Acts | The four devotions

Three key practices, no, four, shape a dynamic resurrection faith. (Listen.)

Whenever I hear this passage, I feel a cool, refreshing breeze blow through me. Imagine: the Holy Spirit roaring through town and creating hundreds of new disciples. Imagine: animated tables of friends and strangers sharing generous, joyful meals. Imagine: a passionate prayer life, a deep engagement with God, a trust in things beyond private wealth. Imagine: a world in which lives are shared, and everyone’s needs are met.

It’s a vision of a community which meets our deepest human longings for connection with God and one another; it’s a vision of faith and economics and the fellowship of the table being integrated in life-giving ways. Yet sadly it’s an incarnation very rarely seen in the church. ‘The thief comes only to steal and destroy,’ says Jesus. He’s talking to controlling religious leaders who act as gatekeepers and suck the life out of everything; and his words ring just as true now. By contrast he adds, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it in abundance.’ (John 10:10). The Acts 2 community gives us a glimpse of this free and flourishing life, known by all who place their trust in Jesus.

It’s not the only expression of this life. In the book of Acts, we see what will one day come to be known as the church spreading and diversifying and taking on various shapes and forms. We see it meeting in the temple and gathering in private homes; we see it firmly ensconced in Judaism and also operating as a new Gentile sect and in radically mixed groups. We see it in a cluster of women who meet down by the river, in a community grieving the death of a beloved seamstress, in big male energy street preaching teams and in small cells of prisoners in chains. In diverse ways and  places, with different combinations of freedom and constraint, groups of disciples bear witness to the life that death cannot hold; they perform many signs and wonders.

In Acts 2, the signs and wonders are these: radical economic transformation, rapid numerical growth, and the goodwill of the wider community. For those of us limping along in our little context, it could sound quite exciting. Yet it might also feel disheartening. Where, you might ask, are our signs and wonders? Where is our radical economics, our numerical growth? And do we have the goodwill of the whole community? I don’t know.

But I do know that the signs and wonders we see in Acts 2 are not the means, but an end. They’re not what we aim for in and of themselves, but the outcome of a dynamic faith; and this faith is shaped by four practices. As we see in the rest of Acts, the outcomes of these practices are diverse. Not every Acts community has a common purse; not every group sees 3,000 converts in a single day; not every mob has a banqueting hall or the goodwill of all those around them. Instead, the flourishing life which marks the presence of the Risen Christ takes multiple shapes and forms, but they are shaped by these practices and common threads which run through them all.

First, as we see here in Acts 2, this resurrection life is grounded in the apostles’ teaching. A Jesus-centred faith is not just a feeling, nor a vague sense of spirituality. Nor is it a flat reading of everything in the Bible, as if that were possible anyway. Instead, it’s a robust engagement with the world, rooted in scripture as it relates to Jesus.

We see this in Acts 1 and 2, where Hebrew scriptures are interpreted through the lens of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection; we saw it last week on the road to Emmaus, where the Risen Christ interprets only those scriptures which relate to himself. All law and prophecy, all poetry and story, all history and proverbs and psalms, are seen through the lens of Jesus. And so, for example:

  • the law forbidding a Jew from eating with a Gentile no longer applies, because Jesus ate with outcasts and declared all foods clean.
  • the law forbidding contact with a corpse no longer applies, because Jesus held a dead girl’s hand and raised her to new life.
  • the law excluding someone with surgically altered genitals no longer applies, because the gate is wide open to anyone who recognizes Jesus’ voice.
  • the law limiting the contribution of women no longer applies, because women minister to Jesus and, by making them the first witnesses to the resurrection, he makes them the first apostles.
  • the law rejecting gay people and others no longer applies, because Jesus says that those who come through him will be saved: and he makes no exceptions at all.

And Acts is so exciting because this all becomes reality. We meet Cornelius, Tabitha, the Ethiopian eunuch, Lydia and so many, many more people being welcomed into the movement and sharing the life with others; and this happens because the disciples devote themselves to scripture with Jesus as their interpretive lens.

Disciples also devote themselves to the common life. In other words, a dynamic faith is a shared faith. There’s nothing wrong with personal prayer, of course; and Jesus himself frequently went to a quiet place to pray. But this is not enough. For Jesus promises to be present whenever two or more people are gathered in his name; and he is found in their midst, that is, in the space and connection between people.

