Father and ours in heaven, Jesus instructs his followers to wait for the Holy Spirit. That’s what Acts chapter two opens with, the supernatural coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the very first church. What immediately follows is an awesome portrait of a church that is deeply in love with the Lord, and is committed to pursuing the things that matter most.

Commitments of a church that loves the Lord

Today’s passage lays before us three distinctly Christlike habits which together led to an awesome result; three things the first church devoted themselves to that led to an amazing result. And it was all in light of God’s mercies toward them. If you like to take notes, I’m going to word them as three commitments we make as a church, too. Here’s the first:

  1. In view of God’s mercies, we commit to being a learning church.

Luke tells us first…

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…” Acts 2:42

That is, they were committed to learning God’s Word and God’s ways. That has always been and will always be the single most important mark of any local church worth belonging to—that its leaders are devoted to learning and living according to God’s Word, and that church members devote ourselves to the same.

The apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Rome urges this as the only logical response of every Christian—that in view of God’s mercies, we offer ourselves to God continually, not letting the world squeeze us into its mold, but rather being transformed by the renewing of our minds. The primary way we do that is by learning God’s Word and practicing his ways.

To say this another way, as a church we want to follow Jesus in the manner of Jesus.

To be a Christian is to be a student of God’s Word. That’s what disciple means: learner. To love Jesus is to love the Scriptures that he loved and taught, and to love the apostles’ writings that expound on the Scriptures.

John Stott explains:

“We believe in the authority of the Bible because Christ has endorsed its authority. He stands between the two testaments. As we look back to the Old Testament, he has endorsed it. As we look forward to the New Testament, we accept it because of the apostolic witness to Christ. He deliberately chose and appointed and prepared the apostles…Christ [stands] in the middle, endorsing the old, preparing for the new.”

We as a church are devoted to learning the Scriptures because God’s Word is a gold mine of insights for living! True story: a couple in rural California were walking their dog on their property when they spotted something sticking out of the dirt. They dug up what looked like a rusted can, and inside discovered a stash of gold coins! They dug around and found several more cans filled with treasure valued at around ten million dollars.

God’s Word likewise is a gold mine of treasures for living wisely and well. So I have to ask: Are you devoted to lifelong learning of God’s Word and applying it to life? This is the single strongest commitment we make as a local church—and I call you to make this commitment with me: We will be a learning church, digging into God’s Word and renewing our thinking to align ourselves with God’s insights for living.

Here’s what we see in the first church that we want for ourselves: the Spirit of God led the church of God to devote themselves to the Word of God. We want to do the same: let the Spirit of God lead us to devote ourselves to learning the Word of God. The greatest need today is for local churches where God’s people, filled with God’s Spirit, devote ourselves to learning and living God’s Word.

There’s the first trait of the first church that we want to devote ourselves to at yChurch. Here’s the second:

  1. In view of God’s mercies, we commit to being a caring church.

Luke records…

“They devoted themselves to…fellowship…All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” Acts 2:42, 44-45

An amazing description of radical compassion within the church. A truly Christian church is by definition a caring church. We tangibly love and care for one another. There’s a cost to our love in time and generosity.

This close sense of caring connection is something that took a hit during the pandemic. More people than ever are stressed and disconnected. God’s plan for turning alone into alongside is belonging to a local church. It’s key for moving from feeling lonely to loved.

That only happens when we devote ourselves to fellowship, to coming together and coming alongside one another. This is a key reason why we are now returning to gathering in-person, to make sure we’re looking out for one another in this strange time. You need good friends to be the best version of you. And God has given us the local church to find and deepen godly, encouraging friendships.

Carmen Berry talks about this. She grew up going to church, then fell away from faith and fellowship as an adult. But Carmen eventually found her way back to church.

The fascinating thing is why she came back. She says the very reason she withdrew from the church—her disappointment in church members who often failed to act like Christians—was what drew her back. What a curious statement! She explains: “I had overlooked one essential factor—that I am as finite and flawed as everyone else…When a friend committed suicide, I realized I could become too cynical, too lost, and too alone. I needed a church, a community of believers. I needed to live in my faith and visit my doubts [with others]. Something happens [at church] that simply doesn’t when you are alone in prayer or on the Internet. As much as I hate to admit it,” Carmel says, “my faith is enhanced and enlarged when in relationship to other less-than-perfect human beings.”

Can you say the same? I can! My faith is enhanced and enlarged when in relationship to other less-than-perfect human beings.” We need each other. We always have. We always will. We’re better together. It’s what God made us for.

Because God has been so gracious toward us, we want to be a learning church, and we want to be a caring church.

Third is that…

  1. In view of God’s mercies, we commit to being a worshiping church.

Acts 2:42 tells us:

“They devoted themselves…to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Acts 2:42

That is, they devoted themselves to worshiping the Lord together. Luke speaks of the breaking of bread. They ate meals together, and as part of their worship gathering they paused to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. That’s something we’re going to do in a moment, in the bread and cup tangibly remembering Jesus’ death and resurrection that reconciles us to God.

The Lord’s supper is something Christians have engaged in ever since the Last Supper. It’s that important. For Christians, the Lord’s Supper is the New Testament equivalent of what Passover was for the people of God within the Jewish faith. It’s an essential ritual to remember God’s mercies toward us as on the cross of Jesus, God judged sin and released the sinner.

Pastor Tim Keller describes worship as pulling our affections off our idols and putting them on God. Catch that: worship is pulling our affections off our idols and putting them on God.

Because there are a hundred things that vie for your attention throughout the week. The habit of weekly worship Sunday mornings is one that pulls us back to what matters most. This is why the early church devoted themselves to worship, and it’s why Christians have been gathering every Sunday ever since.

Nancy Cheatham gives a great analogy for why we do well to devote ourselves to gathering in worship. The day came when Nancy’s sister bought a new car that was loaded with high-tech options. The first time she drove the car in the rain, she turned a knob she thought would start the windshield wipers. Instead a message flashed across the dash: “Drive car in 360 degrees.” She had no idea what that meant, and so when she got home she read the car manual.

She learned that while trying to turn on the windshield wipers she had inadvertently turned off the internal compass, and the car had lost its sense of direction. To correct the problem, the car had to be driven in a full circle, pointed north, and then the compass had to be reset.

That’s a great picture of what happens when we gather in worship each Sunday. Each time we regather, we reset our internal compass. We reestablish “true north” in our soul, remembering the mercies of God so stunningly put on display in Jesus.

Source: Nancy Cheatham, Olathe, Kansas

This is why we worship, friends. We worship the Lord because he is worthy. And we worship him because we need our inner compass regularly reset in God’s presence together.

Luke also highlights that the first church devoted themselves to prayer. Sure, you can pray alone, on your own. We all do. But there’s something special about praying together, and praying for one another.

The past eighteen months have added new stresses on everyone. We can’t control that. What we can control is the habits we devote ourselves to. Praying together is one that can make all the difference in the world. It can make the difference between suffering silently or getting fellow Christians alongside you to pray for you and encourage you.

Let’s talk about anxiety and mental health while we’re talking about praying for one another. In her book titled Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness, Kathryn Greene-McCreight describes her tortured journey through years of extreme depression and bipolar disorder. Concerning the importance of gathering with fellow Christians while in recovery, she writes, “This is why it is so important to worship in community—to ask your brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for you … Sometimes you literally cannot make it on your own, and you need to borrow from the faith of those around you. Sometimes I cannot even recite the Creed unless I am doing it in the context of worship, along with all the body of Christ…When reciting the Creed, I borrow from the recitation of others. Companionship in the Lord Jesus is powerful.”

Don’t you feel that? There’s nothing like praying with God’s people, and being prayed for by God’s people. And there’s like belonging to a worshiping church that’s laser-focused on the good news of Jesus Christ. I invite you today to commit to helping us to be this kind of church.

Trusting the Lord to what only He can do

This threefold devotion in the first church in turn led to an awesome result. Luke tells us in Acts 2:47…

“And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 2:47

Luke is clear that the Lord did the adding. How? Through everything we just discussed:

  • The Lord added to their number as they devoted themselves to being a learning church—learning God’s Word and putting it into practice.
  • The Lord added to their number as the believers devoted themselves to being a caring church—marked by a love and generosity that stood in attractive contrast to the culture around them.
  • And the Lord added to their number as the believers in that first church devoted themselves to being a worshiping church—gathering regularly with reverence for the Lord and readiness to pray together.

This is the invitation and challenge before us, friends: to devote ourselves to being a learning, caring, worshiping church…and as we do so, asking the Lord to add to our number people from this community being saved and joining us in following Christ.

  • As someone has said, if you want to enrich days, plant flowers.
  • If you want to enrich years, plant trees.
  • If you want to enrich eternity, plant the good news of Jesus Christ in the lives of those around you.

That’s what we want to be about. What we don’t want is what John Stott came across in a visit with college students who told him they had visited every church in their city but hadn’t been able to find a church that met their needs, so they dropped out. They called themselves in Spanish Cristianos Desenganchado: Unhooked Christians, disengaged Christians, disconnected Christians.

Stott was curious what they were looking for but had thus far been unable to find. They said, “We were looking for a biblical preaching ministry that relates the Word of God to the modern world. We’re looking for a loving, supportive, caring fellowship. We’re looking for worship with the living God, where the people bow down before him. And we’re looking for compassionate outreach into the community.”

What they didn’t realize was that those were the marks of the very first church. This is what people of all ages are looking for in the church today. And it’s who we want to be as well.

The starting point is this threefold commitment of deep devotion to learning God’s Word, caring for God’s people, and worshiping God for his mercies—asking that as we do, the Lord will add to our number people from this community being saved.

On this first Sunday regathered together in-person, I’m asking: will you make that kind of commitment with me right now? If yes, let’s call on the living God in this moment—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Our Father in heaven, we see these early days of the first church, and what we see there awakens a holy hunger within us. God, the same Holy Spirit whom you poured out on them, we ask for His fullness in us.

Breathe into us, we pray, an undying devotion to learning your Word, caring for your people, and worshiping you wholeheartedly.

And as we do, we ask you to draw those who don’t yet know the Savior, that through our interaction with them throughout the week in all the places you have us, they may come to know and love the One who died and rose for them. Bless us, we pray, and make us a blessing in the places you send us this week. We ask all this and give you our heartfelt praise, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!