Here in Acts 2, we see this common life in the extreme. Thousands of converts are gathering and being folded into the new community. There, they devote themselves to the collective, with all its life, work and witness; they devote themselves to the other members,  no matter how different they seem. They share their lives, possessions, homes, money and dinner tables, and in doing so, they embody love for one another. Their common life witnesses to a powerful, generous and boundary-breaking hospitality, which brings me to a third discipleship practice: the breaking of bread.

Because a Jesus-centred faith is not limited to ideas or scripture or even the gospel stories or feelings of love. It’s also about bodies in relationship and things of the earth. Grain from the fields. Grapes from the vine. Water from the rock, or the well. So disciples devote themselves to practices in which the things of the earth are shared. This can take ritual form, as they share bread and wine together and embody the story of Jesus’ last supper with his friends. It can also happen at mealtimes, as we see in Acts 2, when gifts of the earth are gathered, prepared, blessed and shared to feed hungry human bodies at the table. It can happen at a food relief program, as we see in Acts 6, or a community meal, or wherever that which ‘earth has given and human hands have made’ is blessed and shared with others. One way or another, disciples devote themselves to the breaking of bread, with glad and generous hearts.

Last but not least, disciples devote themselves to the prayers. In Acts 2, the community gathers daily for this, because it knows how important corporate prayer is. They’ve just witnessed the Holy Spirit set people’s heads on fire; they’ve known awe and excitement at the loosening of people’s tongues; they’ve experienced the breath of liberation and the sting of forgiveness; they’ve made a whole heap of new friends. They’ve seen that prayer is exciting, energizing, enlivening and catalysing. It makes things happen; it changes people’s hearts; it brings folk together into community. And so in homes and at the temple, they gather for corporate prayer because they are hungry, so very hungry, for more. Indeed, they devote themselves to the prayers.

So those are the four practices: Jesus-centred teaching, the common life, the breaking of bread, and the prayers, and when disciples devote themselves to these foundational practices, they see an explosion of life. In Acts 2, it takes the shape of a common purse, rapid numerical growth, and the goodwill of all the people. In other stories, it takes on different form: but it all points to abundant life, green pastures.

And I wonder: What if we here at Sanctuary devoted ourselves to these things? I mean, not just in a hit-and-miss way, but really devoted ourselves? Last Sunday, just six people turned up for worship, three of them dependents; any desire we once said we had for additional Bible studies, meals and prayers seems to have almost entirely evaporated; and while we all have gifts, passions and callings, there seems to be zero energy for any common project. We’re travelling, we’re working, we’re studying, we’re rehearsing, we’re recovering from our busy busy lives. Indeed, there are so many ways in which all of us can and do choose to spend our time which are not these four devotions.

But what if we made these four devotions our priority? What if gathering with other disciples and engaging with the teachings, the common life, the meals, and corporate prayer was the first thing in our diary, the steady centre of our lives? What awe would we experience? What signs and wonders would we participate in? Because a focus on self care and healing is only going to get us so far. For those of us hungry for real life, that is, the wild and vigorous and transformational resurrection life we see in Acts, we’re going to need to stand together and give our lives away.

And what then? Perhaps our hearts would crack open with generosity and gladness. Perhaps newness and abundance would characterize our lives. Perhaps our deepest longings for God and community would be powerfully and wonderfully fulfilled. Perhaps the Spirit would roar through our lives and set our heads on fire.

My friends, I make these points because Sanctuary is at a crossroads. We are challenged by changing times, by culture, money and capacity, and by where people put their time and commitment. We do not know the way forward, although I suggest that tonight’s reading offers some pretty clear signposts. So on Sunday 4 June during the usual service time, we will hold a conversation regarding Sanctuary’s future. Please join us as we seek to discern the wind of the spirit, and wonder what God has in store for us next. Ω

Reflect: What are you devoted to? That is, where do you direct the majority of your time, energy, resources and commitment? Where do you place your body? Does anything need to change? If so, what is it, and how will you make that change?

A reflection by Alison Sampson on Acts 2:42-47 and John 10:1-10 given to Sanctuary on 7 May 2023 © Sanctuary 2023 (Year A Pascha 4, one week out).

Sanctuary is based on Peek Whurrong country; full acknowledgement here. I pay my respects to elders past and present. The peace of the land be with us all.


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